Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert
Review by Diane Wilkes

There used to be commercials for Manischevitz Wine that claimed, "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Manischevitz," or something like that. Or maybe I'm having hallucinations? Be that as it may, you don't have to be Pagan to enjoy the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert, but...oy--it doesn't hurt.

Seriously, no matter what your spiritual path is, this is one gorgeous deck. But it is seriously steeped in earth-centered lore and symbolism, and is, in my opinion, hands down the best tarot for Pagans around (sadly though, at this time it is not a full 78 card deck, but Majors-Only). But before you say to yourself, "Well, if it's that great a deck, it's bound to be published, so I'll wait for the 78 card version," I have to say that the presentation and publication of this Majors-Only version is so special that you really don't want to wait.

The deck arrives in a plush purple velvet bag lined with a tree-patterned cloth that smells like heaven. Why? The bag contains the small spiral-bound companion book, three stones, and a packet of herbs all locally grown: lavender, sage, sweetgrass and cedar. I can't tell you how many times I have just stuck my face in the bag and inhaled deeply--not the most attractive image, I grant you, but I bet if you buy this deck for yourself, you'll do the same. Even the card backs are hand-stamped with a silvery wreath of healing herbs. At first, I didn't see the holistic symmetry of the packaging, but when I started thinking of the deck creator's intentions for the Gaian Tarot, I realized how very earth-based and apropos each of the special features is.

Many independently-published decks aren't created by people who earn their daily bread through their art.  Colbert is an internationally known artist whose work you might recall seeing in SageWoman and/or PanGaia Magazine and her deck reflects both her professional skill and deep spirituality. It is an unusual pleasure and  privilege to gaze upon each of these exquisitely-crafted images, which are primarily colored pencil drawings with occasional and effective integrative dips into PhotoShop.

It is impossible to describe every card in depth, and it pains me to not show all of them (but you can see them all on the artist's site, so I don't feel guilty--thanks, Joanna!). The Fool has been dubbed The Seeker and depicts a woman who is about to begin a long hike. There is a contemplative quality that contrasts with the traditional foolhardiness of this card, but the sense of magnitude of the journey offers an interpretative nuance that I embrace wholeheartedly. The Magician, a shamanic drummer, makes my heart open every time I get a glimpse of this spiritually rich card. 

One of the first cards completed for this deck, the High Priestess, is a perfect amalgam of beauty and innovation. The wise woman at the center of this card is a combination of Crone and Maiden, Hecate and Persephone. The yin and yang often shown by the black and white pillars is revisioned in this card, shown symbolically in the various facets of the two sides of the High Priestess, as well as the owl and salmon, the moon and the light of the sun.

The Empress (The Gardener) and Emperor (The Builder) are a majestic couple, but they are not bedecked with the royal adornments we have come to recognize. Looking at them side-by-side, you see the pregnant and lush woman lying in a verdant field in Trump III as the essence of fertile womanhood and her partner, who carves his pattern in a post outside his home-castle, as the ultimate constructor. Ever since reading Banzhaf's Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, this distinction has been emphasized for me and I love the way Joanna expresses these two archetypes. These two seem to be reprised (with some differences) as the Lovers, which speaks to both an earthly and divine union.

Each of the cards has been revisioned to reflect an earth-centered sense of the sacred. The Chariot has been renamed The Canoe and, while the pilot is fixed on his goal, the goal is steeped in the waters of spirituality. The Hierophant (The Teacher) is a mellow leader whose religious milieu is the green and growing earth. The Wheel shows the changing of the seasons through the leaves (or lack thereof) on trees and the lunar cycle. Rarely have I seen a Wheel that so perfectly evokes the cyclical nature of life.

Justice depicts a glowing figure who is a literal man of measure (as opposed to leisure)--he weighs and balances emotion and logic, compassion and discernment. The Hanged One is now The Tree (at top), a yoga master (mistress?) who has, through meditation and suspending herself in space, so obliterated boundaries that she has become one with the sky.

I am particularly taken with the progression of the Bindweed-Devil/Lightning-Tower/Star trinity--the cards are populated with different characters, but the images convey a natural and powerful arc of enslavement to breakthrough to healing, a hard-won peace that recognizes true beauty.

Gaia, The World is a potent and universal image. When I showed the deck to a shamanic friend of mine, she recognized her: "I've seen her in my journeys," she commented with pleasure.

As mentioned earlier in the review, the card titles are somewhat different from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, though the numerical order remains the same. The Gaian Tarot titles are:

Traditional Gaian Tarot
0 - The Fool The Seeker
I - The Magician The Magician
II - The High Priestess The High Priestess
III - The Empress The Gardener
IV - The Emperor The Builder
V - The Hierophant The Teacher
VI - The Lovers The Lovers
VII - The Chariot The Canoe
VIII - Strength Strength
IX - The Hermit The Hermit
X - The Wheel of Fortune The Wheel
XI - Justice Justice
XII - The Hanged Man The Tree
XIII - Death Death
XIV - Temperance Temperance
XV - The Devil Bindweed
XVI - The Tower Lightning
XVII - The Star The Star
XVIII - The Moon The Moon
XIX - The Sun The Sun
XX - Judgment Awakening
XXI - The World Gaia, The World

Prior to writing this review, I thought I would emphasize how ideal it is for magical use. I even thought it would be wrong to use it for regular readings! In my pre-writing notes, I actually wrote: "There's a profundity and sacredness about the images that is emphasized by its large size and enhanced by the appeal to the senses and the sensual supplied by the herbs and plush and lined velvet bag. The packaging and image combine to create a total experience, and I, for one, intend to take advantage of that experience.") 

Then I actually used the deck...and found that the Gaian Tarot had other ideas. I pulled a card for a profound and "large view" comment on my life and received Justice. I was on my way to volunteering for and it seemed so specific a comment on being the change I wanted to see in the world that I was stunned. It was as if the deck wanted to say, "The mundane and the spiritual world are not to be separated. Don't try it with me. I will not be marginalized!" When I did a full moon reading with the deck with a friend, we received very literal and metaphoric messages, with symbols that were both personal and tangible. One image literally reflected the magical tools my friend possessed. One of my cards offered a very specific comment on a real world issue. I love the voice of this deck--it speaks as a wise, no-bullshit High Priestess--one who can channel both Persephone's other-worldliness and Hecate's tough love.

At $100 (including shipping), this isn't an inexpensive deck. If you don't follow an earth-centered spirituality, it may not be worth the money (unless you LOVE the artwork and must have it for that reason alone). The large limited edition is sold out, but Joanna is looking into publishing a smaller version. Hopefully, the publishing world will see how quickly this deck sold out even at that cost and the Gaian Tarot will eventually be published in a 78 card version in an affordable mainstream edition. Joanna has shared some of her ideas for the Minors with me, and I think they're incredibly well-thought out, creative, and (most important to me) highly usable. For now, this version of the Gaian Tarot is special and beautiful--and a deck for all occasions--for ritual and for a daily hit on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and wholeness.

Click here to read more about the Gaian Tarot and see more cards.

  Yes No
78 cards   X
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI X  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana   X
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks) N/A  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions N/A  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                     X
Smaller than standard                                             X
Larger than standard  4" x 6"                                        X  


Images 2004 Joanna Powell Colbert
Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes