The Wooden Tarot by A. L. Swartz of Skullgarden on Etsy is an animal lover’s dream tarot deck. I love the paintings on wood and found it pleasantly synchronistic that Swartz draws heavily from the concept of memento mori, as do I in certain aspects of my own practice. Swartz’s artwork seeks to express the esoteric dimension of flora and fauna, merging realism and surrealism, and you see that in the illustrations on The Wooden Tarot.
The deck is based on the RWS tradition and while the deck does not come with a companion guide or LWB of any sort, Swartz does note to interpret The Wooden Tarot with any RWS-based tarot book. However, I found that I craved a book keyed specifically to the imagery of this deck, because it really is quite special and distinct from the traditional RWS symbols.
The card backs are painted in the same media as the card images, depicting a symmetrical eye and symmetrical crescent moons.
As for the box packaging, one small detail here that I absolutely love and wish all publishers would do:
I’m not sure whether it is discernible in the above photograph, but there is a crease scored across the back of the box, which allows the top flap to open easily, and widely, so that you can slip the deck in and out of the box with no trouble at all. It’s absolutely brilliant.
The Majors follow the numbering and order of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Majors. You’ll see the Majors here subdivided into the three septenaries, with the above photo including The Fool, which I love. A little mouse is treading on the body of a snake and whether the mouse is aware or not, we’re not sure, but we certainly see the fellow walking straight for the serpent’s mouth! There’s an added streak of danger in the Wooden Tarot‘s Fool that makes this fool’s prospects a whole lot riskier, I think, than the traditional RWS Fool’s prospects!
The deck is steeped in animal symbolism and I very much want to sit down with Swartz and pick the artist’s brain on the choice of animal correspondences for each card. I appreciate the continuity of the elephant imagery in The Empress and The Emperor. The snail for the Chariot is so, so cute! I also love the incredible blend of realism and surrealism that really is the signature of Swartz’s artistic style.
I believe the paintings here are rendered in mixed media on wooden canvases, and I love the different hues in background of each card because of that wooden canvas. I find the Strength card more mystical and magical than most Strength cards, traditional or contemporary. Justice is perfectly depicted, and I giggled at the bat for The Hanged Man. Also, what a beautiful Death card we have here. Wisdom comes after we’ve endured the most painful of physical transformations. The sea otter for Temperance is also adorbs.
Love the glyph for sulfur (fire and brimstone, anyone?) on The Devil card. Some folks, though, also [albeit mistakenly perhaps] associate that glyph with Satan. That Devil card is really potent. The Tower card is interesting to me, because every which way I interpret the Tower card, it includes ego and the ambitions of ego attempting to supersede nature and the Divine, and then having nature/the Divine strike that ego down. Here, The Tower card is a tree, which I always associate with nature and the Divine. I’m having some interpretive disconnect with this deck’s Tower card, but I’m splitting hairs now. It’s truly a magnificent deck.
I love The Star card, am not entirely sure about The Moon but love the artwork anyway, can’t take my eyes off The Sun card even if it disturbs me just in the slightest, and the Judgement card, too, provides an interesting depiction. The World card, though, is perfection.
The Minors are named Stones, Blooms, Plumes, and Bones, which correspond with Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles respectively. Instead of Aces, the leading card for each suit is the God, or godhead, which is an interpretation that works very well with the traditional Aces. So, for instance, in the suit of Stones (corresponding to the suit of Wands), we have the God of Stones in place of the Ace of Wands.
The suit of Stones corresponds with the suit of Wands, and the element Fire. The Three of Stones calls to my mind the Three of Wands from the Wild Unknown. I’m speculating an Etteilla influence here with the triangle formation of the wands. In this suit you see wooden branches and terminated red crystal points representing the Fire energy for the suit. I think those are ram horns in the Two of Stones. Actually, when I first picked up this card, the Two of Stones, I thought it was the Two of Pentacles. Stones, too, remind me a bit of Pentacles, Coins, or Earth energy. In the Haindl Tarot, the Haindl Suit of Stones corresponds with Pentacles/Coins/Earth, so maybe that’s why I got tripped up. Plus, you’ve got the lemniscate and that duality balance thing going on with the ram horns, which reminded me of the RWS Two of Pentacles. Anyway.
The suit of Blooms for Cups/Water also tripped me up initially. When I first saw these cards, I thought Blooms would be Wands, because in so many modern decks, the illustrations of the suit of Wands pips often get very flora-fauna nature-y, as it seems to do here. However, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me that Blooms would be Cups. I love the three blooming peach blossoms and the hanging peach fruit in the Three of Blooms. It’s a very clever way of interpreting the Three of Cups.
For me, while the artwork here is perfection, I had trouble reading the suit of Blooms within its own context, without copying and pasting my RWS interpretations of the suit of Cups. I want to know how the suit of Blooms, specifically, within the universe that is the Wooden Tarot, ought to be interpreted, but alas there is no companion book. The creator tells us to look to RWS interpretations for the suit of Cups, but somehow that doesn’t feel right. Somehow, these cards, these illustrations, are asking to be read in a different way from the RWS. Or is it just me?
