Exploring the Starved City Tarot

I started following the artist Meagan Berlin on Instagram about six months ago. She had teased some photos of a deck she was working on called the Starved City Tarot, and I was curious to see how it would turn out. The deck is all finished now, Meagan was kind enough to send me a copy, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts, because I love this deck. Like, really love. 

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Monochromatic decks with simple illustrations are popular right now. So as someone who’s found herself becoming something of a deck collector, I’ve been looking around for one that I like. I’m difficult to please though, and sometimes this style of deck feels a bit surface-level. I often think of decks with simple illustrations as good for beginners, but not particularly useful for someone who already knows their stuff. The Starved City Tarot is different, though. It’s true that the illustrations are simple, but it’s also obvious that Meagan took great care with these images, so that the simplicity becomes dramatic, rather than boring. For example, the Devil card in this deck is illustrated by a single horizontal chain, running over the sides of the card. This image is a punch. It brings—front and center—these ideas about the Devil as an imprisoning figure. It forces us to face our addictions and their tendencies to creep into other parts of our lives. The images in this deck are ones that get straight to the point, to the root of meaning. There’s thoughtfulness and intention here.

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The deck itself is beautiful, and I love the artwork. But the thing I love most about it is that it's intentionally queer-friendly. Tarot is an old system, and like many old things, there are aspects of it that don’t always work well today. One of those aspects is the system’s tendency to lean heavily on the gender binary. For some people this isn’t a big deal, but for a lot of queer people it can be uncomfortable. And while it’s certainly possible to read traditional decks in a queer-friendly way (I’m thinking specifically of Cassandra Snow’s Queering the Tarot column on Little Red Tarot), that’s not always ideal. The Starved City Tarot manages to dismantle the gender binary inherent in traditional tarot decks without toppling the entire structure.    

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We see this mostly in the renaming of the court cards. (This renaming is becoming a popular thing with indie decks, and I’m here for all of it.) In this deck, the court cards are Pages, Knights, Advisors, and Protectors. I love this. Renaming the Queens and Kings as Advisors and Protectors allows the reader to focus on the action of the archetypes rather than their prescribed gender. And even the imagery of the court cards is ambiguous as regards gender. (This isn’t always the case. It’s difficult for even the most well-intentioned artists to move past the gendered nature of the court cards, even if the court cards are renamed in a more inclusive way.) Most of the court cards aren't even illustrated with people, which I appreciate. It makes it easier to get to the root of the meaning.

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Because the illustrations in the Starved City Tarot are so simple and often abstract, there aren’t a lot of actual people in the deck. But the bodies we do see are beautiful and diverse. Until recently, this kind of diversity was rare in tarot. This is another of traditional system’s shortcomings—if you look through the standard Rider-Waite deck, everyone is white. But the new decks being created these days are often much more inclusive, and the Starved City Tarot is no exception. It makes the people I read for more comfortable. (Hint: it’s easier to connect with a reading if the bodies in the cards look like yours.)

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My favorite card in this deck is the High Priestx, and I think it illustrates most of what I love about this deck. The image simply illustrates the root of this card's power, the High Priestx's ability to connect light and shadow, conscious and unconscious. And the gender is stripped away here. In general, I don’t particularly mind the High Priestess being a more feminine-coded card, but I also think it’s easy to fall into these old ideas about women being mysterious and intuitive, while men (like the Magician, the High Priestess’ match) are active and outward-focused. But at their roots, these archetypes have nothing to do with gender. And stripping away the gender stereotypes of the cards allows us to play with the archetypes in ways that are more fluid.

My only qualm with this deck is the card stock. It's thin and pretty flimsy. This is not a deal breaker for me (I'm fine just being tender with fragile-feeling decks like this one), but I'm mentioning it here because I know that card quality is important for a lot of people. There is a small guidebook included, created in partnership with Kelly Linsday and including a poem by Maks Zouboules which inspired the deck's name. I like the guidebook quite a bit—it digs into the cards' meanings without being overwhelming.

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To be perfectly honest, I have traditional decks that I love and use regularly. But also, I find that the older I get, the more queer I feel, and the more queer I feel, the more queer I want my decks to be. And while I love my trusty Rider-Waite, there’s something freeing about a deck that gives me room to explore beyond the borders of traditional tarot. I think that’s the real heart of the Starved City Tarot. So while I think this would be a great deck for beginners because of its simplicity, I also think there’s a lot here for seasoned readers as well. If you’re interested in the deck, you can follow Meagan on Instagram or purchase the Starved City Tarot on her website.

On the Devil as Liberator

The Devil, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Devil, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Devil from the Rider-Waite Tarot offers up some pretty dramatic imagery: goat head, bat wings, pentagram, fire and brimstone and chains. It feels like an image that’s meant to inspire fear, and it often does just that. Even though the Rider-Waite gives us a particularly dramatic interpretation, honestly, most decks go for drama with this card. And most of the time it works because it does fit the traditional meaning of the Devil card. This archetype focuses on the things you would expect. The Devil is about our vices--both what they are and how they affect our lives. It’s about the things that tempt us, and how we respond to those weaknesses. It’s about addiction, and how easy it is to cross that line.

