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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: The Fantod Pack

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?

 

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The Woman Cards

Last week I purchased a vintage deck: a 1960’s Parlour Sibyl oracle deck. It’s a charming deck… except for the casual racism and misogyny found on some of the cards and in the LWB (little white book); which really just makes it not charming at all. What I had hoped would be a fun oracle deck to work with is simply not usable for me or my clients. It is, however, a great deck to study and critique. And we should absolutely critique our decks.

If Tarot and oracle decks are a tool we use to help connect ourselves and our clients to the subconscious,  we should be very careful about the messages that the decks we use for these readings are sending.

We could argue if the reader and seeker are aware of the cultural context for older decks and systems, that we can overlook the outdated and toxic ideas. But readings are a time for us to be open, be more vulnerable, and bring in new perspectives. I absolutely do not want my clients (or myself) to be taking in negative ideas about ourselves or others on even a subliminal level. It’s important that we look at our decks and really understand what their images, keyword associations, and general structure are telling us.

The Empress and The High Priestess from the Jodorowsky Camoin Marseilles deck.

Given the traditional structure of card decks, there are often cards that represent both the female and male archetypes. And so… very often there is, in fact, a “woman card.”

“The woman card, also called … the gender card or the sex card, is an idiomatic phrase … used to describe accusations of women either mentioning their gender to gain an advantage in discussions or implying or accusing other people of sexism in order to garner support.” (Wikipedia, 5/4/2018)

The phrase most often shows up in workplace or political settings; generally when someone competing against a female peer is feeling frustrated and hasn’t found more appropriate responses to the conflict. Even if someone actually is inappropriately trying to use gender in a given situation, simply shouting “the woman card” is not productive and does not address anything of substance constructively. It’s pejorative.

One of the most famous instances of this phrase being used in the United States was during the 2016 presidential elections by then-Republican-nominee Donald Trump in reference to his opponent Democratic-nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump complained that Clinton was “…constantly playing the woman card. It’s the only way she may get elected.” (Turns out it may have been one of the main reasons she didn’t get elected… amongst many other things that are way outside of a Tarot blog’s domain.) The public response to his remarks was immediate, varied, and often hilarious. From the Clinton campaign’s NYC MetroPass-style “Woman Card” they issued as donor rewards to any number of role-playing style card mockups to an actual poker deck of famous women in US history.

This is the beginning of a new series for the Moth & Candle blog: The Woman Card. I’ve started looking at the cultural implications of various decks and will be reviewing the female representations in the decks in my own library.

Many of my fellow readers and I lament the lack of diversity (for want of a better term) in the decks available. Sadly, even contemporary decks have been slow to expand the representations of people in their images. There have been multiple times when I’ve optimistically opened a deck only to find one card that makes me stop and feel a little uneasy. (Even contemporary decks! Come on, fellow deck-designers, we need to do better!)

Have you come across cards in your own decks that make you pause? Have you found a deck that is really representative of contemporary clients’ needs? Please let me know what you have found in your own study. I look forward to exploring the cultural contexts of our decks more in depth!

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Deck Review: Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition

My very first Tarot deck was a 1970’s printing of the classic Rider-Smith-Waite (RSW) deck that my father gifted to me sometime in 1990. Ever since then, the Smith-Waite deck has been my go-to deck. Other decks come and go, but I know that I can always work with an RSW.

While I love that old 1970’s copy, it is an atrocious edition. The colors were garish and just plain weird. The image quality is pretty poor. And although I haven’t tested it… I suspect the card-stock was not acid-free, as they are getting slightly crisp with the years. That copy is lovingly tucked into a white satin bag and only pulled out for very special personal readings and focus meditations.

In the early 2000’s I had purchased another copy of the RSW as my work-horse deck. The colors were so much better, more subdued. The printing was clearly more faithful to the original illustrations. But, since this deck was my work-horse deck… it became really, really… well, grimy. I mean, fanning that deck is like trying to fan peanut-butter crackers. (That deck is sitting in my library and awaiting experiments with various card cleansing and fanning powders.)

So, last year I bought my third copy of the RSW. This time I tried out the pocket-sized centennial edition. It now lives in its own velvet bag inside my purse. Let me break down why I think every Tarot enthusiast should have a copy of this deck:

  1. THEY ACTUALLY CALL IT THE SMITH-WAITE DECK!!! After a century of publishers and writers calling it either the Rider Deck or the Rider-Waite deck after the publisher and editor… they’re finally acknowledging the actual artist, Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith. They have also included two bonus cards featuring non-tarot illustrations by Smith. I’ve chosen to go ahead and keep them in the deck for readings. The one on the left tends to come up as a combination of the Two of Cups and The Lovers. The one on the right I’ve affectionately dubbed The Single Mother’s card (applicable to any gender). I will definitely be writing more about Pixie in the future: badass queer witch of color working in the early 1900’s who set the standard for Tarot illustration. (swoon)

    2 bonus cards featuring Pixie’s non-Tarot art.
  2. IT’S POCKET SIZED!!! Unlike a “miniature” deck which is really only useful as a novelty or for very tiny people with really good eyesight… this deck’s cards are a comfortable 2.25″ x 3.75″. This means I have a deck that I can actually use, takes up less space in my purse and gear bags, and it’s actually possible to do a Wheel of the Year Spread on a normal sized table!

    Pocket-sized cards.
  3. IT’S AN IMPORTANT REFERENCE!!! Some people just don’t like the RSW deck. And that’s totally fine. But it IS historically important and so many of the decks that were published after 1909 and even now are based on this deck. For me, having an RSW deck in your library is like having a dictionary. You might not do readings with it, you might not even enjoy it per se, but it’s useful. If nothing else, when reading articles or books about the Tarot, it’s helpful to pull out the RSW deck so you can look at the symbolism at the same time.
    The Major Arcana 0-11.

    The Major Arcana 12-21.
  4. IT COMES IN A TIN!!! Tuck boxes can be a nightmare (just ask my youngest son as he watched three different adults truly struggle to unbox his Totoro playing cards this Yule.) So any deck that comes in a rigid box or tin is starting off on the right foot for me. The Little White Book (LWB) is decent and includes an interesting history of the deck written by Stuart R. Kaplan. As LWB’s go it’s not amazing, but it’s better than most. Since this has become my new work-horse deck, it lives in a silk scarf and velvet bag in my purse. The tin and LWB are shelved in my library.

    Tin box for the Smith-Waite deck.

The Smith-Waite pocket-sized Centennial Edition in a tin is available directly from US Game Systems Inc, Amazon, and more than likely your local book/magic shop.