The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot: Secret Wisdom of the Ages by D. W. Prudence and published by Red Feather, an imprint of Schiffer Publishing, has just raised the bar for tarot deck creators everywhere. Take note, people. Your new aspiration is to meet the gold standard of an occult tarot deck that AlcheMystic has just set.
The deck seeks to document the efforts of alchemists, magi, and mystics past, and their pursuit of the Great Work. In turn, it’s designed to help the occult practitioners of today in their pursuits. AlcheMystic is going to appeal to ceremonial magicians, those who study Western occultism, and who synthesize different correspondence systems and esoteric principles together when reading tarot (e.g., you are going to examine a card through astrological, Kabbalistic, and Hermetic considerations when you interpret it in a reading). It’s designed for tarot readers who possess an active initiative to dive to the darkest waters of what the tarot can offer. Yet I believe the wealth and layering of symbolism on each card enables it for scrying by intuitive readers as well.
We have to remember the roots that the New Age spirituality movement, including Wicca, grew from: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn alongside the Catholic Church, and beyond that, Hermetic Qabalah and Rosicrucianism, alongside Magic and the Zohar, and beyond that, Emblemata, Apocrypha, the Sepher Yetzirah, the Book of Enoch, and the Torah. Interwoven throughout most of the centuries that esoteric studies developed is, of course, astrology and alchemy. These are the roots that the AlcheMystic Tarot brings back to our attention, and has done so through an exceptional deck.
Prudence has taken woodcut images from books written between AD 1500 – 1900, digitally colored the images, and featured those images into the structure of the tarot. It’s magnificent to behold.
“D. W. Prudence” is a pseudonym, the full name being “Dwell With Prudence” from Proverbs 8:12. He was educated in California with a background in hypnotherapy and a whole gamut of occult subjects. He identifies as a nondenominational Christian, which is an aspect of the author’s biography that you find evidenced throughout the design of the deck.
Illustration and symmetry wise the card backs are not reversible, and yet oh but they are. Really clever, D. W. Prudence. Really clever. I’ll explain in the subsequent paragraphs. Let’s start with the art. I love the hourglass motif, the alchemical symbols for the four elements in correspondence with the alchemical symbols for sulfur and mercury.
On the left above are the card backs upright. On the right side the card backs are shown in reverse. Upright, the design features the elements Water and Air. In reverse, the design features the elements Earth and Fire. The combinations, if you follow classical elemental dignities, yield neutral compatibility, which works for a card back, yeah? In the background you get the outline of the Tree of Life. I love the duotone choice of the red and blue.
Then you see the small-font references to Bible verses. I’m going to quote from the New International Version even though I don’t love that version of the Bible and have secretly judge-y elitist opinions about people who do use the NIV. I stick to the King James but just for readability, NIV is going to be the easiest for modern day comprehension.
Deuteronomy 4:29 [cards upright; dignified]:
But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Ecclesiastes 1:13 [cards reversed; ill-dignified]:
I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind.
As a reader, when a card appears upright, I might begin by passing the interpretation through the lens of Deuteronomy 4:29 and likewise when a card appears in reverse, pass that interpretation of card meaning through Ecclesiastes 1:13. It’s brilliant and it works.
There are provocative nuanced implications for the cards in AlcheMystic. In The Fool card, for instance, the guidebook notes that the indication here is that of someone dealing with having made bad choices. “The man leads a donkey, but the man also has the ears of a donkey.” It’s a reference to Balaam disobeying God and the angel sent to block Balaam’s path.
Another example. Per the guidebook, “The message of [The Magician card] is to serve God by serving others, and to be God’s instrument or representative on Earth. You do not need to be endowed with supernatural powers in order to make a difference in the lives of those around you, but should endeavor to use your blessings or skills to assist others.” The message here is also about not concealing your talents; put your talents to good use.
Many of the details give testament to how much thought went into creating this deck. For example, I love the depiction of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses for The Emperor card. Or how in the iconic RWS deck, The Lovers card depicts Adam and Eve in Eden, before the fall, whereas here in AlcheMystic, Adam and Eve are depicted after the fall and having to wrestle with the dragon they have released on Earth.
Though there are notable deviations from the RWS, you can still see the RWS influence. Here, you’ve got Key 8 for Strength and Key 11 for Justice as it is in the RWS system.
Aesthetic-wise, I don’t love the black, yellow, and green coloring of the Majors. From what I know of digital design, I know that had the artist tried to render each card in full color, it would have become a life-long project. That would be crazy tedious. So I’m not sure what I expect. I think it’s just the choice of green chosen here then paired with that yellow that is a bit dissonant on the eyes.
See, now in the Minors, the continuation of the tri-tone (or quatre-tone?) coloring does not bother me one bit. The black-yellow-green in the Majors (in my opinion) didn’t work stylistically, but here, the two-toned shade of purple with the yellow, green, and black works, and works quite well.
The suit of Alchemists takes from texts on alchemy and relates to the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone and a practitioner’s Great Work. Wow that image on the Seven of Alchemists, from Occvlta philosophiai (1613) is stunning.
As for which of the four suits–Wands, Cups, Swords, or Pentacles–correspond with each of the suits here–Alchemists, Mages, Mystics, and Shekinah–I couldn’t figure it out in the short time I worked with this deck for the purpose of this review. I would have to devote much more study time to figure it out. And this is after reading the card entries, studying the card images, and trying to make cross-references to all three major systems–TdM, RWS, and Thoth. As soon as I thought I figured it out, at least one or two cards in the suit would trip me up and make me think it might be a different suit altogether.
