Burning Tarot Unearthed

If all goes well, Burning Tarot will return to the Playa in August, 2013! I got a scholarship ticket and we’ve applied for a placement for our project. And I’m accepting clients for phone and in-person readings again; email me. Many photos are now on Flickr; download the entire, 160-card deck free at

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(Black Rock City, Nev.)–The great mystery of Black Rock City has long confounded archaeologists. Until now, experts held that the lost Burner tribe was cut off from the rest of the world in its vast, desert wasteland. The clan’s sophisticated technologies and intriguing social rituals must have arisen spontaneously.

Not so, according to scientists at Goddard College. New artifacts reveal that the Burners did have contact with an advanced civilization. Researchers believe that centuries ago a small band of Tarotists migrated from the Northwest and colonized a tiny plot of land at Black Rock City, for reasons unknown. When they departed several years later, they left precious cargo behind.

As every child is taught in school, Tarotists invented a unique early form of written and visual language that was codified in complex tomes known as Tarot decks. Fragile examples of these cards exist only in museums today—and in the harsh Playa desert. A Burner whose name translates roughly to Miss Magdalen of Mystical Mayhem thought the cards must be magical devices of the Tarotist gods. She became the High Priestess of the cult that archaeologists are calling “Burning Tarot.”

“Miss Magdalen used the cards as a kind of mirror, so querents could see into their own souls,” says Dr. Winston Smith, director of the current dig. “She called each religious session a ‘Tarot reading.’”

The cult’s elaborately costumed and highly charismatic shaman, Steven St. Cheese, imitated the Tarotists by creating new cards. They depict his fellow Burners portraying Tarot characters, clothed in peculiar garments and carrying strange religious objects: gaily colored “cowboy” hats, a vision-enhancing device called the “goggle,” a “CamelBak”, and even the taboo “feather boa,” banned from conventional Burner society.

Relics of Burning Tarot will be on display at the annual Black Rock City Days festival (along with homemade jams, a livestock exhibition, and of course, the pie competition). Actors performing the roles of Miss Magdalen and Steven St. Cheese will “initiate” visitors into the “cult” by giving Tarot readings and workshops…and photographing participants so that they, like the ancient Burners before them, may become characters in a new Burning Tarot deck.

Based on the new excavations, alumni from Goddard College’s prestigious MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program have painstakingly re-created the fragile 2009 Burning Tarot deck. Enthusiasts are welcome to download it for free at



There are lots more photos than you see in the grid here… Click on any one of ‘em and you can slideshow your way through a lightbox presentation. Alternately, view these on Flickr, a bit easier if you want to see a whole buncha things and be able to see them in a whole buncha resolutions.

Here are some words from our 2013 project proposal to the Burning Man organization.

I started Burning Tarot, an art project/Burning Man festival thingy/Tarot deck/participatory art doohickey in 2003, and joined up with photographer Steven Fritz in 2008 to crank things into high gear. We make Tarot decks featuring the citizens of Black Rock City, Nevada, as the archetypes or “characters” of the deck. And yours truly, a.k.a. Miss Magdalen of Mystical Mayhem, does readings with the cards, makes installations based on the work, and stuff like that.


Burning Man (the BORG) asked about our philosophy. So we said this:

OUR PHILOSOPHY: is “Do no evil” already taken?

Seriously, though… It’s an honor to make participatory art or to photograph someone; it is likewise an honor to read someone’s Tarot cards. You enter into an unspoken agreement with someone, often a stranger. You trust them to respect your work. They trust you with their innermost feelings or stories. You get involved with each other. And when things get weird, you navigate them together.

Burning Tarot: Unearthed is all about participation and interaction. The main interactions happen during the day and early evening. They are Tarot readings, workshops, and photo sessions. The Tarot deck we use contains 160 images, half of them shot at our camp in 2008, starring the citizens of Black Rock City as the Queen of Swords, Death, the Emperor, and the rest of the Tarot’s archetypes. This year, we’ll be shooting more pictures, this time using cargo cult-related props. We’ll also display images from previous Burning Tarot decks (you can also download them free online, and print yourself).

Our approach is humorous, could be startling or strange, but underneath is a real gentleness. You might get a Tarot reading with our deck of cards based on Burning Man images… you might pose for our photographer so you can be in the *next* deck we make. One of us might play ukelele for you one-on-one as you wait for your Tarot reading, or give you a psychological reading based on plastic dinosaurs (Dino Tarot by Grey Anne Adams!). You’ll probably make other friends in the Lounge, too, while you’re waiting. If we’re not around, you and your friends might pose for your own photos in front of our photo set, and email them to us later. You might write something for our neon mailbox or help us dress up a passerby so they can be photographed. And you might be a Tarot-nerd who comes to a workshop.

