Choosing a tarot deck for yourself.

It is easy to see why people hesitate about buying their first tarot deck or adding another deck to their collection. It’s hard to predict before using it whether or not a particular tarot deck will work for you in the long-term. This is normal because tarot is a tool. If I am a carpenter, it will probably take me some trial and error to find the brand and style of hammer that works best for me. As I become more skilled, I begin to understand the features I like best in a hammer and make different buying decisions. The same goes for tarot. If you are hesitating about buying any decks because you’re afraid of buying one you don’t end up liking, let me assure you right now: you are going to buy at least one deck you don’t like. Don’t let it hold you back. 

Unfortunately, with the floor starting at $20USD, tarot isn’t a very cheap hobby. Even if you’re not a deck collector, a collection of 8 or 10 decks could still set you back a few hundred dollars. Here are my main tips for choosing a tarot deck that is more likely to click with you and less likely to waste your money. (Although you should also just accept some wasted money as part of the process.)

Understand how important it is to you that you do—or don’t—see yourself in a deck.

One of the best things about the tarot renaissance of the last 5 or 6 years is that we are seeing a lot more diverse representation of people depicted in decks. Although it might have been the case that in prior centuries, readers saw the people in decks as symbols and not actual human beings, we are now in a world where people want to see people who look like themselves in the tarot. It’s still a small corner of the market, but the number of decks that feature diversity of race, gender expression, size, age, ability, etc. has grown a lot. If you know that seeing yourself in your decks is important to you, it will make the pool of available decks more focused.

On the other hand, some people do not want to see human beings of any kind represented in decks for various reasons. There are also lots of decks out there that do not feature humans or humanoid creatures. Knowing this about yourself will narrow down your search considerably.  

Just because you’d hang it on your wall does not mean it works well as a tarot deck—and vice versa.

This was the biggest lesson for me to learn: art that looks beautiful doesn’t necessarily do well when it comes to divination. When we are reading cards, we need a few things from them: 

  • that they’re immediately recognizable and distinguishable from other cards, 
  • that they engage in some sort of symbolic language, 
  • And that the imagery can be easily seen and understood without needing to hold the card right up to your face. 

The (somewhat) exception to this are cards that are deliberately abstract so as to pull messages from your subconscious, rather than speak in a symbolic language. 

There’s a lot of great art out there that would function terribly in tarot decks. Likewise, I have decks in my collection that are extremely powerful for divination but have art that I’d never hang on my wall. In tarot decks, I have learned to choose clarity and power over beauty. That being said, if a deck is so ugly to you that you feel repulsed when looking at it, then take that as a very good sign to not buy it!

Figure out what your deal-breaker cards are and try to see the whole deck if possible before buying.

You may not know it, but you probably have some deal-breaker cards. That is, cards that gauge how closely a deck creator’s understanding of the tarot aligns with yours. If the deck looks great overall, but they messed up this particular card, will that impede your ability to use the deck? Deal breaker cards are often cards that we closely identify with, or cards whose interpretation we feel strongly about. My deal breaker cards are often the High Priestess, the Queen of Cups, Death, Temperance, the Three of Swords or the Ten of Swords. If I am looking at a deck that interprets these cards in a way that I dislike or disagree with, I just won’t get the deck. Figuring out deal-breaker cards takes time. Sometimes you need to see someone really eff up the Ten of Swords or Strength before you understand it’s a deal-breaker card for you.

Knowing your deal-breaker cards is only half the battle, though, because sometimes it’s difficult to see all of the cards before you buy. The ideal scenario is if a friend owns the deck and you can flip through their copy and get their opinion on it. Some metaphysical shops will have demo decks so you can handle and flip through a deck before buying. In the world of online retail, more indie deck creators are understanding that providing low-res images of all 78 cards makes people more willing to buy the deck. In other cases, readers and collectors do deck flip-through videos to show all the cards one by one. If you have a rare or ultra-new deck yourself, consider doing a flip-through video as a public service! And if you want to take a gamble on spending money…in order to not spend more money… buying a tarot app is a good way to see all of the cards in a deck and read the guidebook before you decide to invest in a hard copy.

Be prepared for some trial and error, and have an exit strategy for your decks.

Even if you do your best research beforehand, decks will surprise you. One deck may click with you while another turns up answers that don’t make any sense. Sometimes, a deck will sit on your shelf for years until one day the readings start to be meaningful. Other times, you’ll find that you have outgrown a deck that worked for you right out of the box a couple of years before. Unfortunately, none of this correlates with how much money a deck cost or how much you wanted it before you bought it.

If you have been cherishing the fantasy of the One True Deck that you can use in every context forever, know that it might take years and a lot of money to find that deck. (Also, as a polyamorous person, I’m just gonna say—it’s a lot of pressure to put on one deck to serve all of your needs. Needing multiple decks is OK!)  As you grow as a person and a tarot reader, you may find that what you need in a tarot deck changes. Being flexible and willing to swap out your decks over the years means you’ll have a collection that’s in tune with you as a person. 

If you do want to sell, I have found that it’s pretty easy to re-home unwanted decks. If you already have an online store for something else, just put your used decks up there. You can sell over social media or on tarot forums to people you trust. People are also often willing to swap a deck of theirs for one you don’t want. There have been a few decks that have been hard for me to sell or swap, but you can likely find a willing person in the right place. Giving a used deck as a gift to a friend or a stranger is also a good strategy to send a deck on the next stage of its journey.

