The Tarot is pretty cool. Not only is it a great tool for metaphysical tinkerings and all that, but every deck is a work of art. I have always loved art, and I think that, even if the Tarot was good for nothing else, it is worth appreciating for art’s sake.
This post is almost not fair, because in fact I like the artwork in all of my decks, and in so many more that I don’t even have – and, whether I like a particular deck or not, I have nothing but respect and awe for the artist who can accomplish such a feat. I can’t help but look with fondness upon any Tarot I stumble across, no matter how lowly its place on my subjective personal hierarchy.
But while every deck is an incredible work of art, there are certain decks that, to me, are simply exceptional. I’ve selected six of my favorites for this post.
So, without further ado (and in no particular order):
The Wildwood Tarot (art by Will Worthington). The detail in these images is amazing. They depict creatures and characters in a great, sprawling, mythical forest set in prehistoric Europe. The forest itself feels alive and sentient, and the primitive humans living on its fringes seem to live in harmony with nature, with a healthy respect/fear of it. The art is not photo-realistic by any stretch, and yet it is totally convincing. This Tarot is different from any others – it is completely original.* I don’t really mind when a Tarot breaks from tradition, but if it’s going to, and I’m going to get it, it needs to be very good, and a big part of that for me is the artwork. These cards fit the bill (and then some), and when I use them, I walk through the forest in my imagination, and that’s thanks in no small part to the artist.
The Shadowscapes Tarot (art by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law). If the Wildwood glimpses into an ancient Fanghorn-type forest, the Shadowscapes crosses the divide and depicts the Otherworld, the Realm of Faerie itself. These cards are straight up fantasy, and the artwork is unbelievable. I only wish the cards were larger so I could better lose myself in them for a while. When I first wrote about these cards, I had little to say except that the artwork is stunning, and in the time since, I still can’t seem to come up with words to match it.
The Mary-El Tarot (art by Marie White). I could take just about any one of the cards from this deck and blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall, and it would seem perfectly natural as an art piece, and the normies out there would be none the wiser about its esoteric source. Furthermore, I could put up several, and I doubt anyone would realize at first look that they not only came from a pack of cards, but that all came from the same artist (assuming her signature on each piece was overlooked). The artist, quite simply, displays a mastery of her craft – that is, painting (oils? I’m not sure what exactly she used, or even if she used the same paints for every card, but it’s all hand-painted nonetheless) – showing proficiency in a very broad range of styles. The art is mythic and highly symbolic, with subtle references to Tarot tradition beautifully rendered in stunning colors.
The Mystical Tarot (art by Giuliano Costa). I haven’t yet posted anything else about this deck (although I did sneak in a photograph of the Six of Swords in my post about the suit of Swords). A review is forthcoming, so I’ll save the bulk of my gushing for that, but suffice it to say that the artwork is, well – it’s a lot of things. Beautiful, for sure, but also surreal, even trippy (yet subtly so), and sometimes just plain weird. The crazy thing is, when something weird catches my eye, I can’t help but focus on it, and at first, I’m a little put off (such weirdness includes the creepy seahorse-creature-things that pervade the suit of Cups – I’m not sure how I feel about them). Yet, the longer I gaze at the card, the less weird it becomes. I can’t really explain it. I get the sense that, while strange to me, such things are perfectly natural in the world depicted, and I find myself sucked right in. I can’t help but like it, although it certainly wouldn’t have the same entrancing effect on me if the art was poorly executed.
Now, I never get a Tarot unless the art agrees with my sense of aesthetics. However, the Mystical Tarot is one of only two decks that I bought solely because I just loved the artwork, the second deck being…
The Sun and Moon Tarot (art by Vanessa Decort). Compared to everything else in this post, the Sun and Moon Tarot might appear very simplistic – I’ve even heard it called childish in some reviews and forums. If you think this, I have two things to say: 1) look again, because there is way more to these cards than meets the eye, and 2) since when is simple so wrong? Sometimes less is more, and even though this Tarot lacks the immaculate detailing of all the others on this list, it is easily one of my favorites in the art category. These images are like dreams. All of the things I’ve read complaints about – the small figures against large landscapes, the faceless characters – are things that I am inexplicably drawn to. Of course, we each have our own tastes, which is great, but I certainly wouldn’t write this one off as a childish or low-brow deck. It is playful, for sure, but that’s deceptive, because underneath is a Tarot with serious implications. But that’s all beside the point of this post, isn’t it, so I’ll just leave it at this: the artwork in these cards is sublime.
The Thoth Tarot (art by Lady Frieda Harris). And so we come to the Thoth. I can’t not include it. I always enjoyed the art of the RWS, and was fascinated by that of the TdM, but the Thoth was the first Tarot with artwork that truly blew me away. You’ll notice that neither the Rider or the Marseilles is on this list. I’ve found a few RWS and TdM derivatives with artwork that transcends the originals. No re-imagining beats the Thoth in this regard. It was unprecedented when it was first published, and it set the bar pretty high for everything that followed. The crazy thing is that these “crowded” pictures are not composed of filler – every line, shape, and color is intentional, with very specific purpose, following a very intricate structure – and the fact that these cards are genuine works of art and not just a muddled hodgepodge of esoteric symbolism is nothing short of amazing.
So those are my favorite examples of Tarot art. The runners up were the Medieval Scapini Tarot and the Aquarian Tarot. The MST was very close, but I had to cut this post off somewhere, or I’d end up just doing all of my cards. The AT, on the other hand, actually contains some of my favorite artwork. Unfortunately, some of my least favorite is in there, too, and I wanted to emphasize both the art of the individual cards and of the deck as a whole, and in my opinion, the AT does not fit the latter criteria; at least, not well enough to make the top tier.
What are your favorites? Feel free to share.
*It’s actually a reboot of the Greenwood Tarot, now out of print and highly sought after by serious collectors. I personally think the Wildwood artwork is the more compelling of the two by a long shot (no disrespect to the Greenwood’s artist).
