The Animal Totem Tarot features animals from around the world in their natural (and sometimes not so natural) habitats. The 78 borderless cards naturally incorporate tarot symbolism into each animal's scene. The deck also comes with a substantial 347-page companion book.
There are many animal-based tarot decks on the market. Some feature a particular animal – there are a plethora of cat decks currently available – while others feature a selection of animals sacred to a particular tradition or belief system. The Animal Totem Tarot takes a broader sampling of animals from across the globe and interprets them, not from the perspective of the human qualities they embody, but rather from how we humans can learn and benefit from their qualities. These animals are our teachers and guides, not an extension of the broader human ego. To venture into the world of the Animal Totem Tarot is to engage with animals in their own habitat; and as they engage with us in ours – sometimes triumphantly, and sometimes with tragic results.
This is a standard tarot deck of 78 cards. It has 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. There are no renamed cards in the Major Arcana, and they follow the Rider-Waite ordering: the suits are Swords, Pentacles, Cups, and Wands, with ten number cards and the Court being Page, Knight, Queen, and King.
The card stock is very good, substantial and 'solid’ yet reasonably flexible. The cards have a smooth face with a low gloss finish, the backs have a faintly textured feel and the same low gloss finish. They sit solidly but not heavily in the hands, and they are very easy to shuffle and handle. The print quality is excellent. The lines are crisp and clear, and the colours and fine detail are subtle.
The artwork is highly stylised – with heavy outlines and beautifully textured dimensions to the images. The animals are depicted accurately and with genuine sensitivity. There is very little anthropomorphism in the cards – the imposition or reading of human emotions into the actions of an animal. Instead, in a clever reversal, the actions of animals are related to the experiences of humans. The images are quite affecting – the tragedy of humanity's encroachment into wild places, and the painful end results of actions motivated by greed, or without thought for the consequences occasionally appear here. So too does the majesty of animals living as they should in their natural habitat, and the cunning of those animals who have adapted to our urban encroachments.
The instruments of the suits – Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles actually appear in the cards and the animals are shown interacting with them. In the Court cards Knights are featured with shields, and the King and Queen have crowns situated nearby or within their grasp.
The artist, Eugene Smith, uses a natural palette – greens, browns, blues, greys, with an occasional splash of colour from flowers or from human constructions such as vehicles and buildings. Additionally, the instruments of the suits are clearly man-made: the Wands have scarlet ribbons flying from them, the golden chalices are studded with jewels, the pentacles and swords are wrought from metal and decorated with with gold.
The images have no borders – the illustrations reach to the edge of the cards. Numbers and titles are given on a grey plaque at the bottom of the illustration. The image on the back of the card – a spiral of animals and flowers on a blue background – is not reversible.
The cards come packaged in a large box set, complete with the guidebook. The cards are sealed in plastic so presumably their new owner will furnish a more suitable storage bag or box, since the box set is quite bulky and will not fit easily into a bag or backpack. Additionally the cardboard box is quite lightweight and not intended as permanent storage; it will crush and/or tear if it is handled roughly.
The guidebook by Leeza Robinson is a substantial 347 pages. The author addresses the reader in relaxed and friendly language, which is not to suggest her approach is lax or sloppy. Her direct and open terminology actually circumvents some of the more indirect and obfuscating language used in more rigid and traditional tarot books – it gets straight to the point.
In spite of the author's assurances that these totems can physically show up in the querent’s life as guides, this tarot is top heavy with North American animals so unless you live there this seems rather unlikely. However fauna from Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia, and South America put in appearances, so too do some species of marine and insect life that are found the world over.
The animals are divided into three categories, and all three types of animals appear in the querent’s life. Power Animals arrive in your life to help, heal, or deliver a message – once this is achieved the animal moves on. They may appear physically or in token (such as a recurring images, tarot cards etc). Animal Guides or Totems are animals which choose you and are with you for the duration of your life. They serve many functions such as mentor, friend, companion, and protector. Animal Archetypes are connected to our inner sense of self and represent an essential part of our own nature.
The animals depicted in the Animal Totem Tarot are also connected to elemental energies. Fire represents ambition, creativity and passion; Water is associated with emotions, clarity, and purity; Air represents thought, Divine connections, and inspiration; Earth is practical, grounded, with strong connections to our physical reality.
The guidebook features an Introduction which briefly outlines the structure of the guidebook. This is followed by Chapter 1 which introduces a novice reader to the tarot. Chapter 2 describes the function of animals in this tarot deck; followed by further instruction on how to understand the structure of each chapter, and beginners tips for interpreting cards.
Each animal, both Major and Minor Arcana has its own short chapter. A channelled message from the animal in question addresses the seeker directly. This is followed by a lengthy description or divinatory meaning. There are 3 additional specific divinatory meanings which address Business and Career, Family and Relationships, and Health and Well-Being questions. Also included are 3 Card-of-the-Day Journal Prompts. In essence these are questions that encourage self reflection and meditation on the qualities represented by the totem animal. Each chapter has a lined page for the querent’s notes.
No reversed meanings are given for the cards. The divinatory meanings outlined in this guidebook fall well inside the boundaries of 'standard tarot definitions’. They are clear and sharply observed; they easily connect the qualities of the animals with the interpretations. Three layouts are described (no diagrams are given) – the 8-card Inner Totem Pole, the 3-card Archetype Spread, and the 3-card Situation Spread.
This is a beautiful deck. It has superb production values, and functions exceptionally well. It is extremely well thought out and the artwork is touching and original. While it is not a good deck for a beginner, those with a bit of tarot experience will find it very easy to use. If you are looking for a tarot that features animals in natural (and sometimes man-made) habitats, or a tarot which eschews the cutesy factor in its animal artwork then this is the deck you've been looking for. If you are looking for a *natural* tarot with its feet on the earth, so to speak, then this deck is definitely worth looking at. All round this is a beautifully illustrated and well conceived deck.
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 piñatas.
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 rusty, 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.