Review by Jane R Hansen
How do you make a Tarot Deck for Witches: No, not the pointy-hat halloween kind of witches, but Wiccans and others who practice the Craft of the Wise? Well, I suppose it’s like stirring a good spell. You bring everything you know to the table and select just the right ingredients to get the job done, and you work with nature, make room for the magick, and create a clear image to manifest. This seems to be what Ellen Dugan has done in her Witches Tarot, as she worked with award-winning illustrator Mark Evans to take the traditional symbols of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and brought in a supporting cast of plant, animal and otherworld folk. She also renamed four of the major arcana cards with slightly different names. But more on that later in this review.
Her companion guide spells it all out in detail. You can definitely read with the deck right out of the box, if you are adept with the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) type deck. The renamed Major Arcana make sense, and the rest of the art is mostly a variation on the “standard” art of the RWS deck.
Flora and Fauna
For you herbalists and gardeners out there, pay attention to the plants in the cards. Ellen put some serious thought into the meanings… she isn’t known as “The Garden Witch” for nothing, you know. The Monkshood in the Ten of Swords. Not only is the plant poisonous, but in the language of flowers, monkshood says a foe is near. This gives double weight to heed the warning of the card to pay attention to your instincts and keep your back to the wall! Throughout Witches Tarot, the flowers and plants have meaning and they are explained in the companion book.
What is a witch without her familiar? For you cat-lovers, our favorite familiars do show up in expected and unexpected places. The Queen of wands has a friend on her lap, but the seven of cups also has a the kitty in a cup. Awe, isn’t that cute! But you’ll also find our feline friends on the High Priestess, Page of Wands, Two of Wands and the Three of pentacles. That’s not even counting the Lion in strength or on the World Card.
But wait, there’s more! Yes, as you wander through the world of Witches Tarot you’ll see a rabbit, stags, ravens, an eagle, hawks, lions, horses, an ibis, wolves, a dolphin, butterflies, dragonflies, a white hind and I’m sure there’s more I didn’t spot when compiling this listing. Best of all, with everything that’s in there, it never seems out of place.
Witches Tarot and the Otherworld
Folk of the Otherworld also show up in appropriate places. You will find mermaids present with suit of cups, but not omnipresent throughout the suit. There are also dolphins and fish and other watery folk. When the mermaids do appear, they are elegantly done.
Fairies appear occasionally (four times) with swords, and once on the magician card. They are rather diminutive and cartoon-ish. I suppose they are there to embody the element of air. For a Faery Seership student and Froud fan like me, it doesn’t work. But I’m sure some people will love them. Fortunately, they only appear on a couple of cards.
I much prefer the dragonflies painted on the side of the boat in the six of swords to help bring out the element of air. The hawk on the ace of swords is definitely a nice touch, as well.
Dragons are dominant on the Five of Swords . . . instead of five men sparring on the ground, they are each on the back of a dragon. It’s a sky battle, and very dramatic. The dragon also shows up in the seven of cups and various places as a carving or, in the case of the nine of wands as an emblem on a tunic. I’m particularly fond of the nine of wands since, instead of a man, the warrior in this case is a woman. I like how Witches Tarot takes steps to balance out some of these roles and break gender stereotypes. There is also a woman featured in the Eight of Pentacles, perfecting her Craft. With a Raven, Candle, Book and skull . . . this has some of the most-beloved imagery for witches, hitting all the marks.
Yin and Yang, Masculine and Feminine
In some ways, the deck tips more towards the feminine. But considering the majority of the decks are masculine, it’s understandable. It is also part of modern Witch Culture to reclaim the feminine in the Divine.
Witches Tarot gives place to Goddesses in some of the Major Arcana Cards. Namely,
- Justice: Themis Greek Goddess of justice
- Temperance: Iris, Greek Goddess of the rainbow
- The Star: Star Goddess
- The Moon: Hecate Trivia (more on her further down)
But the deck only gives place to a God in the form of the Green Man on the World Card. I do want to point out the male figures throughout the deck are well done. So it’s just the Divine male which seems to be a bit hidden or understated. The companion book does list associated male deities for some of the Major Arcana cards, but doesn’t give a title role on any of the images other than the World Card.
Speaking of balance; at the Eye, we’ve come to look for some variation in skin tones and ethnicity in newer decks. While not as diverse as we would like, there is still some progress being made in the Witches Tarot. The Page of Pentacles offers us some clear diversity, while other cards have a more subtle approach, such as the seven of wands or the Asian angel featured on the Lovers card.
Note the Page of Pentacles pictured at left also has additional symbolism through the tree and white hind pictured. Throughout the Witches Tarot, a harmony and inclusion of nature adds to the depth of connections between the reader and a fuller set of energies than just astrological and elemental. This card is quite the step forward on a number of levels.
A Detailed Look at Some of the Cards
I always look to the fool image as a signature card of a deck. This one is a bit more foolish than many, because he’s really about to lose the guidance of his dog. Or maybe he’s going to look down just in time. Is he really about to step off the cliff here? Although a standard image, with nothing added, this perspective does show more motion, and if you have a fear of heights, this might leave you a bit breathless.
Death is one of my favorite cards in the Witches Tarot. Nothing says death quite like the flaming skull. Compared with this version of the RWS card from 1909 pictured below, you can see how the symbolism is shifted slightly.
There are no longer the pious Christian overtones of the kneeling woman and pontiff in prayer. But the flowered flag is the same, the red eyes of the horse brought out, the fortress in sunset, the youth with flowers, but this time given as an offering to death. I also love how the skull and crossbones on the reins are given new life and purpose!
