I’ve been messing around with various potential posts for this blog because there are so many things happening inside me that are not getting written down anywhere. My tarot slump has continued, but two things happened yesterday that have rekindled my faith that tarot can help me with the changes that we are facing on Earth right now.
The Judgement card heralds a cycle of sleeping consciousness, its awakening, and resistance to the revelation. Nothing is static. No one arrives and stays woke forever to all things. No one sleeps forever. At least not without a ton of grief. We regularly face opportunities to awaken or resist reality again and again. The direction we move in the cycle depends on our willingness to wake up or our commitment to bury our heads in the sand.
Please go read this beautiful post. It puts so much stuff that I’ve been thinking and feeling lately into an entirely new context. I’m a proponent of the work of Joanna Macy, who points out that the grief we feel for the world–which others may try to privatize and pathologize as personal neurosis–is actually proof that we are inseparable from the world. When we hear the trumpet calling us to awaken from the sleep of distraction and separation, we actually awaken to several things all at once: our love and gratitude for the world, our grief at its destruction, the interconnection of all beings and things, and the need to take action.
As Siobhan points out, we go through cycles of sleep and awakening–it’s not true that we sleep forever or wake up once and for all. Instead, waking up is something that we choose over and over, whether it’s a self-prompted awakening from within, or a trumpet call from without. (And yes, I am deliberately playing on the fact that trump is embedded in trumpet.) In either case, we have a choice to either move toward waking up or to fall back asleep. I’ll also add here that what is usually translated as “enlightenment” or “awakening” in Buddhism is in many schools not seen as a permanent state. Zen in particular, which I study, talks about awakening as a series of experiences both sudden and gradual.
Anyway, I was pondering all of this when a package arrived at my house well after dark. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, the Slow Holler deck!
In some ways, it’s hard to even believe that I now hold this deck in my hands. I wrote my first blog post about it back in March of 2015–over a year and a half ago. The creators ran a great Kickstarter campaign, keeping us all apprised of updates as the deck has progressed, and shipping it out on schedule.
Already, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this deck, but I think it will be a while before I write a review. Let’s just say that, in working with the Slow Holler Tarot, I have felt more supported and healed by the tarot than I have in months. I knew the deck was going to arrive soon and kind of wistfully thought that it might pull me out of my tarot slump, but I did not anticipate that it would be this powerful. The deck is true to its promise of diversity of all kinds, but I think what is making the biggest impression on me now is its orientation toward the collective. The messages behind the Slow Holler Tarot are about sustaining yourself by sustaining others, and vice versa. It’s clearly a deck that has been created by people who know the challenges and rewards of collective action.
It’s time for me to wake up and lean in–to keep waking up and leaning in–and the Slow Holler Tarot has offered itself as a compass.
One of my favorite people in the tarot community is Kelly-Ann Maddox, whose wisdom enriches any conversation about tarot or spirituality. I first came across Maddox on Instagram, but the real gem of her online presence is her YouTube channel, where she has posted hundreds of videos of a wide variety of topics relating to spirituality, tarot, ethics, and more. Although much of her channel is about witchcraft, which I don’t practice, I still get so much from watching her videos because of her genuine understanding of the processes of emotional healing, self-understanding, and personal empowerment. And she is really, really no-bullshit.
Recently, I saw that back in December she had posted a couple of videos about what she calls “Witchy Consumerism,” which includes the urge to buy tarot decks, but also expands to crystals, ritual objects, altar setups, etc. I wish I had seen them before writing my #decklust post, because there’s so much overlap and I could have gotten further by using her videos as a jumping-off point. I hope to talk more about #decklust/consumerism in the future, but in the meantime, do take a look at these videos if this topic at all interests you. She has great theories about why consumerism leaks into our spiritual practices and practical ways for beginning to examine and undo those habits.
For those in the tarot community on Instagram, sharing pictures of newly purchased decks is a favorite pastime. Every day in my feed, I see pictures of packages containing decks, or new decks still in shrink wrap, usually with a caption that goes something like, “Just got home to find this in the mail! I’m so excited!” But a couple of months ago, I saw a post (I can’t remember whose, unfortunately) that featured a picture of two new shrink-wrapped decks and the caption:
When I own every tarot deck, will I finally be happy?
