The Wooden Tarot: Introduction to the Suit of Bones

Recently, I broke down and bought The Wooden Tarot and the Earthbound Oracle by A. L. Swartz. The Wooden Tarot in particular has been on my list for a long time. In the spring, when I was deciding which new tarot deck to buy for myself, I had it narrowed down between the Wild Unknown and the Wooden Tarot. In retrospect, I still think that was the right decision. While I wouldn’t call the Wild Unknown an easy deck for beginners, I think it’s ultimately easier to read. That being said, the Wooden Tarot has been tempting me for a long time and now that it’s in my hands, I feel like it’s already a good friend.

Swartz says he based the imagery of this deck on the Waite-Smith deck, and therefore does not include a booklet of card meanings with the deck. Many readers have noted, though, that the deck has sparse imagery in places and can invoke a lot of puzzlement. Since getting it, I’ve had the strong urge to study it systematically. Marianne over at Two Sides Tarot has a wonderful series where she is working through the Wooden Tarot and there’s a Wooden Tarot study group on Facebook as well. (You have to request to be added, but I was added no problem.) Despite the helpfulness of these sources, I can’t resist the temptation to dive in myself.

I would like to get through the whole deck, like Carrie at Happy Fish Tarot has done with the Wild Unknown (she’s almost done!). I won’t make a post for every card, and will do them in small batches instead. Nevertheless, it will take at least 19 posts and probably more to get through the deck, so yeah, it’s gonna be a while.

I decided to begin with the suit of Bones, which corresponds to Pentacles/Disks. This is where I wanted to begin because to me the suit of Bones is the most difficult to interpret. Also, since I order my tarot decks so that Pentacles/Disks comes at the end, it would take me FOREVER to get to the suit of Bones if I just started at the beginning and worked through the deck. So let’s jump in, shall we?

The Suit of Bones

The most immediate question:



for pentacles/disks?

It seems as if stones, which other nature-centered tarot decks like the Wildwood Tarot use, would make more sense. The suit, after all, corresponds with the element of earth and stones come directly from the earth. But bones are made out of minerals, nonetheless, and they are certainly the most earth-like solid part of our bodies.

Bones are limited to vertebrates–fish, reptiles, birds, mammals; beings who are pretty far up the evolutionary scale. Bones are the structures that support our bodies, giving us shape and definition and allowing us to move. But unlike exoskeletons, they are invisible from the outside (except for teeth.)

Bones, then, give structure and solidity to our existence. Their support is visible but they themselves are not. Without bones, it would be impossible for creativity, emotion, and intellect–the domains of the other three suits–to function since their seat is in the skull-protected brain and they ultimately move throughout the rest of the body.

Since the suit of disks/pentacles corresponds to what is solid and tangible in our lives, it often gets interpreted as being mostly about money and possessions. Illustrations for cards in this suit are often lavish–I think of Pamela Colman Smith’s 9 of Pentacles, for instance–but the suit of Bones in the Wooden Tarot is by far the most spare in an already sparsely illustrated deck. The cards are literally what they sound like–paintings of bones in various configurations. While this deck sees the element of earth and hence bones as being vital supports to our existence, it also suggest that the “bare bones” of material wealth don’t amount to much, and that creativity, emotion, and intellect are needed to flesh things out. It’s interesting to me that the Empress in this deck has the alchemical symbol for water behind her instead of her usual association with earth. The lushness and fertility symbolized in the card, then, may have less to do with material wealth and more to do with emotional fulfillment.

You could think of this deck, then, as taking more of an ascetic’s or renunciate’s view of the suit of earth, relegating it to a supporting role. Because of this, I have a feeling that the Wooden Tarot would be a deck better left for emotional and spiritual inquiries, rather than inquiries about work, wealth, and property. And with all this in mind, we encounter the…

God of Bones

God of Bones

The God of Bones wears brown and drab green robes, mountains peek out from behind their shoulders as a solitary eye peers out from the alchemical symbol for earth–a downward pointing triangle with a line drawn across it. The robes, drawn diagonally across the chest and over the shoulder, are reminiscent of many styles of Buddhist monks’ robes. The God holds one hand palm pointing outward to the viewer and one is held downward, echoing the “dispelling fear” and “generosity” mudras. Between their hands floats a single bone. The God of Bones’s eye, like the eye of the God of Blooms, is angled slightly downward, signaling the receptive energy of the suit.

The monk-like God of Bones, with a single, bare bone in their hands and the bare mountains on their shoulders is the root of the powers of earth, the creator of the physical world. The God of Bones is the source of all that gives structure and stability to our lives; our bodies, possessions, and the physical world are all under their care. This God, however, is more like a renunciate than a god of plenty. They say: “I offer what is necessary for support and no more.” They are our entry into the suit of bones and ask us to question wealth, its purpose, and its necessity.*

Keys: new home, possessions or financial opportunity; a benefactor; an epiphany about money, security, or wealth; encounter with a new standard of living or day to day routine.

Reversed: stuck in habits of spending and consumption; wasted opportunities; misuse of resources; lack of insight into the role of wealth or possessions in one’s life

A God of Bones Reading

The Eye: What insight is waiting for me regarding the role of money and material things in my life?

The Bone: What gift do I need to receive from this area of my life?