The Moon Card – Hekate
This is more of a departure from the traditional symbolism. Some of the names are changed in the other Major Arcana, but here is a very different take on the moon than the Rider Waite. Witches Tarot features the silver-haired Crone Goddess, Hekate Trivia, “the goddess of the three ways.” Wolves represent the wildness, the keys the will or rational mind. Again, pay attention to the flora . . . willow trees correspond to the element of water and lunar magick. I know some people who might want a Witches Tarot Deck just to do workings with this card alone. Though I also have to add that for those who like their Crones properly wrinkled-up, this is a bit of a disappointment. For those who like their Goddesses breath-taking, well, it works quite well. Let’s just think of Hekate as ageless here.
In the Major Arcana, four of the cards are re-named with only slight re-visioning in Dugan’s Witches Tarot.
V The High Priest replaces the Hierophant
X The Wheel of the Year replaces the Wheel of Fortune
XV The Shadow Side replaces the Devil
XX Karma replaces Judgement
The first two are rather minor, and easily translated from anyone who is accustomed to standard meanings for the cards. With the High Priest and the Hierophant, you lose a bit of the hierarchy and gain a natural wisdom-teacher. The Wheel of the Year highlights the seasons and the elements to the turning of the year, rather than just chance or fate. The seeming simplicity of this card is deceptive, for all the elements are present, as well as the entire rise and fall of life throughout the year. When the Wheel shows up, it can only be understood in context of the time and season. Or perhaps it is asking you to step outside of time for a moment to gain a broader perspective of the cycles and seasons, the elements and spirit.
The Shadow Side is wonderfully refreshing replacement for the Devil. I can read that sentence aloud here at the Eye and not be horribly misunderstood. You might not want to do that where you work, and “wonderfully refreshing” might sound strange for such a dark card. But chucking the devil is a good thing. Let’s face it, real Witches don’t include the monotheist’s devil in their worldview. By tossing out that old cliche, we get a card that reflects the real danger and challenges when fear and panic take over and drive your actions. Basically, if the Shadow Side comes up in a reading it means it’s time to take back your power that you’ve handed over to something or someone else. Often a card of addictions or addictive behaviors, it is no longer the ultimate depiction of evil, which has been largely deified by this culture. Just think of the phrase, “the devil made me do it.” Instead it is a darkness and a hunger, and the acknowledgement of personal responsibility.
Last among the renamed Major Arcana, instead of Judgement, Witches Tarot has a Karma card. Although Karma is a word and concept of eastern philosophy, it is a term commonly used (or misused, according to some) by modern witches and pagans. Here we have a card of cosmic proportion, featuring a family come to celebrate a solar eclipse. It is a card of the events we get caught up in, and the meaning we derive from the experience. Karma is a card of cycles rather than the linear call to judgement of the old worldview. There is no trumpet calling you out, as in the older version of the card. Instead, by featuring an eclipse, this card invites you to step up and take your place in the greater dance of the universe… to stand in awe, wonder and celebration, not as a recipient of judgement, but as one who listens to the Great Song and joins in as both audience and player.
Witches Tarot honors the Divine in the World, and the Feminine in the Divine.
The High Priestess from the deck also provides the cover for the companion book on this kit. I haven’t said much about the companion book thus far, because at over 300 pages it speaks extremely well for itself. Like all of Ellen Dugan’s books, it is both thoroughly on topic and easy to digest. With this companion as your guide you’ll have fun exploring new ways to look at the cards, or if you are new to Tarot, you will find a wonderful and magickal introduction to both divining with the cards and using the cards in your workings, whether they be active spells or inner journeys.
What could be more witchy than that?
Well, personally, I would have liked to see:
- Cernunnos or Dionyssus any male deity typically honored by witches I know being strongly represented in the deck. The Green Man is nice, but it’s not the same. The Robin Wood Tarot had the magician wear antlers, which I liked. But the Druid Tarot has Cernunnos instead of the Devil Card, and the meaning of the card got lost.
- The Crone version of Hekate looking older than 30.
- More ethnic diversity, while strides are being made, it seems the Tarot world is still a couple of decades behind the times.
- Faeries represented more as nature spirits than cartoon stereotypes.
- Winged guides represented more like the spirits and Deities which have been in cultures from the Egyptian to the Norse. Not Angels which are part of a hierarchy in a monarchy. It’s the pagan in me. There’s only the one, but the image of Temperance is a bit too typical angel, as well.
How would I rate Witches Tarot as a Tarot Deck?
I am extremely impressed with this deck. This deck has my new all-time favorite Death Card, and possibly the High Priestess, Ace of Wands and Ace of Swords, as well. I’m sure others will have their own favorites, since there’s some absolutely stunning artwork throughout the deck. I also haven’t seen a better recasting of the Devil Card, to date.
Whether you consider yourself a witch or not, this deck just feels more inclusive for many alternative spirituality paths or philosophies. The added focus on the seasons, the elements, the plant and animals symbolism just add to the layers of meaning. For those drawn to the divine feminine, it really is a spectacular deck.
In this way, it just feels less hierarchical than the standard RWS deck, though there are still the Kings and Queens. At least the surrounding world feels more open and participatory.
My quibbles about some of the details are really pretty minor, and I’ve yet to meet a perfect deck for me. My favorite thus far this year has been the Steampunk Tarot. Witches Tarot floats somewhere in the vicinity. I’m going to have to spend more time with it to determine if it speaks as well for me. Initial test readings show this deck to be extremely friendly to my style of intuition while also providing new perspectives.
We invite you to stop into the Eye and try out our demo deck, check out the official Witches Tarot site, or buy Witches Tarot from our online store. Thanks for supporting Indies like us! Oh, and visit Ellen Dugan’s blog for more about the Witches Tarot and other wonderful tips and information.
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