Let’s face facts—when we buy a new deck of tarot cards it’s generally because we are first-and-foremost attracted to the image, to the artwork, to the pictures. Those are the things we’re going to be “reading” after all, so esthetic inspiration is paramount. The Animal Totem Tarot was apparently released in 2016, and I might have noticed it peripherally at its release, but didn’t take any action at the time…mostly because my primary interest hasn’t been in animal totem symbology, and I have been trying to restrain myself when it comes to deck purchases.
But recently, at a tarot Meetup organized by a friend, one of the participants—new to tarot—was inquiring about decks that might appeal to her interest in animal totems and symbolism. Several of us came up with suggestions—the Wild Unknown Tarot and its creator’s follow-up deck, the Animal Spirit Deck (which is an oracle deck; not a tarot deck, btw); there’s the 2003 Tarot of the Animal Lords that depicts animals as humanoid characters; and there are lots of decks that incorporate animals but are not strictly so—the Chrysalis Tarot for example, which has several whimsical animals throughout the deck, but in a fairy-land-centric sort of way; and everyone knows that you can get as many friggin’ CAT tarot decks as you could ever possibly want or imagine…
However, none of the experienced card readers at the event mentioned the more recently released Animal Totem Tarot (Llewellyn Publications). So when I got home and started doing some simple research, I was shocked to find that this deck is likely the perfect companion for our newbie tarot-and-animal enthusiast. The author of the deck—Leeza Robertson—started with a much deeper appreciation and interest in animal totems and symbology than she did for the tarot. And when the tarot became more relevant in her life, she decided to combine the two. (Brigit at Biddy Tarot has a terrific interview blog post with the Animal Totem Tarot’s author Leeza Robertson…)
So the art…the art…where I started with this blog. Yes; it was the artwork that originally captivated me about this tarot deck when I really looked at it. Llewellyn Publications contracted artist Eugene Smith for the task, and his stuff, for the most part, is beautiful and fascinating stuff. It’s hard to tell what medium the artist uses, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of it was computer-graphically conceived. But the images have a lot of texture to them—details of fur, snow drifts, grass, bark, stone, and clouds and mountains that sometimes look like beautiful linocut work. With the exception of one or two less-realistic depictions (that big ol’ eyeball on that stingray is freakin’ me out!!), the artwork has me hooked.
But what about my naïvité when it comes to animal spirits and animal symbology? I mean, I’m not completely clueless—having some interest in Native American tradition, earth-centered spirituality, and growing up in a highly forested state (two-thirds of Vermont is designated Green Mountain Forest area), I’ve had my reasonably fair share of wildlife and wild fauna experiences. But it’s not the subject that I have ever been enthralled or obsessed about. Does that matter when trying to read this deck?
What Robertson, the deck’s author, has created is another juxtaposition of specialized learning that conveniently compliment one another—not any differently than tarot and numerology; or tarot and the Cabbalah; or tarot and elemental associations; or tarot and Virtue Ethics… The thing about the tarot is that it is virtually adaptable to and complimentary to any other school of philosophy or area of specialization/study. Cabbalah, for instance, is in its own right a powerful system of knowledge; but when combined with the knowledge of the tarot, can become even more intriguing. Equally so—apparently—is animal totemic symbolism and the tarot. And just like any other specialized area of study—like Cabbalah—it can take some time to learn something new…
What you will hear again and again from seasoned tarot professionals is that you should never stop learning new things when it comes to the tarot… Because the cross-specialization or different philosophies can make both philosophies become illuminated in new and profound ways. The addition to your repertoire of multiple tangential or cross-disciplinary areas of study will not only make you realize the breadth of inspiration and knowledge that is encompassed in the tarot,…but will also provide you with exponentially expanding meanings and symbolism for each card. In other words, your reading and card interpretation capacity will explode a million-fold. Learning more associations to the tarot cards means you’ll never be at a loss for potential meanings and interpretations during a client reading.
So I behooves me as a tarot reader to read through Leeza Robertson’s hefty accompanying Guidebook in order to garner some of her expertise and knowledge about the animal kingdom… I’ll probably spend some time weighing whether I’m able to make a distinct connection with this deck, and if not, I can always gift these cards to that Meetup student.