So let’s just talk about what each suit means within the universe of the deck, which we do get information on from the guidebook. Phew! The suit of Mages relates to magic and thus takes woodcuts from Hermetic and Ceremonial Magicians. That Ace of Mages is another work of art I’d like to see in poster size and hanging on a wall. Prudence’s guidebook is richly layered with content, and here in the entry for the Ace of Mages, we take a detour from card meanings to talk about how to design sigils based on magic squares and specifically, he demonstrates with the Square of Venus. He also cites Eliphas Levi and expounds on why magic, occultism, the tarot, and Christianity are compatible. It’s a fascinating read.
I do think to read proficiently with this deck, you need to dedicate time and learn the system because it’s unlike any of the better known classical systems, or you need to do readings alongside the guidebook. Though we saw RWS influences in the Majors, here in the Minors, especially the pips, I see strong Tarot de Marseille influences in how we interpret the card meanings, which is primarily through astrology, the Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and numerology.
The suit of Mystics is designed from books on Emblemata, which are spiritual and religions works. Emblemata are a series of texts from the medieval literary genre of emblem books. Emblem books feature woodcut images paired with captions of poems or texts that convey morals. It’s typically going to feature page spreads of a picture, catchphrase or slogan, and then a small block of text. Emblem books were intended to be both entertaining and yet philosophically and often religiously significant. They’re the perfect woodcut images to source inspiration from for a tarot deck!
The suit of Shekinah is taken from texts on the Judeo-Christian God. Shekinah is a Kabbalistic concept of the indwelling of the Hebrew God. Its noted as the feminine aspect of the Divine, so I wonder if this suit is associated with one of the passive elements, i.e., the suit of Shekinah is either Water or Earth– Cups or Pentacles.
In AlcheMystic, the court cards are treated the same way as the pips in terms of both design elements and how card meanings are delineated. Typically, a stronger personification component comes in to play when we get to the courts, but here, you don’t really have that, especially if you compare the card entries for the courts to the card entries for the pips.
Thus, for so many reasons, to superimpose your existing system of card meanings, especially if it’s based rather staunchly in one of the three systems (TdM, RWS, Thoth) into the AlcheMystic would not be doing this deck any justice. It’s a deck with a unique perspective and system that needs to be learned on its own merits.
Most important of all, how do the cards read? For me, eerily accurate. The accuracy can get quite literal in fact, meaning the prominent symbols in the cards represent the actual thing that I see in real life relating to the question I asked. Or when I use the companion guidebook to look up the card meaning, specific keywords or facets of the woodcut illustration title are directly relevant to the situation at hand. AlcheMystic in many ways is like a speed-dial connection to what it is I want to know. I’m just going to need to keep the guidebook on hand when I read for myself! =)
Let’s talk about the guidebook, which frankly, is essential to your understanding of AlcheMystic. Without it, I don’t know if you can get full mileage out of your deck. Sure, you can scry into it and read in an impromptu, shotgun style, but then you can do that with any deck, so it doesn’t capitalize on the unique and distinctive qualities of AlcheMystic.
A lot of thought has gone into this guidebook and I’m glad. The author has not left the tarot reader hanging. You can master use of AlcheMystic through study of the guidebook. The text is a treasure trove for Christian mysticism.
Another case in point: backtrack to the Queen of Mages, which depicts the Whore of Babylon. The guidebook then delves into what exactly the image depicts: the cup she holds contains the blood of saints, whose blood she is drunk on. We then learn about Biblical numerology for the Beast 666. It’s all just–for someone like me–teaching moment after teaching moment with this book.
On the practical side, you get a handful of workable tarot spreads plus reference charts. If you’re a practicing magician or occultist who does not study the tarot in-depth, but would like a tarot deck to become your private working deck, AlcheMystic would be great for that. Advanced tarot readers who want a challenge and to try reading with a new system will also like this deck. But I think if your objective is to master tarot studies as a beginner, this deck is not only going to overwhelm you, but will confuse you when you try to work with any of the standardized systems.
If I’m being overly critical, and I will when the quality and content brought to the table right from the get go is of the caliber this deck is (The better something is, the more critical I get, ever notice that? When it’s a shitty deck I tend to just smile and nod and say, “Nice! Interesting!” and leave it at that. Hmm. Probably shouldn’t have admitted that.), I don’t love the production value. In a totality of circumstances, given the point of view of the deck, the background of the deck creator, what I read in the guidebook cover to cover and then inferred about the deck creator and point of view from the writing, I don’t think the precise production choices match the deck.
I would not have gone for glossy coating. I would have taken pains to find a matte, woven canvas cardstock. The vertical margins/borders of the cards also puts the design off balance. I would have opted for finishes and paper stock that better evoke a medieval setting.
I speculate that The AlcheMystic Tarot might have been better served being self-published, where great personal pains can be taken to ensure each detail matches the deck’s aesthetic point of view. I felt like there was some cognitive dissonance between the deck creator and the deck publisher here. Like…the vision of the deck creator could have been much better realized. But hey, just my opinion. What do I know?
The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot is in the top one percent of published tarot decks. If you love The Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson and Tarot of the Holy Light by Christine Payne-Towler, then you are going to love The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot from Schiffer Publishing for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.