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Every Card Tells a Story: The Story Behind the Cards for Witches Tarot

This article was written by Ellen Dugan
posted under Tarot

The Witches Tarot deck began on a cold winter day almost three years ago when I was contacted by Barbara Moore, the tarot acquisitions editor at Llewellyn. She emailed to ask if I be interested in designing a new tarot deck for witches and then writing the accompanying book. Intrigued, I called Barbara for more information and she explained to me what would be involved in the process. She informed me that the project would be kept secret from the general public for a few years until close to its release date.

I thought about it for a few days and then decided to dive in. Then I spoke to Barbara about the specifics as to what exactly would be needed in a script. After that, I took a few weeks to research, consider, plot and plan… and then I started writing that script for what would become Witches Tarot.

This was both fun and challenging. The script is for the editor and the artist, so they can "see" what the author wants, and what exactly they are after—basically you are painting a picture with words for each individual card of the tarot deck. I also added my own notes in the script so that when the time came to write the accompanying book I would have these first notes to refer to—to remind me of the meaning, feeling and story of each card I had planned.

For clarification I added reference images or a photo to the script for the future unknown artist—especially of the specific herbs, flowers, and botanicals. Once the script was approved by the folks at Llewellyn, the hunt for an artist began. This took about six months. A few different artists sent in their version of a card for consideration, and unfortunately nothing felt right.

Barbara encouraged me to hang in there. She and I both wanted someone who could not only paint people, but an artist who could do backgrounds, flora and fauna, and natural landscapes. Nature was the main theme, and my mantra for the artist was, "Every card should tell a story…" That line was even at the top of the script.

Finally, a card painting was sent in for my consideration from fantasy artist Mark Evans. The card he sent in was the Queen of Cups. I had looked at his website while we waited for his art, and I was seriously impressed. Then when the art came in for me to consider, I was so nervous about seeing the card mock-up that I did not want to look at it alone. I had my son Kyle, a graphic designer, with me when I viewed the attachment. I nervously opened it and the image filled up my computer monitor screen; my jaw dropped. I sat there in silence, which for me is highly unusual.

Kyle leaned in over my shoulder, looking at the image and announced, "Mom, you have to get this guy!" I sat there at my desk in stunned silence, and got a little teary. This was it. This was our artist. When I looked at that card, suddenly I could "see" what the deck would be. I showed the image to my husband and two other adult children to see their reactions; I don’t know who was more excited, me or my family.

Once Mark was contracted, he and I communicated through email for a while. I had the idea when I first scripted the deck to include my husband and our kids in a few of the court cards of the Witches Tarot. I asked Mark if he would be okay with that. I explained I was not looking for portraits, but that I thought it would be fun if the husband and the kids resembled a character in a tarot card. For myself, I had one particular card in mind… But more on that later. Mark agreed, and said he'd be happy to work in the family. He liked the idea. I also urged him to include himself in one card as well.

Several months later, as the card art actually began to trickle in, Mark and I stayed closer in contact, via email and sometimes by talking on the phone. Occasionally we would brainstorm, he would make a suggestion, or I would. As we went along I explained to Mark some of the history of the tarot and the meaning behind the images he was creating. We also had several conversations about the Craft, which he found helpful. Sometimes he would surprise me. When I suggested adding a raven to the Hanged Man card, Mark said, "Oh yeah, the raven on the ash tree… like Odin." Score! He knew his mythology.

The process of the card art began with Mark reading the script and then sketching up the cards for me to look over. Occasionally he sent me a couple of versions of a card, allowing me to choose. I approved the sketches or requested minor changes as quickly as possible. If I did have a correction it was typically very minor, such as when I once asked, "The King of Cups needs a crown; can we put a silver starfish in his crown?" I'd say about ninety-five percent of the time my reaction to the sketches was: "Love it—paint it." We would do so, and then he'd move on to the next one.

As more cards slowly came to life, it was both exciting and nerve-wracking. One day when Mark and I were talking, he explained that in particular the Five of Wands card was giving him fits. I suggested to him, "What if you did five dragons, each in a different color, and all holding a hawthorn wand?" He pounced on that new idea. I suggested the dragons be red, yellow, green, blue and purple, explaining to him that there would be colors for the four natural elements and for spirit. Mark is a fantasy artist after all, and he does some awesome dragons, so he was relieved and pleased with that new suggestion. He quickly took notes and I happily turned him loose. The result was pretty spectacular.

Occasionally I would take posed pictures with my digital camera of friends or relatives and send them to Mark so he could get a real "picture" of what I wanted. I did that for my husband and the kids’ cards; those photo sessions could be challenging, or downright hysterical. Phrases like, "Here hold this goblet. Pretend these ginormous scissors are a sword. Hold this wooden spoon for a scepter…" were common. I have never laughed so hard in my life when my son looked at me and asked, "You're not actually going to make me get up on a horse…are you?" I lost count of the times the kids would deadpan, "I need my script! I can't work under these conditions!" Or, my personal favorite, "Excuse me, what's my motivation?" It's hard to hold a camera still when you are laughing. Where they got that sarcastic sense of humor from I'll never know…their father is a such a quiet man.

