The Zillich Tarot by German artist Christine Zillich was released by U.S. Games Systems, this Spring, 2018. I purchased my copy about a month ago and have been working with it for a few weeks now.
This is the first Thoth-style* deck I have owned. In the past I have had strongly negative reactions to every single Thoth deck I’d ever picked up. Even before I knew anything about the background of Thoth decks or their designer, Crowley. The Zillich Tarot, however, I instantly loved. It is beautiful. Zillich’s watercolors are ethereal and timeless, the human figures are vague and culturally indeterminate, and none of the illustrations seem violent or overtly alarming which makes this deck a great choice for giving public readings.
It comes as a pocket-sized (2.5” x 3.75”) deck which is my FAVORITE size for a Tarot deck; small enough to carry and handle easily but large enough to clearly see the images. It is printed on glossy, firm card stock in a full-color tin box. The little booklet is black and white, 60 pages long, and was written by Johan von Kirschner (translated from German to English by Jonee Tiedemann).
Now, while the publisher says this is a Thoth-style deck, it truly seems to be a bit of a hybrid between RSW and Thoth*. For example, The Zillich does title the Strength card as Lust in the Thoth manner, but keeps it in the VIII position like the RSW rather than move it to the XI position like a standard Thoth. Some of the cards cary strong RSW-influenced imagery and, thankfully,Zillich leaves out Crowley’s esoteric Aeon.
The booklet by Kirschner is poetic but abstruse. The syntax is a little odd and I’m not sure whether it’s just an awkward translation or if the original German has the same jumbled feeling to it as well. The opening essay is confusing and references both Knights and Kings although the Zillich deck follows a Thoth structure to the court cards (Princess, Prince, Queen, Knight) and has no Kings. However, the booklet does include associated signs and ruling planets for each card, which is a plus.
As with most Thoth-style decks, it is not necessarily beginner-friendly and the booklet doesn’t help with that at all. However, this is a beautiful and gentle deck. If you love the art and are intrigued by this deck, don’t let me deter you. Love always wins and you will find a way to work with this deck if you are motivated to do so! Just don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come easily… this isn’t an easy deck.
I would declare my undying love and devotion to this deck and never, ever put it down…:
… if U.S. Games Systems removed their copyright stamp from the otherwise lovely card backs. Come on, guys, copyright and your name does not need to appear on every single card. At least not in such an artless way. Ick.
… if it was printed on slightly nicer card stock. The card stock it’s on is decent. Not great. Pretty average feel. The images would be better served on a higher quality stock that would allow the pigments to shine.
… if it had a better font and no typos. The card images are so beautiful, but the titles really should be hand-written by the artist. I get that the original was probably in German, but surely Zillich would be willing to write titles for multiple translations? And, oh man, that doubling of XIX on both the Sun and Universe cards is a rough mistake to overlook. Hopefully U.S. Games Systems will fix this in subsequent editions.
But even with these four quibbles… I truly adore this deck. Zillich’s art is mesmerizing and creates a unique world. If you’ve been looking for a Thoth deck to try, I highly recommend this one.
*There are two main styles of contemporary Tarot decks. Both decks were reinventions of the original Marseilles-style Tarot decks and were heavily influenced by the beliefs and practices of the British occult group The Golden Dawn which existed from 1887-1903. The Rider-Smith-Waite (RSW) deck was published in 1910 and was illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith under the direction of A. E. Waite. The Harris-Crowley-Thoth (Thoth)deck was illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris under the direction of Aleister Crowley in 1943 but was not published until 1969.
I picked up my copy of the Nature Nurture deck by Marcella Kroll last week. I’ve spent a few days now with this 45-card nature-inspired oracle deck and it has already earned a place of honor in my deck library.
The presentation is really sleek. The deck is petite with 2.25″ x 3.5″ cards. It comes in a sturdy rigid box with a simple design. The cards themselves have gilded edges, are glossy, and seem to have a very subtle glittery sheen to them. The card stock is thin but seems to be fairly durable nonetheless. The card backs are not reversible, but that’s generally not an issue when working with oracle decks.
The artwork is minimal and beautiful with simple drawings that quickly convey the card symbols. They are numbered 1 through 45 and contain both the title of the card and a single keyword making this a great beginner’s deck.