Before you open the flood gates, a note on tarot deck shopping addiction: it is real and it can damage your finances. This isn’t unique to tarot; you can wreck yourself financially over shoes, enamel pins, board games, or anything else that doesn’t seem expensive yet adds up very quickly. If you find yourself obsessing over decks and buying one every time you get a little spare cash, you’ll probably want to get a clear picture of how much you’re spending on your deck habit. Don’t try to justify deck buying as a need. Even as a professional reader, there’s no way that I can justify the 25 or so tarot and oracle decks that I have! It’s ok to be truthful with yourself and want something just because you want it. 

For the first couple of years I read tarot, I spent a lot of money on decks. I even wrote a post about it. The good news is that I eventually did get over it. If you are struggling with wanting to buy decks, sit down and create a document or spreadsheet of all your deck purchases and their costs (including tax and shipping!) to see how much you’re spending. I have seen people give themselves an allowance for decks in their budget, or allow themselves to buy a certain number a year, or have a policy that they can only buy a new one if they sell one first. A big part of curbing my deck spending was getting off of social media so that I wasn’t flooded with pictures of people buying shiny new decks all the time. Finding a strategy that keeps deck buying in the healthy range also means that you can have a relationship with tarot that isn’t tinged by guilt.

Introduction to the Wooden Tarot Series

The Wooden Tarot is a 79-card self-published tarot deck by Atlanta-based artist A. L. Swartz in 2014(?). The deck was conceived in the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition, but Swartz’s unique style and artistic preoccupations make this deck a big departure from  mainstream visual tarot traditions. The Wooden Tarot features no human beings, with the exception of a human skull on the Devil card and the four Gods, or aces, with human-bodies but floating eyeballs for heads. The imagery of the deck is instead nature-based, including everything from bones to mushrooms to crystals, and an eclectic mix of animals, from the more familiar White-Tailed Deer to the fairly exotic Blue Angel Nudibranch.

This is a bizarre world, however, one in which animals may have sunflowers or mushrooms for heads, or crystals may grow directly out of their bodies. Third-eyes abound, showing us that the Wooden Tarot hovers somewhere between the natural realm and the spirit realm.

One of the most striking features of the Wooden Tarot, however, is that it does not include any sort of booklet of card meanings. At the time I purchased the deck, Swartz  stated on his Etsy page that any book of Rider-Waite-Smith meanings could be used alongside the deck. Many people, however, have found the deck’s visual simplicity, its wide range of plants and animals, and its severe departure from Rider-Waite-Smith imagery to be intimidating or confusing.

When I first got back into tarot in early 2015 and began looking at decks to buy, I was for several months trying to decide between the Wild Unknown and the Wooden Tarot. I chose the Wild Unknown in the end, which was probably wise, given that the learning curve for the Wooden Tarot is a bit steeper than that of the Wild Unknown, which I struggled with at the time.

I purchased the Wooden Tarot after I felt more comfortable with the Rider-Waite-Smith system, and was almost immediately drawn to the challenge of writing a blog post description for each card. To be clear, I do not consider this to be a definitive or “correct” interpretation of the deck in any way. Other people have looked at the same card as me and taken away vastly different interpretations. My interpretations are as much a reflection of myself and my place in my tarot journey as they are a reflection of the cards.

I took on this project because I wanted to learn more about the Wooden Tarot. Over time, I have come to see that, while this series has taught me a lot about this particular deck, it has also taught me a lot about the tarot in general, made me reassess my interpretations of the RWS system, and also try to understand how the Thoth relates to that system. I have also begun to realize that other people find this series helpful, and than a good percentage of my blog hits come from people trying to find an interpretation of a specific Wooden Tarot card. Thus, while this series is for my own knowledge I am also gratified if I can help others.

It’s rumored that Swartz is coming out with his own book of card meanings, given the feedback he has received that people have difficulty using the deck without one. I will finish this series for my own learning, and because while I’m sure that my interpretations will overlap with Swartz’s to a certain extent, they will also reflect a unique perspective on the deck. I do plan, however, to read Swartz’s meanings once I have finished the series.

For those interested in more about this deck, there is a Wooden Tarot Study Group on Facebook, which is quite active and in which Swartz himself sometimes participates. Swartz also has a playing-card-sized oracle deck, the Earthbound Oracle, which shares many of the same visual themes with the Wooden Tarot and works with it beautifully.

If you are ready to dive in, begin here.

________________________________

Information for those interested in purchasing the deck:

The Wooden Tarot is more or less a standard sized tarot deck. The backs feature a triple-moon design, with a large eyeball taking the place of the full moon and are reversible. (Since the design for the backs was painted on wood, it’s not 100% reversible, given the natural variability of wood grain. However, I am very picky about this sort of thing and I use reversals with this deck quite easily.)

The card stock of the Wooden Tarot is very high quality. It is flexible but strong and has a buttery finish that surpasses any tarot deck or playing cards I have handled. The cards stand up to repeated riffling and have not chipped or frayed after several months’-worth of use. I imagine that this deck will withstand years of tarot readings. The deck comes in a tuck box, which I personally do not use to store it, as tuck boxes generally cannot stand up to frequent use. I recommend making or buying a bag for this deck.

At this moment, the deck is priced at US$35 plus shipping and can be found on skullgarden.com or Swartz’s Etsy shop.

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Plumes 6-10

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Plumes 6-10

Six of Plumes

A Common Mallard swims away, looking over his shoulder with two eyes on the same side of his head. Six dark-brown feathers trail behind him.