The tiny Buddha inside my head went, “Nooooooooooo! You won’t because that’s not how desire works!” But this was a person I’d never really engaged with, so I didn’t feel like jumping in and giving her a lecture. I also didn’t because, you know, it’s not like I have this shit figured out either.
For those who talk about tarot on blogs or social media, the temptation to share new decks with followers is irresistible. I do it, too. While we might not associate buying a $20 tarot deck with conspicuous consumption–a term we usually reserve for McMansions, BMW SUVs, and Prada handbags–that’s literally what we’re doing: making our consumption conspicuous to others. I don’t think there’s any harm in a person showing off a new tarot deck to their friends and followers, but strange things begin to happen when you share with dozens or hundreds of tarot folks on social media.
I follow about 220 people on Instagram, and while each of those people might buy a deck every once in a while, I see posts about new decks every day–often multiple times a day–which makes it seem like people are consuming more than they really are and that it’s normal to be buying decks all the time. Rather than conspicuous consumption, which focuses on one person’s wealth, I call it the spectacle of consumption–the illusion, though watching mass consumer habits, that each person is consuming more than they really are, and that it’s normal to consume at such a rate. (Not surprisingly, I’m not the first person to make this term up–if you google it, you can find it in critiques of Late/Post-Capitalism. But anyway.) And from what I can tell, this spectacle of consumption causes people to consume more–or at least desire to consume more.
Since seeing that Instagram post, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tarot community and what we call #decklust. On Instagram, and probably other platforms where tarot people hang out, the hashtag #decklust sums things up pretty well. As soon as a beautiful new deck comes out, everyone has to have it. And if you can’t afford it, at least you can publicly opine about how you want it. People use #decklust jokingly, of course, but there’s a kind of self-consciousness about it as well. On Instagram and in other places, I’ve seen people talk about how they spend so much money on decks that it’s actually harming their personal finances. Or about how they see tarot as a big part of their spiritual path and feel conflicted about how commercialized it has become. I myself have thought about all these things and have also undertaken measures to work with my own #decklust.
I recently ended a 6-month hiatus of buying anything having to do with tarot. From last April to October, I managed to blow almost $500 on tarot decks, books, and apps. So I decided that from November to May, I wouldn’t buy anything having to do with tarot. I did swap a couple of decks, and received a couple others as gifts. I also made the exception of backing the Next World Tarot on Kickstarter since it was a time-sensitive thing, but aside from that I held to my promise pretty well. During this whole time, however, I was building up my wishlist–putting things on, taking things off. In the end, I had up with a wish list three decks long: the Mary-el Tarot, the Japaridze Tarot, and the Tarot del Fuego.
As I saw these decks on Instagram, especially the Mary-el, I became really fixated on them. But this time I was smart enough and really began to watch the whole #decklust process. I watched the feelings of hope and excitement I got from the idea of buying and owning the Mary-el. I watched the feelings of resistance that came up when I thought: What if I don’t buy it? I watched my state of mind as I purchased it, opened it, and began to use it. The result? I realized very quickly after opening it that, although the Mary-el is a great deck and I will enjoy using it for years, I am not a whit happier for buying it. Furthermore, the amount energy I spent researching it and lusting after it was far greater than the enjoyment I get from actually owning and using it.
My conclusion is that #decklust is a time-waster and an energy vampire. And, most importantly, it’s endless unless you work with it. I still have #decklust, of course, but watching how it works gives me some perspective. Watching other people’s #__lust is helpful, too. For instance, I’m fairly rare in the tarot community in that I have no interest whatsoever in buying crystals. And yet I see people going through the same process with crystals and think, Why is this even an issue? But, of course, most people in the world would look at me and go, Why would someone spend so much money on a pack of cards?