While the deck itself is beautiful and has a unique aesthetic amongst the oracle decks currently available… the real star of the show is Kroll’s little booklet. This 50 page book comes nestled in the box on top of the deck with a full-color cover and is packed with poetic interpretations of each card. I found myself reading it cover to cover before I even really handled the cards much at all.
Kroll includes instructions for three ways to work with the Nature Nurture deck: 1) The one-card focus/meditation draw, 2) The standard three-card past/present/future spread, and 3) A four-card guidance spread.
It’s occasionally difficult to get oracle cards like this to function easily in a guidance-oriented reading as their strength really lies in their inspirational/meditative qualities. But I’ve found that this deck can ask you to consider situations and suggested actions in a very gentle way. When the harsh truths other decks can deal out are just too much to take in… sometimes the quiet peaceful guide who whispers to us is what we really need.
I cannot recommend this deck enough for people who are interested in trying their hand at working with cards for the first time. This deck would also be a great supplemental deck: once you lay out your normal spread with a Tarot deck you can draw an additional card from the Nature Nurture deck as an added “tone” card. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down…
Fantod: 1) a state of irritability and tension; fidgets 2) an emotional outburst, fit. The first recorded use of “fantod(s)” was by North American author Charles Frederik Briggs in 1839 . . . possibly a combination of “fantastic” and “fatigue.” – Merriam-Webster.com, 5/26/2018
The Fantod Pack is an Oracle deck designed by author and illustrator, Edward Gorey (1925-2000).
I must admit that the only reason I purchased this deck is because I was a Gorey fanatic growing up. From the first time I saw his opening animation to PBS’s Mystery series to the time I first came across a copy of Amphigorey in the back corner of a cozy bookstore… I was hooked by his dark and droll humor, his whimsical pen-and-ink illustration style; his irreverent reverence to art history, philosophy, and literature (no really, I mean that prhase). Gorey walked that impossibly-thin line of paying homage to beloved classics while pointing out their inherent absurdity. He approached Tarot and cartomancy with this same style.
The Fantod Pack originally appeared as illustrations in Esquire Magazine (December 1966) as “The Awful Vista of the Year: The Fantod Pack.” Although there was an illicit, unlicensed version of the cards printed in 1969 by The Owl Press of California (shame on you, Owl Press)… The Fantod Pack was not officially released by Gorey until 1995 through The Gotham Book Mart as a limited edition of 776 decks (750 numbered, 26 lettered). *source Dangerousminds.net
I remember hearing about The Fantod Pack when it was published in 1995… and I will forever “kick myself” for not ordering a copy then. But, because I missed the opportunity to purchase one of the original 776, I had to wait until 2007 when the deck was published in an unlimited edition by Pomegranate Communications, Inc. licensed by The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. This is the version of the deck I have.
The deck consists of 20 high-gloss thick cards in a shallow rigid box with a little white book (LWB) written by Edward Gorey using the pseudonym Madame Groeda Weyrd, an anagram of his name. The printing and material qualities are superior to many decks published. My only real complaint about the physical presentation is that the cards are fully rectangle with sharp corners. Rounded corners really have been a part of card history for good reason. Rounded corners last longer and they are easier to shuffle. Although…
Madame Weyrd suggests that the proper method for shuffling and drawing cards is to “take it in your left hand. Stand in the center of a sparsely furnished room and close your eyes. Fling the pack into the air. Keep your eyes closed. Pick up five cards from the floor keeping them in order.” Gorey has subtly acknowledged many traditions associated with cartomancy while simultaneously poking a fairly large stick at it. It is a common suggestion in many vintage (and even contemporary) books that you should use your left hand to work with cards as it is (for many people) their non-dominant hand and supposedly helps you connect with your subconscious more easily. Flinging the pack into the air and blindly picking them up off the floor highlights the absurdity of so many of our rituals. Gorey’s method is a strong reminder that, no-matter-what, we really should not take ourselves too seriously. While rituals can be helpful and important in some ways, we should never confuse ritual and symbolism with necessity and reality.
“Don’t confuse the teacher with the lesson, the ritual with the ecstasy, the transmitter of the symbol with the symbol itself.” – Neil Gaiman, Stardust
The first time I read with The Fantod Pack, I went ahead and followed Madame Weyrd’s ridiculous directions faithfully. It was fun to have this distant interaction with one of my favorite artists; willingly participating in his joke. And although it definitely isn’t practical (and wouldn’t be good for the cards longterm), it’s a delightful experience.