This is another card that conjures up the image of its corresponding card in the Waite-Smith deck fairly well. This somber-looking Mallard decisively sims away, although his backward look suggests that he is not moving on without leaving something worthwhile–or painful–behind. This card echoes the Four of Plumes as well: the bird’s plucked feathers suggest a respite after pain or trauma.

Keys: leaving a painful situation behind; learning from past mistakes; sacrificing comfort or certainty for the great good; abandoning an idea, belief, or ideology that no longer serves you

Reversed: being unable to move on; operating from beliefs that are not helpful; stuck in outdated assumptions about yourself or others; making excuses for staying in an unhealthy or painful situation

Seven of Plumes

A Common Raven with an extra eye perches on an arrow, holding a small yellow transparent orb in its beak. Six other orbs stick to its feathers.

I think this is a raven, rather than a crow, for a couple of reasons: the more pronounced curve of its bill and the face that it dwarfs the arrow on which it perches. (Ravens are huge.) I am not the best person to discuss raven folklore, but suffice it to say that the raven is association with a lot of it all over the word. It seems that the raven most often appears as a bird of ill-omen or a trickster.

This raven seems to think it’s pretty clever, adorning itself with (perhaps stolen) baubles. I think there are several ways that this image can be interpreted, but the strong sense that I get is that the raven has stolen its little ball, not realizing that it wears the evidence of its theft. This reminds me of our inability to see our own faults even though they are clearly visible to others. How oven have we seen an aggressive person come to the conclusion that someone is an asshole, or a controlling person criticize someone for being a control freak? To me, this card is about trying to get away with something but forgetting that what we try to hide will be visible in some other way, and the things about ourselves we try to repress will always be projected onto others.

Keys: self-deception; trying to hide things from others; hypocrisy; leading a double-life; dishonesty–whether from malice or vulnerability–is somewhere in the situation.

Reversed: being (painfully) honest with yourself; coming clean about a situation; getting caught; seeing through someone’s ruse, or being seen by others

Eight of Plumes

A quiver with seven arrows in it. An eighth arrow pierces the quiver.

When I first saw this card, I thought it corresponded to the Eight of Wands. Then I thought, “No, that’s not right,” and tried to square it in my head with the Waite-Smith image of a blindfolded woman tied up among eight swords. It was only after I realized that one of the arrows is actually piercing the quiver (not easy to see at first glance) that the meaning of this card made sense to me.

I think the meaning of this card is closer to the Thoth meaning for the Eight of Swords–Interference. The arrow, which should be aimed outward to accomplish its objective, is instead turned back on the place that it came from. It may or may not be preventing the other arrows from being shot, but in any case no bow is in sight. Unlike The Hermit or the Four of Plumes, turning inward is not helpful here. This card states that getting out of your head is the best way to move on.

Keys: being hamstrung, especially by self-hating or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs; self-sabotage; focusing on limitations rather than possibilities; turning against oneself

Reversed: clearly seeing through conceptual limitations; taking responsibility for your future; letting go of ideas that limit you

Nine of Plumes

A cluster of four Barn Owl faces. The largest in the center has a third eye.

If the Seven of Blooms leaves me feeling icky, this is the card in the Wooden Tarot that sends chills down my spine. In the Waite-Smith deck, this card of insomnia and mental torment is portrayed by showing a woman sitting up in bed with her face in her hands. Here, instead of portraying that experience, the card invokes it. Barn Owls are the ghost-like faces of the night, completely silent until they send up an unsettling cry. These deep black eyes reflect our disquietude back to us–perhaps in them we see the demons of our past or our fears for the future. In any case, they do not look away. It may be that the only way to deal with these thoughts is to steadily meet their gaze.

Keys: haunting thoughts; regret or remorse; self-hatred; anxiety; destructive thought patterns; depression; being kept up and night by negative thoughts

Reversed: seeing things in broad daylight; getting a new perspective on a formerly troubling issue; facing fears instead of running away;

Ten of Plumes

A small bird lies on its back, pierced by ten arrows.

Like the Three of Plumes, this card closely resembles its corresponding card in the Waite-Smith deck. Unlike the man pierced with ten swords in the latter, however, there is no blood here–not even any dislocated feathers. It is simple, matter of fact, and the lack of gore tells me that this is a death that is happening, not in the realm of the physical, but in the realm of the mind. We’ve arrived at the end of a cycle with this card–in fact, we’ve gone past the end into the place where regeneration is possible.

Since I’ve started reading tarot, my interpretation of the 10 of Swords/Air has basically become: STOP THINKING. THINKING ABOUT THIS ANY LONGER WILL NOT SOLVE ANYTHING AND CONTINUE TO CAUSE HARM. YOU ARE BEATING A DEAD HORSE. YOU ARE FOLLOWING A BELIEF OR IDEOLOGY THAT IS SIMPLY UNTRUE. STOP THINKING! That’s how I see the card, caps lock and all. We have bottomed out in our thoughts and beliefs; this is a kind of death because moving forward will never be possible. It is painful because being in this position requires losing faith in someone or something, or having to give up an identity category, or realizing that something you took for granted as being true isn’t, which throws everything into doubt as well. But it’s only from this place of pain that new wisdom can be sought.

Keys: dead end; crisis of faith in a person or belief system; feeling distressed or overwhelmed by knowledge or lack of it;

Reversed: moving on from loss; being able to enter greater truths by leaving old ones behind; realizing that a thought pattern or belief doesn’t serve you anymore

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Plumes 2-5

Plumes 2-5

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Two of Plumes

Two partially folded, white-gray wings appear on either side of a waxing crescent moon. Above it floats a lemniscate.