Welp. I really dropped the ball on this one. I’d resolved a year ago to celebrate the 8 traditional Celtic seasonal festivals by blogging about the corresponding cards from the Wildwood Tarot as each festival rolled around. I began the series with Samhain, and then proceeded to miss all the rest. Here we are at Samhain once again, and so I think I’ll try, once again. I make no promises, though.
I’ll just do a quickie, since I’ve already made this post before.
Samhain (a.k.a. Halloween) marks the end of Autumn and the beginning of Winter. The Wildwood Tarot assigns Winter to the suit of Stones (Coins) and to the Wanderer (the Fool). These cards set the mood for the new season, and they are ushered in by the festival cards the Guardian (the Devil) and the Journey (Death). These are scary cards, with somber implications, but they are a necessary part of the cycle with valuable lessons to impart.
It’s eerie how the time flies. I mean, there’s no way an entire year has passed – and yet, the calendar doesn’t lie. Perhaps the reason I let the Wheel of the Year blog idea get away from me is because I don’t really actively observe many of these festivals. I’d like to, even though I’m not a pagan; I like what they represent, and I especially like the way they are presented by the Wildwood Tarot. Halloween is, of course, an exception – I always celebrate this time of year.
The Book of Days is a hard-bound calendar that I picked up recently. It’s very nice, with thick pages that withstand lots of ink, and it’s decorated with full-color and captioned images from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This book is different than your average one-and-done calendar in another way, too: the days of each month are numbered, but are not assigned a weekday. This means that this particular calendar is not meant for a single year, but rather to keep track of yearly events regardless of what year it actually is. It’s marketed as a perpetual calendar to keep track of all the birthdays, anniversaries, and various other momentous occasions that take place from year to year, but I don’t care about any of that. I got it because I had in mind a better use for it: the Tarot.
I was looking for something like this to replace the crummy old datebook in which I’d previously recorded the suggested dates for each Wildwood Tarot card (if you’re unfamiliar with the Wheel of the Year and how the Wildwood relates, you can check out my post about it here). Using green ink, I went through each page of the calendar and wrote down each card from the WWT on its respective date.
It occurred to me partway through this endeavor that I have at least one other deck with cards that can correspond with dates on a calendar: the Thoth Tarot. Using the astrological attributions for the court and small cards given in DuQuette’s book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (which is far more user-friendly than Crowley’s own book and includes handy charts with exactly the information I needed for this project), I sat down and wrote the cards into their respective dates alongside the Wildwood (using black ink this time to more easily differentiate between the two in my calendar). I’ve yet to tackle the issue of the Major Arcana, although I plan on working through them shortly.
The result is now I have a perpetual Tarot calendar, simultaneously keeping track of the Earthly Wheel of the Year and the Heavenly Wheel of the Zodiac, and there’s still plenty of room left over should I find another Tarot that can similarly relate to a calendar.
Now it’s a simple matter for me to look up the date and find the cards of the day. It’s a fantastic way to get to know my cards on a more intimate level, or to focus my thoughts for each day. With the Wildwood, I’ve experienced great spiritual insight already by using it like a calendar, albeit sporadically, and this will only better facilitate that. I’m interested to begin to use the Thoth in this fashion, as well. And I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it would be interesting to draw a card from a third deck at random (a daily draw) and see how it relates to the WWT and the CHT cards of its day.
Anyway, I just thought I’d share this on here in case anyone else found the idea of a Tarot calendar interesting. Fair warning, though: it’s meticulous work, and it can be somewhat tedious flipping through pages and writing down each card on its date. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, because it’s very easy to screw up. Trust me, I know from experience.
A while back, I wrote about the Wheel of the Year as it pertains to the Wildwood Tarot.
Now it’s time to begin a trip around it.
The beauty of the Wheel is that you can begin your journey at any place on it. There is no established, “official” beginning or end. I’ve selected Samhain as the starting point for a couple of reasons. First of all, as any of you Wiccans or Neo-Pagans probably already know, Samhain is considered by many the “Witch’s New Year”. This pleases me, I admit, but means little to me by itself, since I am neither Wiccan nor Pagan.*
Samhain lands on the first day of November, and it is associated with death and communion with the spirit world. Naturally, most of us know the celebration today as Halloween. Of course, technically speaking, Halloween is on October 31st, or the eve of November 1st, the latter date being All-Saint’s Day in Christianity. There is an entire history on the relationship between these holidays, mainly on the syncretic attempts made by Catholics in the face of pagan (that is, old pagan) traditions to assimilate them, but I see no need to elaborate on that here. For all intents and purposes, both Halloween and All-Saints represent Samhain (and while I’ll continue to refer to Samhain throughout this post, it will always really be Halloween to me).
Halloween was also the day on which I was born, and so it quite literally marks a new year for me, as well.
But, perhaps most significantly for the subject of this blog, October represents the time when I began working with my first Tarot pack, one year ago. Not only that, but it was Halloween season the year prior when I first discovered Tarot, as I’ve written about here. Now, I don’t remember the date on which I obtained this deck (a Radiant Rider-Waite at a local metaphysical shop), but by the time Samhain rolls around the Wheel of the Year, I know that date has passed. So, in other words, I am beginning my journey around the Wildwood Wheel of the Year one year after the start of my Tarot studies, and two years after my discovery of Tarot. It has officially been a full year of intensive Tarot, and when I complete this cycle, it will be one more.
So hooray, happy birthday to me, and a happy symbolic birthday to my first Tarot deck.
But enough of that. On to business.
As I said, I’m using the Wildwood Tarot for this exercise. This is the deck that introduced me to the Wheel, and I’ve come to realize that understanding the Wheel is indispensable to fully understanding the cards. So while this and future posts will be following the Wheel, the point is to actually explore the cards within its context. The Wildwood is a fascinating non-traditional approach to the Tarot, and in working with the Wheel I hope to ultimately convey a sense of that.