The LWB begins with The Awful Vista of the Year. “Now that you have learned of all the dreadful things that have overtaken your friends and relations during the past year as scribbled on the inside of their Christmas cards, don’t you want to know what dreadful things lie in wait for you?” Irony was a well-sharpened tool in his hands slaying two beasts: 1) the ridiculous custom of writing your life story in a letter to the acquaintances you haven’t spoken to in at least one year’s time every Holiday season, and 2) the traditional “Wheel of the Year” style annual check-in Tarot spread.
The LWB goes on to give a mysterious backstory to Madame Weyrd and presents instructions of a basic spread and interpretation style. Although it is satire and over-the-top, it holds useful tips. And reading this LWB is when I realized that novelty decks don’t need to just be a novelty.
The 20 cards are labeled with mysterious and inscrutable archetypes such as “The Limb”, “The Waltzing Mouse”, and “The Burning Head.” I agree with Gorey; why should we just accept the symbols which are presented to us as “universal” symbols? There aren’t really many truly universal symbols, and you could argue that there truly aren’t any at all. Symbolism and its interpretation is predominantly culturally specific and filtered through the ultimately personal and unique experiences of each individual. So what makes “The Magician” a more legitimate archetype than “The Écorché” (a painting or sculpture of a human figure with the skin removed to display the musculature)? Gorey puts the absurdity of representing the comprehensive human experience in a few selected images right up front. It’s probably a small percentage of people who would know what an écorché even is, let alone how one would interpret its appearance in a reading. Staring at a King of Spades is no more inherently meaningful than staring at Gorey’s “The Écorché.” However, once you know what one is… there can be a lot of really useful ways that it could be construed. Cartomancy is all about applying a consistent framework of symbolism and meaning on top of specified images.
Gorey’s keyword lists for each card continues this same theme of absurdity veiling practicality. For example, the keywords for “The Écorché” are:
June – This is neither here-nor-there for me. Although many readers find seasons and times useful, I personally do not do “timing” readings. Why June for the écorché? I’m not sure. Perhaps the summer heat encouraged him to remove his clothes… and his skin.
Sexual Incompetence – There’s actually a lot here to dissect (pun intended) given that it’s a human figure laid bare. Raw. Offered up for examination but not interaction. Many argue our largest sexual organ is our skin… the poor écorché has effectively been rendered impotent and left without a way to experience touch in a neurologically meaningful way.
A Forged Check – A tongue-in-cheek nod to vintage cartomancy interpretations which include numerous references to letters, messages, invoices, and written communications of dramatic leanings. Why the écorché specifically is guilty of forgery? I’m not sure. Perhaps he is attempting to put on another’s skin and get away without fingerprints as a liability.
Obscurity – Ironic as the écorché technically removes the skin which obscures the underlying biological structure of a person. However, removing the skin effectively removes easily identifiable features. Most people would be hard-pressed (and quite frankly loathe) to identify a body without its skin on. Or perhaps a reference to the obscurity of the word “écorché” itself.
Irregularities – Interesting as most écorchés are presented as “universal” representations of human muscular structure.
Puckers – “A fold or wrinkle in a normally even surface.” *source Merriam-Webster.com Okay… I can kinda go with this. For fun. While “wrinkle” is commonly used to reference all kinds of “things which are not smooth” we normally don’t refer to “pucker” in a terribly poetic or symbolic way.
Inconstancy – Well sure, one minute a guy has skin… then he doesn’t. What’s he gonna do next?
An Accident on a Pier – What? Oh yeah, vintage cartomancy is filled with oddly specific and foreboding interpretations like this. Whatever horrific circumstance associates a skinless figure with an accident on a pier… I don’t want to consider very deeply.
Morbid Sensibilities – Probably the most straight-forward interpretation yet. Some seekers may need to be reminded that we are biological beings with unavoidable mortality. Others might need a warning to not focus so much on the “meat suits” we inhabit.
Deception – This goes along with “obscurity” and “inconstancy.”
A Social Disease – Wow. This is quite a commentary. Dictionary definitions of “social disease” include a venereal disease (which lines up with the “sexual incompetence” definition above) or illnesses such as tuberculosis which have direct relation to economic and social factors. For centuries artists and medical students have studied bodies which in many cases were victims of diseases caused by or exacerbated by poverty and social systems. Even today we have controversies involving the public presentation of human remains such as “Bodies: The Exhibition” which raised concerns about a black-market for cadavers, thought to be illegally-obtained bodies of executed prisoners, to be “plasticized” and used as real-life écorchés. In a more abstract sense, the card seems to suggest that being raw and exposed is a cultural maladie. If you can’t cover yourself in a publicly acceptable way you are at a disadvantage.