As with the other twos, the lemniscate indicates balance and change. In a bird’s wings, balance is extremely important since a bird cannot fly with an injured or deformed wing. Without perfect symmetry or equal participation, flight can’t take place.

I see this card’s meaning as being closer to that of the Two of Swords in the Thoth deck–“Peace”–than in the Waite-Smith deck. In the latter, a woman sits holding two crossed swords across her chest, suggesting that the swords work at cross-purposes. Hence the common interpretation of this card as being about needing to make a decision–either this sword or that sword must be chosen, but not both. In the Wooden Tarot Two of Plumes, the wings work together, making for a very different meaning.

The question this card asks is: How do ideas or belief systems hold each other in balance? For instance, in a legal case, one wing cold represent the law, while the other could represent what is fair from a human-centered perspective. A common image in Buddhist thought is the wings of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom without compassion is cold and heartless, and will ultimately not benefit anyone. Compassion without wisdom is misguided and perhaps even harmful. Just like a bird needs both wings to fly, we need wisdom and compassion to act skillfully.

The Two of Plumes, then, is not so much about making a one-or-the-other decision, but about figuring out how to balance ideas and paradigms. And if the lemniscate didn’t clue you in, the waxing crescent moon shows that there is no one right answer for all time. Things are in constant change, and so the kinds of knowledge and practices are appropriate to bring to any situation will always be changing as well.

Keys: balance; fairness; tempering extreme ideas; balance of head and heart; making a decision or undertaking a project with a balanced perspective; neither extreme optimism nor extreme pessimism; sense and sensibility

Reversed: continually favoring one set of ideas or beliefs over another; dogma; unwillingness to meet halfway  on an idea; assuming that the same idea or procedure applies equally in all situations; losing perspective

Three of Plumes

Three arrows pierce a heart.

This is one of the few places in the deck where Swartz stays close to the Waite-Smith image. It’s one of the most universally recognizable and interpret-able image in tarot, and its associations with pain and grief are easy to see.

It’s worth noting a couple of things about this card, though. The first is the thickness of Swartz’s arrows. All throughout this suit, arrows are thin–basically drawn as a single line, rather than cylinder. To me, this emphasizes the airy insubstantiality of thought and the truth that thoughts and words can hurt so deeply even though they are not “real” in a physical sense.

Second–look at the arrowheads on these arrows. Make no mistake–these are for hunting, not archery. Whether true or not, it feels like someone has taken direct aim at us and is trying to bring us down.

But to me, the most important thing about this card is the anatomical detail of the heart, which is very different from the stylized heart in the Waite-Smith or Sola Busca (the deck whose 3 of Swords the Waite-Smith image is based.) While, miraculously, no blood drips from this heart, we see it in great detail–muscle, ventricle, artery, vein. This could mean that the pain is raw–almost too much to look at–or that we are prone to over analyzing it and thinking about it in detail.

This reminds me of another classic Buddhist teaching: the two arrows. We get struck with the first arrow, which causes a great amount of pain–we get fired, snubbed by a friend, cheated on, etc. That pain is an inevitable part of life. But then we hit ourselves with a second arrow in the same place (which of course hurts much worse) because of the way that we react to the first: lashing out in anger, drowning in self-hatred, and obsessing about what has happened. So in this card, the heart’s detail has two dimensions: the pain itself, and the additional pain caused by obsessively thinking about and examining it. It asks: where is the line between necessary grief and refusing to let go and move on?

Keys: pain; grief; loss; betrayal;

Reversed: obsessing or over thinking something painful that has happened; feeling stuck and unable to move on (Note: depending on the context of the reading, this card reversed could also mean a lessening or ending of pain)

Four of Plumes

A small gray bird lies with its wings stretched in front of it, eyes closed. Four of its feathers are scattered around it.

This is the first of several birds we will encounter in this suit. While Swartz can be extremely precise as to species, this one strikes me as being a fairly generic bird. It may be worth noting that its wings look similar to those in the Two of Plumes.

I usually see the Four of Swords as a fairly positive card, but this card is a little darker. This is not a natural position for a bird to be in. If I saw one like this outside, my first assumption would be that it had died a violent death (even when they die from hitting windows their wings usually fold back up.) At best, it has been knocked unconscious. I’m just going to take it on faith that this bird is alive, but in any case it’s been through some sort of trauma. Perhaps it can pull itself back together, but those feathers are gone for good.

[Note: I know that some people might have a gentler interpretation of this card, since it kind of looks like the bird is cuddled up sleeping. But once a birder, always a birder, you know?]

Keys: slow healing; after-effects of trauma, recent or far in the past; moving slowly in grief; licking your wounds; cutting your losses

Reversed: readiness to move on; completion of healing

Five of Plumes

A three-eyed Blue Jay is perched on the edge of a nest. Three of the five eggs in the nest have been broken.

In this card, Swartz’s precise attention to bird species is on display. For those who do not live in eastern North America, let me give you the low-down on the Blue Jay. They are beautiful, loud, aggressive birds. They will not hesitate to terrorize the neighborhood cat that comes too close to their nests. They will send up loud alarm calls at the slightest hint of a predator. They are absolutely gorgeous, but have a mixed reputation at feeders due to their habit of chasing smaller birds away.