Samhain marks the end of the Time of Vessels and the beginning of the Time of Stones. The days are getting colder and shorter. As the Starks are wont to say, Winter is coming.
The entire Time of Stones is represented by the Wanderer, one of the four “hub cards”. The Wanderer corresponds to the Fool of a traditional Tarot, and is therefore an apt card to kick of the yearly cycle. The Wanderer’s influence will remain present throughout the remainder of the Time of Stones. He (or she) is only really associated with Samhain insofar as Samhain is associated with the Stones.
Winter can be a very depressing time. Colorless and cold, the promise of springtime often seems remote. In many ways, the Fool is the perfect card to embody this season. He holds the promise of Spring, but nothing more. He is Zero, at a precipice, so close to the plunge, but as yet remains still. The Wanderer is literally in such a position, and across the gorge is the Wildwood. He is not actually in the Wildwood, symbolically placing him outside the rest of the pack. His connection to the suit of Stones is referenced by the big rocks, one of which almost appears to be in the grasp of the Wanderer’s right hand. These rocks are reminiscent of the Ace of Stones., which is the small card associated with this point on the Wheel.*
While the Wanderer does show up at Samhain, yet isn’t really representative of it, there are two cards which are specifically assigned to this festival. These are the Guardian (the Devil) and the Journey (Death). Keeping in mind Samhain’s connection with the dead and the otherworld, the choice of the WWT creators to use these two cards seems like an obvious one. I think most people would agree: in virtually any Tarot, the Devil and Death are the Halloween-est of all the cards.
One thing I find particularly interesting about the Wildwood is its unique spin on traditional cards. While the Devil is typically interpreted as a card of innate animal desires, and how they tempt us, the Guardian taps into our most primal fears. It is pictured as an animate bear skeleton standing on its hind legs at the mouth of a cave, but is described as being more of a bogeyman-type shapeshifter by the authors. However, despite its appearance of manifest terror, it is in reality a harmless trickster with nothing worse than a twisted sense of humor. It guards the entrance to a realm of darkness, perhaps symbolic of the subconscious.
Unlike Death, which is usually portrayed as a skeleton or grim reaper, the Journey is not anthropomorphized. The card consists of a deer skull surrounded by ravens. One large raven picks bits of flesh from the bone, and seems to look out at us from the card. The “Journey” refers of course to death. It is morbid, but we are urged to remember the fleeting nature of life and not to fear its end. Perhaps fear is the wrong word; after all, the Guardian suggests that fear is necessary for survival, and if there is no fear of death, what role would the Guardian play? Acceptance is better, I think, because whether we fear it or not, death is inevitable. But the point is to change our thoughts about death being the end. Death is only a transition, a Journey.
These cards ask us to face difficult questions as we prepare ourselves for the coming winter. In myth, winter is usually associated with death, and this makes sense. The trees and plants seem to wither and die, and many of the summertime birds and animals disappear. Even we humans tend to spend more time inside, away from the harsh elements. We turn inward literally, and are encouraged by the cards to do so figuratively, as well.
Of course, Winter isn’t here just yet, and Samhain is symbolic of a festival celebrating the final harvest of the Autumn. It is a time of somber joy, of celebrating the year’s bounty while remembering those things which have passed on to the spirit realms.
That’s all I have to say for now; I’ll add some photos of both the Guardian and the Journey to this post in a day or two.
*You may be asking yourself, because the Wheel of the Year is a Wiccan sort of thing, and El Sentinelo is not Wiccan, why does he use the Wheel? I like the concept, that’s all.
**I will not go into any sort of discussion on the small cards and court cards. There are just too many of them, and so I will stick to the major card while I study the Wheel of the Year.
After examining the unique Thoth Hermit, I think it’s time to return to some more typical interpretations of this figure. Oddly enough, the Wildwood Tarot is among the least traditional Tarots I use, with only a shared fundamental structure with other decks keeping it a Tarot at all. Every Major Arcana card is renamed and redesigned, as are the suit symbols, court cards, and small cards of the Minor Arcana, and the entire thing is designed with the Wheel of the Year system in mind. With all that being said, however, the Hermit, or Hooded Man as he’s called here, is actually very similar in appearance to the Hermit of the RWS. He is among the most traditional cards in this deck.
The Hooded Man carries a lantern and a staff, and wears a hooded robe. He’s also outside, which aligns with almost all of the elements of the card I discussed in part II of this series. The only thing missing is the appearance of advanced age, symbolized in most decks by a long, white beard. Not only can we see no beard on the Hooded Man, we can’t see his face at all. It is totally hidden by the hood. This imbues him with an aura of mystery.
His lantern and staff are unadorned by the symbols we saw in both the RWS and OWT. They are just that: a lantern and a staff. They mean more or less exactly what they mean with any other Hermit – illumination and support. Deeper symbols of the occult are left out – the Wildwood has no place for them – but the simpler symbolism of the Collective Unconscious still finds its way through. His cloak, on the other hand, is decorated with a pattern resembling holly leaves.
If you use this deck and are familiar with the Wheel of the Year, you know that the Hooded Man stands at the Winter Solstice. This is why he wears the holly pattern, and it is also why there is a holly wreath above his door (we’ll get to that door momentarily). The holly symbolizes hope because of its tenacity in the face of the cold and dark of winter, a time when most other plants have long since withered and died. The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year; afterward, the days begin to finally grow longer once again. It is a time of darkness, yes, but more particularly it is that glimmer of light at the end of the dark tunnel. Hope is a relatively novel concept with the Hermit. So far, we’ve seen wisdom and reconciliation – enlightenment – but not so much in reference to hope. Wisdom and hope are not mutually exclusive, though; in fact, I think the symbols of hope pictured here illustrate a wisdom that comes with the experience of enduring harsh winters. Like the RWS Hermit, the Hooded Man’s lantern is a beacon of hope in the dark to those searching for the way.