Confinement – Certainly not confined by skin. However, is it our basic biological makeup which is a confinement? Or is it the fate of the écorché to be confined to the laboratory and artist studio; never free to be a self-actualized individual?
Cysts – Another nod to vintage cartomancy with a specific, somewhat gross, and off-beat medical ailment. Perhaps they are simply a symptom of the “social disease” you are about to contract in June.
What I once considered purely a novelty can actually be used for legitimate readings. So I look at “novelty” Tarot and Oracle decks in a new light now. If you are drawn to the imagery found in a particular deck, what matters is that you can interpret the imagery in ways which are useful and meaningful to you and those you read for. Will Gorey’s Fantod deck be useful to everyone? Definitely not. But to a life-long Edward Gorey fan who spent hours and hours pouring over each and every one of his publications I could get my hands on, looking for recurring themes and symbols… The Fantod Pack is a natural fit. So look for the imagery that gives you the most to consider about your humanity and mortality. And every once in a while… throw your cards in the air and let your self-awareness work be filled with humor. Because, ultimately, it’s all absurdity.
Do you have a “novelty” deck that you love? How did you begin working with the non-traditional imagery? Have you encountered push-back from traditionalists?
The Oracle Belline* was originally published by Grimaud in 1961. The LWB (little white book) in this case has a bold red cover which looks really lovely when you open the black box. Inside, repeated in French, English, and Dutch, you find a supposed history of the cards, suggested methods for reading with the deck, and keywords for each card. (In the French section you also get two pages of quotes praising M. Belline’s psychic abilities; which would be eyebrow raising in a contemporary deck, but is somewhat endearing given the deck’s age.)
On the first page of each translation section, the book admonishes that “these very magnetic cards should not be used except by their posessor, who shall derive beneficent lights from them” and there are lines and a space for you to write your name. I have not felt moved to write my name in the book yet. But it’s good to know that I could write it in any one or all three of the translations if I change my mind.
The book is supposedly written by M. Belline, an oracle who reached apparent fame in the 1950’s. M. Belline begins with “The Extraordinary Story of the ‘Orcale’ Cards” which is as intriguing as it is ridiculous. In this story he claims to have found an antique set of hand-painted cards from 1845 by a mysterious clairvoyant-illustrator who went by the name of Edmond. He found this rare treasure in a group of books and papers that were destined to be incinerated. M. Belline rescued the mysterious cards, developed a method for working with them, and with the help of Grimaud, published the cards… under his name, of course. M. Belline may have been good at cartomancy, but modest he was not.
A unique one-of-a-kind artist-made antique deck that by a twist of fate came to light and was reproduced by THE Grimaud publishers… now as much as I would love for that to be true, it seems really unlikely. I will have to do more research though before I can confirm my suspicions.
The book goes on to give four different methods for reading with the cards. Here’s where some typos and strange translation choices in the English version get a little confusing. At one point it suggests to “study the cards thoroughly by covering them.” But it never explains what it means to “cover” a card. In another set of instructions it refers to “court cards,” but there are no literal court cards in the deck and no playing-card equivalents are listed anywhere in the booklet. So I still can’t tell you how to complete a “Cosmic Number Method.” However, I am really very interested in “The Cross Method” as it contains card positions I work with in most of my own spreads.
Its instructions (when they make sense) are helpful. For example, it suggests that “a good card always neutralizes a malevolent one if it touches it.” And the examples listed are informative if you take the time to follow them along. Unfortunately, the examples only list the cards by their numbers and not their titles, which makes it hard to follow without having memorized the cards completely first. I’m going to assume this was an attempt to cut out any extra type possible; although I think the two pages of “critical acclaim” for M. Belline would have been a better candidate to cut for space.
The book refers to the deck as a game “in familiarizing you with the Big Enigma.” How very French. Probably partly why I love this deck so. It goes on to say that “it shall give you, besides knowledge, a well-being precious beyond all others: self-confidence.” Surprisingly empowering words for a LWB from 1961!
