I’m late to the party on this one, I know. This deck has been out for quite some time (gosh, has it been five years?) and is wildly popular, so my writing a “review” of it will hardly add new information to the pool. But for my birthday this year, a relative sent me an Amazon gift card, so I figured I would at least use it to expand on my collection of now-classic Tarot decks, and the Wildwood Tarot certainly counts. This deck is so immensely popular that it has achieved collection-essential status, and I’ve often felt lacking as a Tarot reader for not having it in my possession. Today, dear reader, we remedy this grievous fault.
The deck comes in a large, sturdy box and is accompanied by a 160-page companion book. The book itself is quite detailed. For each Major Arcana card, it has a small black-and-white reprint with a two-page interpretive description; for the Minor Arcana, this description is reduced to one page. The book also has a short section detailing how the Wildwood Tarot can be used as a reflection of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year (although readers of this blog will know that I already have plenty of thoughts of my own on that subject). As LWBs go, this is an excellent one, although I suspect I might end up supplementing with Alison Cross’s A Year in the Wildwood.
This deck is unique. All of the cards have been renamed. The Major Arcana have all been revamped, the suits are newly named, and all of the Minor Arcana are given keywords specific to the deck. Readers familiar with this blog will know that I am a conservative-minded Tarot reader, and I tend to be suspicious of decks that play fast-and-loose with naming and interpretive conventions. That is still the case here. Looking through these cards, I found each one delightful, but the deck as a whole is extremely nontraditional. It is going to take a lot of work for me to learn how to read with this deck, because it exists in its own little eddy, largely unaffected by mainstream systems like the RWS, Thoth, or TdM.
Nevertheless, the cards are lovely. Above are pictures of my favorite cards from the Major Arcana. I’m partial to the Hierophant, and the depiction (as “The Ancestor”) in this deck beautifully captures the energy of this card. That Pole Star is stunning, as well.
The Minor Arcana have been renamed: Swords to Arrows, Wands to Bows, Pentacles to Stones, and Cups to Vessels. Personally, I find the choice of Arrows and Bows as two separate suits a tiny bit confusing, because there is some crossover in imagery (i.e. some Arrows cards feature bows, and vice versa), but that’s probably more of a reflection on me than on the deck. The cards are illustrated with beautiful, detailed color, and the drawings are all clearly reflective of the cards’ divinatory meanings.* In that sense, this might make a good beginners’ deck, because there is a lot of visual symbolism to draw on for interpretation.
I’m not sure how I feel about the inclusion of keywords on all of the Minor Arcana. As with the renaming of the Majors, I tend to be suspicious and grumpy when deck creators decide to go in this direction. My general feeling is that having a keyword physically written on each card restricts the range of possible interpretations, limits the active role of the reader in the process, and makes a deck more into an Oracle than a Tarot. However, I know that keywords are a feature that many people find helpful, especially when they’re first starting out with Tarot. In this respect, I suspect that the problem is my curmudgeonliness and not any intrinsic feature of the deck.
Plus, because this deck in particular is so different from any other, the inclusion of keywords might actually be quite helpful. To read with this deck, I’m going to have to unlearn and relearn Tarot in its entirety; it will be helpful not to have to stop in the middle of every reading and ask, “Golly, what was the Nine of Swords supposed to be in the Wildwood?” Instead, the cards offer a verbal as well as a visual cue to the interpretation of their specific symbolic language.
Temporally, this deck appears to be set in the Stone Age. There are a couple of anachronisms (metalwork, clothes, and architecture that wouldn’t have emerged until the Bronze Age at the earliest), but I honestly only noticed them upon close examination of the imagery in each card. The point of this deck is not, I think, to be historically accurate, but to convey a sense that the power expressing itself through the Wildwood Tarot is old. There is something prehistoric about these cards, something evocative of a time when (European) society consisted of hunter-gatherers hiding in caves and when fire had barely been mastered. The actual historicity of the cards (and the lack of a historical connection between Stone Age society and Tarot) is not important: Rather, what is important is the way that these cards can help a Tarot practitioner connect to the limbic, primal part of herself.
The Court Cards in this deck are interesting. Rather than people, they each feature a different animal. All of the Courts from the suit of Arrows are birds, although I wasn’t able to find a similar pattern for the other suits. People who work more with animal symbolism, and particularly with European (? Or are they North American?) animals, will likely find a wealth of symbolism here to connect to the meanings of the Courts, although I am inexperienced enough in this respect that I’ll have to do some research before I can work comfortably with them.