The holly wreath hangs over a door which is in the side of a great tree. This tree is the Hooded Man’s abode. There is a comforting light emanating from it, and it seems warm and inviting against the snowy backdrop. It’s a quiet place of rest and recovery from the elements outside.
Nowhere in the companion book does it say so, but I believe that tree is none other than the World Tree pictured in card 21. This means that the Hooded Man lives in the metaphorical heart of the Wildwood, which is itself nothing more than a vivid mythic-forest metaphor for life in this Universe (as any good Tarot ought to be a metaphor for). It’s the same thing as implying the Hermit of the RWS hangs out with the the World Dancer. The Hooded Man is not the World Tree. He just lives there in his solitude. He lives within, yet remains without. This reminds me of that paradox of the lantern I discussed in the RWS, which he simultaneously follows yet carries. In this instance, it suggests to me consciousness amidst unconsciousness. Super-consciousness, if you will. This makes sense when you consider everything we’ve discussed about the Hermit up until this point: an endless (but not fruitless) search for wisdom towards enlightenment. The Tree is enlightenment. The Hooded Man knows where he is, and the only reason he is capable of living there is an austere lifestyle combined with the midnight urge to discover.
The only other detail on this card is the Wren perched on the Stone. Both of these have significance within the Wildwood mythos: the Stone is the emblem for the suit which is traditionally called Coins or Pentacles, and therefore represents the element Earth. The Wren is the Page of Arrows (standing in for Swords) among the Wildwood court. It symbolizes cleverness and wisdom above all else.
We’ve seen references to Fire (with all those Wands), as well as subtler references to Water in tandem with Fire (in the Star of David of the lantern). And while I haven’t mentioned it yet, Air is a big part of the Hermit, in that he is always outside, and is often atop a mountain, not to mention the number 9 being the number of intellect. Crowley has a lot of Earth references in his Hermit, but they are buried under astrological and Kabbalistic symbolism, and I didn’t feel compelled to try and explain it all in my previous post. The Hooded Man is grounded, despite his lofty spirit. And the Wren is his friend in the forest, trading secrets and reminding him that, like the holly, there are things that live and flourish in the cold when there seems to be no hope.
The Hooded Man of the Wildwood does seem more down to earth than many other Hermits. There is a stark contrast between him and our next Hermit, the Hermit of the Shadowscapes Tarot. This Hermit’s head is firmly planted in the sky. I’ve lumped these two Hermits together in this post, because they are the two in my collection who exist in Tarot packs that present their characters in the context of deliberately-created fantasy settings. In examining them each more closely, though, I’ve found that these two examples provide some interesting points of contrast. Much of this contrast derives from the respective Earthiness and Airiness of these two cloaked figures.
The first thing I notice about the SST Hermit is his lack of a Wand. Perhaps he needed the spare hand to climb to his precarious perch, but in any case, this staple of Hermit-dom is just not there. This Hermit is clearly young, at least in comparison to other Hermits. Not only did he reach the pinnacle without the Wand of drives and passions to lean on, he has no long white beard, and a posture bent for balance rather than under the weight of the years (is how that looks to me, anyway). He looks lithe and otherworldly.
I suspect this was an aesthetic choice on the part of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, the artist. To balance the figure on such a pinnacle (which is a geographical feature characteristic of the Shadowscapes), a staff might seem awkward. The energy of a staff is more or less conveyed in the youth of the Hermit, but at the cost of the wisdom gained through experience. I have compared the Hermit to the Fool earlier in this series, and I want to point out the similarity of this Hermit’s position to the position of the Fool in many Tarots. This is not a typical way these two characters overlap, and in fact I find it interestingly at odds with the prudence normally attributed to this character.
The lantern is the center of focus in the guidebook. It is said to contain a captured star, and the star wants to go home. It pulls the Hermit along. He doesn’t even really know where he’s headed. He is conscious of a desire to leave society behind, though, and there is an interesting detail about how “others have been here before him”*. This young Hermit is not the first, nor will he be the last. So in a way, the wisdom of experience is in the process of being experienced here. It’s a novel approach to the Hermit, but I like it.
The Hermit stands on a pinnacle that reaches so far into the sky that there is not so much as a glimpse of the horizon which must be somewhere beneath him. The stars glow with incredible intensity and mesmerizing clarity. The light of his lantern is almost home. Even the birds soar below the feet of the Hermit. They are loons, different from the Hooded Man’s Wren, and they represent tranquility as well as familiarity with land, sea and sky (there are seashells embedded in the rock). We see a mixture of the elements as we’ve seen before, only this time in favor of the Air. Even the stone of his perch is pierced by a bubble of air. This sort of bubble appears many times throughout this deck, and they could represent any number of things. I’ve read on a forum that they could possibly represent confinement, in which case the Hermit stands above it. He has left humanity behind to chase the promise of the stars. Or, as I like to continue calling it, enlightenment.
So far, the Hermit’s Lantern has remained the most important key to understanding the card. However, the Hermit has not always held a lantern, and this variance will be the subject of my next post in this series.
It seems as though I’ve been in writer’s hibernation for a while, now. Here I am, poking my head out of my hole, squinting in the bright sunlight. Time for a stretch; shake off the cobwebs; put on the coffee. Here we go.
While I haven’t been writing, I have been reading about the Tarot and using my cards. The Council has (finally) joined me on the Tarot bandwagon, and I am no longer alone in my cartomantic practice. So I have been thinking and talking Tarot, creating exercises to help them get acquainted with their cards (which I may post on here at some point), discussing, positing theories, studying, and taking suggestions from them (they catch on quick when they want to). I’ve also been spending time getting to know my own decks, deciphering their unique nuances, and evolving my overall relationship with the cards in general. I think there will be more writing to come after this. It’s been building up inside for a while.