A great way to get some perspective is to poke around in other communities on social media that are centered on collections and hobbies different from your own. One night on Instagram, I stumbled across an entire community of people who collect little pins that you buy at Disney World. I was amazed that anyone would spend their money on this–and then thought about my own spending habits and how stupid they would look to an outsider. My point is that our desires, no matter how well-founded they seem to us, are completely arbitrary.*
But more importantly, just as you can be in love with love, you can desire desire. The desire of desire, masked as the desire for things, is basically what US culture is founded upon. The reason why a new tarot deck will never make me permanently happy and fulfilled–no matter how much I enjoy working with it, and no matter how much happiness it brings in the short term–is that the process of desire is always focused on continuing to desire. It’s a system that is set up to continue desire indefinitely, not bring contentment. Even if I buy a copy of every tarot deck in existence, I will always be waiting for the next one, or turn my sights on something else.
Over the past six months, I have also become more alive to the ethical implications of buying tarot decks whenever I want to–even if I have the means. Why am I buying decks for myself when I could give that money to refugees or famine victims? And what about the reality that decks come from living forests which are chopped down, shipped to China, processed and made into cards using exploited labor and heinous chemicals, shipped back to the US (using tons of fossil fuels in the process), and into Amazon warehouses where they are packaged and shipped by exploited workers. I’m not trying to give anyone a guilt trip, because guilt is not an emotion conducive to positive action, but these are real ethical questions we all have to ask ourselves about anything we buy. Is another tarot deck worth the well-being of workers, the lives of trees, and more carbon released into the atmosphere?
I’ve adopted two strategies for dealing, at least partly, with these questions. The first is to buy used decks whenever possible. It’s not a perfect system, of course, since somebody has to buy new ones in the first place, but I think buying used is a great strategy for many things. The second is to make sure that I donate a dollar to charity for each dollar I spend on tarot. Not only does this curb my tarot spending, but it keeps me from focusing on myself and my own pleasures all the time. I have no illusions that either of these solutions is perfect, but they do make a difference in how I see decks. I’m forced to consider the social impact of spending money on myself, and the environmental/social impact of buying new.
The point I’m trying to make here is not that we should squash and eradicate our #decklust. Rather, I think we should bring curiosity to it. Does wanting new decks make me happy? What does it feel like in my body? Do the decks themselves make me happy permanently? How does it happen that I buy decks even when I don’t mean to? How do I feel about the social/environmental consequences of buying decks I don’t need? Answering these questions may or may not change our habits of consumption. But these are questions that every person needs to answer for themselves, and when approached with curiosity, #decklust is a gift, an opportunity for self-exploration.
*I want to point out that I’m talking about consumerist desires–hobbies, collections, fashion, gadgets, and the like. Basic desires for shelter, food, financial stability, human companionship, etc. are a different matter entirely.
The Wooden Tarot is a 79-card self-published tarot deck by Atlanta-based artist A. L. Swartz in 2014(?). The deck was conceived in the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition, but Swartz’s unique style and artistic preoccupations make this deck a big departure from mainstream visual tarot traditions. The Wooden Tarot features no human beings, with the exception of a human skull on the Devil card and the four Gods, or aces, with human-bodies but floating eyeballs for heads. The imagery of the deck is instead nature-based, including everything from bones to mushrooms to crystals, and an eclectic mix of animals, from the more familiar White-Tailed Deer to the fairly exotic Blue Angel Nudibranch.
This is a bizarre world, however, one in which animals may have sunflowers or mushrooms for heads, or crystals may grow directly out of their bodies. Third-eyes abound, showing us that the Wooden Tarot hovers somewhere between the natural realm and the spirit realm.
One of the most striking features of the Wooden Tarot, however, is that it does not include any sort of booklet of card meanings. At the time I purchased the deck, Swartz stated on his Etsy page that any book of Rider-Waite-Smith meanings could be used alongside the deck. Many people, however, have found the deck’s visual simplicity, its wide range of plants and animals, and its severe departure from Rider-Waite-Smith imagery to be intimidating or confusing.
