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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Animal Totem Tarot by Leeza Robertson and Eugene Smith: A Review

From Eugene Smith Website
Leeza Robertson's Animal Totem Tarot is illustrated by Eugene Smith. The deck was published by Llewellyn in March, 2016.

Eugene Smith's mastery in depicting biologically accurate animals in authentic poses and activities is one of the strongest aspects of this deck. Animal-themed tarot decks tend to be more fantastical than representational. The cats in the Baroque Bohemian Cats' Tarot are dressed in elaborate silk finery and posed as opera singers and other Prague citizens. In the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck animals are obviously stylized metaphors: the lion in Strength, the dog in the Fool, the horse that Death rides, the rabbit in the queen of coins, the falcon in the nine of coins, the birds in the swords suit. In tarot, one finds cute animals, grotesque animals, anthropomorphized animals and mythologized animals. There are actually relatively few tarot decks that depict animals looking how they really look, and behaving as they really behave.

The animals in this deck are so true to life that they could serve as illustrations in field guides. These are not the animals you'd find in a Walt Disney cartoon. These are the animals you'd find in forests and fields. The Fool looks as grasshoppers do when they jump: forelegs tucked under, and back legs extended, antennae swept back. The Magician is a fox, leaping over the snow, as foxes sometimes do when hunting for small rodents hidden under snow. The six of swords features a sugar glider coming in for a landing. The Hanged Man depicts a honeypot ant. These are ants that hang upside down from underground chambers, their abdomens, distended with nectar, hanging beneath them like piƱatas.

Smith's style is similar to the sketching found in comic books. The deck's color palette is limited and restrained. As would be expected in a deck based on real animals in their natural state, beiges, browns, greens and grays predominate, with muted blue, gray, black and white skies. The ten of swords ventures out a bit with a dab of sunset red on the bleak gray horizon. Temperance, a pink flamingo, is the most jarringly colored card in the deck; there is a rainbow in the background, and the pink bird stands in turquoise water. These bright colors don't work well with Smith's ink sketching in this card. In fact, in many cases, I preferred the black-and-white reproductions of the cards in the companion book better than the cards themselves, given how muted and limited the colors were in the cards, and given the high quality of Smith's sketches.

The quite beautiful card backs are a blue starburst design with rust, salmon, and beige floral elements interspersed with leaping animals. They are not fully reversible.

The cards are borderless. Most depict mammals. Twenty depict birds. Ten depict insects. One depicts an arachnid – a black widow spider. Seven depict fresh and salt water fish, mammals, and other aquatic creatures. Three depict reptiles and amphibians. One depicts a snail and one depicts an island.

Most of the creatures in the cards are wild animals in natural settings with no human elements. Some are domestic animals: an alpaca near a shed, chickens in a wire coop, an ox pulling a cart, raccoon dog pelts slung over a wagon, a pearl reflecting a glimmer from a distant lighthouse, reindeer pulling a sled full of brightly wrapped gifts, a rook perched on a chess piece, a skunk in a garden, an octopus next to a shipwreck. There are no human figures in the cards.

The images on the cards are simple and easy to grasp. For example, the Hermit card depicts a praying mantis. The mantis takes up about seventy-five percent of the card. The background is blue-grey sky. Background details are limited to the bare essentials. The Animal Totem tarot is not a busy deck.

Given how straightforward and accurate these illustrations are, and given that they depict real creatures behaving in real ways, the Animal Totem Tarot would make a great deck for a child who loves the outdoors. Explaining each card to the child would teach many lessons about natural history.

Some of my favorite cards in the deck, either for their visual appeal alone or the combination of design plus meaning include the following.

The High Priestess is a mostly blue, gray, and black card. A moon hangs in the sky and a black widow spider hangs on her web. In the ace of wands, a firefly lights up the inside of a mason jar suspended from a stick leaning in a forest glade. The six of wands is a prize-winning, honey-producing beehive. In the Wheel of Fortune, a ladybug spreads her wings. The eight of cups is a salmon swimming upstream. In the Moon, a great grey owl flies between two trees. In the ten of cups, an emperor penguin couple nestle their chick. In the nine of swords, a whip-poor-will sings outside a sleeper's window. A pigeon lies dead underneath dusky Paris skies in the ten of swords. A polar bear on an ice floe gazes up at the aurora borealis in the Hierophant card. The Devil is a bobcat who has cheated a man-made trap of a rabbit. In the four of coins, a squirrel hides coins underground. In cross section, we can see that one buried coin has begun to sprout.

Some of the cards depict suffering. Death is a California condor feeding on carrion. The five of coins is an image of five dead raccoon dogs, a primitive canid species often brutally exploited in the Chinese fur trade. The five of cups depicts a capybara, a large rodent, dead from a bloody wound in its side.

The Animal Totem Tarot comes with the Guide to the Animal Totem Tarot, a 347 page paperback book. There is a black-and-white full-page illustration of each card on the left, and a two-page explanation of the card on the right. Each explanation begins with the creature in the card addressing the querent. A white wolf, the queen of swords, says, "I know I can be cold when I need to be, bold when I have to be, and as blunt as I can be. There is much to do and you must get to it. There is time for discussion and a time for decision-making. The time for discussion is over; now is the time to make a decision and get on with it already." Robertson then addresses the querent in her own voice, informing us how the card should be used in regard to business and career, family and relationships, health and well-being, and as a card of the day journal prompt.

Author Leeza Robertson blogs for Witches and Pagans dot com, and her reflections in the guide are those one would expect from a modern American witch or pagan. "I tend to see the Devil as a liberating force," she writes. In reference to the Justice card, she writes, "the truth is a fickle thing…one must move beyond a single truth and seek a more collaborative outcome." In her description of the Hierophant card, she says, "did religion colonize faith and separate it from our sense of self?" In her comments on Judgment, Robertson writes, "The universe knows no good and no bad; it just knows energy."

I like this deck, but I don't love it. It's possible that since I do know a lot about animals, I can't feel comfortable with Robertson's assignments. Her knight of cups is a blue-footed booby. This bird is notorious as a siblicide. Parents have two chicks, and the older one kills the younger one while the parents stand by doing nothing to intervene. I can't associate this bird with the romantic, idealistic knight of cups. The three of coins, also known as the genius card, a card depicting creativity, is a giraffe. I see no special relationships between giraffes and creative genius, even after reading Robertson's explanatory text.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete


  1. Awesome!

    I wonder if you've used a bird tarot?

    [asking because of the "field guide" reference].

    The siblicide...

    Giraffes keep stretching towards their goals and into new horizons. I find it easy to see the giraffe as a highly creative animal.

    Similarly, a lot of what a knight does is not intervening.

    1. I would like to make a bird tarot but haven't found a publisher.