The suit of Plumes corresponds with Swords/Air, and this one I got right away. You’ve got the feathers, which is very Air-y when we’re talking about metaphysical associations. Then of course, there are the birds. Again, I feel like the Gods in the four suits (or the Aces) are asking to be interpreted in their own special way, beyond the RWS Aces. There is a very unique and original energy to the God of Plumes, for example, compared to its RWS counterpart, the Ace of Swords. I don’t feel like I can simply transplant my learned meaning of the Ace of Swords to the God of Plumes.
I love the imagery of the winged waxing moon in the Two of Plumes, along with the addition of the lemniscate. That’s also a brilliant Three of Plumes (or Three of Swords). The Four of Plumes is very Four of Swords and how cute is that Six of Plumes (Six of Swords)! I find the Ten of Plumes (Ten of Swords) so much sadder here than in the RWS. Guess on some weird level I don’t get as worked up about a dead emperor as I do about a dead sparrow.
Unlike the Haindl suit of Stones (and I recall some other decks, but now the names of those decks escape me, also associate a suit of Stones with Pentacles/Earth), here in the Wooden Tarot, Pentacles/Earth is the suit of Bones.
All of the twos in the pip cards depict a lemniscate. Interesting. All of them also depict the theme of balance, of a binary. I found this deck’s suit of Stones to be the hardest of the suits to read. For instance, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Three of Bones, or Four of Bones, or Five of Bones, not without simply transplanting RWS card interpretations, which again, I was intuitively resistant to do.
The Three of Bones depicts either the arm or leg– my anatomy sucks, sorry– so there is a sense of mobility, movement, work, or exertion to this card. Four of Bones seems to be the ribcage or spine (oh wait, maybe not spine, since the spine seems to be the Eight of Bones), which suggests foundations maybe, or the core. I am a bit at a loss when we get to the Five of Bones, and really, it’s my own ignorance and lack of knowledge here.
A foundational understanding of anatomy and bone structure, I believe, will really add to card interpretation here. The skeletal hand in the Six of Bones is six-fingered, and I am so sure that is significant in some big way that I’m totally missing. Sad and frustrating that I’m not smart enough to read this deck competently.
The courts keep their RWS titles: Page, Knight, Queen, and King. In the Blooms court, which corresponds with Cups/Water, we have sea creatures. My own ignorance prevents me from knowing what exactly is depicted on the Page of Blooms, but I love it! Is it some sort of aquatic micro-organism? In the Bones court (remember: Pentacles/Earth), we have the skulls of land animals.
In the Plumes [Swords/Air], birds and butterflies. In Stones [Wands/Fire], land animals again but red-blooded and alive, unlike the skulls in the Bones suit. Also, here we have depictions of the terminated red crystals that recurred throughout the suit of Stones pips.
Finally, but perhaps the coolest part of all, we have the Happy Squirrel card. Here is one awesome Happy Squirrel. Love that our little squirrel has a third eye and the lemniscate hovering above its head. Also, that is one huge acorn it sits on, which has to be auspicious!
The Happy Squirrel card started out as an ongoing joke among tarot enthusiasts, and I believe it was inspired by an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa sees a fortune teller, and the fortune teller pulls The Happy Squirrel card on her. Lisa presumes the card has a light, positive meaning, but the fortune teller cautions otherwise. I haven’t actually seen the episode for myself and have only heard about all this through the tarot grapevine, so who knows. In any event, here we have the Happy Squirrel card and I love it.
I do read a lightheartedness into the Happy Squirrel, but also see the squirrel’s resourcefulness, mindfulness of the future and always saving away for that future, and so the card is at once both happiness and diligence. It’s whistling while you work.
Imagine how ecstatic I was when my very first reading with the Wooden Tarot included a cameo from the Happy Squirrel card. My signifier, the Queen of Swords (here, the Queen of Plumes) also appeared in a reading where I wasn’t using a signifier/significator. For me, the Wooden Tarot took some extra work on my part to read. How a practitioner connects to a deck is very personal. A deck that just catapults my intuition to the next level might not work for you and vice versa. A lot of tarot folks have been buzzing about the Wooden Tarot and rave about how well they read with it, so it could do the same for you.
As a deck for my collection, I adore the Wooden Tarot. I love that it’s not a Rider-Waite-Smith clone and takes on a life of its own, and yet retains strong RWS sensibilities. There is a lot to study here. The seamless blending of the realistic and surreal in Swartz’s art pull the mind into a state between consciousness and dream, and if your intuition operates best in that space, then you’re going to want to get this deck. Those who work intensively with animal symbolism are also going to want this deck. I’m hoping that at some future point a companion guidebook will be published to go along with this deck so that I can get more out of what I know is multi-faceted and multi-layered symbolism in this deck.