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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: 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.