I loved our previous Burning Tarot camps because they did all that great stuff yet were small, intimate, and accessible. It creates a safe-zone feeling, even in 2008 when we were dressed as terrorists (get it? Tarotists?) and harassing people with water-shootin’ assault rifles.

With the “Unearthed” concept, we’ll get to play with interactive and visual elements related to excavation, hiddenness, nature, and colonialism. Burning Tarot cards half-buried in dust, so people can “dig” them up as part of their tarot readings. Themes of archaeology, relic, and colonialism come up in my work frequently. I create a lot of participatory art off-Playa, in various cities and circumstances, and I sometimes read Tarot professionally. For me this isn’t a one-off theme camp but an immersive experience woven in with my life. It’s one of the ways I can give back freely, put energy out there that is otherwise funneled into my work and my family’s needs. Tarot helps many of the people who consult it.

If it needs saying: we’ve all been Burning a good long while. We know how to be BRC citizens and we encourage others to do the same. Leave no trace, give people a chance, use yr rebar, don’t make a bunch of greywater, and as Patrick Stewart says so well, “ENGAGE.”

As the Burning Man event and culture grows, we are all challenged by demonstrating our values to the newest members of our community. How will your camp meet this challenge?

I feel it’s important not to judge, ya know, “Back in ’78 there were no frat boys here,” that sort of thing. The lost frat boy handing out pink plastic Mardi Gras beads for barter deserves a bit of understanding without condescension…and a little performance arty weirdness. These are services we can provide, and I think they’re essential to our community. Our camp is very intimate. All our public events are small and involve direct mediation by us, experienced Burners who like to draw people out and genuinely communicate. I usually get a lot of newbies coming by for readings; we talk about real, personal, emotional subjects for 30-60 minutes. Someone who comes by to put on a costume and pose for a photo to be in the next Tarot deck will interact directly with me and/or Steve. Our approach is humorous, could be startling or strange, but underneath is a real gentleness. My experience in all areas of life is that people *want to help* and they *want to be part of things.* Virgin Burners are open to new experiences and information. Or they sure as hell wouldn’t be out in the middle of the desert with us.

Bio Blobs:

Miss Magdalen of Mystical Mayhem, a.k.a. the Meat Fairy, Trash Bitch, Recycling Whore, Yarnhead, and Caution Girl, has been involved with: Burning Tarot, Drift Catalyst (organizer/liaison), Raygun Gothic Rocketship, Dead Media Cargo Cult, Meat Camp, and stuff. Miss Magdalen performed many times in Center Camp w/ Passiflora, Soriah, or Land of the Blind; wrote articles about Burning Man for Women Who Rock magazine, Venus magazine, and others; played music & did other stuff for Regional activities in Portland in the early/mid 2000s; was a devoted love slave and logging companion to Larry Harvey back when he lived in Portland. Most important, she’s scraped her share of newbies and yahoos off the Playa floor when they needed it, set ‘em up with an Emergen-C, and fed them Lil’ Smokies and s’mores. She has spent a fuckload of time at the trash fence and doing MOOP patrol. She is also the founding Princesse of the infamous Drowning Rat festival. Has been off-Playa since 2009 due to pregnancy, child, financial trouble, and husband’s spectacular bicycle crash one year ago, resulting in a Traumatic Brain Injury. She misses it.

Steven Fritz, our camp’s Photographer/Tarot Hutmeister, has attended Burning Man every year since 1999. He has been an Art Documentation Team Member many times and “accidentally photographed an intruder at the foot of the Man during the lunar eclipse in 2007.” Heh. Steve did Camp PeePot — a similarly tiny but fun & awesome theme camp annually, 2001-2005. Steve designed one of the dioramas at the base of the Man in 2004, and built the playa-placed art “Sigmund Saw” freudian see-saw for the Psyche theme in 2005. He’s got many photographs in the image gallery, scanned artifacts to the playa artifacts gallery, organized art cars for “Kaosmosis: the art of Burning Man” in Portland OR, 2002. He is a contributor to the Black Rock Arts Foundation, and was the official organizer, photographer, and costume cultist for Tarotist Training Camp in 2008.

For Burning Man’s website: Burning Tarot Unearthed: 2013

Archaeologists recently unearthed precious cargo left on the Playa by marauding Tarotists over a century ago: a deck of cards depicting members of the ancient Burner tribe. A simple people, the Burners revered the cards as supernatural; today, actors portraying the cult’s high priestess, Miss Magdalen of Mystical Mayhem, and shaman Steven St. Cheese, give readings, teach workshops, and photograph participants for the next Tarot deck (actors work most convincingly when plied with whiskey, wine, and meat).

2 Responses to Burning Tarot Unearthed

  1. Hello Magdelen!
    Thought you might want to see that I featured your article on Burning Man/Tarot on my Tarot Card Reading Page today:
    Love, Angela Lucy

  2. miss magdalen says:

    thanks angela lucy!

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