*When discussing the Gods in the Wooden Tarot, I will be giving them the pronoun “they/their.” No need to assign a gender to a floating eyeball!

The $2 Deck Wrap

One thing I can say for sure is that many of the rituals surrounding storing and “cleansing” tarot decks really don’t appeal to me. Sometimes my die-hard skeptic comes out and I’m like–“There is no way I’m going to waste a bunch of salt or sage on a tarot placebo.” The same goes for the idea that decks should be wrapped in silk. I don’t personally use silk, since silkworm larvae are killed in the process of harvesting. I also read somewhere…on another blog (sorry, attribution fail) that silk is one of the fabrics that is most likely to attract critters and therefore one of the worst for storing tarot cards.

U Waite box
Oh, the sadness of this box.

Until recently, I haven’t really been concerned about storing my cards at all, mostly because I have only one deck and use it pretty much every day. But I haven’t been keeping my Universal Waite cards in their box for the past few months because my box is sad. When I pulled them out of storage in January, I was surprised how beat-up the box was, but didn’t remember it being any other way. The upshot is that I must have used the cards a lot as a teenager and only remember a fraction of that use. (The same goes for watching anime or listening to Green Day, probably.) So my deck has been sitting all naked and lonely on my altar for a while.

I’m actually fine with a naked and lonely deck, but things become more complicated when you add multiple decks to the mix. I will soon be the owner of not just one, but FOUR tarot decks (the Linestrider, as well as the Wild Unknown and Pamela Colman Smith Centennial decks that I ordered yesterday.) Since I won’t be using them all at the same time, I want a nice way to store them, one that keeps them easily accessible and easy to tell apart. I think the Linestrider will come in a pretty standard paper box, so while that’s OK for long-term storage, I don’t want to be opening and closing it all the time if I’m reading with it often. Likewise, the Centennial deck will come as part of a huge boxed set, so I will want to have some place else to put it if I’m doing regular readings with it. (It does come with a little organza bag, but one that doesn’t set me on fire, to say the least.) The Wild Unknown comes in a pretty snug, sturdy, and compact box, from what I can tell, so I will probably keep it there most of the time with the exception of when I travel. So, I need something to store the other three decks.

I was inspired by the Slow Holler people (by the way–support this amazing deck in the last days of its Kickstarter campaign!!!) creating a custom handkerchief/bandana to store the deck. And I thought, huh, why don’t I just buy a few bandanas? So I went down to my local menswear shop and picked up a couple of US-made bandanas for $2 each.

bandana layoutI’m mostly familiar with bandanas as the thing that my dad wraps around his forehead before he goes to mow the lawn. Having purchased a couple for myself, I was struck by how beautiful they are, and how much we take traditional bandana patterns for granted. So I’ve decided to not only wrap my decks in them, but to use them as “laying cloths” as well. I bought a dark blue for my Universal Waite, a lavender for the Linestrider, and will get a sky blue for the Centennial deck and a black one for the Wild Unknown. My only concern is that dye from the bandanas will rub off on the decks. This is probably more of a concern if I’m traveling and the edges of the deck are getting jostled against the cloth. It’s also not that big of a concern. I want to treat my decks well and with respect, just like with any other everyday object I use, I actually want to use them, which is different from keeping them in pristine condition.

bandana wrapWrapping my deck has taken a little getting used to, but I really like the sturdy, soft package that results. I feel much better about the prospect of traveling with my cards because wrapping them tightly in cloth makes sure that they don’t move around much and gives them good padding all at the same time. The bandana cloth likes to stick to itself, so I don’t think a bundle would come undone easily.

And while I don’t think there’s any inherent power or energy in a deck-wrapping, I do think the ritual of unwrapping the deck before use and re-wrapping it afterwards adds a nice intentionality to the act of reading the cards

The Slow Holler Tarot Deck

OK ok. After giving myself a hard time about backing the Linestrider Tarot deck (which has been fully funded and will probably begin to ship a few weeks ahead of schedule, yay!) I found yet another deck which I couldn’t resist: the Slow Holler deck. This deck is still in the funding process and honestly I’m not sure if they’ll make it to their funding goal, but the deck itself is so beautiful and the place it’s coming from is so close to my heart that I decided to do my part and pledge to buy a deck.

The Slow Holler deck is a project designed to showcase the work of Southern queer artists. Being a queer lady with ties to the south, I love this idea. But I wouldn’t be on board if I didn’t love the art as well. (View a gallery of the completed cards here.) Most of the cards are not yet finished, but from what I can see so far the deck is diverse but very readable. There’s a limited color palette–black, red, and metallic gold–that ties it together across the different artistic styles, and so many of the cards are just friggin’ beautiful interpretations of the traditional cards.

The reason why the funding goal for the project is so high ($55,000) is that they aren’t cutting corners. There are nearly 30 artists working on the deck and they want to pay them all. Think about it–even if they pay the artists only $1,000 each for their contributions (which is actually almost nothing), that will still add up to $30,000.They are also printing the decks in the US, which I’m sure isn’t cheap, either. Although I’m not optimistic about them meeting the goal, I think this is a project worthy of my hard-earned cash. I hope that if it doesn’t get funded this time around they will keep trying.