Blue jays are also omnivorous and have been known to eat eggs and nestlings, which makes them the perfect species for this card. The Blue Jay perched on this nest wears an inscrutable expression. It could be just finishing its meal of three eggs, or it could be a mother returning to the nest to find all but two of her eggs eaten. All is not lost–this is not the lowest point in the suit–but damage has been done. This card carries the same ambiguity as the Waite-Smith Five of Swords, which could be about the haughty aggressor or those who walk away from him in battle. The third eye on this Blue Jay does suggest, however, that whether aggressor or victim, there will be an opportunity to gain spiritual insight from this encounter.

Keys: aggression; theft; domination; trickery; OR being on the receiving end of aggression or some sort of fraud–a good deal of damage has been done, but it’s best to learn your lesson for next time and be thankful for what you still have

Reversed: rectifying an injustice or striking back at an aggressor; a battle in which there may be no clearly right or just side;

The Wooden Tarot: Introduction to the Suit of Plumes

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Air/Swords/Plumes

In both the Suits of Stones and Plumes of the Wooden Tarot, it almost seems as if there are two suit symbols. In the case of Stones, both horns/antlers and gem-like stones appear with equal frequency. In this suit, Swartz has in some ways imaginatively fused together feathers and arrows.

Aside from Blooms, this is the suit symbol that makes the most sense to me intuitively. In the Collective Tarot, it’s called the Suit of Feathers; in the Wildwood Tarot, it’s called the Suit of Arrows. This is because of the suit’s association with air. This suit also has an association with pain and violence, but by using both feathers and arrows, Swartz has more flexibility in how he renders the cards.

Feathers in themselves are harmless enough, and we will see that in the lighter cards of the suit, like Four and Six, what we see are simply feathers. But feathers can also be used to guide deadly arrow shafts, keeping them on course, and so all of the arrows appearing on the cards have conspicuous feathered fletching.

Swartz does not take advantage of this association, but we could also think of plumes as the literal instrument of the intellect: the feather quill, used for so many centuries by people to write down their thoughts.

The God of Plumes

God of Plumes

Dressed in a brown robe, the God of plumes holds a feather with a pointed arrow tip between their hands. Clouds appear in the background. Sprigs of greenery are placed around the God’s shoulders. An eye–directed slightly upwards–peers out from the alchemical suit for air: an upright triangle with a line through it.

We can tell this is an active, rather than receptive, suit because the God’s eye is slightly directed upward. Unlike the Gods of Blooms and Bones, who have fairly open hand gestures, the God of Plumes holds the suit symbol quite precisely between two fingers. The other fingers on their hands are curled inward. This suggests that this God values both being precise and playing things close to the vest.

I haven’t been able to figure out what the greenery around the God’s shoulders is. On first glance, I thought it was mistletoe, but that didn’t seem right. However, looking at pictures of mistletoe foliage makes me think that it is indeed mistletoe. Mistletoe, while associated with kissing at Christmas nowadays, was a sacred plant to the Druids and could be used for healing and to signify nonviolence. If this is mistletoe, it’s an interesting choice, but since I’m not sure I won’t unpack all of the implications.

The feather/arrow held by the God is the perfect emblem of the suit–lithe and graceful but also deadly much like the intellect, which can dazzle with its brilliance but cut to the bone. In some ways, I feel that the Wooden Tarot takes a balanced approach to the suit of air/swords, which can often be interpreted as mostly negative and is where tarot artists get their chance to practice gore if they like. The God of Plumes is an impartial figure, and what they hold in their hands can be used for good or ill. It’s important to remember that Major cards like Justice and the Star are also airy cards (in some systems) and that the intellect can be a very positive force in tarot.

Keys: an idea in its purest form–either a new idea or a thought experiment; the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; a source of knowledge–anything from a gossipy friend to the library

Reversed: refusing to verify things factually; being in denial; ignorance

A God of Plumes Reading

The Eye: What insight is waiting for me about the role of intellect in my life?

The Bloom: What do I need to know?

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Blooms 2-5

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Yes, I’m going through these quite quickly because I want to keep up the momentum (and also finish them while I have time off of work and school.) Marianne at Two Sides Tarot has a lovely post on this set of cards, and I wrote this before going back to re-read hers. Hopefully both of our posts together will give even more depth and dimension to them.

Blooms 2-5

Two of Blooms

Two many-petaled flowers bloom back-to-back. Above them is a lemnescate.

The Two of Cups is traditionally the card of connection, especially between two people. Its keyword in the Thoth tarot is “Love,” and the Waite-Smith deck features a wreathed man and woman each holding a cup to the other, as if they were taking vows. The Two of Blooms, unlike these, also features a lemnescate, meaning that the card also carries connotations of eternity contained within constant change and balance.

The two flowers on this card seem to do the impossible: they grow from each other, rather than from the ground. They are in a tight-knit, closed system, giving and taking life-force in equal measure. And so while this card clearly has the classic connotation of connection, it speaks more strongly than two (or more) parties liking or understanding one another. It points to the true connection of selflessness–Indra’s infinite, eternal, and utterly connected jeweled net, or the beautiful philosophy from southern Africa that “I am because we are.” Whether we understand this card on a more mundane, “You make a great couple” level or on the vaster level of universal interconnection depends on the context of the reading.

Keys: connection; mutual understanding; unconditional love; interdependence; being seen and valued for who you are; realizing that you can’t do it alone

Reversed: confusing love with obsession or possession; loving or being loved only conditionally; refusing to see commonality; doing it on your own, no matter the cost

 Three of Blooms

Three pink flowers are in bloom on a branch. Below them hangs a ripe peach.

