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Creating The Gaian Tarot

This article was written by Joanna Powell Colbert
posted under Tarot

The Gaian Tarot emerged from the fertile ground of the archetypal imagery of the tarot combined with my deep love for a small island in the Pacific Northwest.

This deck was a long time in the making. The seed for it was planted in the 1980s when I was working with the Motherpeace Tarot and comparing it to traditional decks like the Rider-Waite-Smith. I was drawing pen-and-ink Goddess portraits in those days, and was intrigued by the idea of creating a tarot deck. But the thought of making seventy-eight separate pieces of artwork was daunting. I worked consistently with the tarot as a teacher and reader until the late 1990s when I set it aside for several years. During that time I moved to a small, rural island and the focus of my spiritual practice changed.

I heard Starhawk say that the earth is our sacred text, like the Bible or the Torah or the Koran, and that most of us are illiterate in it. I took that to heart. I began to spend the bulk of my time outside, observing the place where I lived and practicing wilderness-awareness skills. Just like as I had thrown myself into Goddess studies and tarot studies earlier, I became immersed in studying the native plants, birds, and animals of my chosen home. I grew herbs, became involved in the local community, and built a straw bale house with my husband. Even though I had been walking the path of Goddess spirituality for many years, my practice and relationship with the Great Mystery (whom I call Mama Gaia) deepened. I began to seek wisdom directly from the woods, the beach, and the meadows, without the intermediary of books or human teachers.

"Mama Gaia" is my name for Mother Earth, or the Great Mother Goddess. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the name of the primal goddess who embodies the earth. It is written that She gave birth to the sea, the sky, and the rest of creation. The idea that the earth is our mother is found in many indigenous cultures worldwide. Today, in part because of the popularity of James Lovelockís Gaia Hypothesis, the words Gaia or Gaian are often used to refer to a worldview that honors the earth as sacred. To practice a Gaian or earth-centered spirituality means to both give and receive sustenance from the natural world. "The earth is our mother, she will take care of us," the familiar chant goes. "The earth is our mother, we must take care of her."

In late 2000, I was invited to be the Artist Guest of Honor at a conference in Chicago. A woman Iíd never seen before walked up to my vending table on the first night. She was wearing a T-shirt decorated with a sequined version of the RWS High Priestess. She looked straight at me and said, "YOU have to do a tarot deck!" She spoke with the voice of authority and something in me responded. It was the call of the Spirit resonating inside of me. That woman turned out to be Janet Berres, who was the founder of the International Tarot Society. Throughout the weekend, people kept coming up to my table and asking, "Didnít you do a tarot deck?" By the 12th or 13th time I heard this, I realized that I had been handed a mandate. Message received.

It took me a little while longer to decide on a theme for the deck. Since I was fairly well-known as an artist of Goddess imagery, that topic seemed like a good fit. But there were already several Goddess-themed decks on the market, and they were all so well-done I didnít think I had anything new to offer. Then I had one of those "ah-ha!" moments, when I realized I could share my new-found passion for the wisdom and beauty of the natural world through the imagery on of the cards.

We humans are in a reciprocal relationship with the earth. We are healed by the earthópeople have always turned to nature for solace in times of pain and griefóand we also have a responsibility to heal the earth. The message of this deck is really about creating and living a new, yet ancient, paradigm that honors the earth as sacred.

This vision set my blood to tingling, and it sustained me throughout the nine years it took to complete the deck.

I wanted to portray a community of people, plants, and animals all living in harmony with each other and the planet. In some ways the deck is a vision of what life could be like if we lived this way. Some would call it Utopian. But it is a vision rooted in reality. Almost all the figures in the deck are people that I know. I often chose a model not only because of his or her physical appearance, but also because she or he had an affinity for the energy of a certain card. I think the most powerful cards in the deck are those where the model deeply resonated with the energy of the card. For example, the woman who modeled for the Priestess card is an experienced Wiccan High Priestess, and the model for the Builder actually built his own home. The woman gently planting a cedar sapling in the 7 of Earth owns a native plant recovery nursery.

Many of the scenes in the cards are based on photographs that I took in my own neighborhood as well as sacred places I visited when I traveled. As I meditated on the meaning of each tarot card and the fresh interpretation I might bring to it, I asked, "What does Mama Gaia have to say about this? Where does this message or principle appear in the natural world?" The images arose in quiet contemplation, intense study, dreams, or in my nature journaling practice. A few times I "recognized" the card when I saw it, out on a ramble around the island.

This happened with the Death card. I was exploring the west side of the island one day with a young woman who was my naturalist-mentor. We came across a decaying boat we had seen many times before, and were startled to see that someone had laid the body of a young, dead heron in the boat. There were skulls of other birds and animals in the boat as well. We both sank to our knees, aware that we were in the presence of the Death Goddess. (The heron is sacred to me, an epiphany of the Goddess.) We collected cedar and yarrow from the meadow and made offerings by laying those in the boat. We sang to the spirit of the heron. I looked up and saw the sunlight sparkling on the water (another symbol of the Goddess to me), and the islands beyond. I remembered all the stories in Celtic mythology where the souls of the dead set sail for the Westerns Isles. And I just knew: this is my Death card. I had my camera with me and began taking photos. Later on, I created the painting, adding some details and taking away others. But the painting is pretty much the same as the scene we saw that day. We never did find out who had put the heron in the boat.