The keywords section is pretty standard LWB form. The card name listed in order of appearance in the deck, four or five key phrases associated with the card, and the occasional pairing meaning listed as well. I’ve always found the pairing examples in this and many Lenormand deck LWB’s helpful in understanding the overall tone of a deck.
There is an additional card that comes with the deck. It is only mentioned once and is the last comment in the keywords section: “An additional plain blue card is specially beneficent and can be used as a substitution card.” From the LWB I’m unclear as to whether the blue card should be kept within the deck and used in readings or if it is truly a spare. I have chosen to leave it in my deck and it has appeared in every reading I’ve given to my partner and no one else so far. We’ve come to jokingly refer to auspicious events in his life as “the blue card.”
Overall the LWB included with my edition of Oracle Belline* is pretty helpful and, if not historically informative, it’s at least amusing. I’d like to indulge in the idea of the Mage Edmond and his mysterious precious handmade cards; but the skeptic in me says, “why package it as snake oil? It’s still just as useful if we call it olive oil, right?” But there is something charming about my edition of the Oracle Belline; its minimal mysterious packaging; its insistence on the celebrity of M. Belline and the validity of his “Extraordinary Story.” This deck asks me to actively suspend disbelief, which may be why I end up feeling like I come away with really blunt and to-the-point readings.
So despite some difficulties with poor translations and my desire for historically accurate information; I am still infatuated with this deck and its accompanying LWB.
*I am not sure what year my Oracle Belline was printed. There was no external packaging and the LWB was apparently reproduced faithfully to the original 1961 version without additional information about the edition. My deck has gilded edges, is of very thick card stock, and came in a black faux-alligator-skin rigid box. It was purchased new in Paris in 2017.
I don’t know the history of the LWB (little white book) but I really want to.
LWB’s are the small booklets that come inside the box with the cards of most Tarot and Oracle decks. LWB’s range from a single sheet of paper folded pamphlet-style to complete mini-books with forwards, essays, and an appendix!
The size of the card deck and the packaging costs are probably the biggest factors in determining how much information can be included. The insert that fits with a large Tarot deck can naturally have more written information than one that fits with a poker-sized deck. How thick the booklet is determines how deep the box for the deck will be. Seemingly small changes in size can lead to large changes in price! If the difference between a 20-page booklet and a 30-page booklet adds a $1.00 increase in cost to each deck… that’s a significant loss in potential revenue for those 10 extra pages. (Bear this in mind as you pull out a microscope to read your LWB.)
LWB’s can feel a lot like the cryptic instruction manuals that come with electronics and appliances. For decks which have been published in multiple countries the same information will be printed again in one or more languages. And because they are trying to communicate the most information possible in as few words as possible… you get the difference between:
Branch: a limb, to split
Branch: (noun) a part of a tree that grows out from the trunk or from a bough / (verb) of a road or path, divide into one or more subdivisions
See how just a few words can make a huge difference? If you weren’t familiar with the word “branch,” its use as both a verb and a noun would seem disconnected and confusing. But in the second fuller definition the extra explanation about the limb being part of a tree growing out from the main trunk gives “branch” (the verb) a context. You have a fuller understanding of “branch” from the second example and could more easily interpret the appearance of “branch” in your reading.
LWB’s are a bridge. Do not expect too much of your LWB, but don’t take it for granted either. Think of it a lot like a pocket foreign-language dictionary or Google Translate: very handy in a pinch, can really help out in certain situations, gives you quick reminders etc; but sitting down with it to do serious work or have a complex and natural conversation…? It’s frustrating, incomplete, and clunky. They cannot be complete. And technically no book ever could be.
LWB’s are a fascinating insight into the decks they accompany in many ways. Who wrote the book? Is it by the artist themselves? A historian? A cartomancer? Are the deck designer and illustrator one person or separate? What year was the book published? What did they include? Is there information about the artist/designer? Is there information about the history of Tarot? Is it actually historically accurate? What keywords do they associate with each card and how universally accepted are those interpretations? Are they leaving out major keywords commonly included in other books? If so, why? There really is a lot to investigate with the LWB.
I’m going to start digging and see what I can find on the origins of the LWB. What was the first deck that was actually marketed as a divinatory tool to people who didn’t already know how to use it that way? And why? I’ll also be revisiting and reviewing the LWB’s in my own deck collection. Understanding how the LWB’s attempt to distill the vast language of Tarot down to a few simple words can help you better read and interpret the cards.