I also did that same routine for a few other cards, such as the Nine of Cups, and the Three of Cups. Those reference photos were taken on Beltane with some of the ladies from my coven, who were excited to pose for a card. The finished cards looks just like them. I dragooned a few other friends for various card poses, and I took reference photos of a few of my teenage nieces and nephews (who were the right age and personality for various Page cards). Bless Mark's heart he never once complained about me using whatever "props" I could find. I knew it was important to get the expression right and to have the position of their hands correct. I posed people with wine glasses for goblets; a long piece of PVC pipe or a broom handle for Wands; a tambourine for a Pentacle; and, in one memorable photo, fireplace tongs instead of a sword.

I still am thankful my sixteen-year-old nephew did not bean me while he was swinging those big metal fireplace tongs during our "Page of Swords/Page of Cups photo shoot," which took place in my mother's dining room on Christmas day. At least we stayed away from my mother’s china cabinet!

In direct contrast, my twelve-year-old niece stood quietly with an over-sized painted goblet and kept laughing at me while I explained she should look "surprised" because in the script I sent the artist, I had described a blue fish coming out of the cup she held. So with my kids cheering her on, we got some great reference photos to help back up the script. Good times. And my niece’s and nephew’s cards turned out terrifically.

So what does a tarot deck script look like? Well, here are the script notes for the card Nine of Pentacles. You will see a mention of reference photos in the script as I had attached a picture of me in my garden, and a photo of climbing Brown-Eyed-Susan vine for Mark to refer to.

Script: Nine of Pentacles
A woman stands alone in a lush garden under an arbor. (See reference photo of Ellen and of a garden arbor.) Change the dress to a different color and style, but I would like the character in this particular card to look like me. I have light brown hair and green eyes. The dress on the Nine of Pentacles character is a deep chocolate brown with forest green trim. Around the woman’s neck is a beautiful necklace of nine green stones. Growing upon and twined within the arbor are nine large blooming golden flowers. In the center of each of these nine yellow flowers is the upright Pentacle. (See reference photo of real climbing yellow five-petal flowers below. Adapt these flowers somehow.) A handsome falcon perches on the arbor just above the woman, as if to keep her company.

Ellen’s personal comments for 9 of Pentacles: This tarot card classically represents a person who is elegant, successful, and happiest surrounded by the beautiful things in nature. It also represents a Witch who taps into the earth to receive their powers. A magickal herbalist, a Garden Witch. An earthy practical person who enjoys nature, makes and keeps a beautiful home and garden. Sharing the magick and the secrets of the garden with others. Being called to connect to the earth.

And now, here is the Nine of Pentacles sketch, and then here is the finished card art.

So yes, I am the woman in the Nine of Pentacles. A witch portrayed in the garden—that was the tarot card I wanted. My husband and three grown kids all made it into the deck as well. How did I choose which cards they would be in? I matched their personalities to the specific court cards. My husband is the King of Cups. My son Kraig is the Knight of Cups, and my son Kyle is the Knight of Swords. My daughter Erin is portrayed as the Queen of Swords.

The kids actually ended up in the deck twice (once as adults and once as small children). For example, The Sun card hit a few bumps until I sent Mark a photo of my oldest son Kraig as a little boy. Mark took one look at that old photo, started to chuckle, and then he did a new version of The Sun card (on Midsummer day, actually); it turned out fabulously. To keep the peace, I figured I had better make sure the other two grown kids were also in the deck as youngsters. Mark obliged, and Kyle and Erin were portrayed as the little boy and girl in the Six of Cups. Mark made their hair pale blonde in the card, instead of light brown, but those faces looks just like their toddler photos.

So there is a little bit of the "behind the scenes" information about the card art, which you won’t find in the 312-page companion book that I wrote. In the Witches Tarot Companion book what you will find is how to do a public or a private reading, along with the meaning behind, symbolism of, and magick for each of the seventy-eight cards. There are seven new tarot spreads and over ten new tarot spells and two handy appendixes (one for the Minor Arcana numbers and Court Card Meanings, and the other is an alphabetized list of the meanings of the symbols in the cards).

Every card tells a story, and with this Witches Tarot the narrative only makes the cards more magickal. I hope you will enjoy the book and the deck and create your own tales for the cards as you work with them. To learn more about the deck and the book, see all of the Major Arcana and a sample of the Minor Arcana cards, or to order art prints, please visit the Witches Tarot website at www.witchestarot.com. You can also find the Witches Tarot on Facebook and do a reading with the cards with Llewellyn's Free Tarot.

Ellen DuganEllen Dugan
Ellen Dugan is the award-winning author of fifteen books, and is known as the "Garden Witch". A psychic-clairvoyant, she has been a practicing Witch for over thirty years. Well known for her candor and humor, she is a Master Gardener, and is the High...  Read more

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