Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot by Poppy Palin  
Review by Lee A. Bursten

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

The artwork on many of these cards is truly remarkable.  Poppy Palin is a visionary illustrator who is capable of producing wonderfully evocative and mysterious pictures.  Unfortunately, not all the pictures in the deck are as good as the best of them; and, also unfortunately, I don’t think the author/artist has pulled the pictures together into a conceptual framework which makes sense from a Tarot standpoint. 

Let me be clear; although I have a great fondness for traditional Tarot decks, I’m not a strict traditionalist.  I don’t get terribly upset because an author has changed a card’s title or because an artist has come up with a new way of illustrating one of the traditional archetypes.  I like very much, for example, the Robin Wood Temperance card, in which the angel is juggling silver and gold balls instead of pouring water from one cup to another.  But I do feel that the traditional concepts, the original archetypes, need to be more or less intact even if they’re shown in a different way.  Voyager, in my opinion, qualifies as a Tarot deck because at least some facet of what has come to be accepted as the basic concepts of each Major Arcana card has been retained.  But if those basic concepts are going to be thrown out the window whenever the author/artist feels like it, then in my opinion it’s not a Tarot deck.  It could perhaps make a good non-Tarot divination deck, but since this deck has been titled “Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot,” I think it’s fair to judge it as a Tarot deck.  (Interestingly, in her book Palin variously refers to the deck as “the Wild Spirit Divination Pack” and “Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot,” as if she is perhaps herself unsure of how she wants us to regard it.) 

The titles of the Major Arcana are all changed, and subtitles added.  Other decks do this, and of course it’s a matter of personal preference as to whether these changes are successful or not.  Personally I don’t feel that each card requires two titles; one is plenty for me.  If the Fool card is entitled “Wandering Minstrel,” do we really need to have a subtitle, “Free Spirit”?  And does anyone really think that “Sky Dancer/Morning Star” is an improvement over “The Sun”? 

The deck certainly starts off well with the aforementioned “Wandering Minstrel/Free Spirit” (Fool) card.  A more-or-less traditional Fool card, it shows a man in motley, with a fool’s cap and a bundle on a stick and a guitar, running or leaping into the air, accompanied by a dog, while a merry sun shines in the sky.  This card is the perfect embodiment of the phrase “riot of color.”  If Palin had fulfilled the promise of this card and created a set of Majors which illustrated the traditional concepts in a similarly fresh and colorful manner, then this would have been my kind of deck. 

Unfortunately, that card is the beginning and end of any recognizable Tarot symbology (except for the Moon and Sun cards, which do show a moon and a sun).  Some of the Majors do retain some aspect of the traditional concept, and in some Palin seems to abandon the concept altogether and substitute one more to her liking.  Her Temperance card, for example, is titled “Inner Child/Spirit of Purity” and shows a young girl sitting amid roses, along with a unicorn and two elves.  This picture in my opinion has nothing to do with the concepts of balance, flexibility, or moderation which are usually assigned to this card.  The corresponding chapter in the accompanying book (also by Palin) speaks mostly of purity and innocence, although Palin does throw in the words “harmony” and “balance” often, as if by repeating them enough she will convince us that this is a Temperance card.

I do like the “Transformation/Awakening Spirit” (Judgement) card, which shows a pair of baby shoes which have been gold-plated for posterity, a nice illustration for the concept of graduating to another level of life, which is one valid interpretation of the traditional Judgement card. 

Palin takes an interesting approach to the Minors.  Eschewing the Rider-Waite-Smith-derived pictures of most decks, she has instead chosen to use a number-plus-element system to arrive at an interpretation for each card; that is, each number, 1 through 14 (11 through 14 are the Courts), is assigned a meaning, and the card’s meaning is arrived at by combining the number meaning with the meaning of the suit.  This is a common method often used by readers who use decks with unillustrated pip cards (i.e., cards Ace through 10), although readers often differ as to the meanings of the numbers.  Palin uses (without attribution) the set of meanings written by Gail Fairfield, which is to be found in Fairfield’s books Choice-Centered Tarot (recently republished as Everyday Tarot) and Choice-Centered Relating and the Tarot.  Palin then creates a scene for each card which embodies the concept of the number-plus-element meaning. 

Some of these scenes are rather limiting.  The Knight of Earth is shown as the Giant in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.  The book describes him as a “dirty, smelly, stingy tyrant” with no positive attributes, which seems a rather harsh and narrow way to view a Court card. 

Several cards in this deck are strikingly different in style from the others, which may bother some people, for example the Five of Fire

The Page of Water, “The Fortune Teller,” is a lovely card, showing a young woman sitting with her dog on a street corner, with a crystal ball and three Tarot cards (that is, real Tarot cards). 