The Devil and The Lovers, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Devil and The Lovers, Rider-Waite Tarot

While the figure of the Devil himself is obviously the most dramatic part of the imagery, the most important part of this card is the two figures below him. These people are meant to mirror the couple in the Lovers card. Under the Devil, they’ve been distorted. Here they have horns, and tails of grape vines and fire, respective nods to the common vices of alcoholism and lust. They’re chained to the Devil, unable to escape. (Chains are a pretty heavy-handed metaphor for addiction, but I’ll take it.) The Lovers archetype is about free choice, among other things. And the Devil represents the loss of that choice. So when this card comes up in a reading, it’s often an invitation to examine our lives and to think about what feels controlled and what feels controlling. What makes you feel free? What makes you feel trapped? What parts of your life feel like they’re controlling you?  

For people who don’t know much about tarot, the Devil can be one of the more frightening cards in the deck. Part of the reason this card scares people is that, in Western culture, a lot of our ideas about the Devil come from the Bible. When you’ve grown up in Christian culture, it’s difficult to separate the Devil archetype from the Biblical idea of Satan. Those of us who come from a Christian background tend to have preconceived notions about the Devil as a capital-B Bad Guy. For a lot of us, the Devil is a figure that has always been associated with sin and hell and rejection. Those associations are difficult to push past, so when the Devil shows up in a reading, what also shows up is often an immediate fear. But I love pulling this card in readings, both for myself and for others, because the Devil is much more nuanced than we often give it credit for. For me, it’s one of those cards that changes a lot depending on the context. The Devil can speak to addiction and prisons of our own making, but the Devil can just as often be about liberation.

The Devil and the Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Devil and the Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Devil can be scary because it often speaks to the parts of our lives that are disordered. But the Devil can also be scary because it can indicate a lack of institutional structure. (It should be noted that, in the major arcana, the card immediately following the Devil is the Tower, that archetype of chaos and destruction. He’s often a precursor to big life upheaval.) We see this in the many ways that the imagery of the Devil mirrors the imagery of the Hierophant. The Devil is the Hierophant’s direct opposite. He is the Hierophant’s shadow. While the Hierophant focuses on institutional structure, the Devil focuses on the breakdown of that structure. As the Hierophant builds a hierarchy, the Devil is doing his best to dismantle it. The Hierophant holds a triple scepter, a symbol of his dominion. The Devil is right behind him with a lit torch, ready to burn it all down.

It’s true that the loss of footing the Devil represents can be disorienting, but it’s also true that it can be freeing. We see this in the Devil’s relationship to the Witches’ Sabbath, that Bacchanalian affair. Traditionally, the Witches’ Sabbath is a time when witches make their way deep into the forest by beast or foot or flight. Once there, they cast spells, feast, fuck, etc. The Devil is at the center of this celebration, but here, he’s not a prison guard. Here, he’s less Satan and more Bacchus. At the center of the Witches’ Sabbath, the Devil is eleutherios, the liberator. Because the Witches’ Sabbath, like the Bacchanalia, is about liberation. It’s about loosening inhibitions in order to see yourself and others in a different way. Traditionally, both occur in the woods, beyond the boundaries of civilized life. The point being that, if we meet the Devil beyond the hedge, then we’re also moving beyond societal structure, beyond ideas about things like class and gender. The Devil of the Witches’ Sabbath invites us to tear down the structures of the Hierophant and think about who we are once those structures are gone. Who are you in the woods? Who are you in the dark?

The Devil archetype is so interesting not because it has these two sides, but because they're so opposite. Addiction versus freedom. Control versus hedonism. Structure versus the liberating loss of it. When the Devil shows up in a reading, it can mean one thing or the other, but it can also mean both. What are the vices in your life? Are they holding you hostage? If so, how? What are your shames? Why are you ashamed of them? What if you weren’t? The Devil isn’t always about sin and addiction. Sometimes the Devil is a pointed reminder that losing ourselves is the best way to find ourselves.

Moving Beyond Borders: On a New Justice Archetype

Justice, Rider-Waite Tarot

Justice, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Justice card from the famous Rider-Waite deck shows us a woman seated on a throne. Flanking the throne are two pillars, symbolizing severity and mercy. The woman in the image looks directly at us. She wears a crown set with a square gem, a representation of logic and reason. The clasp of her cloak is a circle set in a square, a reminder that the law protects us all. In one hand she holds a sword; in the other, a set of scales. The sword that Justice holds is double-edged, reminding us that justice is impartial. The scales are perfectly balanced, needing only the lightest touch. This is a very particular idea of Justice. It’s an idea that I would call “justice as maintenance.” This card works under the assumption that the law protects all men equally. And if that’s the case—if the law is fair—then the job of Justice is simply to preserve the status quo. And so this Justice is steady and almost passive. The scales don’t need adjustment. The sword stays upright, a symbol of triumph. Justice remains seated on her throne. It’s a card that tries to convey neutrality, but also comes across as kind of disengaged.

The Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Hierophant, Rider-Waite Tarot

The Rider-Waite Justice is closely linked with another card in the major arcana, the Hierophant. They tend to mirror each other, both in the Rider-Waite deck and others. Both Justice and the Hierophant are seated on thrones and wearing crowns, signalling authority. The Hierophant is an authority particularly focused on tradition and orthodoxy. He is concerned with balanced scales inasmuch as he relies on stability to maintain his tradition. He’s a shepherd intent on protecting his flock, but the limit of the Hierophant is that his protection extends only to those who look like him, who act like him, who believe what he believes. He is intent on protecting only his own, and only if they follow his rules. And I think that the Rider-Waite Justice is focused on similar things. Both of these cards hinge on the concept of authority, and they ask us to believe in the idea that those in power will keep the scales of justice balanced. But when we look at Justice through the lens of the Hierophant, we see a Justice that is focused on justice for its own kind and not for anyone else. It’s an asterisked concept of justice, one that includes only those who meet a narrow set of qualifications.

Justice, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

Justice, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

The Justice card from the Pagan Otherworlds Tarot is a sharp departure from what we traditionally see in this card. Rather than a ruler on a throne, we’re given a warrior running into battle. She is sure-footed and strong, crackling with energy and movement. Her sword is raised to the sun as if in blessing, and, noticeably, she looks like she might actually use it. What I find most telling about this card, though, is that the woman in the card is very focused on the scales. That, and the scales look like they may be unbalanced. Where the Rider-Waite Justice seems to start from a position of basic equality, this Justice does not. This is a Justice archetype that does not assume a present justice. And because of that, there’s no passivity here. There’s none of the stoic neutrality of the Rider-Waite Justice. Where the Rider-Waite Justice is nestled between her pillars, harbored safely in her establishment, this Justice is focused outwards, actively seeking wrongs to right. This Justice has work to do, and she’s headed out into the world to do it.

If the Rider-Waite Justice gives us visions of the Hierophant, then this Justice gives us something altogether different. She seems to be dressed in a way that’s reminiscent of the Wild Man. The Wild Man is a character from pre-Christian European festivals. Some of these festivals survive today, though the point of the original festivals is murky. In connection with nature’s rhythms, during solstices and harvests, men dress up in costumes and parade through the streets. Sometimes they cover themselves in plants, sometimes they’re dressed as animals or monsters. Sometimes both. The point, though, is that these costumes hide faces and human forms. The ritual of the Wild Man is way to bridge the ever-widening gap between human and animal, nature and civilization, life and death. In many ways, the Wild Man and the Hierophant are opposites. Where the Hierophant emphasizes order, the Wild Man loses himself in chaotic revelry. Where the Hierophant emphasizes the importance of identity, the Wild Man focuses on the blurring of that identity. While the Hierophant is safely ensconced in his institution, the Wild Man is flirting with the hedge and moving beyond borders of comfortable familiarity. And when we align the Justice archetype with the Wild Man, we create a more radical and moving concept of Justice. We create a Justice that is less focused on identity and more focused on need. We can open ourselves to a concept of justice that honors life outside our own institutions and beyond our own borders. It’s a Justice that continually pushes us outside of our own comfort and what we believe to be true.

Tarot is a great spiritual tool, but it’s so often used as nothing more than that. It’s not enough to meditate on cards. If we’re not prompted to action—if we don’t integrate these ideas into our lives—then the exercise is pointless. And I think that’s what I love about this Justice card. Justice is related to the element of air, and so by its nature it’s tied to things like reason and intellect and more abstract concepts. And so it’s easy to think of the Justice archetype as something passive, nothing more than a mental exercise. But this Justice card makes it about more than that. There’s undeniable movement and action here, as there should be. Meditate on the Justice archetype all you like, but also, follow her outside your own border. Listen to her call for action. Let her prompt you to go out and do.

On Coming Home to Witchcraft

I call myself a witch. This isn’t something that I talk about much, even on the internet where I tend to share a lot. And that’s mostly because it’s hard to talk about. For one, it is, in part, nothing more than an aesthetic choice. I read tarot cards! I grow medicinal plants! I keep a fair amount of bones and rocks around! So “witch” feels like an obvious catch-all term. That label is kind of loaded, though, so I sometimes keep quiet about it. People have their own notions about what makes a witch, and I don’t always have the energy or desire to sift through the stereotypes. This can also be a little difficult to talk about because I’m not willing to share all of my beliefs with everyone I know (some things even I like to keep close, believe it or not). What I’m willing to write about I couldn’t explain in a single blog post, or even in a book. I want to start detangling this, though, starting with a few threads of my childhood and how they led to a practice that I call witchcraft. It might help explain where I’m coming from, and make way for some writing that digs deeper into my beliefs on witchcraft, if I decide I want to share.

As a kid, the way I interacted with my environment was very witch-like. I left offerings for what I called fairies but were something closer to tree spirits. I talked to plants. (Quietly, where no one could see or hear. I was self-aware enough to know that it would get me side-eyed.) My friends and I made flower crowns and coronated ourselves queens of the forest. My favorite times of day were dawn and dusk. I didn’t know the word “liminal,” but I knew the quality that attracted me, that in-between time when the light and shadow makes things seem different than they are. I read every bit of folklore I could get my hands on, and I spent hours turning these stories over in my head. My dreams were always vivid and I took them seriously. I never named this as witchcraft, though, and I, a good Christian girl, would have been horrified if anyone called it that. This was just the way I moved through the world.

I also grew up going to church. My family hopped denominations quite a bit, but we were Catholic during the time that I was old enough for church to be noticeably impressionable. At the time, there were things I loved about Catholicism. It didn’t shy away from its mysteries. The Church took its magic seriously, and I appreciated that. I loved going to divine adoration, sitting in front of the eucharist in its halo of gold. (Honestly, what a pagan thing, paying homage to a piece of bread that is also, truly, the body of God.) There was also a strong sense of ritual. The mass is a deeply physical thing and I loved being a part of it. Standing and sitting and kneeling. Thick incense. Heavy robes. Dark wine. The physicality of the mass, the way it set off all my senses, was electrifying.

I don’t want this to be a post about why I left the Catholic Church. It happened a long time ago. Mostly, I grew up, started to think more for myself, and came to disagree, strongly, with a a lot of the Church’s social and theological beliefs. But I was bristling long before that break happened. I spent years angry that I couldn’t become a priest, that the option wasn’t open to me. I felt like I was always up against a locked door. I wanted to be a part of the mass in a way that wasn’t allowed for me. I was an altar server, something that the more puritan members of the church already had a problem with. And I liked it okay. But even though it got me closer to the magic, it still kept me on the literal sidelines. It wasn’t enough. What I really wanted, though I wouldn’t even admit it to myself, was to have the option of priesthood open to me. I wanted the possibility of being a conduit for the magic and mystery of the Eucharist. But I was, obviously, barred from that particular magic and my ego didn’t like it.

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I don’t remember any point where I consciously decided that witchcraft was a thing that I did. After I left the Catholic Church, there was some time where I really didn’t have any significant spiritual practice in my life. I know that works for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I eventually drifted back to the kinds of things I did when I was a child. It felt more natural than maybe anything I’ve ever done. Less a learning and more a remembering. There’s more structure now, though, because I’ve pulled my love of ritual into these ideas. It’s easy to call it a practice because there’s so much intention wrapped up in it. Most of the time it doesn’t feel complicated, though. I have a small altar. I grow plants. I read cards. I put my hands in the dirt. There are parts of it that are more difficult to explain and parts of it that I won’t explain, but at its root it’s a simple and physical practice. And it’s mine.

Facets of the Ace of Wands

Happy International Tarot Day! Bree over at Nym’s Divination has organized a blog hop that I’m participating in, and I was chosen to write about the Ace of Wands. Being an Aries, the fiery suit of Wands is a comfortable place for me. So while all of the Aces are worth knowing, the Ace of Wands holds a particularly special place in my heart. It’s passionate and fiery. It resides in a liminal space of ideas not yet formed. It shows us both creation and destruction, life and death. Different decks tease out different layers of this card, and I wanted to share a few that I particularly like.  

Ace of Wands, Rider-Waite Tarot

Ace of Wands, Rider-Waite Tarot

The traditional Ace of Wands is the budding branch, and it offers us a traditional meaning. Because the suit of Wands concerns itself with passion and innovation, it’s possible to view the entire suit in terms of the creative process. And that does seem to be the most common way to interpret it. If we view the suit through that lens, then the Ace of Wands is the inspiration. It’s the lightning strike. It’s the idea that keeps you up all night. It’s the spark that stops you in your tracks. The creative capability of the entire suit of Wands is condensed into this one card. It is a pure and powerful potential.

Ace of Branches, Slow Holler Tarot

Ace of Branches, Slow Holler Tarot

With its Ace of Branches, the Slow Holler Tarot gives us an interpretation of the Ace of Wands as defiant middle finger. If we talk about the suit of Wands in terms of the creative process, we can’t forget that creativity is often about challenging the status quo. If viewed that way, the Ace of Branches becomes an act of rebellion. The Ace of Wands has a fiery energy. We like to think of that energy as creative, but sometimes it's less about genesis and more about destruction as a catalyst for change. And we see that potential for both creation and destruction in this Ace of Branches. We see buds just about to pop. We see a middle finger that’s also a match, ready to burn down the world if given a spark. We see a volcano, biding its time, ready to erupt at the right moment. The Ace of Branches is that pregnant moment of pause just before everything blows and is created anew.  

God of Stones, Wooden Tarot

God of Stones, Wooden Tarot

The Wooden Tarot’s God of Stones corresponds to the Ace of Wands in traditional decks. This card shows us an example of the guiding force of the Ace of Wands. The Ace of the suit often represents the abstract concept of the suit, and we do see that here. This God is raw power, and the clouds behind them link this card to the element of air and its associations with ideas and abstract thought. So the philosophical nature of the Ace isn’t lost here. But there’s something more concrete here, too. The God of Stones looks directly at us. The hands hold a stone in offering. And, most importantly, this God has antlers. For me, antlers are a powerful symbol because deer so often represent spiritual authority. The native tribes of North America believe the deer to be a messenger and a symbol of intuition. In Shinto, deer are considered messengers of the gods. The Celtic tradition saw the stag as the king of the forest, an animal that guided people to the deep-seated wisdom they could find there. The antlers on the God of Stones connect it to this idea of deer as messengers and figures of authority. The God of Stones is a guide, and they’re ready to lead us through the life-changing truth and wisdom of the suit of Stones.  