When I first got back into tarot in early 2015 and began looking at decks to buy, I was for several months trying to decide between the Wild Unknown and the Wooden Tarot. I chose the Wild Unknown in the end, which was probably wise, given that the learning curve for the Wooden Tarot is a bit steeper than that of the Wild Unknown, which I struggled with at the time.
I purchased the Wooden Tarot after I felt more comfortable with the Rider-Waite-Smith system, and was almost immediately drawn to the challenge of writing a blog post description for each card. To be clear, I do not consider this to be a definitive or “correct” interpretation of the deck in any way. Other people have looked at the same card as me and taken away vastly different interpretations. My interpretations are as much a reflection of myself and my place in my tarot journey as they are a reflection of the cards.
I took on this project because I wanted to learn more about the Wooden Tarot. Over time, I have come to see that, while this series has taught me a lot about this particular deck, it has also taught me a lot about the tarot in general, made me reassess my interpretations of the RWS system, and also try to understand how the Thoth relates to that system. I have also begun to realize that other people find this series helpful, and than a good percentage of my blog hits come from people trying to find an interpretation of a specific Wooden Tarot card. Thus, while this series is for my own knowledge I am also gratified if I can help others.
It’s rumored that Swartz is coming out with his own book of card meanings, given the feedback he has received that people have difficulty using the deck without one. I will finish this series for my own learning, and because while I’m sure that my interpretations will overlap with Swartz’s to a certain extent, they will also reflect a unique perspective on the deck. I do plan, however, to read Swartz’s meanings once I have finished the series.
For those interested in more about this deck, there is a Wooden Tarot Study Group on Facebook, which is quite active and in which Swartz himself sometimes participates. Swartz also has a playing-card-sized oracle deck, the Earthbound Oracle, which shares many of the same visual themes with the Wooden Tarot and works with it beautifully.
Information for those interested in purchasing the deck:
The Wooden Tarot is more or less a standard sized tarot deck. The backs feature a triple-moon design, with a large eyeball taking the place of the full moon and are reversible. (Since the design for the backs was painted on wood, it’s not 100% reversible, given the natural variability of wood grain. However, I am very picky about this sort of thing and I use reversals with this deck quite easily.)
The card stock of the Wooden Tarot is very high quality. It is flexible but strong and has a buttery finish that surpasses any tarot deck or playing cards I have handled. The cards stand up to repeated riffling and have not chipped or frayed after several months’-worth of use. I imagine that this deck will withstand years of tarot readings. The deck comes in a tuck box, which I personally do not use to store it, as tuck boxes generally cannot stand up to frequent use. I recommend making or buying a bag for this deck.
This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.
The Court of Stones features animals that are by and large more familiar than the other courts–at least for North Americans (the Page of Stones as the Dik-dik is the exception.) All members of the court are ungulates and herbivores, which makes sense, given the prevalence of horns and antlers throughout the pip cards. It’s almost as if we’ve been following a trail of antlers back to their source, but instead of animals with real horns and antlers, we instead find…animals with stones for horns! (The King is a significant exception.) The other visual theme that unites the members of this court is the smoke that rises from behind them as if they were engulfed in flames, emphasizing the element of fire in the suit.
Page of Stones
The neck and head of a Dik-dik, with stones growing out of its head instead of horns. Two large stones are crossed in front of it.
It took me a lot of internet searching to figure out that this guy is a Dik-dik. I knew there was some tiny cute deer creature, but I couldn’t remember its name without the help of Google. And indeed, the Dik-dik must be one of the cutest creatures in existence. I know there’s some stiff competition for that title, but do an image search for them and you’ll see what I mean.
Like the rest of the Pages, the Page of Stones is diminutive when compared to the other animals of the court–Dik-diks are a little over a foot tall at the shoulder. Male Dik-diks do have horns, but they are short and it does not seem that they use them for combat. And given the species’ small size, I imagine that it does not fight many of its predators, either. Dik-diks’ best defense is their ability to sense when a predator is near, alert other members of their group, and to flee.
These small stones grow from the Page’s head like inspiration. We can think of the Page as representing nascent creative ideas or desires, having ideas but for the moment lacking the ability to focus them into action or make them manifest. Yet the Page represents an important place in the creative or spiritual journey–with the huge eyes and ears of the Dik-dik, they are able to absorb inspirations and influences.