Ah! This card contains another impossible situation: fruit and flowers at the same time. (I dunno–maybe this can happen on some trees? Probably not on peach trees, though.) I feel that this also captures both the Waite-Smith meaning, in which we tend to emphasize joy and friendship, and the Thoth meaning, which is “Abundance.” (Abundance is in the Waite-Smith card, too, in the form of the harvest at the women’s feet, but can often be left out of interpretations.)

Fruit and flowers at the same time: joy, celebration, and connection are their own rewards. There’s no if-this-then-that mentality when hanging out with friends and loved ones. You don’t spend time with people in order to reap benefits down the line. This card is about enjoying the present moment and shows that the true gift we give and receive is none other than presence. (That was not a pun, I promise.)

Keys: spending time with loved ones; feeling emotionally fulfilled in relationships; having fun; deepening friendships

Reversed: spending time with people who don’t have your true interests at heart; shallow friendships or relationships; not spending enough time with friends or family; imbalance in the give or take of relationship

Four of Blooms

A faded, withered rose bud.

O Rose, thou art sick! (OK, I said this of the 5 of Pentacles in the Wild Unknown, too, but it’s still apt.)

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

–William Blake

The Four of Cups is called “Luxury” in the Thoth deck; the water in the four cups simply flows between them, rather than flowing freely outward. The Waite-Smith deck features a young man seated, his arms crossed, refusing a cup being handed to him from a cloud. Something is stopped-up, dammed here, and life begins to wither as a result.

This rose bud is not simply experiencing the effects of old-age, since it is still tightly drawn into a young bud. It was picked before it had a chance to fully bloom and is fading before its time. This card reminds me of a phrase shouted (yes, literally shouted) as part of morning practice in my temple each day: “Do not waste your life!” What we see in the Four of Blooms is life being wasted. The waste here is not happening because of oppression or outside pressure; it is the “invisible worm” eating the rose from the inside out; it’s an inside job.

Keys: apathy; withdrawal; risk-aversion; boredom; stagnation; wasted potential

Reversed: dissatisfaction with stagnation; wanting to take the first steps toward a goal; realizing that new ways of being or thinking are possible; gaining understanding of self-limiting or self-destructive patterns

Five of Blooms

Five tree stumps cut off close to the ground.

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
  Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
  All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
                Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins

The desolation and feeling of being cut off in the Four of Blooms has become more serious in the Five. As depressing as this card is, I think it’s a very apt visual for the Five of Cups. There are no blooms here–life has been cut off. Unlike the Waite Smith card, which features a person grieving over three spilled cups while two still stand upright behind them, the desolation here seems total. I think it is similar to the Thoth tarot’s take on the Five of Cups: “Disappointment.”

The Five of Cups has always been a card that, to me, is less about an emotional state than an invitation to enter that emotional state. Feeling disappointed, dried up, rudderless, and isolated is the essence of this card, and I think Swartz’s art captures it perfectly. Not only have these stumps been cut off, but it’s not even particularly clear from the picture that they have roots. This may mean that there’s no place to go from here: neither up into new growth or down into roots. This feeling of being disappointed and cut off must be rested-in. All this being said, some species of tree can sucker back up even after the main trunk has been cut off. While suckers may not be like the original tree, this card offers the distant promise of a new phase.

Keys: disappointment; loss; grief; depression; sadness that must run its course before new growth is possible

Reversed: refusing to grieve or sit with feelings of sadness; conversely, a period of grief that is coming to a natural end

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Bones 2-5

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

I think this set of cards may be the most sparsely illustrated in the entire deck, which is both freeing and intimidating. The Wooden Tarot, while it may be based in the Waite-Smith tradition, also calls upon me to use my experience reading with other systems, particularly the Thoth tarot, and so I will be drawing a little bit upon both of them here.

Bones 2-5

Two of Bones

Two nearly identical jaw bones (the one on the left is missing its lower canine) with a lemniscate above them. (Well, that was the shortest card description in the history of tarot!)

It’s worth noting that all of the 2’s in this deck are similarly illustrated–two nearly identical suit symbols with a lemniscate above them. This makes reading the 2’s closer to Marseilles style of reading suit + number = meaning. While I know that the lemniscate is a symbol for infinity and that it appears on the 2 of Pentacles in the Waite-Smith deck, I wanted to know more specifically what it might mean. And so, I turned to Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom. The lemniscate

symbolizes the truth that life is eternal, without beginning or end, that nothing is destroyed but only changes form. –p. 36

This reminds me of the Thoth tarot 2 of Disks, which features an ouroboros twisted into the shape of a lemniscate. The keyword for that card is “Change.” Change, or impermanence, is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought, and hence its connection to the eternal qualities mentioned by Pollack. As long as we exist–as long as anything exists–there will be change.

So how does all this apply to this image of two jawbones? Jaw bones are things that need to work together (you can’t chew) but are also constantly shifting their responsibilities. When we chew, we shift the food from one side of our mouths to the other. I think this very practical application says a lot about this card in the suit of Bones/Pentacles: physical things in our lives are not static; we do a dance with them as they change and wear out or as we change and wear out. Money flows in and out, clothes get worn out and need to be replaced, the seasons change–everything in our lives changes, all at different rates, all needing our attention in some way.

The missing tooth on the left jaw bone, then, is a signal that change is inevitable, that the tooth fell out and now we need to do something to compensate for the loss of the tooth. We shift from one foot to the other and back again, taking care of material needs as they arise. The missing tooth isn’t a sign of imperfection, it’s simply a sign of how things are.