The Four of Water, “Blood Bond,” shows a pair of lovers who have performed a ritual in which they have drained a rather large amount of their blood into a cup.  It does not state in the book that they actually drink the blood, but from the way the woman is offering the cup to the man, it certainly looks that way.  Yuck. 

The Ace of Earth is a wonderful card in which a male nature spirit waves his branch-like arms and coaxes a shoot out of a seed. 

This deck could possibly be a good one to work with, if one were to treat it as a non-Tarot divination deck.  I particularly liked the way older people are pictured with grace and dignity, which I would like to see other deck authors and artists emulate.  But to me this deck is not Tarot, and I don’t care for the way Palin has cavalierly tossed out important concepts for apparently no good reason. 

Actually, the reason does become apparent when one turns to the accompanying book, Stories of the Wild Spirit.  After reading Diane Wilkes’s review, I was determined to read the book with an open mind and to try to not let myself be influenced by Diane’s articulate and impassioned views.  After reading the book, I have come to the conclusion that the book is not as bad as Diane said it was.  It’s worse. 

First of all, after the introductory chapters, the book is written entirely in the first person, as each card’s character gets to tell us its story.  This device gets real old, real fast.  And let me tell you, it’s quite a struggle to make it to the final card on page 285.  Readability has been sacrificed so that each of Palin’s characters gets to make his or her point; and these points start to become distressingly similar as one slogs through the book card by card. 

Palin’s basic method is to take a me-against-the-world attitude, which becomes more or less strident according to the mood of the card.  Some of the chapters, like the High Priestess and the Empress (sorry, I’m giving up on Palin’s card titles), are relatively gentle; others, like the Fool or Magician chapters, are quite harsh and harangue the poor reader. 

The problem is that, after assuring us in the introduction that her method is “friendly, unpressured, and gentle,” like “chatting with a friend over a cup of tea at a farmhouse kitchen table,” Palin then proceeds to cast the reader as her enemy, who must be alternately cajoled and beaten into submission.  She assumes the reader embodies everything she hates in life.  I’ve never read a book which has made me feel so insulted.  The reader is referred to as “frowning,” “protecting yourself from other people,” “smirking,” “like a bunch of stupid sheep,” “daydreaming, reminiscing, distracted, busy,”  “sick, moody, confused and lethargic.”  What a downer.  I could go on, but you get the picture.  And that’s only from the first few cards.  

The cards’ characters are avatars for the author herself, who after insulting us then proceeds to lecture us on the proper way to live, which is of course Poppy’s way.  And this, more than anything else, is what offends me about the entire set; Palin has hijacked the traditional Tarot archetypes and used them to push her agenda.  Rather than seeing the Tarot as a system of symbols which can be used to describe ourselves and the world around us for greater insight, she sees it as a tool for proselytizing her ideas about how we ought to be conducting ourselves, and she thinks nothing of tossing out large chunks of traditional Tarot if they don’t serve her purpose.  So every card becomes a little didactic lesson in life, and if we don’t agree then we are held in contempt. 

I think one would have a hard time following Palin’s commandments anyway, because they sometimes contradict themselves.  In the Fool chapter we are exhorted to “play the music of your teenage years as you chop the vegetables for supper and you will still remember all the words to those songs!”  But in the Magician chapter we are berated for being “full of meaningless song lyrics.”  

Likewise, the Fool commands us to “turn away from the bank and go into the travel agency,” and tells us he “won’t let you feel guilty or out of control for spending more money than you have or buying an uneconomical car.” But at the same time the Magician pities us “if you cannot even think quietly, sensibly, reverently for one moment in your high-pressure, high-achieving existence.”  “What do you truly achieve,” we are asked, “if you run hither and yon, earning more and more yet gaining less and less in terms of real gold?”  Palin seems to have contempt for people who get up every morning to go to work (whether at the office or at home), but she seems not to have made the connection that if we do not earn our keep, we will be unable to make those recommended detours to the travel agency or the Porsche dealership. 

There are other oddities, such as in the Lovers’ chapter, which is told from the point of view of the woman (I suppose the man’s perspective doesn’t count).  The odd thing is that she describes a love affair which has ended, while the picture shows them being quite cozy with each other. 

The bottom line for me is, if Poppy Palin has so little interest in and respect for the traditional Tarot forms, I really don’t understand why she bothered to create a Tarot deck.  I think she would have been better off creating a non-Tarot divination deck, where she could lecture and berate us to her heart’s content, without anyone expecting traditional Tarot symbols or concepts.

You can view a sample reading with this deck here.

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot by Poppy Palin
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0-7387-0097-5

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2002 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes