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Deck Review: Zillich Tarot

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.

The illustration still captures the weight of the card without the violence of more traditional images.

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.

Although a Thoth-style deck, Zillich drew heavily upon traditional RSW imagery for many cards.

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. 

Adjustment replaces the Justice card and Justice replaces the Judgement/Aeon card.

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.

Some of my favorite cards from the Zillich Tarot.

I would declare my undying love and devotion to this deck and never, ever put it down…:

  1. … if it had borders. There’s a reason cards have had borders for HUNDREDS of years. Actually several reasons. I’ve talked about this before.
  2. … 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.
  3. … 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.
  4. … 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.
Unfortunate typo on The Universe card.

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.

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Deck Review: Nature Nurture Oracle

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.

Some of my favorite cards from the 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.

My 4-Card reading.

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…

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LWB Review: Oracle Belline

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.

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And your little book too…!

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

and

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.