One of the most exciting new Tarot decks that I’ve seen in some time is the Herbcrafter’s Tarot, with art work by Joanna Powell Colbert and a wonderful book by Latisha Guthrie. They recently answered some of my questions about the deck.
1. Your Herbcrafter’s Tarot deck came out last year and has generated a lot of interest. Please describe it for us and tell us where the inspiration for this deck came from. What’s the best place for people to buy the deck? Is it available electronically?
Joanna: Thanks, Hecate, for asking. In the Herbcrafter’s Tarot, we celebrate the relationship between humans and plants, and the ways we have used herbs for medicine, magic, creativity, and spiritual guidance down through the centuries. We honor folk traditions, tools, skills, and crafts. As Latisha writes in the book, “Herbs and tarot are natural allies, the tools of the healer, the seer, the witch, the wise one.” In the deck and book, we encourage people to get out into the natural world and develop their own relationships with the plants, perhaps using the deck as an inspiration and a guide. We are always pointing the way back to encounters and reciprocity with the natural world.
The idea for a deck focused on herbs came to me while I was creating the Gaian Tarot, my first deck. It’s a bit hard to remember now, but I think it was directly inspired by the Gaian Teacher (Hierophant) card, which shows a “holy fool” type spiritual teacher holding a dandelion surrounded by different herbs. In that card, I pose the question “Who is the teacher, the human or the plants?”
After the Gaian Tarot was finished and out in the world, I kept coming back to the idea of creating an herbal deck. I felt like there was a need for one with a bit of a different twist than the ones already available. But I knew I did not know enough about herbs to create a deck on my own. I carried the idea for a few years. I got to know Latisha Guthrie in our local community. I first met her when she hosted a fire cider-making gathering at her home. We became friends, and I ended up asking her to co-create the deck with me. She has a very busy life, homeschooling two daughters and tending an urban homestead. But after seeking guidance and talking to her family, she was all in. The creation of the deck was truly magical, with time spent both in my island garden and her garden on the mainland, and on the backroads and secret places we both love so much here in the Pacific Northwest. The deck took on a life of its own, with its own unique personality. It has the best of both of us in it. It’s like our child, with a lineage from both of us.
While we were creating the deck, we were constantly reading and discussing the book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Many of the concepts in this book made their way into the deck. We highly recommend it!
The best place to buy the deck is your friendly local independent bookstore. If they don’t have it in stock, you can ask them to order it for you. You can also order it directly from the publisher if you’re in the states, US Games, https://www.usgamesinc.com/the-herbcrafter-s-tarot.html or from most online book retailers. There is an app in the works, but it has not yet been released.
2. In the Introduction to the book, you say that herbs can be thought of as archetypes in botanical form. Can you say some more about that?
Latisha: Oh yes! I love this topic. I first heard of archetypal language being used with botanicals when I started learning from flower essence practitioners and then further as I delved into the world of eco-psychology. First I think I should explain how I view archetypes: as symbolic representations of human characteristics that provide a framework for understanding the world. These simplified human behavior stories ultimately drive transformation as we grow through the unraveling of the self and the awakening of the soul. In the same way that we see tarot imagery as articulations of archetypes, the plants themselves take on symbolic meanings when relationships are formed and they are carefully observed. Just as each archetype has a complex set of signature behaviors, portrayed in most tarot cards with a human event, each plant has a complex set of signature behaviors, portrayed in the Herbcrafter’s Tarot with a plant/human encounter. Using both science and symbolism we can observe a plant’s growth cycle, function in the ecosystem, and connection with other beings. We then naturally form ideas about the unique gesture of each botanical. These ideas easily relate to the archetypal expressions we usually reserve for human experiences. Mirroring the way we speak of human archetypes, we begin to characterize our encounter with plants in a similar way as strong, delicate, oppressive etc. This gives us insight into our own archetypal assumptions and offers cues as to what our subconscious is attempting to bring forth.
We live in the world filling in stories with subconscious archetypal assumptions on a daily basis, but most of us only are aware of it as it relates to human beings. Noticing archetypal expressions in nature, and specifically herbs for the Herbcrafter’s Tarot, unlocks another pathway to further understanding ourselves and each other.
3. Many of the cards in this deck depict tools, as well as plants. I’m interested to learn how you decided which tools to depict with which plants; were there other considerations as you chose how to show the plants?
Joanna: Originally we assigned specific, common tools of the herbcrafter to each of the suits: bolines for the suit of Air / Swords; mortars and pestles for the suit of Fire / Wands; kettles for the suit of Water / Cups; and baskets for the suit of Earth / Pentacles. We abandoned this idea when it became too limiting for the scenes we wanted to show in the cards, but you can still see charms with those four tools on the Magician / Sunflower card.
The ideas for the tools came about as we chose the herbs for each suit according to how their medicine is acquired. The suit of Air honors the medicine that comes from observing and noticing the plants as they are, and the Air cards show tall, sword-like plants growing outside. The boline — a sickle-shaped knife — was the obvious tool for Air. The suit of Fire highlights the alchemy of herbcraft, with Fire cards showing busy scenes of making tinctures, oils, and potions. The tool most often used here is the mortar and pestle. The suit of Water shows water-based medicines like teas and baths, with the ever-present kettle. The suit of Earth features plants that are used to make legacy tools like baskets and other fiber arts, so the tool we chose is the basket.