Ace of Wands, Eros Tarot

Ace of Wands, Eros Tarot

There’s also a deeply sexual aspect to the Ace of Wands. It's why I like the Eros Tarot interpretation of the card—the artists just go for it. The erotic qualities of the card aren't talked about often, even though tarot folks joke all the time about how phallic the Ace of Wands is (and I mean, it's hard not to). But really, the entire suit of Wands is full of sexual energy. Even though the passion that we find in the suit of Wands is absolutely a mental passion, it’s not always so abstract. That fiery energy can speak to intellectual energy, but I’m of the opinion that tarot doesn’t always have to be so deep and metaphorical. Sometimes the Ace of Wands is exactly what it looks like. Sometimes that budding branch really is about sex! The Ace of Wands speaks well to the liminal quality of orgasm. It's neither here nor there. It briefly takes you outside of time, and there's a lot of magic and power and potential in that moment. 

Honestly, the Ace of Wands has so many layers that I sometimes have trouble reading it when I pull a single card. It can be difficult to tease out the particular meaning when there’s no context. But I think that’s also part of the beauty of the Ace of Wands. At its root, it’s about manifestation. The Ace of Wands is the Magician’s wand. It shows us the power of taking our desires and making them reality. That can be done in myriad ways, though! The wonder of the Ace of Wands is that it shows us the many forms that magic can take.

I hope y’all have been enjoying this blog hop! If you're reading through all of these posts, you can find the previous post on the World here and the next post on the Two of Wands here.

Postpartum Anxiety and the Nine of the Swords

I bought my first tarot deck six months after my second son was born. I had two children under two years old and I felt unmoored. Pregnancy and postpartum hormones had taken my usually temperate feelings and whipped them into a hurricane. Everyone expected me to be blissed out on new motherhood, but I felt wild and lost. In retrospect it’s obvious that I had postpartum anxiety, but at the time I didn’t know that postpartum anxiety existed. My doctors talked about postpartum depression and they talked about baby blues (my god, what a condescending phrase). But I wasn’t sad after I had my children! I felt instead like my uterus had been emptied of a baby and filled with a vast ocean of panic. That anxiety was easy to dismiss, though. New mothers and new worry are bosom friends, right? It takes time to adjust, right? But I couldn’t adjust, and I was casting wildly about for anything that would ground me. I bought the deck on a whim. My reason was, quite literally, “Why the fuck not?”

Nine of Swords, Rider-Waite Tarot

Nine of Swords, Rider-Waite Tarot

One of the cards I pulled consistently during that time was the Nine of Swords. The traditional image is off-putting. It shows a person sitting in bed and clutching their head in their hands while nine swords hang above them like so many sharp and terrifying possibilities. It’s a dark picture. But for me it was comforting, because it spoke so deeply to the anxiety I felt during that time. It showed me the moments I jolted awake at 2 a.m., panicked over the nightmare scenarios that played in a loop every time I closed my eyes. It illustrated my particular brand of new-mother worry, wherein I convinced myself that every terrible thing I could imagine would most certainly come true. These nosedives into catastrophic thinking were present—right there!—in the Nine of Swords. I had sat up in bed just like that, wide awake, nursing my newborn,feeling like my heart was a wild animal trying to escape my chest.

Objectively, I guess it’s sad that the card I most associate with my experience of new motherhood is the Nine of Swords, instead of, I don’t know, the Empress or one of the more tender Cups cards. But that was the reality of my situation.

I’ve developed a deep relationship with tarot in the last few years. In general, the relationship I have with the cards is a proactive one. Tarot is good at getting me out of my own head so I can see more clearly the reality of a situation, and it gives me a template for working out solutions and untangling ideas. But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. When I pull a card like the Nine of Swords, I feel seen. Nothing more and nothing less. As a new mother, that simple witnessing was so powerful. After my kids were born, I felt like I was in a near-constant state of fight or flight. There was never any real danger, obviously, but it felt like I was waiting in the eye of a storm, that it was going to hit me at any moment. I was eaten up by worry. And so to pull a card like the Nine of Swords so consistently, to see my own anxiety mirrored back at me over and over again, was a strange kind of comfort. It didn’t offer me a solution, but it did offer me a witness to my worry.

Nine of Swords, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

Nine of Swords, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

I still pull the Nine of Swords sometimes. Not as often as I used to, but often enough to notice the pattern. It always feels like a gentle nudge toward the truth of my feelings. The truth is, my postpartum anxiety never really disappeared, even though it lessened with time. It ebbs and flows, but it’s still a part of the landscape of my emotional life. Despite that, it’s easy for me to convince myself that I don’t really have serious anxiety, whatever that means. That I’m just a “worrier,” whatever that means. As a mother, I spend a lot of time managing my children’s feelings. I’m often so drained from practicing the heavy emotional labor involved in raising children that I don’t have the energy to examine my own emotions. Honestly, it’s easy to use my busy days as an excuse to ignore my own emotional health. But every time I pull the Nine of Swords, it brings me back to myself. It encourages me to look my anxiety in the eye. To sit with the weight of it. It forces me to face that truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be.

