Llewellyn released The Witchling Academy Tarot earlier in the year, a deck by Pamela Chen and illustrated by Mindy Zhang, an anime illustrator whose primary medium is ultra-femme and kawaii digital art. Pamela Chen is also the creator of the Crystal Unicorn Tarot (which I’ll be reviewing in the near future), a spiritual life coach, and energy healer. You can watch a great video interview of Chen on Wai Asks, by another fellow tarot content creator, Wai Yim.
This deck takes me back to my girlhood days, and it’s wonderful. The Rider-Waite-Smith gets a magical girl manga makeover and the result is a graphic novel inspired by East Asian comic styles with all the witch school YA tropes we love.
In a whimsical homage to the Fool’s Journey, the running theme through this deck is a legendary apprentice from the Academy named Charlie and her Harry Potter-esque adventures through witch school, discovering her family history, dueling with a witch school nemesis, learning basic spellwork, mastering the elements, meeting magical mentors, and forging memorable friendships.
The guidebook accompanying the deck reads like a student orientation manual for a new enrollee at the Witchling Academy of Magic, even beginning with a Witchling Academy Charter that gives you an overview of the mission statement, vision, and structure of the Academy, all of which is a metaphor for your personal spiritual journey as a witchling in the real world.
The school (and the deck) provides a fully comprehensive magical education via four Houses, each House focused on a specific curriculum. You’ve got the House of Wands where you’ll channel fire magic, the House of Cups for potion crafting, the House of Pentacles for healing and growing plants, and the House of Swords for enhancing your combat abilities.
I have mixed feelings about the packaging. On one hand, it’s adorable and I love the grimoire vibe, and how it opens up like a book. But the high-gloss finish and the cut-out space-thing for the cards takes you out of the Witchling Academy experience, I feel.
The cards also slide around inside that space, so when I go to take out the deck for use, a few cards always slide down into the crevices and I have to jiggle and shake the box to get them out.
Most tarot deck guidebooks are structured to be a reference, not necessarily something you read from cover to cover. But you’ll want to read this guidebook cover to cover. Chen has done a phenomenal job building chapter after chapter, immersing you deeper into the Witchling Academy of Magic experience.
To prep your cards, place them on your altar anchored with a clear quartz crystal. This will help to harmonize and bless your deck. To prep for readings, the Academy recommends that witchlings anoint their third eye chakras with frankincense.
Then the very first reading spread instructed is a Deck Orientation Spread where you draw three cards: 1. What should you, the witchling, use this deck for? 2. How can you best learn and work with this deck? and 3. What is this deck here in your life to teach you?
I did this reading and for 1., I got Key XIX: The Sun. This deck will help me to achieve my goals and all around will bring me joy. 2. Four of Wands. Remember the four Houses at the Academy? So for me, I’ll want to start with the curriculum in the House of Wands and hone my skills at channeling fire magic and focus on the wand as a sacred tool. And 3. Key 0: The Fool. This deck will teach me to be more adventurous!
I love the master storytelling from Chen, both whisking you away to a high-fantasy YA manga world and also teaching tarot knowledge that’s transferable to other RWS-based decks. While most card images feature our main protagonist, the pink-haired Charlie, we’re also introduced to other characters, like the Academy Witch Headmistress Maria McNally in Key II: The High Priestess.
The guidebook breaks down each card meaning into an affirmation (the Daily Incantation), the Magical Meaning, which is the card upright, and Shadow Magic, which is the card interpretation when it’s reversed. Throughout the pages there are little quoted words of advice from magical mentors, which also weaves the storyline of the apprentice Charlie. In the above image, for instance, we learn a little about Charlie’s biological mother, who is the Shadow Witch, who will teach Charlie life lessons themed around The Tower card.
Each card is like one frame in a manga comic book. For the Death card, we see Charlie in the Spirit Realm meeting her Higher Self, after she lost a magical duel against the Shadow Witch. When she meets her Higher Self in the Spirit World, she is powerfully transformed.
Earlier in The Hermit card, the illustration narrates the part of the story where Charlie heads to the forbidden section of the school library for a hidden spell book to figure out how she can defeat the Shadow Witch. When The Hermit card appears in your readings, the incantation to recite to yourself: “I am ready to be guided by my inner magic.”
