An Interview with Joanna Powell Colbert About the Gaian Tarot

I’ve long admired Joanna Powell Colbert’s art work in Sage Woman and I followed, on her blog, her development of a new tarot deck with increased delight. Lewellyn has now published the Gaian Tarot. I’m really careful about acquiring new Tarot decks, on the theory that, otherwise, I’d have an entire houseful. But I’ve been planning to get the Gain Tarot ever since I saw the first few cards on Joanna’s blog.

I’ve been using it for about a month now and I’m really, really loving it. I’ve done a few really important readings for myself with it and found it to be, even for someone who completely expects accurate and helpful information from Tarot, eerily spot-on and helpful. With a new deck, I do a reading first with just the cards and then go to the book. The book, in this case, is quite useful and adds to what I’m able to get out of just the cards. One thing you realize when you read the book is that there’s really not a single extraneous thing in any of the cards. That blossom that you’d hardly noticed isn’t just there for decoration; the book explains the symbolism behind that particular plant. It’s rare for a Tarot book to be as important as the cards, but Joanna’s done an amazing job of making this book really worthwhile.

There’s a lot to like in this deck: the emphasis on the natural world, the cultural diversity, the lack of arcane and/or Abrahamic symbolism, the powerful women, beautifully-portrayed animals and plants. Joanna generally follows the Rider-Waite-Smith framework, although with some diversions, all of which are well-explained in the book. It’s a bit Pacific-Northwest centric, but that doesn’t bother me, as I believe it’s important for Witches and Pagans to be grounded in our own watersheds and bioregions. In short, this is a Tarot deck that I’m going to actually use. A lot.

I recently had a chance to ask Joanna some questions about her new deck. (Full disclosure: I received a review copy of the Gaian Tarot, cards and book. I’ve added links to certain terms mentioned in Joanna’s answers and pictures of the cards we discussed.)

Joanna, I asked Tarot what one question I should be sure to ask you and I pulled The Emperor.

How would you answer that question?

It’s a misprint! I revisioned and renamed The Emperor as The Builder. He is partnered with The Gardener, who is traditionally called The Empress. This card is correctly titled in the companion book, but it is an error on the card itself in the Llewellyn edition of the deck. Several people, including me, proofread the cards and we all missed it. It’s actually quite important, because my Builder is a man who cooperates with the natural world and with women, instead of having a patriarchal power-over attitude.

Here’s what I wrote in the book about him: “The Builder is strong and comfortable in his own authority. Yet unlike most historic emperors, he does not destroy life for his own power or benefit. Inspired by the Green Man, the spirit of the wildwood whose face he has carved into the post, he works in harmony with nature and honors Mother Earth’s animals and resources. . . As an architect of civilization, our Builder creates networks and systems that enable people to live and work together, sharing resources and creating a supportive, sustainable community.”

The Emperor/Builder card is one example of how I revisioned the traditional tarot to create a vision of a peaceful, sustainable world.

What spiritual advice do you have for someone thinking of making their own tarot deck?

Follow your own inner guidance. Come up with a unique vision for your deck, and stay true to it. Make sure it comes from your heart and the promptings of Spirit. Don’t worry about whether or not your idea is commercial enough for a publisher. You can always publish it yourself. Do it for the adventure, for the creative self-expression, and for the spiritual growth you’ll experience as you create the deck. Don’t do it for the acclaim or the money. And don’t give up!

Joanna, please fill in the blank: If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have ___________.

I’d have used an artistic medium that is less time-intensive than photorealistic colored pencil painting! (There are between 50 and 100 hours in each piece, which is one reason it took me nine years to finish the deck.)

I know that parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but what’s your favorite card in your deck? In the Rider Waite? In Motherpeace?

In the Gaian, the Guardian of Water.

She is the “Goddess” card in the deck for me. I have a particular affinity for the Ocean Mother, in all the ways she manifests around the world in various cultures. I love this piece because I think it perfectly captures the compassion of Tara and Kwan Yin, pouring out the waters of mercy upon a troubled world.

In the Rider Waite Smith deck, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between the High Priestess, the Empress, and the Strength card. They all show such strong, numinous women!

I love the Motherpeace Star card.

Just by looking at it, I can feel the woman’s peace and bliss as she soaks in the hot spring, letting the rain fall on her face. The 9 of Cups is very similar, except that it shows women in community — it has a similar feel to my 6 of Water.

I also love the Motherpeace Death card — strong, simple and powerful.

I’ve never been able to relate to The Hierophant. But I love The Teacher in your deck.

How did you come up with her and why did you not go with The Hierophant?

It’s interesting that you call the Teacher a “her,” because I intended the figure to be a “him.” However I’ve discovered that many people see the Teacher as a woman, and I have to say I love the ambiguity.

I worked with Birth cards for many years as a tarot teacher. (Birth cards and other personal cards are the topic of Mary Greer‘s new book Who Are You in the Tarot? published by Red Wheel/Weiser.) It was always problematic for my women students to have the Emperor or the Hierophant as a Birth card, because both are so patriarchal in most tarot decks. When I studied the Eleusinian Mysteries, I discovered that the title “hierophant” means “revealer of the mysteries,” and my whole attitude towards the card changed. The image on most tarot cards shows oppressive religious authority, and that’s the shadow side of the card. The more positive side of the card is a true spiritual teacher who has the best interests of his or her students at heart — or even better, finding your own spiritual teacher within. So I wanted to show a Teacher who is humble and simple. And I wanted to show him surrounded by plant and animal allies, so that there is even more ambiguity. Is the human figure the teacher or the student? Is Coyote the Teacher? How about the lowly Dandelion?