Keys: making do; dealing with fluxes of money or material goods; keeping goods and finances in tune; adjusting to changes in living situation, whether those be human-made or caused by changes in the environment

Reversed: in denial about changes; feeling stuck or unable to cope with them; losing balance with financial responsibilities, material possessions, or work situation

Three of Bones

Three bones come together to form a joint, and out of the joint itself sprout two little mushrooms.

It’s images like these that make me wish I knew more about anatomy, either human or animal.I want to say that this image is of the tibia, tarsus, and metatarsus bones, perhaps in the hind leg of a dog or cat. At any rate, unlike the jaw bones of the 2, which are separate and we have to imagine working together, these three bones are already working together to form something really important: a joint. Each bone has its separate function in giving structure to the leg, but working together as a joint the bones are greater than the sum of their parts. We have three rigid things that come together to make flexibility.

As implied by the little mushrooms growing from the joint, it’s a fruitful thing. (“Fruiting body,” the term for mushrooms and other fungus that emerge from the mycelium to reproduce, is one of my favorite terms ever.) There are some implications for decay and change here as well, but I will talk about the whole mushrooms-sprouting-from-bones thing when we get to the 7 of Bones.

Keys: cooperation; something greater than the sum of its parts; the first fruits of collective labor

Reversed: insisting on working alone, for better or worse; losing time or money because of lack of cooperation; types of cooperative work (like needless meetings) that are unproductive

Four of Bones

The four bones of a rib cage. (I take that back, THIS is the shortest description of a tarot card ever.)

I will be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of how the 4 of Pentacles is portrayed in the Waite-Smith deck. There are a few cards (the 9 of Cups also comes to mind) where the shadow of the meaning is illustrated more than the meaning on the face of it. The guy sitting there with his 4 big pentacles, clinging to all of them, is certainly one aspect of the card: miserliness and clinging to material things. But that’s not the only meaning.

The Thoth deck keyword for the 4 of Disks is “Power,” and indeed the illustration to the card is a bird’s-eye view of a moated fortress with four watch towers. So while the 4 of Pentacles/Disks can mean that you are hoarding stuff and being stingy, the other interpretation is simply that you are financially stable or, what I like to think, that you have arrived at a place where you feel like you have enough.

The rib cage on the 4 of Bones, then, could go either way. The four ribs provide structure, stability, and protection. At the same time, they are a cage, and may suggest protecting something that doesn’t need to be protected. I think this card is very context-dependent and I like that the open-endedness of the Wooden Tarot allows for multiple interpretations.

Keys: financial or material stability; the feeling of having enough; having a good home base or “nest” to return to at the end of the day

Reversed: miserliness; clinging to money or things; hoarding

Five of Bones

The bone pictured in this card is a scapula, or shoulder blade (although not a human one.) It has been severely damaged: cracked in five places with two large pieces broken off. It should be noted, then, that the “five” of this card refers to the fractures themselves, rather than the suit symbol.

While the Waite-Smith card shows two ill/disabled beggars in the snow, the Thoth deck names this card “Worry.” Again, I think Swartz’s card falls in between them.

Alright, so I’m learning a lot about skeletal anatomy today. It is interesting that of all the bones Swartz chose for this card, that he chose the shoulder blade. Although scapula fractures are apparently rare in humans, the significance of this bone is perfect for the meaning of the card. The scapula is necessary for moving the arms/front legs, and its place on the shoulders makes one think of “shouldering” burdens. With this card, we could be shouldering a significant amount of financial worries, or we could be like the beggars in the Waite-Smith card–encountering financial hardship because of illness, disability, a bad job market, or other life circumstances. Unlike the other bones featured so far, which seem pretty flimsy on their own, this strange fracturing of the scapula shows the brokenness of what was once strong and whole.

The one aspect of the Waite-Smith card that I really love is the church window above the beggars, which suggests that financial hardship may be an opportunity for spiritual and personal growth. In that light, the card could even mean deliberate austerity, such as a vow of poverty. But that’s just one of the quirks of Smith’s deck and it’s not shared by the Wooden Tarot.

Keys: debt; homelessness; job loss; illness (especially with large hospital bills); or a great amount of worry about these things

Reversed: mending financial situation; accepting help from others; adjustment to a lower standard of living

Some First Thoughts on the Thoth Tarot

When I first began reading about tarot, I came across references to the Thoth deck and was not interested at all. A deck by Aleister Crowley about some Egyptian god? I’ll pass. But one day a few months later, I googled the deck for some reason and was amazed by what came up on image search–whatever I had been expecting, this wasn’t it at all. The images were colorful, surreal, evocative. Still, I held off of buying the Thoth deck because it seemed advanced and intimidating . And while the Waite-Smith deck, despite its connection with occult societies, has been fully integrated into several cultures of tarot-reading, from fortune-telling to intuitive psychological reading, it seems like the Thoth deck is still pretty closely associated with the occult, in which I personally have no interest. And then of course, there’s the big sticking point: Aleister Crowley. No, I do not think he’s a baby-eating Satanist, yes, I can appreciate his brilliance, but I have very short patience for rich white boys who claim that a new religion has been revealed to them.*

Recently, however, I have been wanting to expand my tarot knowledge into systems other than the tradition of the Waite-Smith deck. All of the decks that I owned up until a few weeks ago were variants–some radical, some less so–on this tradition. While I’ve by no means mastered the art of reading with these decks, I have become comfortable enough with them that I started looking for something new. So I ordered three decks at the same time: two historical reproductions (a 1709 Marseille deck, and the Visconti-Sforza deck) and the Thoth tarot.