In particular, I’ve been really spending time with my Wildwood deck, using it for readings like I’ve never been able to before, but more importantly (I think), familiarizing myself with the Wheel of the Year.
The Wildwood Tarot is essentially composed around two separate structures. The first is that which is common to every Tarot. There are 56 minor arcana divided among four suits, numbered within each suit from ace (1) to 10, and complete with four court cards per suit; there are also 22 so-called trump cards or major arcana, 21 of which are numbered in sequence, with the addition of an unnumbered (Fool) card. In this way, the WWT is a Tarot just as any other.
The second structure underlying the WWT is known as the Wheel of the Year. Where the typical Tarot structure is essentially linear,* the Wheel of the Year (or Wheel, as I’ll henceforth be referring to it, not to be confused with Arcana X the Wheel of Fortune) is cyclical. It is the presence of this structure, co-existing with the first, which sets this Tarot apart from others.
The WWT did not invent the Wheel of the Year. This deck was inspired by the earlier Greenwood Tarot, which used (what I presume to be) the same system. I’m not positive, but I believe there are some other Tarot decks out there that also have used this or similar systems. As a spiritual concept, the idea behind the Wheel is older, predating Christianity and indeed, the Tarot itself. However, in my collection, it is through the WWT that I have become acquainted with the Wheel, and so everything I say will be in terms of that deck and its corresponding guidebook.
The Wheel of the Year is essentially based on the cycle of four seasons that is characteristic of temperate climates. Unlike astrology, which is also a wheel of the year in a sense, albeit existing in the heavens, this system is rooted in the earth. While the stars and planets operate on the same yearly cycle, the Wheel here in question is much more immediate, much more tangible, and has a much more noticeable effect on humans than its counterpart in the sky (no matter how much stock you may put into astrology), not to mention its simplicity next to all the decans, dignities, and what-have-yous of the heavens. In terms of yearly-cycle-systems, this makes the WWT more immediately accessible than other occult decks that base their attributions on astrology.
The function of the Minor Arcana in this system is fairly straightforward, making use of the divisions inherent in traditional Tarot structure (four suits for four seasons). The suits are re-named to match the theme of the deck and reordered to follow the seasons: Arrows (Swords) for Spring; Bows (Wands) for Summer; Vessels (Cups) for Autumn; and Stones (Coins or Pentacles) for Winter. Each season begins with the Ace and King of its suit, and progresses through the remainder until the season changes. The Court cards progress separately but alongside the small cards, meaning that the time it takes to go through the four cards of the court is the same amount of time it takes to go through the ten small cards. Each season is roughly three months long, and while the guidebook doesn’t specify which cards go on which days, it’s a fairly simple matter to figure out a system that works for you. Generally speaking, a small card will encompass a little over a week, and a court card somewhere around three weeks.
For the Major Arcana, things get a little more complex. In order to understand, it helps to visualize a literal wheel with 8 spokes. These spokes represent the start or midpoint of each season, always associated with a festival (or sabbat, if you’re into that neopagan/wiccan jargon). On each spoke stands a pair of Majors. These two cards represent energies specific to the festival on which they stand, one of which is individual, and the other collective.
But that only accounts for 16 of the trumps.
Four of the remaining six trumps sit at the center or hub of the wheel, and they each represent, you guessed it, one of the seasons. The Time of Stones, for example, begins with Samhain (11/1), upon which stand the Journey (Death) and the Guardian (Devil). Halfway through the season, we reach the Winter Solstice or Yule (12/21), and here are the Great Bear (Judgement) and the Hooded Man (Hermit). The Time of Stones gives way to the Time of Arrows with the Pole Star (Star) and the Ancestor (Hierophant) at Imbolc (2/1), and the cycle starts again. However, throughout the entire season of Stones, the Wanderer, one of the four “hub cards,” is present. He (or she) represents the entire season.
The four Elemental cards (as I personally refer to the hub cards) are the Wanderer (the Fool – Winter), the Shaman (the Magician – Spring), the World Tree (the World – Summer), and the Seer (the High Priestess – Autumn). The final two cards remaining, that are neither on a festival nor representative of a season, are the Sun of Life and the Moon on Water (the Sun and Moon, respectively). Each of these is assigned to half of the wheel, divided along the line of the Equinoxes.
So, on any given day, you have at least four cards (two Majors, one court, and one small card). On the eight festival days in the year, you have an additional two Majors.
For example, at the time of this writing,** the cards are the Sun of Life, the World Tree, the Stoat (Page of Bows), and the Ten of Bows, titled “Responsibility.” These are the very last cards of the Time of Bows, and in a couple days (8/1), we will enter the Time of Vessels, and while we’ll keep the Sun of Life for a few more weeks, the World Tree will give way to the Seer, the Stoat will hand the baton off to the Heron (King of Vessels), and the Ten of Bows will become the Ace of Vessels. Additionally, on August 1st, which is Lammas festival in the Celtic Wheel of the Year, we’ll have both the Woodward (Strength) and the Blasted Oak (Tower) to examine and celebrate.
The final week of July…
August 1st, or Lammas.
As you can see, the Wildwood and the Wheel are structured in such a way that can be used as an interactive calendar, which is a novel use for the cards to me.*** As I progress through the year, I meditate on the meanings of the cards assigned to each day. Many people consider the WWT to be a rather dark deck, and while I don’t totally disagree, the guidebook takes a very positive and constructive stance on interpretation. As I consider the cards of the day, I remember the lessons and suggestions of the guidebook, and no darkness is ever too dark to penetrate. The result is a deck that acts as a daily spiritual guide for me, and while I realize it is completely possible to do this with any Tarot deck, I doubt any would be so thorough by virtue of its design. This is the best way to get to know the WWT. It takes a year, but I think it’ll be worth it.
