A while back I reviewed the book The Cards: The Evolution and Power of Tarot by Prof. Patrick Maille. Eric Maille is his son, an artist, and the creator of the Ink Witch Tarot. Maille is an Oklahoma-based artist and illustrator whose works explore “the irony that we as humans often feel poorly equipped to live out that experience, struggling against our environments, the people around us, and our own emotions” (per his artist statement). And you’re going to find that theme at the heart of these beautiful illustrations.
The art style here reminds me of haboku, a form of traditional Japanese ink brush painting that’s done in monochrome, expressing depth through sharp uses of contrast, an art style that tends to be impressionistic, soft, and flowing.
What is so compelling about the Ink Witch Tarot is the storytelling, and Maille’s artistic interpretations of each tarot card. In Key 0, I see The Fool as the bird, who appears to be in a precarious position, but the way that cage is about to fall off the tabletop, the door will swing open and that bird will be freed. If you view The High Priestess illustration as an in-process chess game, either the other side’s pawn is about to take the bishop or the bishop is about to take the other side’s king. Meanwhile both sides’ queens are side by side in the foreground, reminiscent of the traditional High Priestess’s twin pillars.
The stories span a vast timeline of human memory. Some feel more recent, like how the Strength card and Justice are depicted, while others evoke mythology. I love that The Hanged Man is Odin with his ravens, and Death reminds me of Persephone with the pomegranate from Hades.
Speaking of that pomegranate, it is the only instance of color in the entire sepia-toned deck.
The scene in The Devil card connects it back to The Lovers and that Tower card gives me such pause– what’s the story there? How is that figure in the card going to get out of that situation? Assuming it’s set in the United States, or a country where the driver’s seat is on the left, that figure is sitting passenger.
In the above photo I arranged The Star (a shooting star surrounded by the seven sisters), The Moon (showing the moon phases), and The Sun (a view of our solar system) side by side as a triptych because I love how the three cosmic landscapes connect. Anubis is Judgement and that’s an emotional depiction of the world tree in Key XXI.
The illustrations in the Wands suit are my favorite. I love the juxtaposition of magic and science in the Ace of Wands and Two of Wands.
There are some cards where Maille has gone with an interpretation of the themes that I’m not as familiar with. In the Five of Wands, for instance, I tend to read this card as strife but also opportunity presented in that strife. There’s also some sort of a competitive spirit underlying that strife. In Marseilles decks, if you follow Mathers’ card interpretations, the Five of Wands indicates gain, while the Papus interpretation is that of victory after confronting your opposition.
Here, in Maille’s Five of Wands, that imagery evokes in me migration, seeking opportunity in pastures beyond. That feels more faithful to a synthesis of the numerology for Five and the adventurous, exploratory spirit of the Wands.
Classically, for the Six of Wands, the keyword that comes immediately to mind is victory, and therefore some sort of advancement, i.e., steps forward. Here we see a carousel, so while positive emotions are inspired by that imagery, I also think of progress that’s ultimately going to be circular. The thing is– that’s an accurate, true-to-life divinatory result I often get when the Six of Wands comes up as a prognostication of the future. So this works for me. I might call it a non-traditional interpretation, but it works nonetheless.
I found Ink Witch to be a chatty deck, which just means that the artist has given me, the tarot reader, so many plot points to work with in each work of art. There’s an agape Love that I read into that Ace of Cups, while the Two of Cups feels like a romantic date. The Four of Cups is adorable and a fun play on the familiar RWS imagery for this card– instead of rejecting the offering of a fourth chalice by ignoring it, here the cat is rejecting the fourth chalice by knocking it off the table.
The Five of Cups is another non-traditional interpretive approach and I’m here for it. My edition of the deck didn’t come with a little white booklet, and while these cards are easy to read with because Maille has already given you so much to work with, I do find myself curious about the artist’s interpretations for specific cards.
Maille does not shy away from challenging imagery, and that’s most prominent here in the suit of Swords. That Eight of Swords is so clever, though, isn’t it? It brilliantly conveys the sense of being stuck, restrained in place, but it’s illusory, and there is a way out, if you apply reason. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such ingenuity in interpreting the Swords suit as we see here in the Ink Witch Tarot.
I love the Arthurian vibe of that Ace of Swords, and I’m intrigued by this more aggressive interpretation of a stalemate in the Two of Swords.
For this Nine of Pentacles– before seeing the “IX” or counting the number of pentacles in the sky– I intuitively assumed was the Ten of Pentacles. Oops. =) Whereas, if you look at the Ten of Pentacles (below), its imagery reminds RWS readers of the Nine of Pentacles. I wonder if that was an intentional play by the artist.
How Maille has reinterpreted the Three of Pentacles as an artist demonstrates why I love this deck so much. I get a fresh perspective of the tarot. As an artist, Maille is very much inspired by comic book art, where a single frame has to tell a multi-layered story, forwarding the main plot, implying sub-plots, expressing emotion, with dynamic energy in the lines that will reinforce the dialogue. And all of that comes through in Maille’s illustration work.
By the way, check out Maille’s online art portfolio, especially the page of his full-color bird illustrations, where each work is titled after a deity, like Icarus, Prometheus, Pandora, Medusa, Ariadne… (!!!) I want a bird-themed oracle deck featuring those works of art, where the birds are messengers of gods and goddesses! How amazing would that deck be!
Are you getting a Horned One Cernunnos implication in that King of Wands, or is that just me? And I think of a fairy godmother when I see that Queen of Wands. And love how the Knight of Wands is taking a selfie with a camera phone!
The depictions on the courts expand my approach to interpreting tarot courts, but still make perfect sense to me. For example, when I see the imagery on that Knight of Wands, I think of conceit, both in its Renaissance etymological roots of wit and fancy and the sense of self-admiration. Once you think that through, it makes sense for the Knight of Wands, even if that isn’t my typical first thought about the card in the original RWS.
The fish surfing on a wave in a teacup that is the Page of Cups conveys eccentricity, so when that card comes up in a reading, that’s going to be the key personality trait in play. The starry sky pattern on the cloak of the Knight of Cups expresses the court card’s elemental chemistry: Air (Knight) in Water (Cups).
There’s something altogether intriguing about the Kings from the active suits (Wands and Swords) centering on a personality, while the Kings from the passive suits (Cups and Pentacles) center on an object and its landscape setting. And a Joan of Arc reference in the Queen of Swords? You got me. I’m now irreversibly partial to this deck. (Though personally, I’ll just say that I tend to see Joan of Arc as more Page of Swords-y than Queen, but in terms of her status in the collective consciousness today? Yah, definitely Queen of Swords.)
The Ink Witch Tarot is a hand-drawn deck in pen and ink that spell-crafts with a pen. Maille’s Etsy shop describes his work as “witchy and queer-friendly art,” to which I’d also add covers an eclectic range of cultural iconic references.
Maille’s art is at once both cohesive in theme yet far-ranging in tone. The above card of the maneki-neko cat as the Knight of Pentacles is full of charm, and yet tones range into the poignant and heartbreaking, especially in the suit of Swords.
The Ink Witch Tarot tugs at my heartstrings. I can just cycle through these cards and admire the artwork meditatively for hours. The deck also reads beautifully. RWS readers will have no trouble at all.
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 Ink Witch Tarot from the creator for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.