Deck Reviews: Tarot of the Witch’s Garden, the Runic Tarot, and Tarot of the Owls

My very first foray into the world of witchcraft occurred when I was 12 – I fell in love with a Tarot deck. It always strikes me as interesting that the very first magical art I learned is still the one I use the most, and the one that pays a large percentage of my bills. I cut my teeth as a reader first in the Marine Corps (if you don’t already know this, servicemembers as a whole are deeply superstitious and definitely line up for readings), then while working at a New Age store and accompanying that business to various Science Fiction and Fantasy Conventions. I’ve been a part-time divinator since 2004, full-time since 2018.

My background in spaces where time is constrained (the Day Room of a barracks, Conventions where folks have 15 minutes til their next panel) means that I have a style of reading and a style of deck I prefer. I’m quite direct as a reader – in most half hour sessions I can manage at least two full spreads plus one or two clarifying questions. I do not beat around the bush and it’s one of the things my clients like about me. Due to my reading style, I also have a deck type that I prefer: artwork where the emotional core of a card is readily apparent in the card. Decks where the suit cards are not fully illustrated do not interest me. A picture of 4 swords? Hard pass. A picture of a man in deep sleep, completely unperturbed by the goings-on around him? Yes. Definitely.

Part of why I prefer decks with evocative artwork is ease of use – remembering the meaning of a card is much simpler when the interpretation is so immediate. The main reason, though, is that I read for others. A handful of my clients are also tarot readers, but most are not, which means they do not know the system and its interpretations at all. Being able to show a card to a client, point to the sleeping man and explain that if they don’t stop and rest they’re going to burn out, makes a reading much easier for that client to remember as well.

In addition to evocative artwork, I evaluate for inclusivity and intersectionality. Most tarot decks depict white, cisgender, heterosexual, slender humans. Like many aspects of white supremacy, this tendency to depict heterosexual white narratives in tarot artwork seems to lurk in the blind spot of white and straight privilege. The tide is turning and decks are becoming more diverse, but progress remains slow.

Lastly, I evaluate for flow – does the deck work well as a whole? Do the cards speak clearly? This is more on the metaphysical side and part of why I test decks with live play-tests on my Facebook page. Wanna see if a deck works? Open the floor and have 50 strangers ask random questions.

Over the past few months, I play-tested three decks live and am ready to give my full reviews for each. Deep gratitude to Llewellyn Worldwide for sending me such beautiful tools to review!

 

Tarot of the Witch’s Garden by Natasha Illincic with a companion book by Sasha Graham. Live play-test footage here.

This deck and book combination (Secrets of the Witch’s Garden) is excellent overall. The book is lushly illustrated in color, with a full page print of each card. This allows for greater examination of the details in the artwork of each card – at a size comfortable for use in readings, it can be easy to miss the finer points of the artist’s interpretation. The book contains more than enough information and suggestions to get a novice reader well-grounded in tarot interpretation and use. The print quality on the deck is very high – the cards are vibrant, smooth and glossy to the touch, and feel quite sturdy. This one would stand up to long term use well.

This is a wonderfully user-friendly deck. The artist chose expressions, situations, and depictions that almost instantly transmit the overall meaning of each card. This deck would be excellent for beginners as a result – you can really feel the meaning of the cards.

My favorite aspect of this deck is how inclusive it is: the people in the cards are depicted with a range of skin tones and in many cards the gender of the individuals depicted is ambiguous. It is much easier to see yourself represented in this deck.

My only criticisms are on heteronormativity and body diversity: the cards depicting romantic relationships are largely heterosexual. One could argue that the Lovers card could depict two femme-bodied people, but one cannot see two masc-bodied people in the artwork. Additionally, the deck overwhelmingly depicts slender bodies unless the person in the image is of an advanced age.

Overall, I absolutely love it. It reads beautifully, the artwork is exquisite, it is racially diverse, and the cards are highly evocative of their associated meanings. This set would be a great fit for most readers, beginner to advanced. 8.5 out of 10 stars. Learn more/purchase yours here.

 

The Runic Tarot by Jack Sephiroth and Zhang Chao. Live play-test footage here

I think I should start by being honest: I don’t think Runes and Tarot go together. There’s a real tendency in the witch and Pagan world to look at magical systems and assume that one can put them in the blender with other magical systems and have everything line up well. In my own experience, that is simply not the case. My beloved spouse is a very good rune reader, and we often encourage folks to see both a tarot and rune reader due to the different types of information the systems offer. Runes tend to be big-picture – they’re great for the larger themes of life. A good reader can get more granular information from them, but in general they read best when you’re looking for the raven’s eye view of a situation. Tarot is more specific to the day to day blessings and challenges in a human life. The system offers more nuance about relationships and situations, and is a good reflection of the complexity most of us live with. Both systems work well, but are fundamentally different. So, I was intensely curious about how this deck would read.

I should also tell you that I’m Heathen – the myths depicted in the cards are ones that I hold dearly in my heart. I suspect I bring a more critical eye to this deck than another reader might as a result.

The Runic Tarot is a very high quality deck – the box itself would stand up to plenty of use if you don’t have a tarot case or box readily available. The cards are beautifully printed and quite vivid. In the box there is also a small guide book by Jayme Elford. The artwork is noticeably computer-driven graphic art. I’m not a huge fan of the style, but I know others are.

