Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot by Poppy Palin
Review by Diane Wilkes
If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.
My viewing of the first cards in the Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot, hereinafter referred to as the Wild Spirit Tarot, brought forth many an ooh and aah. Some of these cards are simply breathtaking and right, in a new and wonderful way, and so I thought, "Here is the truest, loveliest Pagan Tarot I've seen yet."
But, as is often the case, further and closer perusal brought forth less purrs and more pursed lips. I can even tell you which card initiated the lip-pursing: the Justice card, renamed "Hooded One." Actually, that elicited perplexity; Silence for the Hanged Man began the actual tightening of the mouth. The next three cards thinned my lips still more: Rebirth for Death, Inner Child for Temperance, and the Fiddler for The Devil. Nothing turns me off more than euphemisms for the "challenging" cards--if I wanted the Treacle Tarot, I'd ask for one, thank you very much.
Even more aggravating to me than the kindler, gentler spin on the cards is the solipsistic nature of the companion book. The approach of author Poppy Palin is, "I read a few books on tarot and didn't understand them, so I created my own." The majority of the book is devoted to the Major Arcana, which is typical for a companion book. However, instead of providing card descriptions or interpretations, Palin has written long "magical fiction" pieces for each of the 22 Majors. When I read that on the back of the book, I grimaced, thinking about how tricky a prospect it would be to do well, and how likely it was to result in disaster. Thought I to myself, "This requires depth and a deft touch. Ellen Lorenzi-Prince is the only tarot writer I can think of with the humor and humility to do this well, but most people would be wise not to try this at home nor in print."
Poppy Palin falls into the category of "most people" here. Even after reading just the first few card-stories, I detected bitterness towards traditional tarot, a decided and unattractive propensity towards preachiness, and an agenda a mile long. One gets the feeling that Palin's introduction to tarot was via a Know-It-All Would-Be Tarot Priestess (or Priest) and Wild Spirit is Poppy's in-your-face response.
I also suspect that Palin's tarot resources were somewhat limited. She confidently avers, "...[T]his is the first pack that takes the questing soul on a country path, leading from the urban and suburban levels of human conscious dwelling into the wilderness that is of the heart, not only in the land." Hello? Do the words "Merryday Tarot" mean anything to you? Because the art in the Wild Spirit deck truly thrills me, I actually had a momentary fantasy about a Louisa Poole-Poppy Palin collaboration. That would be a truly inspired Pagan Tarot!
But I digress. Far be it from me to force an agenda upon you. I will simply share some short excerpts from Palin's stories, and allow you to determine whether this is inspired talespinning or rhetoric disguised as magical fiction. Each is told from the perspective of the card, in the card's "voice."
From the Wandering Minstrel (The Fool), on the subject of outsiders' views of himself and his dog, Merry Meet: "Some judge us as weak to be unbound to regulation. They see us as work-shy, lazy, and pointless. They believe that they do not need our insights and colour when they have money and four walls to make them feel secure, superior, and infallible. They have lost the ability to feel that which is of the natural rhythm; their own beat is to the monotonous drum of acquisition and greed. They will not share their possessions with one they perceive as idle and stupid..."
The Magician, renamed Cunning Man (which I mentally describe as "Palin's Wandering Minstrel with a 'tude"): Think, will you! Do not be told, but just use logic, as I did. Take time, if you can, from all those things you deem most pressing to give time to the Mysteries of Existence. Drop the keys to the car and search instead for Keys to Wisdom. I pity you, not vice versa, if you cannot even think quietly, sensibly, reverently for one moment in your high-pressure, high-achieving existence. Yet what do you truly achieve if you run hither and yon, earning more and more yet gaining less and less in terms of the real gold...The Keys to the Kingdom are in each of our hands, if only we knew it. Nobody else holds them exclusively; you need not pay for endless workshops or retreats to find someone else's version of the truth!"
The Hooded One (Justice): The Law of Exchange, of action and response, of cause and effect, are not punishments dealt out by some mighty ruler; they are just the result of our own energy, what we put out...our output...being reflected back at us, somewhere, somehow. If one puts diesel smoke to the atmosphere, someone will breathe it in. Smoke cannot be contained in a box, but spreads and affects the external environment.
I could quote from each of the cards, but I think you get my point. The irony of the Cunning Man's speech is, I'm sure, not lost on you, the discerning reader--you needn't pay for endless workshops when you can read these eco-socialist diatribes and absorb everything you need from Ms. Palin's tarot tales.