If you’ve been paying close attention to the card images I’ve given so far, you’ll have noticed that they’re not terribly dissimilar to the kinds of imagery that might appear in a RWS-based deck. For example, above, the Two of Vessels is labelled “Attraction”; the Six of Arrows is “Transition”. These are not exactly the RWS interpretations of the Two of Cups and Six of Swords, but they’re not far off, and one might reasonably expect to see these kinds of keywords on a beginner’s Tarot kit. Even the renaming of Judgment to “The Great Bear” is not that radical.
So why have I said that this deck is radically nontraditional, to the point that it requires a complete Tarot reeducation?
Above are a couple of the wilder changes to the Major Arcana of the Wildwood Tarot. The Chariot has become the Archer; Justice has become the Woodward; and the Hanged Man has been replaced by a strange mermaidlike apparition called the Mirror.
Okay, fine, I can kind of get behind the Archer, because we can talk about aiming at a target (at which point I go off on a long inner ramble about the Aristotelian conception of virtue and the goal of human life) and somehow align that notion of aim with some of the traditional meanings associated with the Chariot. But what on God’s green earth is a Woodward? And what does this Mirror business have to do with the Hanged Man?
The companion book is a bit helpful on this point, as it talks about the Woodward as guardian of the Wildwood who is capable of taming its beasts (okay, Strength, I kinda get it) and associates the Mirror card with a quasi-Arthurian Lady of the Lake and an initiator of the individual into dark mysteries. But I’m still left reeling, I have to admit.
Above, you can also see a few of the nontraditional cards from the Minors, as well. I would say that most of the Minor Arcana veer from tradition, and in some cases, that deviation is pretty wild. The Nine of Arrows (i.e. Nine of Swords) is “Dedication”, and the guidebook talks about “the calling to dedicate one’s life to any skill, spiritual path, belief system or philosophy”. And the Five of Vessels (i.e. Five of Cups, informally known as the Card of Supreme Moping) is called “Ecstasy”.
Allow me to be extremely clear here: I am not saying that the break from tradition makes this a bad deck. In fact, I think the Wildwood Tarot is a very good deck. But for anyone who is familiar with traditional Tarot, the Wildwood may prove maddening, because it is very much its own thing. It can’t be read the way you would read any other deck. (Seriously, though. Ecstasy.)
One final note about the deck. It’s super Pagan. Not only are all of the Major Arcana associated with points on the Wheel of the Year, but so are all of the Court Cards, and the Minor Arcana are associated with seasons and elements. Plus, the cards themselves incorporate a lot of symbolism that reads as explicitly Pagan for anyone who knows what to look for. There are a couple of beautiful nods to the Gundestrup Cernunnos, the Hooded Man (i.e. the Hermit) might as well be called the Holly King, and almost all of the Major Arcana (e.g. the Green Man and Green Woman for the Emperor and Empress) are given at least quasi-Pagan names. Plus, there’s a dabbling of Arthurian imagery, from the Lady-of-the-Lake Mirror card to the Welsh/Saxon dragons fighting on the Three of Bows. I really did appreciate the layers of symbolism in this deck, and I think Pagan readers in particular will get a lot out of the imagery of the Wildwood.
My overall takeaway: This is a lovely deck, and one that I am proud to have in my collection. I also think that the way people make and think about Tarot decks has probably changed significantly in the past few years, as a result of the Wildwood‘s influence. For that alone, it’s worth having.
Because I am a more traditional Tarot reader, I doubt that I will ever form a close personal connection to the Wildwood Tarot, but that’s a matter of my stylistic preferences. It has nothing at all to do with the objective quality of the deck, and I want to emphasize that this is a wonderful, well put-together deck on every level. It may deviate from tradition, but it a level of internal consistency in its design that makes up for much of that deviation.
I probably wouldn’t recommend this deck to people who are just starting to get into Tarot, unless they’re comfortable learning a system that’s a bit outside of the mainstream. For the most part, I’d say the Wildwood Tarot is a great deck for intermediate or advanced readers who already have a decent grasp of traditional Tarot symbolism and who want to push beyond that. Moreover, as I mentioned, I think this is a great deck for Pagan readers, because there is such rich Pagan symbolism throughout.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll return with a (similarly late-to-the-party) review of the Druid Craft Tarot, which is another classic that’s been absent from my collection for too long. I also want to write a post about the interconnection of the Court Cards with astrology, because I don’t think I’ve blogged about that before. For now, have a great weekend, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me soon.
*That is to say, of the divinatory meanings of the cards in this deck. A major theme of this review is that this is a great deck for aesthetics and internal consistency, but that it doesn’t really map onto the rest of Tarot.