Rather than traditional Cups, Pentacles, Wands, and Swords, the suits in the Runic Tarot are Horns, Shields, Wands, and Swords. It’s a cute take on the suits and appropriate to the deck. The suite cards are depicted without a written title – the card number and suit is indicated at the top of each card by a number superimposed on the symbol (horn, shield, wand, or sword). This does make the deck a bit less user-friendly for novices, at least at first. Major Arcana and Court cards do have written titling.

Although we know for a fact that winged helms weren’t something our ancient kin of faith wore or used (great way to get a sword stuck on your helmet), they appear throughout the artwork in the deck. If you’re more into the Viking Cosplay side of Heathenry, I suppose it’s probably alright, but for me it’s an instant turn-off. I’m also going to knock a point off for the depiction of Freyja in The Chariot. Freyja is a goddess of magic, battle (she gets first choice of the battle-slain), sovereignty, and love. She looks more like a pin-up than a badass in the artwork of this deck, although other Goddesses (Sunna for instance) are depicted in a way that caters less to the male gaze.

I have some quibbles about the rune choices and the cards they are assigned to. For example, The World, a Tarot card about completing one cycle successfully and beginning another one, includes the rune Hagalaz in its artwork. Hagalaz is the hail stone, a rune associated with destruction and sudden misfortune. It has more in common with The Tower than The World. That said, I love the myth selected for The World – the spirit depicted is Ymir, whose body becomes our physical world. It’s a great take on one cycle completed (Ymir’s power and reign) and the next cycle beginning (Ymir becoming the base and structure of our world).

An additional criticism is that the runes are barely mentioned in the interpretive book that comes with the deck. They’re glossed over, often with definitions I feel are lacking, if mentioned at all. The runes on the suit cards are frequently not mentioned at all, including bindrunes (symbols where one or more runes are combined into a single sigil) and Younger Futhark (a less commonly used system). If one is going to include a magical sigil system, one ought to explain it to those who are going to use the cards that include it. I suspect the artists had reasons for including the runes that they did, but those reasons are not relayed. I’m unfortunately left to wonder how familiar the artists really were with the runes.

I will say that good myth choices flow through the deck. The Tower depicts Fafnir the dragon, The Empress shows Frig, and Forseti is our Hierophant. All of these are solid choices that indicate a decent understanding and interpretation of ancient Norse, Icelandic, and Germanic myths.

The Runic Tarot does have big problems when it comes to inclusivity. It solely depicts white people, and any cards referencing romantic relationships are decidedly heteronormative. Although one could make a weak argument that the ancient Norse were largely fairer-skinned (although not entirely – the Norse were travelers and their society reflected that), the presence of other anachronistic and fantasy images (winged helms, armor that’s straight out of a DragonLance novel) renders that argument moot. If we’re reimagining the myths, we need to reimagine them so that everyone can see themselves in the lore. This deck is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and caters strongly to the male gaze in places. Norse mythology is better than that, and I’d love to see a deck that honors our stories in a more inclusive way.

The deck read well during testing largely due to the myth choices, I suspect. I do think this is a valiant attempt to bring Heathen lore into the Tarot world, but it’s an attempt that needed a good deal more consideration on several fronts. 5 out of 10 stars. Learn more/purchase yours here.

 

The Tarot of the Owls by Elisabeth Alba with a companion book by Pamela Chen. Live play-test footage here.

I really didn’t expect to love this deck – I find that I’m often hesitant around decks that completely remove human figures from the artwork simply because the very human meanings of the cards can get lost. However, this one is a real winner for many reasons.

The full set is fantastic – the book, Wisdom of the Owls by Pamela Chen, is full-size and in full color so that one can examine each card’s artwork in more detail. The set box itself features a magnetic clasp and sturdy material so one could keep book and deck together for regular use if so desired. The cards are beautiful – vividly printed on high-quality cardstock with a glossy finish. The back of each card features a single owl eye surrounded by feathers in a rainbow of hues. I love the signaling here – both a warding off of evil (the owl eye is reminiscent of a nazar or evil eye charm) and the bright rainbow’s indication of inclusivity.

The artwork is simply wonderful. I really didn’t expect to see owl illustrations able to depict the meanings of the cards, but the artist knocked it out of the park. There’s an additional layer of humor present as well – the cards are beautiful and meaningful, but the whimsy of an owl theme allows for some lighthearted moments. One of my personal favorites is the expression on the King of Pentacles’ face – he looks completely done with everyone’s nonsense, and it’s absolutely hilarious.

By removing humans entirely from the artwork, this deck beats the inclusivity metric without even really trying. The owls in the Lovers card could be any gender and sexual orientation, and the Kings and Queens bear gendered titles but could easily be wearing the title based on role rather than gender expression. Owls are also naturally on the adorably floofy side, so body diversity is a non-issue as well.

This would be a fantastic deck for a tweeny or teen first learning tarot as well as an excellent choice for a more established reader. The cards read beautifully during the play-test – each card’s story leaps (flies?) out from the artwork clearly.

My only criticism is that the artwork on the back of the cards is directional, meaning that if a card is upside down, the reader can easily see that it’s different from the upright cards. Depending on the method of card selection during a reading, this could interfere with the selection process.

So, my overall score? 9 out of 10. Damn near perfect. What a great deck. Learn more/purchase yours here.

 

If you’re interested in joining a play-test, there are two more coming up soon: Tarot of the Vampires on Thursday, September 14th, at noon eastern, and the Yuletide Tarot on Thursday, November 9th, at noon eastern. Hit the Events section of my Facebook page to stay up to date on upcoming play-tests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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