Flowers Made of Claws: On Blodeuwedd's Power

The story goes like this. Our hero, Lleu Llawes Gyffes, angers his mother, Arianrhod, for reasons that I won’t get into here. In retaliation, Arianrhod curses him to a life lived without a human wife. As a workaround to this curse, the magicians Math and Gwydion create for Lleu a wife out of flowers. The flowers are oak and broom and meadowsweet, and the woman’s name is Blodeuwedd. Lleu isn’t around much, and while he’s away Blodeuwedd falls in love with Gronw Pebr, the Lord of Penllyn. Together, they plot to murder Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing to her how he can be killed. As he’s a hero-god, this is no easy task. Lleu can only be killed in a situation of almost absurd liminality: at dusk, wrapped in a net, one foot in a bath and one on a goat, next to a riverbank, with a spear that has been forged for a year only while everyone is at mass. Blodeuwedd manages to arrange this—but when Gronw’s spear hits Lleu, Lleu is transformed into an eagle. The magician Gwydion returns Lleu to his human form, and Lleu murders Gronw. Gwydion also turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, subjecting her to a scorned life lived out in the cover of darkness.

I was twelve years old the first time I read this story. I liked the story the same way I liked all the other Celtic stories of gods and heroes. They satisfied my craving for adventure, and they connected me to my ancestors. But it wasn’t until I read Blodeuwedd’s story as an adult that it made a real impression on me. Blodeuwedd seemed like the most complex figure in this story, and I was hungry for more. But when I went searching, I was disappointed to find that most of the literature on Blodeuwedd flattens her. It often reduces her to nothing more than a treacherous wife. She becomes a passive woman, capable only of reacting to the situations around her. This stripping of her agency does her such a disservice. She’s more than a secondary character, much more than Lleu’s unfaithful wife. But really, the myth itself shows us that. Blodeuwedd was a miracle of a woman created from flowers; each of these flowers is rich in folklore, offering us a deeper understanding of her character.

Meadowsweet is maybe the least surprising element of Blodeuwedd’s creation. Also known as “queen of the meadow,” it’s a sweet-smelling member of the rose family. It has a potent, almond-like fragrance. That sweet scent was supposed to gladden hearts and lift spirits, so it was often used as a strewing herb. It’s associated with brides, and was a popular flower choice for bridal bouquets and posies. In traditional witchcraft, it was used in love charms. The Irish hero-god Cuchulainn was bathed in meadowsweet to calm his fits of rage. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to conjure an image of a wife made from meadowsweet. She would be gentle and soft and easy. She would be tenderness and light. And Blodeuwedd was those things. It’s easy to be dismissive of those qualities, but there’s also a power there. Gentleness is unassuming. Tenderness is non-threatening. A woman made from meadowsweet would have the ability to calm tempers, to change moods, to bring lightness into a room. It’s not an assertive strength, but it’s a strength nonetheless.

Like meadowsweet, broom flowers are associated with weddings and brides. It was common to include a decorated bundle of broom at weddings, and also to make a staff of broom to keep in the bride’s house the night before the wedding. Ashes of broom were used to treat dropsy, and the flower’s strong smell was said to tame wild dogs and horses. So, like meadowsweet, there are associations with gentleness and an ability to temper aggression. That being said, there’s also some negative folklore surrounding the broom flower. In Southern Scotland, it was considered bad luck to bring a broom plant into the house. There’s also an old rhyme from Sussex that goes “Sweep the house with blossed broom in May / Sweep the head of the household away.” Both of these bits of folklore bring a darkness to Blodeuwedd’s character and offer some foreshadowing of her attempted murder of Lleu.

But really, I think the most interesting flower in this trio is the oak. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to fit Blodeuwedd’s character. While broom and meadowsweet make perfect sense as bridal flowers, oak is something entirely different. Of all the trees that the Celtic people held sacred, oaks were king. They’re giant trees, living for centuries. They’re associated with strength and endurance and steadiness. If we view Blodeuwedd as merely a flighty and faithless wife, the inclusion of oak in her creation story doesn’t make sense. But, with some reflection, those qualities of might and power really do suit her.

Oak is a tree that represents, among other things, faithfulness and constancy. An oak is well-rooted. It lives long and large. It is steadfast above all. That does seem like an odd choice for a woman famous for cheating on, and subsequently trying to murder, her husband. Blodeuwedd has a reputation for being flighty and capricious. She’s seen as a woman who is quick to give away her heart. But that view assumes that her heart was ever given to Lleu in the first place. Blodeuwedd was a woman created specifically for Lleu, but he didn’t do anything in particular to earn her love. He assumed a claim on her heart, but what right did he have to it? He assumed Blodeuwedd’s love, because he assumed that she had no choice. But she did. She was faithful to something, but it was her own desires, not a husband who did little to deserve her faithfulness.

