© Kahurangi Press 2019



Mount Taranaki


Excerpts from The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot

Peter Balin was born near New Plymouth, New Zealand. A self-taught artist, he travelled widely and by the mid-1970s was living in Los Angeles. In a talk he gave in 1977 he relates how, on the evening of December 21, 1975, some friends came to his house and one of them had a tarot deck. It was the first tarot deck he had ever seen and Balin thought it was sort of medieval and uninteresting. Later in the evening one of his friends suggested that he should draw a tarot deck but Balin thought it was a silly idea and said so.



Right in the middle of his protestation: “Something occurred which had never happened to me before in my life, and which is extremely difficult for me to explain. The only way that I can do so is to say that it approximated a colour slide going on in my brain. That is all of a sudden, I was telling her how crazy I thought she was, and the next minute… Voom! I should say about like that, it’s very difficult to describe because it was not quite like that either. But this large thing appeared in my head it seemed, or somewhere inside of me, I just really don’t quite know where.”

The image was of the twenty-two cards of the major arcana assembled to make one picture and all the figures were in Maya dress. The next morning Balin had a tremendous urge to paint. He took a sleeping bag to the art gallery where he worked and slept on the floor. He painted almost day and night for three months.

Balin said, “Apparently I had a lot of the qualifications necessary to be able to make this deck. One of [which] was that I knew nothing about the Tarot. Because if I did, obviously I would be tripped up by what I knew. There would be a great battle in my head.… Within a year of the time that the original cards were painted, they were printed and out on the market. Obviously something somewhere felt that it was very important to get these cards out.”


The first edition of the Xultun Tarot was printed by the George Banta Printing Company in Menasha, Wisconsin in 1976. The cards were larger (136 x 89 mm, 5.5 by 3.5 ins) than those of most other tarot decks. During that year Balin travelled to Mexico on a bus and ended up sitting next to Frank Waters, novelist and author of Book of the Hopi (1963) and Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness (1975), for the six hours of the journey. After he returned to Los Angeles to finish painting the cards he received a postcard from Mexico. It was from Waters and had rounded corners and the single word “Hola!” (Hello! in Spanish) written on it. Balin realised that this postcard would be the ideal size and proportion for the Xultun cards.

The deck came as a boxed set with the major arcana of twenty-two cards and the minor arcana of fifty-six cards, two additional feathered serpent representing the feminine and the masculine, and an insert briefly describing the cards and layouts. The box was in brown with the Ruler in white and lettering in black. The back of the cards were also brown with two feathered serpents facing in opposite directions.

Balin flew to Menasha, Wisconsin to proof the cards prior to printing and ensure the colours were true to his original paintings. (The major arcana was one single painting and the minor arcana were painted in sets of four). But, having been preoccupied with the painting of the cards during the year, he had given little thought to the box. As a result, the design of box in Figure was done at the last moment. Balin was dissatisfied with it and redesigned it in green with a gold feathered serpent winding around the box. He then hand-covered the remaining brown boxes of the original print run of 500 with the new design.

Subsequently, these decks were given to the new publisher in Los Angeles, Wisdom Garden Books. The original cards in the brown box are now hard-to-find and a collector’s item. There is only one surviving example of the decks with the re-covered boxes. Soon afterwards Wisdom Garden Books was taken over by another company which subsequently printed an edition of the deck with smaller cards and inferior colour fidelity.

For the new 2010 edition Kahurangi Press have faithfully reproduced the cards in their original size and vivid colours. In cooperation with Peter Balin they have redesigned the back of the cards (in cinnabar red with a new feathered serpent design) and the box (green with a blue feathered serpent encircling it).


Historically, almost all tarot decks were named after their creator but Balin didn’t want the deck named after him. So he made a list of Maya place names and selected Xultun, the name of a Maya site near Tikal in north-eastern Guatemala. Tikal, occupied for about a thousand years but abandoned by the 9th century, was first discovered by Europeans in the mid-1800s. Xultun is a large Early Classic Maya site about 45 kilometres northeast of Tikal. The site contains a thirty-five metre tall pyramid, two ballcourts, twenty-four stelae and several plazas. At the time of publication of the new deck (2011) the site remained the largest Classic Maya site that had not been investigated.

Sometime later, Balin discovered that the word xultun means “a storage place” where the Maya stored water or maize. The limestone of the Yucatan peninsula is so porous that no water collects on the surface. The only sources of water are a few cenotes—deep, steep-walled sinkholes with water at the bottom. So the Maya had to dig bottle-shaped cisterns or xultun beneath the ground. These had broad, sloping surrounds, plastered with limestone, to funnel rainwater into the cistern. The bodies of human sacrifices were thrown into abandoned xultun and in shamanic healing ceremonies the conjured evil spirit was cast into a xultun. So the Xultun Tarot is a storage place, a container for the light and the dark, and a repository for seeds of knowledge.

Another other use for the xultun was as a star-tube. The Maya created a sophisticated astronomical calendar for marking the progression of time. For them, time was alive and events were conducted on dates that were most charged with ch’ulel or life force. To make their calendrical calculations they observed the movement of the stars during the day as well as at night. The Maya priest sat at the bottom of a xultun looking up at the sky through its narrow neck. Here, even at midday, he could see the stars quite clearly overhead. In the early 1600s the Italian astronomer Galileo used a similar method for observing stars during daylight by sitting at the bottom of a deep well. So when we open the Xultun Tarot we are looking through the star-tube of the tarot, in the daylight of consciousness, at our stars—the patterns of our soul’s movement in time.

Balin had lived for some months in a small Maya village with many ruins close by. He became familiar with how the local people dressed and the particular way they tied their sashes. He spent the summer of 1972 sketching images at Tikal. The first six figures in the cards (Fool, Sorcerer, Priestess, Consort, Ruler and Priest) are all drawn from wooden lintels in Temple III at Tikal as are the glyphs running across the base of the platform that the last three figures stand on. The glyphs between the second and third rows come from Stela 26 at Tikal. Additional designs are taken from Stelae 1 and 31. A stela (Latin for standing stone) was an upright stone slab or pillar often carved with glyphs. Maya called them tetun, or “tree-stones.”


At the base of the Sorcerer card, in the distance, we see a snow-capped mountain. Balin explains: “I didn’t want to put my name on the cards themselves, and I was born within the shadow of this particular mountain, literally right on the side. My grandfather, my mother’s father had a farm there and I was born on it. And it is a mountain which stands all alone in a plane that juts out into the ocean in New Zealand, it’s called Mount Egmont, and it’s a sleeping volcano like most of the mountains in New Zealand. And it is a very sacred mountain to the Maoris. It is the mountain on which Ratana received his prophecies and the law, which probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but anyway that was my way of signing the cards.” This dormant volcano is on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Captain Cook named it in 1770 after Lord Egmont, First Lord of the Admiralty, but in recent years it has resumed its original Maori name, Mount Taranaki.