When Beth invited me to do this review, I must confess, I hardly knew where to begin.
Despite that, this is a deck that defies easy explanation, that dares you to sum it up in twenty-five words or less and then rolls its eyes at you when you find yourself utterly lost for words. One thing I have learned from working with the Wooden Tarot, though, is that when I find myself speechless, the best thing to do – the only thing to do – is to let these powerful cards speak for themselves.
So, of course, I picked up the pack, gave it a shuffle, and asked, “Wooden Tarot, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal, how would you like me to describe you?”
Naturally, I pulled XIII Death.
This is not a deck to beat around the bush! Evidently, the Wooden Tarot seeks to challenge and transform, to sweep away illusion, and to take us by surprise as it swoops down on silent wings to carry us away. The Death card is a challenge to our assumptions, but also a wonderful introduction to the aesthetic and philosophy of this beautiful creation. In some mythologies, the owl is a harbinger of death, and in others, a totem of divine wisdom. This majestic and deadly snowy owl, masterfully rendered by the artist, is both things at once, and shows us how the Wooden Tarot seeks to take us beyond our perceived limitations (sometimes kicking and screaming, like a field mouse in an owl’s talons!) and into greater clarity and knowing. Let Death be our guide as we explore this strange and wonderful landscape!
The Wooden Tarot sprung from the mind and brush of artist Andrew Swartz. The Wooden Tarot came into the world initially as a Majors-only deck funded through Kickstarter, and I can only assume that it was the popularity of this first foray that lead to the creation of the full, seventy-nine card Wooden Tarot deck (that’s right, seventy-nine cards – more on that later!) Swartz’s original paintings were done on balsa wood, and the printed deck, although obviously printed on card, loyally preserves the rich variation in grain and colouring in the background of each of the images. Fear not though, the card backs are standard across the deck and symmetrical, so suitable for reversals if that’s your bag. The card stock, although lighter than some of the more luxe decks now on the market, is great quality, light in the hand, glossy enough to shuffle easily but not so much so that it’s slippery.
The artwork is, of course, what makes this gorgeous deck stand out.
Owing to Swartz’s unique vision and thoughtful fusion of real natural phenomena and elements of the fantastical, the Wooden Tarot’s vision of nature is utterly different to any other plant- or animal-based deck out there. Each card of the Major Arcana depicts a thematically appropriate animal: the stalwart and grounded Empress and Emperor are elephants; The High Priestess an ancient-seeming blue whale, at home in her watery domain; The Hanged Man; a bat (naturally), and Strength, the world’s strongest insect, an onthophagus taurus, or dung beetle. This deep awareness of animal and plant characteristics is, however, tinged with mystery, as naturalism gives way to the symbolic when figures have multiple heads to represent duality, and third eyes to demonstrate access to higher consciousness.
The animal archetypes of the Major Arcana are quite traditional (by which I mean, similar to the trumps of the RWS). It’s in the Minor Arcana that the Wooden Tarot becomes more abstract and strange. Rather than the usual Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, the suits are Stones, Blooms, Plumes, and Bones, respectively. At times, the symbolism is obvious – consider the Three of Plumes – and at times, more subtle – for example, the Six of Blooms or Nine of Stones. These images demand deeper consideration, both of the content of the illustration, and the way it is represented. The reader is always challenged to ask: Where is the emphasis in this image? In which direction does the energy flow? Where is the symbol of the suit, and how does it appear? Of course, it behooves us to ask these questions of any deck that we might read with, but it’s easy to put deeper analysis on hold when you’re looking at a human figure playing out a scene in an obvious or literal way. Not so much when you’re looking at a six-fingered skeleton hand and thinking, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?!” Thus, the Wooden Tarot challenges us to be more inquisitive, to look more carefully, to be more willing to make leaps of logic, and ultimately, to become better readers.
It’s not all hard work, though! The deck comes with live-in tour guides, who have turned out to be my favourite cards. In place of Aces, the suits of the Wooden Tarot has Gods. I’ve come to think of them as benevolent, if slightly creepy, guides, always ready to take your hand in their cool, white gloves, and show you around their suit. The Gods are the Rosetta Stones of the Minor Arcana, unlocking the elemental associations of each of the suits, and showing us whether each suit is active or receptive, yin or yang. As well as being super helpful, I also just think they’re really cool! What other tarot deck can claim to have four characters with floating cyclops eyeballs?!
Overall, the deck has an earthy energy to it, the sum of the many plants, animals, rocks, and weathers it depicts.
Of course, all of the elements are in attendance, but it feels as though fire in the Wooden Tarot is more like the heart of a volcano, where minerals are forged. Water seems more like a secluded, underground lake than a sunny beach, and air, like whispers of breeze under a heavy forest canopy. Earth itself feels like something deeper, the place where what was once separate has returned back to the whole. It’s a deck for going deep underground, for peeling back layers of the mind. It speaks directly to the subconscious, making it a perfect deck for dreaming, meditation, and exploration of a spiritual and psychological nature.
At a glance, it’s easy to see these two-headed hummingbirds and deer growing crystal geodes, and think, “Wow, weird…”, and then back away. These images are beautiful and strange, to the point of being overwhelming at times, and they don’t always wish to give up their secrets. Indeed, it was the aesthetic weirdness of this deck that I was attracted to, and it took some time before I felt I could speak the Wooden Tarot’s language. The lack of an accompanying book can be intimidating, and even now I sometimes find myself wishing to know what the artist had been thinking when painting this or that card. However, what at first may seem like an obstacle ultimately proves to be a great gift. No guide book means the reader must engage with these images directly, with no intermediary between stimulus and intuition, an exercise that both deepens one’s connections with the cards themselves and strengthens one’s intuitive tarot muscles overall. This deck may not always reward the casual observer, but if you’re willing to spend time walking its strange landscape, the rewards are great.
To me, the most special thing about this deck is its well-developed sense of paradox – it is traditional and yet utterly unique, the artwork simultaneously naturalistic and stylised, the concepts both dark and playful. The Wooden Tarot may have chosen to throw the Death card at me when I started writing this review, but I can’t end it without giving a mention to the bonus card in the Major Arcana, the unnumbered seventy-ninth card of the deck, The Happy Squirrel. The Wooden Tarot may have had you devoured by an owl or impaled by a quartz geode, but it’s also inviting you to shake out your bushy tail, grab your cards with both hands, and have a little fun on the dark side. What’s tarot for, after all?
Additional helpful links:
- The Wooden Tarot Facebook Study Group
- My blog series on the deck
- Emily of Dharma Eyes Tarot has also written extensively about this deck