The oak is also famously associated with strength and power. Which, again, doesn’t fit Blodeuwedd at first glance. The introduction to my copy of the Mabinogi refers to her as “shy, cautious, almost retiring,” and I can see where that reputation comes from. Celtic folklore is full of warrior women, and it’s true that Blodeuwedd isn’t one of them. But she has a quieter strength that shouldn’t be dismissed. She’s a sly woman, and she uses her power subtly. We see this in the way she manages to trick Lleu into telling her how he can be killed. We see it in the way she ropes Gronw into her plan. And despite the fact that Lleu’s death can only be brought about through a feat of spectacular liminality, Blodeuwedd nearly does it. Her power is quiet and cunning, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

Blodeuwedd is so often seen as a passive secondary character in Lleu’s story, but the folklore of these plants shows us an altogether different image of her, one that has great depth. It’s astonishing to see. Honestly, Blodeuwedd really shouldn’t have any depth. She’s an Eve-like character, a woman created out of inanimate objects in order to satisfy a man’s need for companionship. Like Eve, she wasn’t supposed to have any agency, but she had it all the same. She worked hard to create independence for herself, and she did, in a way. She changed her circumstances using a free will she wasn’t even supposed to have. To me, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

Eyes Up, Heart Open: The Pages of Tarot

When I started learning tarot, I was immediately drawn to the gentle nature of the Pages. They’re not as dynamic as some of their companions in the court, but I like their affability. I think of them as the children of the court cards. They’re inexperienced and a little naive, but because of that, they’re also guileless and open-hearted. They’re young enough that society hasn’t yet imposed expectations on them, and so they move through the world without motives. They come from a place of innocent, egoless joy, living firmly in the present and with little concern for the future. And I think that each of them has something particular to teach us about the power of vulnerability and innocent courage and a willingness to see the world through loving eyes.

The Page of Pentacles takes us back to the small, physical delights of childhood—things like running through a sprinkler on a hot day, or splashing in puddles after a thunderstorm, or putting marshmallows in hot chocolate. The suit of Pentacles focuses largely on the more animal facets of life, and because of that, this Page is deeply connected to the physical world. For the Page of Pentacles, as for any child, the world is a playground of sensory delights. No pleasure is too small. No sensation goes unnoticed. This character can find true joy in the smoothness of a river rock or the tart burst of a pomegranate seed. As adults, it’s easy to lose sight of these small joys, but this Page is here to remind us of how unexpectedly restorative they can be. The purpose of the Page of Pentacles is to open our eyes to the tiny miracles around us, ones that we sometimes miss with our tired eyes. We may not be children anymore, but if we stop and look and listen and feel, we can still tap into those bright pinpricks of wonder.

The suit of Wands concerns itself with our passions—the things that make our heart beat fast, the things that excite us beyond measure. And the Page of Wands shows us the kind of intense zeal that children do better than anyone else. For adults, there’s so often a sense that it’s not cool to get too excited about things. Aloofness or arch irony is the goal. But children have none of that uncomfortable self-consciousness. They absolutely do not care what people think of them. They love what they love, whether it be trains or sharks or space or whatever, with a blinding, almost poetic, earnestness. They come at the world full-tilt, with wide-open hearts, ready to be surprised by what comes their way. They’re willing to be curious. They’re willing to be excited. And the Page of Wands invites us to tap into that place of passion that is free from expectations or judgement, because that’s where creative magic happens.

The Page of Swords, like the rest of its court, is clever and has a natural way with words. That being said, this Page is young and so lacks the temperance and judgement inherent in their older companions. Like most children, they speak with no filter. They have courage and heart, but they haven’t yet developed the social skills they need to be diplomatic. And because of their youth, they rarely wield their own swords. They have a tendency to pick up other people’s ideas and rush into battle with them, fully understanding neither the idea itself nor the consequences of their actions. So there’s certainly a reckless enthusiasm here, but there’s also a potential for great intellect, because the Page of Swords is nothing if not endlessly curious. Like all the Pages, they’re transparently open to the world around them. They haven’t yet formed their own ideas, but they’re willing to pick up and examine any viewpoint that comes their way. And because they’re so free of judgement, they have a unique gift for making connections between ideas that other, older people might miss.  

All of the Pages are innocent and curious, but the Page of Cups is a masterpiece of open-heartedness. The suit of Cups has much to say about our emotional lives, and this Page is an expert at letting no feeling go unfelt. As adults, we so often put qualifiers on our emotions—it’s good to feel this way, it’s bad to feel this way. Other times, we tamp down our feelings so as not to appear too emotional, or so we don’t have to confront the difficulties of more complicated feelings. We guard our hearts so carefully, but the Page of Cups does the exact opposite. They’re a student of their own heart. They fully immerse themselves in their emotions, examining their feelings from every angle. The Page of Cups knows that the only way to master their emotional life is to embrace whatever feeling comes their way. Because of that, they’re completely unguarded, moving with the tides of their emotions, letting their feelings wash over them. And this Page reminds us of the gifts that come our way when we move through life with an open heart and embrace the full range of human feeling. It's an act of great vulnerability, but also great courage.  

Thoughts On Raising Paganish Children

My husband and I have two young sons, and as you could probably guess, we’re raising them in a pagan kind of way. It feels natural, but it can be frustrating because there’s not much in the way of guidance, at least as far as I’ve found. Most of the resources I come across are Wiccan, which is not at all what I do. Because of that, I spend a lot of time just winging it. But I like what I’m doing with my kids! And so I wanted to write about some of the things I do to incorporate paganish ideas into my kids’ lives. It’s all simple and intuitive, but I feel like it’s important to share.

Most of what I do with my children centers around a deep reverence for the natural world. Which is super easy, because that reverence seems to come naturally for children! Most children I’ve met are deeply curious about and tender toward the world around them—all I have to do is cultivate that curiosity and tenderness. I try to teach my children that they don’t exist outside of nature and that nature doesn’t exist in service to them. A bee deserves the same respect as an oak tree deserves the same respect as a person. They’re all living things, they all have a part to play, and it’s our job to care for them in the same way they care for us. And this idea in particular I don’t consider explicitly pagan. It’s more about teaching my kids to be good stewards of the earth.