The stones crossed (locked, really) in front of the Page, however suggest a more defensive posture. The Page may have lots of ideas, but they are not ready to open up and express themselves. Like the Dik-dik, they protect their ideas by hiding them or only showing them to trusted friends, rather than debate things in the open.
Keys: creative or spiritual apprenticeship; artistic imitation; the beginning stages of a creative idea; trying out new ideas or techniques without having mastered them
Reversed: abandoning a project or spiritual path early in the process because of challenges that seem overwhelming; being unsure of oneself; jumping into something too fast without a proper foundation or proper enthusiasm; being so hostile to criticism or feedback that progress is impossible
Knight of Stones
A horse with stones growing out of its forehead, transforming it into a unicorn. A small, gemlike flame floats between two stones that point outward.
If you look at this Knight, you’ll see that they are not a true unicorn. Two very small stones poke out from the base of the larger one. It’s almost as if the small stones on the head of the Page were then appropriated by the Knight.
The Knight of Stones is a magical creature. They are able to take the initial energy and enthusiasm of the Page and focus it into the creation of something. The Knight always has a clear purpose, and the stone on their head always points the way forward. Given the mythical quality of the unicorn, however, the Knight may also be hard to pin down or contact. The Knight of Stones may have more of a “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” approach to creative or spiritual endeavors (or, well, sex for that matter), doing things in short, focused bursts and then moving on to something else. The outward orientation of the stones in front of the Knight suggests that with them, energy is open and expansive, always growing and moving outward. I think of the Knight of Stones as one of those people who (magically, it seems to me) never gets tired.
Keys: very focused creative or spiritual energy; a burst of inspiration that leads directly into action; innate talent or enthusiasm; infectious energy; championing a cause
Reversed: scattered energy; the inability to commit to a spiritual path or see a creative project through from start to finish; a great amount of talent mixed with lack of practical skill
Queen of Stones
A female White-Tailed Deer with a cluster of stones growing from her neck and shoulders. The moon rises behind her.
There is a steadiness and dignity to this image. The Queen is direct–they look us in the eye without flinching. However, unlike much of the suit of Stones would suggest, they are not combative because they don’t need to be. The fruits of the Queen’s creative or spiritual endeavors are on display for everyone to see. Not because the Queen wears them like jewelry or medals, but because they emanate naturally.
It is in the Queen that we see long-lasting achievement. The earthy studiousness of the Page makes them unprepared to make things happen, while the airy fire of the Knight is brilliant but unfocused. Water and fire balance each other here, and we can see that balance in the Queen’s profusion of jewels and their calm expression. Like the Queen of Plumes, I imagine this Queen as a mentor–someone who is brilliant and accomplished, but has also decided to help others instead of just focusing on their own work.
Keys: creative maturity; an artistic or spiritual figure who mentors others; not letting creative or spiritual pursuits diminish quality relationships with friends and family; nurturing inner fire
Reversed: relationships and creative/spiritual pursuits somehow out of balance: a family situation that stifles one’s inner fire, or neglecting relationships in order to pursue one’s own path; arrogance in one’s accomplishments; unwillingness to help others
King of Stones
A leaping ram, bursting from a cluster of stones, and with stones growing out of his horns. The sun rises behind him.
The King is the only member of this court who we see from the neck down, as if a conventional portrait were simply not possible because the King can’t sit still. The ram bursts through/from the stones, suggesting someone who is both supported by their creative/spiritual path and able to transcend its limitations. The King is also the only member of the court to have both real horns and stones growing from them, suggesting their ability to break through obstacles.
I have always thought of the King of Wands/Stones as the get shit done card. The King will not fail, will not take no for an answer, will not give up. In a situation, they may be the part of you that refuses to be broken in the face of obstacles, or they may be the person who can pull some strings (or act as a battering “ram”) in order to get things done. The King is the fire of fire, pure energy and power. This part of you may get you very far, but may also lead to burnout in the long run.