The Aces for each Minor elemental suit features the House Protector, an animal familiar. The House of Wands is protected by the phoenix while the House of Pentacles is protected by a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog. The energy you’ll learn to harness in the curriculum of the House of Wands is passion, through your magical tool the wand. The House of Wands has a pedigree of cultivating Light Bringers.
The House of Pentacles graduates “chefs or caretakers of magical creatures or the land.” One thing about the guidebook: to truly get the most out of it, early on you’ll want to read it chapter by chapter, like a novel, so you’re familiar with the characters. Otherwise you’ll read a card entry and be introduced to character names you won’t have context for. But if you’ve read from the beginning, then it all makes sense (much like a graphic novel). For instance, meeting Charlie’s familiar, George, a parakeet. If you zoom in on the green vine lemniscate in the Two of Pentacles, you’ll see George perched on the vine.
One thing I do appreciate about the glossy finish over most matte finishes on cardstock is how easy this deck is to shuffle. There’s great slip to it.
How I see the Witchling Academy Tarot is like a hug deck. A hug deck is a deck that you can always count on for uplifting, positive, and empowering messages. Chen’s Witchling Academy Handbook will inspire you, will get your motivational juices firing on all cylinders, and will offer you a sense of reassurance.
It’s not that the deck is a fluffy love and light deck, not at all. You really intuit the substance here. It’s like when you’re a grown-up watching a children’s cartoon and seeing all the depth of real life lessons being showcased that maybe the two-year-old is going to miss.
I say it’s a comforting, reassuring deck because it really does feel like school– a safe space for learning, growing, and where you can rely on positive guidance when you’ve made mistakes or misstepped.
The Swords suit highlights one of the key plot lines to the story of Charlie at the Witchling Academy– her rivalry with another fellow apprentice, Lydia. Lydia is the leader of the mean Witchlings and is jealous of Charlie. For example, in the Ten of Swords, after Charlie has beat Lydia in a Swords Duel, Lydia and the mean Witchlings sends ten swords to hurt Charlie. But with magic, care, and love from her friends, Charlie recovers. Professor Okamoto, the Swords Exam Judge at the Air Tower, is of particular help to Charlie’s recovery.
Court cards in the deck are the rulers of each Elemental House. Pages of the Witchling Academy are magical animal familiars to the Witch Superior Queens, and possess a childlike, curious quality. Knights at the Academy are guardians of the hallways, or the hall monitors that the Year One apprentices look up to. Queens are the Witch Superior, representing the highest level of mastery and achievement for Witches. Kings are the elemental goddesses and divine rulers of each House.
Going off on a bit of a tangent for general commentary on trends in tarot art I’ve noticed recently, I’ve been encountering a lot of decks published in the last year or two, maybe even back to three, where traditional masculine energy in the tarot are transformed to more feminine presenting illustrations. I’m not saying it’s a new phenomenon– you can spot this in decks from the 70s– but there’s been a recent resurgence of this trend, I think. Just one recent-memory example of that being the Tarot of Mystical Moments, though that’s just one name at the top of my head. I’ve seen this in a lot of 2020 and 2021 decks. Is it just me? *scratches head*
In the Witchling Academy Tarot, the story of Charlie and the featured cast of characters feels– I am totally speculating here– intuitively autobiographical, at least at some root level– to Chen. It’s just the way the story is told, the specificity, the authorial voice, and how all of it comes together in this tarot deck that gives the impression of a memoir told through fantasy-inspired allegory.
This deck falls within a particular genre of manga, often called magical girl manga or witch girl manga. The anime style is that feminine-charm, eminently pink and pastel YA (young adult) aesthetic, but with an unexpectedly wise, heartwarming, and deep storyline.
I hope Llewellyn gets this deck and book set translated and sold across East Asia, where I think it’ll attract a much wider market share. In terms of commercial success, I would guess that the Witchling Academy Tarot would fare a lot better there than here in North America.
Chen and Zhang’s Witchling Academy Tarot yields more esoteric substance and content than your first impression assumptions might give it credit for. After reading through the guidebook in its entirety, you leave with the keen sense that Pamela Chen must have storyboarded the deck in the same ways a fiction writer would a novel. There’s world-building, there are set magical rules in this world, and the characters come alive with their familiarity. That is all in addition to being a well-written tarot card meanings guidebook.
The deck art embeds all the recognizable RWS symbolism and motifs that an RWS reader would look for, while being fully expressive of Zhang’s artistic point of view and creativity. Charming, and a magical delight!
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 this deck from its publisher for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.