We chose to leave people out of the images, except for the hands in the People cards, because we wanted to focus on the plants. You can recognize a Major Arcana card by its perspective — all the Majors are either altars or mandalas seen from above. The Minor Arcana cards show everyday activities of the herbcrafter — in the garden, in the kitchen, out and about on country roads. It’s as if she is standing just outside the frame of the image and you can imagine her from the point of view of the plant.
One of the things we did not want to do was to make the kind of deck where a plant equals a certain quality, like Rose = Love or Sunflower = Happiness. There’s nothing wrong with that, we just wanted to do something different and perhaps a bit more complex. So in this deck, a plant’s placement on a card is not a fixed definition of its magic or medicine. Instead it shows a moment in time, an interaction between the human and the plant.
In the People cards, we become more explicit about the human / plant relationship. We chose to show just hands, not full bodies, in order to focus on the sacred made visible as we work with our hands. I believe Brené Brown said something like “we move our learning from the head to the heart through the hands.” We definitely had that in mind for the People cards.
4. For each card in the deck, you include some suggested “crafting” projects, many of which involve magic workings. Could you pick a plant or two and tell us what it was about that plant that suggested its particular crafting projects?
Latisha: In general we tried to keep the crafts relevant to the encounter on the card taking into account both the suit and the number keys we created. So if it is a fire suit there are alchemical projects like tinctures and salves and if it is a number 4, the projects help to create boundaries. This was both to highlight the property of the suit and number as we assigned them but also to invoke a deeper experience with the encounter we expressed in the card. Our hope was to provide a sensory way to experience the card.
For example in the Four of Air, Lavender, we suggest crafting a lavender wand to keep out unwanted energies. This was chosen because in garden spaces lavender is often used as a border plant keeping vulnerable animals safe from predators as well as providing a barrier for unwanted plants to encroach upon the garden. Utilizing lavender for ourselves in a way that is similar to its ecological expression helps us to connect with the plant from another angle.
In another less traditionally magical, but no less earth-magical way, in all of the fives, we suggest supporting the conservation efforts being made on behalf of these plants. Since they are all at-risk or endangered, learning more about the plight of these botanicals will enhance your relationship and thus your understanding of them.
5. Do you have a favorite spread to use with this deck?
Joanna: We are still in the process of creating deck-specific spreads! In fact, I invite people who are using the deck to create their own spreads and share them with us. My own favorite spread, the one I use most often with any deck, is one I adapted from my friend Briana Saussy. It’s just five cards — I’m a big fan of small spreads, as you can go deep with each card. The five positions are:
1. Energy around the current situation
3. How to meet the challenge
4. Potential Outcome
5. Guidance / advice / most important thing to keep in mind.
I’d also like to say that I’ve been teaching tarot for a long time, and I always tell people to trust their own initial, intuitive take on a card, and not to assume they are wrong if the book says something different. It’s important to develop your own relationship with the cards outside of what the deck creator intended.
I still believe that, but the Herbcrafter’s Tarot is a deck where I strongly encourage people to read and use the companion book, especially if they are not already familiar with herbs and plants. I’ve come up with a process for journaling on a card that works well for this deck. Pull a card and answer these questions:
⁃ What is your emotional response to the card?
⁃ What are your personal associations with the herb on the card, or with the imagery on the card?
⁃ What is your intuitive sense of the message of the card?
⁃ Read the page in the Herbcrafter’s Tarot book about this card. What phrases from the book jump out at you? Make a note of those.
6. What can people do to learn more about this deck?
Joanna: We have a beautiful website, www.herbcrafterstarot.com, that we invite people to visit. There’s information on the deck, an article on different ways to engage with it, and beautiful bits of herbcrafting wisdom from Latisha. We’ll be adding more articles and resources to it as time goes on. I also have a post on my blog, “Seven Ways to Get to Know the Herbcrafter’s Tarot,” which is helpful. https://www.gaiansoul.com/2019/06/12/get-to-know-new-tarot-deck/ People can also watch the community Zoom call we did when the deck first came out last summer; you can find it here. https://vimeo.com/343365067/838a278a34
We are currently teaching an online course called “Witches’ Wisdom: Reading the Herbcrafter’s Tarot,” but we are well into the second week and registration is closed. We will be teaching it again later this year, either live or as a self-study course. Finally, if you follow the hashtag #herbcrafterstarot on Instagram, you’ll find all kinds of people posting their own readings and insights into the deck every day.
Joanna Powell Colbert, creator of the Gaian Tarot, has been an artist, teacher, and convener of circles for over thirty years. She was named by SageWoman magazine as one of the Wisdom Keepers of the Goddess Spirituality movement. Joanna teaches workshops and online courses on earth-centered spirituality, seasonal contemplative practices, creativity as a devotional path, and using tarot as a tool for inner guidance and self-exploration. She hosts retreats three times a year on sacred land on Whidbey Island, Washington. www.gaiansoul.com
Latisha Guthrie is a writer, hearth keeper and plant lady who wants to live in a world where story is sacred and the handmade is holy. She has taught herbcraft and kitchen witchery as tools for creating joy and connection for over ten years. When she’s not writing, you can find her mixing potions, foraging for snacks on her family homestead, and re-learning geometry with her homeschooled kiddos. She is currently building an enchanted food forest and herb’n learning sanctuary with her family in the Pacific Northwest. www.herbmother.com and www.herbcrafterstarot.com
Picture found here.