Keys: unbreakable will; being able to carry a project through to the end; the “fire in the belly”; never giving up.
Reversed: a Captain Ahab-like tendency–obsession with accomplishing a goal no matter the cost; focused on ends over means; burnout
This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.
Six of Plumes
A Common Mallard swims away, looking over his shoulder with two eyes on the same side of his head. Six dark-brown feathers trail behind him.
This is another card that conjures up the image of its corresponding card in the Waite-Smith deck fairly well. This somber-looking Mallard decisively sims away, although his backward look suggests that he is not moving on without leaving something worthwhile–or painful–behind. This card echoes the Four of Plumes as well: the bird’s plucked feathers suggest a respite after pain or trauma.
Keys: leaving a painful situation behind; learning from past mistakes; sacrificing comfort or certainty for the great good; abandoning an idea, belief, or ideology that no longer serves you
Reversed: being unable to move on; operating from beliefs that are not helpful; stuck in outdated assumptions about yourself or others; making excuses for staying in an unhealthy or painful situation
Seven of Plumes
A Common Raven with an extra eye perches on an arrow, holding a small yellow transparent orb in its beak. Six other orbs stick to its feathers.
I think this is a raven, rather than a crow, for a couple of reasons: the more pronounced curve of its bill and the face that it dwarfs the arrow on which it perches. (Ravens are huge.) I am not the best person to discuss raven folklore, but suffice it to say that the raven is association with a lot of it all over the word. It seems that the raven most often appears as a bird of ill-omen or a trickster.
This raven seems to think it’s pretty clever, adorning itself with (perhaps stolen) baubles. I think there are several ways that this image can be interpreted, but the strong sense that I get is that the raven has stolen its little ball, not realizing that it wears the evidence of its theft. This reminds me of our inability to see our own faults even though they are clearly visible to others. How oven have we seen an aggressive person come to the conclusion that someone is an asshole, or a controlling person criticize someone for being a control freak? To me, this card is about trying to get away with something but forgetting that what we try to hide will be visible in some other way, and the things about ourselves we try to repress will always be projected onto others.
Keys: self-deception; trying to hide things from others; hypocrisy; leading a double-life; dishonesty–whether from malice or vulnerability–is somewhere in the situation.
Reversed: being (painfully) honest with yourself; coming clean about a situation; getting caught; seeing through someone’s ruse, or being seen by others
Eight of Plumes
A quiver with seven arrows in it. An eighth arrow pierces the quiver.
When I first saw this card, I thought it corresponded to the Eight of Wands. Then I thought, “No, that’s not right,” and tried to square it in my head with the Waite-Smith image of a blindfolded woman tied up among eight swords. It was only after I realized that one of the arrows is actually piercing the quiver (not easy to see at first glance) that the meaning of this card made sense to me.
I think the meaning of this card is closer to the Thoth meaning for the Eight of Swords–Interference. The arrow, which should be aimed outward to accomplish its objective, is instead turned back on the place that it came from. It may or may not be preventing the other arrows from being shot, but in any case no bow is in sight. Unlike The Hermit or the Four of Plumes, turning inward is not helpful here. This card states that getting out of your head is the best way to move on.
Keys: being hamstrung, especially by self-hating or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs; self-sabotage; focusing on limitations rather than possibilities; turning against oneself
Reversed: clearly seeing through conceptual limitations; taking responsibility for your future; letting go of ideas that limit you
Nine of Plumes
A cluster of four Barn Owl faces. The largest in the center has a third eye.
If the Seven of Blooms leaves me feeling icky, this is the card in the Wooden Tarot that sends chills down my spine. In the Waite-Smith deck, this card of insomnia and mental torment is portrayed by showing a woman sitting up in bed with her face in her hands. Here, instead of portraying that experience, the card invokes it. Barn Owls are the ghost-like faces of the night, completely silent until they send up an unsettling cry. These deep black eyes reflect our disquietude back to us–perhaps in them we see the demons of our past or our fears for the future. In any case, they do not look away. It may be that the only way to deal with these thoughts is to steadily meet their gaze.