While I used the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as a beloved template, I re-envisioned many of the cards. I took great delight in mixing up the genders of many of the cards. For example, the Sun is a woman in this deck, instead of a child or man. The Hanged Man (renamed the Tree, for the yoga posture of the same name) is a woman, and Justice is a man. I did this because I wanted to challenge our societyís gender stereotypes. I took it even farther with the court cards, which I prefer to call "family cards." Instead of four kings, four queens, four knights, and four pages, I have categories based on life passages: Elders, Guardians, Explorers, and Children. There are two males and two females in each group. So the Elder of Fire, for example, who corresponds to the King of Wands, is an elderly Hispanic curandera. A very powerful witchy woman! The Guardian of Earth (Queen of Pentacles) is a man in midlife, tending his garden of heritage corn.

One of the cards that I completely re-envisioned is the Teacher, or Hierophant, card. I wanted to depict a wise spiritual teacher instead of the religious authoritarian figure we usually see. My intention was to show an elderly Asian man in the tradition of the holy saint or crazy fool. I was very surprised to find out that many people see the Teacher as female, and not necessarily Asian. So the Teacher (who, by the way, is not based on someone I actually know) turns out to be androgynous and multi-racial, and appears to people just as they need him/her to be. The Teacher holds a dandelion, a plant that the average person regards as a weed, and yet it is a powerful medicinal herb. He is surrounded by other green alliesónettles, comfrey, garlicówho are his teachers. And we are left to wonder who the teacher is, and who the student is. I also re-envisioned the Emperor card as a Builder, who is partnered with the Empress, or Gardener. I see the Gardener as embodying nature's abundance, and the Builder as the creator of civilization and culture. Unlike most historic emperors, my Builder does not destroy life for his own profit or benefit. He is inspired by the Green Man (the spirit of the wild wood) and works in harmony with nature, building an earth-friendly house according to the principles of sustainability. Tarot teacher Lunaea Weatherstone recently wrote this about the Builder:

"His face shows intense focus and seriousness, unlike the smiling Gardener. There is sorrow in the need to cut down a tree to build a shelter, to stoke the hearth fire. Perhaps his carving [of the Green Man] is a memorial as much as a celebration. The Emperor has harder decisions to make, perhaps, and his own heart may ache with them sometimes. Creating sacred space to honor those hard choices helps us remember our responsibilities as co-creators of the civilized world."
Iíve now added this poignant insight into to my repertoire of meanings for the Builder card.

In my earlier years as an artist, my medium of choice was pen-and-ink, sometimes augmented by watercolor. In the late 1990s, I studied a new technique called colored pencil painting, and thatís the medium I chose for the Gaian Tarot. My work is photorealistic, and as I mentioned earlier, each card is based on photographs taken by myself or by friends. The process of creating these photorealistic paintings is exceedingly slow, and involves layer upon layer of tiny pencil strokes. There is anywhere from fifty to one hundred hours in each painting. During the hours of creating each piece, I played music and entered into a contemplative, meditative, sacred space where I lost track of time. I think the long hours of creating the art contributed to its spiritual depth. During the years I was creating this deck, I went through many life changes. I earned my living as an artist and web designer, and visited tarot conferences around the country where I made many wonderful friends in the tarot community. I nursed my beloved father through his last days and witnessed his passing. I became a grandmother. I kept an online Artistís Journal blog, and loved getting feedback from people as they followed my progress. I stayed centered in my local circle of "mermaid" sisters and brothers. I left my beloved island to move back to the mainland just as I was finishing up the last cards. But I visit often and it is still my heartís home.

Now that the deck is published, Iím finding that one of the most fascinating and wonderful things that is happening is the way that other people are teaching me about the deck. I am constantly hearing interpretations of the cards that I think are brilliant, and are not anything I came up with myself. Itís as if the deck is a child that I gave birth to, but who is now growing up and making her own way in the world. Tarot reader and teacher Beth Owlís Daughter said something about the Gaian Tarot that makes my heart overflow with gratitude.

"I have observed even the most agitated, cynical, or despondent querents become completely captivated by the beautiful, strong images in these cards. From all backgrounds and walks of life, without exception, my clients strongly identify with this deck. And as they can so clearly see themselves in these cards, they can also envision new, inspiring possibilities and solutions to the concerns for which they have sought guidance."

If that is true, then I believe I have fulfilled the mandate given to me by Spirit. Blessed be.

Joanna Powell ColbertJoanna Powell Colbert
Joanna Powell Colbert (Washington State) is an artist and writer known internationally for her goddess portraits and mythic art. She teaches workshops and e-courses on earth-centered spirituality, manifesting your dreams, and tarot as a tool for inner...  Read more

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