The Major Arcana have all been revisioned to some extent and each has a catchphrase at the bottom of the card. They are as follows:
Traditional Title Wild Spirit Title Wild Spirit Keywords
The Magician Cunning Man Magical Spirit
The High Priestess Wisewoman Dream Weaver
The Empress Mother Nature Spirit of Love
The Emperor Lord of the Wild Strong Spirit
The Hierophant Interpreter Spirit Guide
The Lovers Soul Mates Blessed Union
The Chariot Hunter Spirit of Clarity
Strength Natural Force Wild Power
The Hermit Healer Wise Counsellor
The Wheel of Fortune Dance of Life Web of Fate
Justice Hooded One Honourable Spirit
The Hanged Man Silence Visionary Spirit
Death Rebirth Spirit of Change
Temperance Inner Child Spirit of Purity
The Devil Fiddler Wild Spirit
The Tower Lightning Tree Wild Energy
The Star Source Connection
The Moon Mother Two Moons Sensitive Spirit
The Sun Sky Dancer Sky Dancer
Judgement Transformation Awakening Spirit
The World Reaper Wild Harvest
You can guess by the titles where Palin diverges most from traditional tarot and where she hews fairly close to the archetypal concepts. The Emperor, often seen as an advocate for civilization and growth, becomes the "Lord of the Wild." The Dance of Life (The Wheel of Fortune in traditional decks) monologue exhorts us to embrace death as part of the Great Mother's plan and accept our role in the eternal web of existence. You'd think that, if the author were quite so enamored of death, card XIII's title wouldn't have gone through a death of its own. But the Rebirth card is all about reincarnation. In other words, everything dies, but not really--it's just nature's recycling plant working at full capacity. Silence (The Hanged Man) is the story of a dreamy scion who prefers art to war. Palin's keywords for this card are "Visionary Spirit," but the essence of this card comes across more as a whiny, self-aggrandizing dreamer than a visionary of any kind.
The Minor Arcana are even more disappointing than the Majors. On the plus side, even though these cards are also told from the point of view of the card in monologue form, the passages are much shorter. Hence, the author reins in her use of cliche and polemic to a degree, if only because of space constraints. On the negative tip, Ms. Palin is even more dismissive of tradition in her approach to the Minors, and they often bear little resemblance to the Rider-Waite-Smith/Golden Dawn perspective. Instead, she has based her cards on numerology, which corresponds to more familiar Minor Arcana cards in some cases, but in others, varies significantly. The Seven of Fire would be a perfect Eight of Wands; the Five of Water, on the other hand, evokes the more traditional Five of Cups quite successfully. The Minors, like the Majors, have catchphrases on the bottom of the card.
Palin also lists three keywords or key phrases for the Minor Arcana, which are repeated at the beginning of each suit section. This sometimes leads to two cards having strikingly similar meanings--the Eight of Air (Swords) is "The Caged Bird", which is certainly akin to more traditional versions of this card. But the Eight of Earth (Pentacles) is "The Trap", which bears a painfully strong resemblance to the Eight of Air in Palin's deck. Some of her numerological keywords are in harmony with traditional meanings, such as the Aces (beginning, conception, or initiation); others, such as the Tens (waiting, taking time out, hesitating), are not. When doing readings with this deck, I found the Minors, in particular, to be more one-dimensional and simplistic than most tarot decks with which I've read.
The book also includes a brief introduction, wherein we are directed as to the ideal covering for the deck (black, brown, or midnight blue velvet cloth) and provided with directions for a three card reading. On the backs of the two extra cards provided to serve as potential significators (the Wandering Minstrel and the Nine of Fire) are four kinds of three card spreads and a modified three card spread (that, with clarifiers, adds up to six cards used).
I know this review may seem somewhat harsh. There's nothing like potential that doesn't come near its fruition to engender bitterness. I blame my disappointed heart, because the art on these cards speaks to me so deeply. Palin's version of The Hermit is probably my favorite rendering ever. Admittedly, it defies the card's tradition by including the hand of an unseen other (the one being counseled), but as a Jungian extrovert, I strongly identify with this depiction. (The cat doesn't hurt, either!) Other cards that knock me out are Soul Mates (The Lovers), the Lightning Tree (The Tower), and the Queens of Water (Cups) and Air (Swords). The artwork is beautifully done, and the artistic sensibility is inspired and powerful. If the quality of the writing and deck structure matched it, Wild Spirit would be a deck to be reckoned with. As it is, I consider it a brilliant, but seriously flawed, diamond.
The cards are wider than standard at three and a quarter by four and a quarter inches. The backs are reversible and exquisite, symmetrical renderings of faeries that remind me of Laura Tuan's exquisite Tarocchi Celtici. Shuffling them proved to be an out-of-body experience; I felt as if an enchanted valley were cascading through my hands. This is very conducive to the meditative process. I spread the cards out in a row for a querent to choose from, and the effect looked like a marbleized, silk-screened dream--the querent said, "It looks like a peacock." The visual scrumptiousness offers a feast that the book and cards ultimately don't deliver.
All cards have a border of multi-colored triangles; the Major Arcana border is red, yellow, and black; Fire (Wands) borders are red and black, Water (Cups), black and blue, Air (Swords), yellow and black, and Earth (Pentacles) borders are green and black. The quality of the cardstock is excellent and the artwork, as stated before, is simply wonderful.
I recommend this deck to Pagans and others whose views of tarot structure are extremely fluid, and lovers of good artwork.
You can view a sample reading with this deck here.
You may read another review of this deck/book set here.
If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.
Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot by Poppy Palin
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
Images and cited text © 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review and page © 2002 Diane Wilkes