Keys: haunting thoughts; regret or remorse; self-hatred; anxiety; destructive thought patterns; depression; being kept up and night by negative thoughts
Reversed: seeing things in broad daylight; getting a new perspective on a formerly troubling issue; facing fears instead of running away;
Ten of Plumes
A small bird lies on its back, pierced by ten arrows.
Like the Three of Plumes, this card closely resembles its corresponding card in the Waite-Smith deck. Unlike the man pierced with ten swords in the latter, however, there is no blood here–not even any dislocated feathers. It is simple, matter of fact, and the lack of gore tells me that this is a death that is happening, not in the realm of the physical, but in the realm of the mind. We’ve arrived at the end of a cycle with this card–in fact, we’ve gone past the end into the place where regeneration is possible.
Since I’ve started reading tarot, my interpretation of the 10 of Swords/Air has basically become: STOP THINKING. THINKING ABOUT THIS ANY LONGER WILL NOT SOLVE ANYTHING AND CONTINUE TO CAUSE HARM. YOU ARE BEATING A DEAD HORSE. YOU ARE FOLLOWING A BELIEF OR IDEOLOGY THAT IS SIMPLY UNTRUE. STOP THINKING! That’s how I see the card, caps lock and all. We have bottomed out in our thoughts and beliefs; this is a kind of death because moving forward will never be possible. It is painful because being in this position requires losing faith in someone or something, or having to give up an identity category, or realizing that something you took for granted as being true isn’t, which throws everything into doubt as well. But it’s only from this place of pain that new wisdom can be sought.
Keys: dead end; crisis of faith in a person or belief system; feeling distressed or overwhelmed by knowledge or lack of it;
Reversed: moving on from loss; being able to enter greater truths by leaving old ones behind; realizing that a thought pattern or belief doesn’t serve you anymore
This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.
Two of Plumes
Two partially folded, white-gray wings appear on either side of a waxing crescent moon. Above it floats a lemniscate.
As with the other twos, the lemniscate indicates balance and change. In a bird’s wings, balance is extremely important since a bird cannot fly with an injured or deformed wing. Without perfect symmetry or equal participation, flight can’t take place.
I see this card’s meaning as being closer to that of the Two of Swords in the Thoth deck–“Peace”–than in the Waite-Smith deck. In the latter, a woman sits holding two crossed swords across her chest, suggesting that the swords work at cross-purposes. Hence the common interpretation of this card as being about needing to make a decision–either this sword or that sword must be chosen, but not both. In the Wooden Tarot Two of Plumes, the wings work together, making for a very different meaning.
The question this card asks is: How do ideas or belief systems hold each other in balance? For instance, in a legal case, one wing cold represent the law, while the other could represent what is fair from a human-centered perspective. A common image in Buddhist thought is the wings of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom without compassion is cold and heartless, and will ultimately not benefit anyone. Compassion without wisdom is misguided and perhaps even harmful. Just like a bird needs both wings to fly, we need wisdom and compassion to act skillfully.
The Two of Plumes, then, is not so much about making a one-or-the-other decision, but about figuring out how to balance ideas and paradigms. And if the lemniscate didn’t clue you in, the waxing crescent moon shows that there is no one right answer for all time. Things are in constant change, and so the kinds of knowledge and practices are appropriate to bring to any situation will always be changing as well.
Keys: balance; fairness; tempering extreme ideas; balance of head and heart; making a decision or undertaking a project with a balanced perspective; neither extreme optimism nor extreme pessimism; sense and sensibility
Reversed: continually favoring one set of ideas or beliefs over another; dogma; unwillingness to meet halfway on an idea; assuming that the same idea or procedure applies equally in all situations; losing perspective
Three of Plumes
Three arrows pierce a heart.
This is one of the few places in the deck where Swartz stays close to the Waite-Smith image. It’s one of the most universally recognizable and interpret-able image in tarot, and its associations with pain and grief are easy to see.