I’ve been using the WWT like this since about May (the Time of Arrows), and because of it, the WWT has gradually become one of my favorite decks in my collection. As of now, it is my primary deck for personal spiritual development, and it is quickly becoming one of my best reading decks (it works surprisingly well with my Sentinel Spread).
I’ll check back from time to time with updates on my thoughts about the Wheel of the Year.
*This is a simplified generalization compared to this more accurate description of my views of the Tarot structure. What I really mean by linear in this instance is the sequential numerical progression, which, when taken in segments of 10 (or 22), is a line.
**This part of the draft is outdated, written during the final week in July, but I kept it because it was on the cusp of the change in seasons, and I liked that example. If you’re curious, the current cards as of August 27th are the Sun of Life, the Seer, the Salmon (Queen of Vessels), and the Three of Vessels, titled “Joy.”
***I love discovering new and innovative ways in which the Tarot cards can be employed. When I picked up my first pack, I never would have guessed I’d be using cards as a calendar tracking spiritual development six or seven months down the line (I also never would have imagined I’d own more than one pack). The possibilities are limitless.
The other night, I did a reading for myself with the Sentinel’s Spread that I’d like to share here for a couple of reasons.
First of all, I have become more accustomed to interpreting it since I posted my sample reading, and I would like to present a new example with a more experienced and thorough approach. I have done this spread a handful of times now, at least once a month, sometimes as often as once a week, since designing it.* Every single time, I have used an RWS.
Which brings me to my next reason for sharing this reading. The other night when I read the Sentinel’s Spread, I used the Wildwood Tarot. This is significant on two levels: firstly, on that of the spread, having previously only been used with an RWS; secondly, on that of the deck, having prior to this reading only been seriously used for purposes of studying, and not for reading.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Wildwood is an ideal place to build my Sentinel’s Watchtower.
So, without further ado, here was my perspective from that tower.
(I am going to assume a general knowledge of the spread on the part of the reader. If you are not familiar with this spread, and you are reading this, please refer to the link at the start of this post for clarification.)
Card 1: the Sentinel. For my significator, I chose the Stoat (the Page of Bows [Wands]) prior to shuffling and laying the cards. I did this because it’s the court card which corresponds to right now on the Wheel of the Year (roughly July 9 to August 1, or the final quarter of the Time of Bows). The Wheel of the Year is the underlying system of the WWT that distinguishes it from other decks, to be discussed in-depth in a future post. Because all of the Wildwood Court are depicted as animals, none of which I really personally identify with, I find this the best method of choosing significators for myself when using this deck. It also has the benefit of keeping me in time with the rhythm of the yearly cycle whenever I use these cards, which I foresee as a helpful tool for tracking my yearly mood-swings in the future.***
The guidebook (essential reading for anyone who wants to seriously comprehend this deck, and my point of reference from here on out for interpretations specific to it) stresses the earthly nature of the Stoat, in stark contrast to the fiery nature of its suit. It is described as a gifted emissary, with an “ability to perceive the truth in almost any matter” and a “freedom of spirit [that] marks you out as and original and unique personality.”
Oh, Stoat, you flatter me.
In this particular instance, though, it is in fact fairly accurate. Of course, my element is the Earth. Also, I have been acting as the go-between for a developing power-struggle in my band, which is becoming a somewhat uncomfortable (and frustratingly non-musical) position. In this way, my focus for this reading has been at least partially decided right at the outset; if I were using the RWS, I would have chosen my significator based on my own prior intentions.
My “free spirit,” on the other hand, is no new development. I am who I am, and I have been for quite some time. But it allows me to identify on a more general level with this version of the Sentinel. In other words, while the band is on my mind, it’s not all that’s going on in my life, and this spread will illustrate that.
Cards 2-4: the Watchtower. For these cards, I pulled the Seer (Priestess), the Wheel (Wheel of Fortune), and the Mirror (Hanged Man). Once these cards are placed in the spread, I put the Stoat in his position atop the tower.
The first thing I notice is the position shared by all three of these cards on the Wheel of the Year: they are all on the Autumn Equinox during the Time of Vessels (Cups). This leads me to think that this spread is in some ways an effort to prepare myself for the oncoming change of seasons.
The Seer is depicted wearing the “owl’s cloak of wisdom.” As the foundation of my tower, this suggests to me a mindset based in creative writing. The reason for this jump is the presence, at least in spirit, of the owl, which is the symbolic bird of a main character in a writing project I am currently engaged in. This inkling will be cemented later on, as we shall see, by the appearance of the raven in card 16, a bird symbolic of another, antagonistic character in my story. In general, this card is associated with inward and focused reflection, as is typical of Priestess types. It is one of the four most elemental cards of the Wildwood’s Major Arcana, connected with water, and of course, Autumn.
The Wheel confirms this notion of inward contemplation. It is the only card to directly reference the eponymous Wheel of the Year, intended to suggest stepping back for a time from moment-by-moment life and consider its grander pattern (something this spread is designed to facilitate); it encourages the conscious weaving of your metaphorical cloak of fate (it literally shows a loom with an unfinished robe). We all have an active hand in shaping our own destinies. This card suggests we take advantage of that. However suggestive this card is, though, it maintains the eerie atmosphere of an otherworldly limbo, which grounds it firmly as a reflective, rather than active, card.
This is a natural and fitting progression from the Seer at the foundation. My tower is capped by the Mirror. It appears that my cards may be trying to hint at something with all these reflective cards – it doesn’t get more obvious than the Mirror. All of these cards are water cards, and as I already pointed out, all of them are associated with Autumn, the season of transition towards decay. The Mirror is especially eerie (I know I already used that adjective, but ‘creepy’ just isn’t right. There really is no better word). It occupies the position of the Hanged Man in traditional Tarot. It is both the same and totally different in meaning than the Hanged Man. At its core, it is supposed to represent the threshold between this world and otherworldly, subconscious realms.