I decided to order the large Thoth deck because I was so drawn to the images and wanted to see them in as much detail as possible. The deck is big and unwieldy and riffling it is out of the question, but I can still do hand-over-hand shuffling with it just fine. The cards are pretty thin, which is a good thing because if the deck were too thick then it would be difficult to shuffle at all. The cards are quite slick, flexible, and resilient.

A love-it-or-hate-it feature of this deck is the large, art deco border that surrounds each card. I like the style of the border myself, but it also holds my least favorite feature of the deck, which is that the title of each card is superimposed over the word Trumps, Wands, Cups, Swords, or Disks, depending on which it belongs to. At first this really annoyed me, but I hardly notice it now. I have seen people trim the borders off these decks, which reduces the huge cards down to a manageable size. I have no plans of trimming the borders myself, but the pictures of these trimmed decks I’ve seen are stunning–the colors of each card seem so much more vivid without the gray border.

The Thoth tarot beside the Universal Waite tarot for size comparison.
The Thoth tarot beside the Universal Waite tarot for size comparison.

The backs of the cards feature a Rosicrucian cross on a checkerboard pattern of the four suit symbols and are not reversible. The Thoth deck was not meant to be used with reversals and, although I love reading with reversals in general, I have no plans to do so at the moment.

Right after I got the deck, I did an interview, took a picture of resulting spread, and put it out of my mind. After having worked with the deck for two weeks, I pulled up the picture of the spread and said to myself, “Oh, yes, this makes a ton of sense.” This is the deck interview spread that I borrowed from Beth at Little Red Tarot, who borrowed it from TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles.)

thoth interview

1. What is your most important quality? XIV–Art.

Art–temperance or alchemy, the blending of various qualities into a tempered, unified whole. I think this means that this is a deck that is going to get shit done at a psychological and spiritual level, that it’s a deck that can lead to understanding and action. I’m not surprised that the Art card came up in this position, since visually it was the one that drew me to this deck the most.

2. What is your strength as a deck? 10 of Wands–Oppression

Okaaaay. Not going to beat around the bush, are we? The 10 of Wands is not a happy card in either the Thoth tarot or the Waite-Smith tarot, but I in this position I think this deck is telling me that its strength is in its power and directness. In working with this deck over the past two weeks, I’ve definitely gotten the sense that this deck demands–and rewards–loyalty. I don’t mean that the deck itself literally does this, but that immersing oneself in the images and systems of symbolism behind them is the way to get the most out of the cards. In that sense, the deck has a feel to it that could be called oppressive–heavy, serious. However, I don’t find it oppressive in a victimizing or degrading way.

3. What are your limits as a deck? I-The Magus

This was something that I found out right away. The Magus is a juggler. He can work with all the different elements and deftly transition from one area of concern to the next. That’s definitely not the case with this deck. In my experience so far, it is really bad for practical, everyday matters and for predictive readings. This deck has one strength: personal meditation on spirituality, creativity, and emotion. It’s a one-trick pony, but fortunately the trick this pony performs will always be useful.

4. What are you here to teach me? VII–The Chariot

In this deck, the Chariot is a card of victory–particularly victory in service, like a knight riding forth.

5. How can I best work with you? 4 of Cups–Luxury

This is not a particularly positive card in general, but an overall theme of the card is abandonment to desire. The best way for me to work with this deck is to throw myself into it and use it when I feel like doing so, rather than leading with some intellectual idea about when and how often I should use each deck.

6. What is the potential outcome of our working relationship? 6 of Wands–Victory

Well–can’t really get a clearer message than this! Working with this deck will be good for me personally and for my tarot practice.

Elementally, this spread is very telling–three fire cards, two water cards, and one air card. The lack of earth tells me that, again, questions about things like finances, housing, employment, etc. just don’t really have a place with this deck. It’s much more concerned with creativity/spirituality (fire), emotion (water), and psyche (air.)**

To my surprise, I have not wanted to use any other deck since I got the Thoth. I’m sure this will change since it’s pretty common to go on deck benders and just focus on one deck at a time. But I really do feel an intense attraction to this deck and honest to god, using it over the past two weeks has helped me understand some emotional and psychological blockages that have been plaguing me for years. I have a lot of thoughts about this deck. A lot of them. I’m working up a couple of giant ass blog posts as we speak, and I will need to add a third to the mix because I got Angeles Arrien’s Tarot Handbook in the mail a couple of days ago, which is currently blowing my mind. In the meantime, I’ll just say to those who are on the fence about the Thoth tarot: if you are hesitating about using it but are drawn to the images, just jump in. This deck is intense, but I find it to be much more transparent than occult and I certainly don’t feel like Aleister Crowley is breathing down my neck when I use it.

_____________________

* The rich-boy-as-founder-of-a-religion thing could also be applied to the Buddha, but I think we can all agree that in most cases the Buddha’s personal ethics were a cut above Crowley’s.

** I actually have no idea what element the Magus/Magician is in the Thoth tarot. The Art and Chariot cards are pretty clearly fire and water cards respectively (look at the flames at the base of the Art card and the preponderance of blue plus the crab on the Chariot card.) I learned my elemental correspondences from Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot and she aligns the Magician with Earth, but in my gut I just feel that he’s air. The great thing about tarot is that it can accommodate multiple interpretations like these.

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.