It’s worth noting a couple of things about this card, though. The first is the thickness of Swartz’s arrows. All throughout this suit, arrows are thin–basically drawn as a single line, rather than cylinder. To me, this emphasizes the airy insubstantiality of thought and the truth that thoughts and words can hurt so deeply even though they are not “real” in a physical sense.
Second–look at the arrowheads on these arrows. Make no mistake–these are for hunting, not archery. Whether true or not, it feels like someone has taken direct aim at us and is trying to bring us down.
But to me, the most important thing about this card is the anatomical detail of the heart, which is very different from the stylized heart in the Waite-Smith or Sola Busca (the deck whose 3 of Swords the Waite-Smith image is based.) While, miraculously, no blood drips from this heart, we see it in great detail–muscle, ventricle, artery, vein. This could mean that the pain is raw–almost too much to look at–or that we are prone to over analyzing it and thinking about it in detail.
This reminds me of another classic Buddhist teaching: the two arrows. We get struck with the first arrow, which causes a great amount of pain–we get fired, snubbed by a friend, cheated on, etc. That pain is an inevitable part of life. But then we hit ourselves with a second arrow in the same place (which of course hurts much worse) because of the way that we react to the first: lashing out in anger, drowning in self-hatred, and obsessing about what has happened. So in this card, the heart’s detail has two dimensions: the pain itself, and the additional pain caused by obsessively thinking about and examining it. It asks: where is the line between necessary grief and refusing to let go and move on?
Keys: pain; grief; loss; betrayal;
Reversed: obsessing or over thinking something painful that has happened; feeling stuck and unable to move on (Note: depending on the context of the reading, this card reversed could also mean a lessening or ending of pain)
Four of Plumes
A small gray bird lies with its wings stretched in front of it, eyes closed. Four of its feathers are scattered around it.
This is the first of several birds we will encounter in this suit. While Swartz can be extremely precise as to species, this one strikes me as being a fairly generic bird. It may be worth noting that its wings look similar to those in the Two of Plumes.
I usually see the Four of Swords as a fairly positive card, but this card is a little darker. This is not a natural position for a bird to be in. If I saw one like this outside, my first assumption would be that it had died a violent death (even when they die from hitting windows their wings usually fold back up.) At best, it has been knocked unconscious. I’m just going to take it on faith that this bird is alive, but in any case it’s been through some sort of trauma. Perhaps it can pull itself back together, but those feathers are gone for good.
[Note: I know that some people might have a gentler interpretation of this card, since it kind of looks like the bird is cuddled up sleeping. But once a birder, always a birder, you know?]
Keys: slow healing; after-effects of trauma, recent or far in the past; moving slowly in grief; licking your wounds; cutting your losses
Reversed: readiness to move on; completion of healing
Five of Plumes
A three-eyed Blue Jay is perched on the edge of a nest. Three of the five eggs in the nest have been broken.
In this card, Swartz’s precise attention to bird species is on display. For those who do not live in eastern North America, let me give you the low-down on the Blue Jay. They are beautiful, loud, aggressive birds. They will not hesitate to terrorize the neighborhood cat that comes too close to their nests. They will send up loud alarm calls at the slightest hint of a predator. They are absolutely gorgeous, but have a mixed reputation at feeders due to their habit of chasing smaller birds away.
Blue jays are also omnivorous and have been known to eat eggs and nestlings, which makes them the perfect species for this card. The Blue Jay perched on this nest wears an inscrutable expression. It could be just finishing its meal of three eggs, or it could be a mother returning to the nest to find all but two of her eggs eaten. All is not lost–this is not the lowest point in the suit–but damage has been done. This card carries the same ambiguity as the Waite-Smith Five of Swords, which could be about the haughty aggressor or those who walk away from him in battle. The third eye on this Blue Jay does suggest, however, that whether aggressor or victim, there will be an opportunity to gain spiritual insight from this encounter.
Keys: aggression; theft; domination; trickery; OR being on the receiving end of aggression or some sort of fraud–a good deal of damage has been done, but it’s best to learn your lesson for next time and be thankful for what you still have
Reversed: rectifying an injustice or striking back at an aggressor; a battle in which there may be no clearly right or just side;