And so from the tower thus constructed, the Stoat has a clear perspective into the waters of the subconscious. Time to examine what tools he has at his disposal.
Cards 5-8: Resources/defenses/etc. (the walls of the fortress). For these cards, I pulled the Stag (Justice), the Archer (Chariot), the Pole Star (Star), and the Otter (Page of Vessels).
The East. Element Air. Season Spring. Realm of the Mind. Suit of Arrows (Swords): While the imagery is totally original (like most in this deck), the reading points of the Stag are essentially those of Justice, with a focus on the consequences of our actions and the natural balance of the Universe. Any time this card comes up for me these days, I am immediately reminded of my ongoing struggle with the American Justice System.**** True it is that this occupies my mind often. I take comfort in the Stag’s appearance here, though. I am reminded that balance prevails, and I have sown only seeds of honesty.
The South. Element Fire. Season Summer. Realm of the Spirit. Suit of Bows: Another, more radical departure from traditional imagery, the Archer nonetheless conveys an attitude recognizable in the driver of the Chariot: confidence, determination, skill, focus, and control. Victory is imminent. I like what I see here. It is in some ways a counterpoint to the Stag, the action that generates the consequences wrought by him. Having been reassured of my peace with the Stag, I can direct my energies towards more productive things. Like writing, or music, both of which are on my mind and waiting to take form by my hands.
The West. Element Water. Season Autumn. Realm of Emotions. Suit of Vessels: This is the quadrant from which the bricks of my watchtower have been cut. The Pole Star, on the other hand, is associated with the winter, and while its counterpart in traditional Tarot depicts water in plenty, there is none here that we can see. Perhaps it is the star towards which my tower is oriented, after the fashion of the Druidic monolith architects before me. It is the North Star (but in the West…), and it operates as a compass. Is this hope for guidance in the turbulent waters of my emotions? What is my Pole Star? Perhaps this is why my tower is cut from these parts; from here, will I be able to glimpse whatever it is I’m searching for when I gaze into the Mirror? This card suggests hope, but how distant?
The North. Element Earth. Season Winter. Realm of the Material. Suit of Stones (Coins): Here, conspicuously, is the first card I’ve drawn that is not from the Major Arcana. It is the Otter, or the Page of Vessels, and as the Stoat is Earth of Fire, so the Otter is Earth of Water. Earth is my element, so a Page in this quadrant grabs my attention. According to the book, in this position I have at my disposal one who is “a dreamer and a visionary, [able to] weave a spell that few can resist.” Dare I consider this to be myself? It does go on to mention loyalty, devotion, and a “sense of fair play,” which reminds me once again of my current non-musical position in the band. If not for these things, I wouldn’t be in this situation. However, these are qualities I see in myself, and they are qualities I like about myself. As another page, is this perhaps another aspect of my significator, or maybe a progression from him? This is the next page in the cycle of the Wheel of the Year, although not the next court card (that’s the Heron, King of Vessels).
I don’t know. We shall see how these four elements work to my advantage (or possible disadvantage, knock on wood) in the face of what’s on the horizon. Perhaps I’ll get some clarification on the points I’m unsure about.
Cards 9-20: The Horizon. My initial thoughts upon seeing the horizon are fairly neutral. I see some comforting cards, and I see some frightening ones. I notice that there are many Arrows, and no Bows. This imbalance could be potentially frustrating to my Archer energies. I also notice a third Page popped up, as well as one of my Patron cards, the Hooded Man (the Hermit), along with three other Major Arcana, one of each in every direction. There are a lot of Major Arcana overall in this spread, suggesting a spiritually-oriented view from my tower (is that a surprise? The High Priestess is my foundation, after all).
To the East (cards 9, 13, and 17), I see the Eel (Knight of Vessels), Ten of Arrows, and the Guardian (Devil). Naturally, the Guardian grabs my attention first. I have an interesting relationship with this card. He turned up as the Devil during many significant situations over this past winter, especially towards the end, with the world around me warming up to Spring. Spring, East, Air, Arrows. There’s an alarming occurrence of these last just ahead of the Guardian – the Ten of Arrows. But this is one of many instances in the WWT where the divinitory meaning of a card differs from tradition. Where Swords almost always represent something awful at Ten, the Arrows offer Instruction, depicting a youth being instructed in the art of archery by an elder. The Eel, as a “great purveyor of wisdom and [with] a reputation as a protector,” compliments the Ten of Arrows, and suggests a teacher or sage of some sort. And following these two… is the Guardian. The Devil conjures many conflicting images in my mind, and has been on my mind more or less regularly ever since I wrote about him (he’s one of two that I’ve written of so far that has had such a thorough effect on me). But the Guardian is not the Devil, at least, not exactly. He is intentionally terrifying, but beneath that exterior, the Guardian serves a natural and necessary function, and he is even playful in his own terrifyingly mischievous way. Once you meet him and are allowed to pass by him, he no longer seems scary at all. He is located at Samhain at the start of the Time of Stones on the Wheel of the Year, roughly coinciding with Halloween, an especially apt location given my birth and my magical (elemental) leanings. That means I feel oddly at home in his presence, but it doesn’t make him any less terrifying at times. I take all this to mean I should be on the lookout for instruction and instructors in the realm of the mind, with the ultimate goal of preparation for some sort of encounter with the Guardian, probably to occur around the time of my birth day.
