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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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The Armchair Tarot Reader: Free Download

“The Armchair Tarot Reader” by Laura Pensar is a quick-start guide for those interested in bringing the Tarot into their lives. The free booklet covers:

  • Getting Started. Instructions for a “Daily Focus Draw” practice are included to help you begin gaining the benefits of working with Tarot from the start!
  • Brief history of Tarot and explanation of its structure to help you learn the card meanings more quickly.
  • Index of card meanings. Quick and simple reference to use as a starting point for your Tarot study.
  • Advice for seeking a professional reader.
  • Learning to read for yourself.
  • Caring for your deck, a brief glossary of common terms, and background information about myself and my shop.

“The Armchair Tarot Reader” is a reference to introduce you to the Tarot and help you start working with your deck in a simple and peaceful way.

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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.