Going through that guidebook, I really appreciate Robertson’s descriptions and connection to traditional RWS card definitions. That might be her forté. I really connected with several descriptions, such as the Ace of Swords (represented by the Panda):
“The Ace of Swords stands upright with its point towards the heavens in the Panda’s enclosure as a symbol of truth, knowledge, and reason. The truth is, sometimes you have to consume a lot of information before you attain the knowledge you need to make the appropriate decision. The Panda and the Ace of Swords remind us that we don’t always get the quick and easy answer. Quite the opposite, actually—you need to take your time, gather all the information you can, and devour it.”
This totally made me think about being an information warrior, and the necessity that is required in our current day and social media-age to vet the information we are bombarded with every day. It also rang true with recent books I’ve been reading on infomatics and the “deep web.” The whole suit of swords really spoke to me, and frankly, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so attracted to the suit of swords in any other deck as much as I am in this particular pack of cards!
But there are some things that are definitely curious… For instance, in Chapter 2 regarding “Power Animals, Animal Totems, and Animal Guides,” Robertson uses one particular animal as a prominent example of her relationship to animal symbolism—the snake. She explains how snakes are one animal that frightens and disturbs her in real life…but that she is able to take many important lessons from the snake’s life—shedding “old ways of doing, being, and thinking,” teaching us to let go of what no longer serves us. “They tell us in no uncertain terms that we have outgrown where we now stand, and like it or not, it’s time to move on.” …That is some righteous advice, and an amazing symbolic simile. …But curiously the snake cannot be found anywhere in the deck. That’s nit-picky. Robertson was obviously trying to provide us with an example of reaching beyond our comfort zones. But the flip side of noticing there’s no snake is realizing that 78 tarot cards somehow can’t encompass the gigantic-ness that is the animal kingdom—there’s a lot of animals simply not represented in this deck—only because there isn’t enough space for them all…
I suppose one can think about that in more than one way—as a disappointment that your favorite koala bear, or the platypus, or the snake isn’t going to be found in this beautiful deck of cards… or that the abundance and variety of life on this holy, blessed planet is so plentiful that we can’t help but be awed by its massive diversity, its inability to be contained by a mere deck of 78 cards!
Other notes about this deck:
Llewellyn (the publisher) continues to use too thin card stock for their decks. I know that this is a cost-saving measure for the company, but when you specialize in an archival product like tarot cards, meant to get their fair use of handling and abuse, adding some weight to the cardstock paper seems like a reasonable standard. When I hold two of this deck’s cards together, they feel like the correct weight for what I want in tarot card stock for my decks. Holding one of these flimsy cards makes me feel like I’m going to accidentally break them…it’s that flimsy.
The back of this deck is gorgeous. It’s one of the first things that drew my attention. I love the design. But it’s not reversible—another quirk that Llewellyn doesn’t seem to know how to get right with their contemporary decks. Give us readers who read reversals a break…leave the surprise of the card’s face-up position to the moment of turning the card over, not to the card back!
While not duplicating or imitating Pamela Coleman Smith’s imagery from the standard Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) archetype, the symbolism presented by these totemic animals adheres to RWS definitions, providing ease of learning for newbie tarot students or students who want to expand their animal totemic knowledge in relation to the tarot. Do you know what else results from a deck that uses totemic animals for its symbology? It removes stereotypes and ethnic associations from readings. It also removes the stigma of cultural appropriation involved with some culturally-oriented decks (unless you consider animal species and genus types to be autonomous to their own culture—but generally it is accepted that most of the animal kingdom distinguishes itself without cognitive conscience, knows how to share the planet naturally, and interacts with their environment and other species in a manner holistic to their nature.)
The deck’s retail price of $28.99 is standard for Llewellyn’s products, and seems reasonable with the size of the accompanying guidebook included in the box set. (It would be more reasonable, though, if I felt like the flimsy cards would last a lifetime, and not like I should buy two sets in case they disintegrate.)
Overall, this tarot deck is worth it for the beautiful artwork, and the excellent accompanying guidebook, from which anyone is certain to gain valuable card repertoire knowledge.