To the South (cards 10, 14, and 18), I see Ten of Stones, the Kingfisher (King of Arrows), and Balance (Temperance). Each of the four directions on the horizon offers me one Major Arcana card. In the South, it is Balance. It stands at Beltane (May 1) on the Wheel of the Year, but aside from marking the beginning of the Time of Bows, I see no significance in its place. Ten of Stones is Home, and the Kingfisher helps with the process of judging what is no longer of use in my life, what I need to let go of. The South is the realm of my spirit, my passions, and my creativity. That which pumps fire into my veins. I take these two cards to mean that, in order to follow the direction of my passions, I have to decide what is really important to me and leave behind the comfort of Home (or the past, or my current silly notion of reality). Balance suggests to me that, while it is tempting to set a course based on passion, it is important that I not get carried away. Moderation is key. Striking a balance is an art. It drives home my desire for the Kingfisher to guide my potentially life-altering decision-making. The Archer I have in my corner doesn’t hurt, either.
To the West (cards 11, 15, and 19), I see the Ace of Arrows, the Hooded Man (Hermit), and Three of Arrows. Here the Major Arcana card comes up in the middle position, rather than the last. It is the Hooded Man, one of my favorite incarnations of the Hermit. Before him is the Ace of Arrows, or the Breath of Life. This is the direction of water and the emotions; perhaps new life will be blown into my emotional situation? This quadrant almost always stumps me when I read. A new lease on an emotionally-charged situation that leads to solitude? Rest? Withdrawal? That in turn leads to the Three of Arrows, probably the most emotionally-charged of the Arrows. Three arrows pierce a burning heart. Jealousy is the keyword given it. This was all troubling to me, until I read the book’s entry on the Three. It warns against the “grass-is-always-greener” mentality. We each have our station in life, and to envy others for theirs is ultimately destructive. This advice calls to mind my work, for which I am thankful, although it grates on me at times. But how does this have to do with my emotions? Anger is an emotion, yes, but I don’t quite see how it connects to the Ace and the Hermit. The West is distorted by fog, it appears, but from what I can glean through the haze, I should be wary of emotional withdrawal after an apparently optimistic beginning of some venture, whether of the mind or heart I can’t quite make out. The Hooded Man stands at the Winter Solstice, which, while promising longer days to come, lies in the depths of Winter on the Wheel of the Year. While the Hermit is always a comfort to me, that time of year has not been an easy time for me in the past. Thankfully, I’ve got the Pole Star as a beacon to guide my way should I get turned around in the possible turmoil.
To the North (cards 12, 16, and 20), I see the Wren (Page of Arrows), the Journey (Death), and Two of Arrows. The Wren, as Earth of Air, makes the third Page. The only one absent from the spread is the Lynx, Earth of Earth. The Wren is regarded as a particularly clever bird, which I’m sure will come in handy if I hope to navigate the mists of the West (the Wren is also on the Hermit, which is why I made that connection). Immediately following the Wren is the Journey. The raven(!) feeds on the carcass of a deer. Death. Like the Guardian, not as fearful as it seems at first glance. Also like the Guardian, it stands at Halloween. Some sort of transformation is going to occur during this time, but then again, it does every year as I grow older. This particular transformation will probably manifest itself in the material realm, though. It will not be a mental, spiritual, or emotional change. Something concrete will happen. Will the Wren guide me? I certainly hope so, because it leads to the Two of Arrows, or Injustice. Not promising. What does this portend for me? When I look at my first defense against this frontier, I see the Otter. If the Otter does indeed represent a continuation of my current situation with the band, does that mean I’ll be leaving them as an eventual result of a misunderstanding? I’m not totally convinced the band is what’s in question here. What is the Otter’s relation to the Wren? The broken bow pictured on the Two, combined with an almost total lack of Bows elsewhere in the spread, reminds me of the Archer. Is this injustice going be the negation of the potency of this card? The Archer is located in the quadrant of Bows, or my passions. Maybe it is referring to music after all.
Whatever injustice it may turn out to be, the Stag is luckily not too far off. He’s the best remedy I could possibly have against the Two of Arrows.
Overall, I feel encouraged from what I’ve read so far, although things seem to fall apart a little to the West, and the North culminates on a bit of a sour note. My watchtower stands strong, though, even if my Archer ends up disarmed by an injustice. I think I can handle whatever comes my way, even if I need help every now and then from an Eel or a Kingfisher, or even a Wren.
Card 21: the Bell. Nothing is certain, though, and with one final word from my cards, I will decide whether or not to sound the alarm. For this position, I draw the Sun of Life (the Sun), which is a very positive Major Arcana to receive here. Relief. Illumination. This spread certainly has opened my eyes to new perspectives on various current situations. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, grasping for control. But there are things I never will control, and that’s probably for the best. The Sun will always rise again tomorrow, no matter what I’ve done today. I can sleep soundly tonight.
My next step will be to use smaller, more focused spreads to throw light some of the cloudier issues presented by this one, such as an emotional/water clarifying spread, or a spread centered around the question of what to do about the band or other such issues that have come up. I’m intrigued by the questions this spread has raised about the role of the Archer (and to a lesser degree, the Pole Star) in my life at this time. Perhaps I’ll look into that.
So, there you have it. A very in-depth tour of my Watchtower and my current view from its heights. As you can probably imagine, this spread takes some time to interpret. When I first laid it out the other night, I spent an hour with it. I spent quite a bit more than an hour writing these reflections on it, and I’ve really only hit the tip of the iceberg. I encourage anyone and everyone to try it for themselves, but you should understand that something of a commitment is required to best comprehend all that it has to show you.
*By design, I don’t recommend reading with this spread more often than once a week.
**Those who have read my original description of this spread will notice the shape, while remaining essentially the same, has evolved a bit. Also, to those who may be curious, underneath the spread, acting as a makeshift Tarot alter, is a study in Cubism titled “Guitar Resting in the Practice Room,” signed in the bottom right corner by one “Pythagoras.”
***In theory, you could use a Wheel of the Year approach for significators with any Tarot court in the form of Zodiacal attributions. Personally, I follow Mr. Crowley’s attributions in such instances, for the simple reason that his is the most overtly astrologically-oriented deck of my collection.
**** “That’s none of your damn business, and I’ll have to ask you to stay out of my personal affairs.” – Ace Ventura.