In relation to that idea of connectedness with nature, we do follow the seasons closely. We celebrate solstices and equinoxes in place of, or in addition to, the Christian holidays my husband and I celebrated growing up. For example, instead of Easter, we celebrate the spring equinox. We dye eggs and have an egg hunt. We spend time outside feeling the warm sunshine, looking for flowers and budding trees, new bugs and new birds. We celebrate Christmas in a very Yule-like way. There’s no nativity scene at our house, but there is a tree and pomander balls and a lot of evergreen. The summer and winter solstices always get a small celebration and a discussion of what’s happening in nature at that time of year. It’s all pretty low-key, honestly, just because my parenting style in general is pretty low-key.

I practice some hedgewitchery, largely focused on herbalism. I’m fairly new to the practice, and it’s easy for me to pass on what I learn as I go. So basically, my kids are learning a truckload about plants! As I learn to identify native plants and their uses, my kids learn too, because I’m rarely out and about without them. As regards growing our own plants, we don’t have an expansive garden because we live in an apartment, but we do have a porch overflowing with potted plants, and my kids spend a lot of time helping me care for them. They understand that different plants have different needs, just like people. They know that over-watering plants makes them sad, as does not giving them enough water. They also know that, if you take good care of plants, they can take good care of you too. They’ve learned that if they feel blue, they can rub some lemon balm between their hands and breathe in the sweet, sunshiney smell. That if they feel congested, they can take baths filled with vick’s plant and eucalyptus leaves. That our aloe plant is full of skin-soothing juice. They’ve also picked up my habit of greeting plants as I water them, and I can’t deny how sweet it is to see them say hello to their favorites. I want them to understand the relationship of mutual respect between a plant and its caretaker, and the idea is something they’re receptive to.

Tarot is another big part of my practice, but it’s something that I feel my kids are a little young for, at 2 and 4 years old. They know I have cards that I use and that are special to me. They sometimes pull oracle cards with me, and my older son has a little lenormand deck that he pulls out and plays with sometimes. But honestly, they haven’t shown much interest in it, and I haven’t pushed it. I’ll be more than ready to teach them if they ever want to learn, but it’s not something I feel is necessary for them to know.

I keep my tarot decks on or near a little altar I have set up. It’s populated with stones and bones and herbs, a small space for, I suppose, what I’m feeling or what I want to feel. I met someone recently who has a kind of nature altar for her children to tend to, and it’s such a simple idea I can’t believe I never thought of it. My kids already collect little things nearly every time we go outside, whether it’s into the woods or just outside our apartment. So often their pockets wind up filled with snail shells and feathers and river rocks and wildflowers. All these treasures usually wind up scattered about our apartment, but I love the idea of having a place for them to be displayed. So that’s something I’m planning on setting up for them, and it ties in well with our focus on reverence for the natural world.

If all of this seems straightforward, that’s because it is! Part of it is because my children are still very young. Part of it is because my own practice has been very straightforward since I had kids. At this point in my life, I don’t have time or energy for more complicated spiritual practices. I spend most of my days taking care of my kids’ immediate and animal needs, so my life is intensely grounded right now. But even though the things I do with them are small, they feel good and right.

A Tiny Love Letter to the New Moon

The new moon is an empty womb. It’s an incubation, a warm space to grow. It’s ripe in its possibility. It’s the place for new beginnings, a space for planting seeds. And it’s safe, safer than anything, a reminder that darkness can be a comfort.

The new moon is a dit. A speck. An iota. Unassuming in its size but mighty in its possibility. Often underestimated. Always powerful. It’s the head of the match, ready to spark. It’s the nib of the pen, ready to write. It’s the tiny seed from which all things grow.

The new moon is the primordial waters, deep and damp. It’s the darkness from which all things spring. It’s the beginning of a creation myth. The earth without form, God moving across the face of the waters. The yawning gap of Ginnungagap. The oceanic abyss of the Nun.

The new moon is a cave, inviting us to hibernation. It’s a reminder that, although we run and run and run, we cannot run forever. And it brings us into the earth, into a place where we can stop and breathe and rest outside the cycles of time.

The new moon is a dark veil. It’s a time and a space for liminal ritual. It invites us to get lost in the dark. It invites us to disorientation. It invites us to lose ourselves in order to find something new. It invites us to step through the doorway, into darkness, and to feel courage in the face of that darkness.

The new moon is an open maw. It’s an abyss of hunger, ready to eat up the old to make room for the new. It creates, but it also devours. Because creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. The death of one thing is the birth of another.

The new moon is the dark underground. It dims the light of the sky and invites us to look down instead of up. It takes us deep into the earth, to remember the physical nature of our bodies. We are animals, in essence, and we belong to the earth and are a part of the earth.

The new moon is a tomb. It invites us to contemplate our own mortality, from where we come and to where we will return. And it invites us to remember the dead, because life and death are so close, separated by the thinnest of lines.

So here’s to the new moon, the darkness of creation and destruction, the womb and the cave, the deep water and the deep dirt. May it always remind us to rest and remember.