So when you get the Teacher card in a reading, I like to say that it’s time to be ready for a spiritual teacher to appear in your life, or to step up to the plate and become a spiritual teacher yourself. I believe that Mother Nature Herself is our best teacher, and so this card also directs us to spend time in the natural world, learning directly from the Earth. If the card turns up as a reversal or in a challenging position in a spread, it can be read as the traditional Hierophant — rigid church doctrine or an inflexible belief system.

One of the cards I like best in your deck is the Five of Earth (a card that, in its Rider Waite form used, years ago, to show up in almost every reading I did for myself).

In your view, how does your card capture the meaning behind the Rider Waite version and how is it different?

The Fives in the Minors are all cards of struggle in the Rider Waite Smith deck, as in many other decks. Since Pentacles correspond to the element of Earth, the struggle is with material things — usually money and health. The RWS shows two beggars (probably homeless) in the snow, huddled outside a church with a brightly lit stained glass window. The traditional meaning of this card is usually ill-health, poverty, survival issues, suffering — with no one reaching out a helping hand. It can also mean a dark night of the soul. It’s a pretty bleak card.

In my version, we see a hiker lost in the woods during a storm. So we have the same survival-issue setup. But this hiker is prepared for the hard times. He has the inner resources that will see him through, and the survival skills necessary to wait out the storm and make it out of the woods. He knows how to build a debris hut for shelter. So even though he is cold and uncomfortable, he is not likely to die during the storm. He’ll find his way out of the woods once the storm has passed.

So the message of the Gaian Five of Earth is to develop your survival skills during the good times (which might include things like a daily gratitude practice) that will see you through the bad times. And if you see others in trouble, lend a helping hand. Ask yourself: What kind of shelter in the storm can you create to help you through the rough times?

The imagery in this card was inspired by my friend Chris Chisholm of Wolf Camp & College ( who teaches primitive living skills. Making a debris hut is one of the earth skills he teaches his students in his wilderness survival courses.

So the Gaian card doesn’t just leave you floundering in a survival situation, with no hope. Instead, it points you towards your own inner resources, and suggests that you can indeed make it out of the woods.

Which card gave you the most difficulty?

I struggled a bit with the Ten of Fire, because it shows a forest going up in flames.

All of the Tens are transition cards; I like to call them mini-Death cards. But the other three Tens at least point to rebirth in the next cycle. You have to read the text that goes with the Ten of Fire in order to find the hope. I wrote about the necessity of fire in the life cycle of a forest, because it clears away undergrowth and debris. There are some species like the Lodgepole Pine whose cones need exposure to high temperatures in order to release its seeds. But you don’t see that in the imagery of the card.

The animals in your cards are all lovely. Where did you you get the idea for the Five of Air? The Two of Water?

The Five of Air was inspired by a wilderness kayaking trip that my husband went on, in Alaska.

He came home with a riveting story (and photos!) of seeing two eagles fight to the death, not far away from him. The eagle that won the battle actually held the other one under the water until it drowned. It was a year when there was an abundance of eagles — perhaps too many. A naturalist friend of ours suggested that it was a fight over territory. I was influenced by the Motherpeace 5 of Swords, with its meaning of gossip and hurtful words. I thought that eagles fighting over territory was an apt metaphor for situations where we get into turf wars or arguments that become nasty. The affirmation I wrote for the card is: “I defend my own place in the world without resorting to bitterness or hurtful words.”

The Two of Water is based on a photo of an acquaintance and her dog.

I “recognized” my Two of Water when I saw the photo. It was taken by her son, and they graciously gave me permission to use it as a reference. I added the heart chakra mandala on her chest and the waterfall in the background, but the figure of the woman and the dog are true to life. They really do find that much joy in each other! When I saw the photo, I thought: “Oh this is a perfect twist on the 2 of Cups, because it shows an open heart, joy and love between species.” How perfect for a deck that celebrates the natural world!

What’s next for you artistically?

I am tossing around the idea of an oracle deck focused on plants and animals, with no humans in it. But so far it is just an idea. I went on a writers retreat in July, and received a “divine download” for a new illustrated book. The working title is “Reading the Book of Nature.” It’s a series of illustrated meditations based on practices I’ve collected from many sources over the years on how to create a deeper relationship with the natural world. I cover some of this same material in my workshops. I’m very excited about it!

Pictures found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

9 responses to “An Interview with Joanna Powell Colbert About the Gaian Tarot

  1. Pingback: Interviewed by Hecate — Gaian Soul

  2. Interesting thought about the fighting eagles, if the fight was over territory, the combatants were female. With raptors, males fight for courtship right, but the territory is the Matriarch’s. And as was observed, a resident Matriarch will die before surrender.

  3. Pingback: Diverse inspirations « African Alchemy

  4. Lovely review of Joanna’s deck, and this is a terrific pagan blog.

  5. pluky,

    Thanks; I hadn’t considered that. And, of course, a Matriarch will die before surrender. It’s inside the DNA. I’d have gone down before I’d have ceded Son’s survival, no question.


    Welcome! And thanks for your kind words. Joanna’s done a masterful job with this deck.

  6. Pingback: Visiting Barbara Moore at Practical Tarot — Gaian Soul

  7. Pingback: Visiting Barbara Moore at Practical Tarot — Gaian Soul

  8. Your interview popped up on my phone when you posted it but it looked far too interesting to read on a 2×3 inch screen so I waited until I could savor the story and pictures. Today, on this very autumnal day, I took the time to enjoy each word and card. Great interview. Great cards. Now I must add the Gaian Deck to my collection.

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