Wow. I don’t use that word lightly when it comes to tarot decks, but I said it out loud after unboxing the The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot by D. W. Prudence. Prudence had asked me to do a review on his deck and the title sounded interesting enough to make sure I got a copy. I tested this deck a little longer, so if you’ve been cruising the web in search of a TQS-original on the AlcheMystic…sorry! But here it is now. A little over 2 months after its release, my opinion on a deck that is deserving of the “wow” in a variety of areas. And not always good…
In most cases exclaiming wow after an unboxing says it is quite possibly extraordinarily beautiful. I wouldn’t give The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot (the double capital is used in the –amazing – companion) that particular label to be honest, but it is definitely something else.
Look & feel
As a Red Feather publication – the Mind/Body/Spirit department of Schiffer Books – deck the same large kit with magnetic lid, large black & white paperback guide and double stacked deck applies. The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot’s look is not going to attract a huge audience at first sight, I assume. I am not going to dive into the whole “Why are there 4 frames & borders per card on this deck?”, because we all know where I stand on that. But color – and border choice, including the laminated stock, were ‘wows’ in a wrong way, sadly.
The green, black and putrid yellow – creating a sick glow on each of the woodcut copy pictures – of the Major Arcana really made me go “What? Why?!?”. It distracts and does little to support those woodcuts in a good way. The Minors have more redeeming qualities since there’s one bright background (red, navy blue, amber-orange and purple hues) with a woodcut image in a more stone-like (as in statue) tint. It creates more attractive cards, but still not what I’d like to have seen.
I understand that it is impossible to show the woodcuts in their original tones and therefore another way of colouring is chosen, but there seems to be quite the disconnect between definite design and illustration. What I expect to see is far from what I am getting. The idea of showing woodcuts gives this deck its originality in imagery and content. Those woodcuts would’ve shined had the creator (judging from his earlier decks he made this choice himself) chosen to go the route of the historical reproduction.
Matte canvas or linen stock, a white, creme or beige background and a simple thin line around the image to create a white border. Think TdM or Tarocchi facsimiles. Maybe with some light colouring in the frame-line if those colours have meaning. Linen is too expensive for mass market, but a creamy matte stock (with grey or brownish image copies of the woodcuts) had to have been an option. It would’ve been an infinitely better fit.
Foundation: spiritual concepts
The deck radiates something dark and at the same time seems to hold a vibe of wisdom. The first is probably due to the overall unappealing color & stock choice, the latter most likely stems from what I do like about this deck: the fact each card shows a work of art, a copy of original woodcuts from the 16th-19th century, representing the Secret Wisdom of the Ages. In other words: the search for God or understanding the universe by alchemists, Christian Mystics, Kabbalists and Magicians.
Who is behind all this? Creator/designer D. W. Prudence, a pseudonym for Dwell with Prudence (proverbs 8:12, the creator’s chosen name to show his commitment to seek wisdom and live prudently), is a hypnotherapist with a vast array of occult and other studies to his name. He combines a title in Psychology with palmistry, tarot reading and Therapeutic Touch for example. In relation to this deck the several years he spent understanding Kabbalah and Magick are the most important. His personal belief system, being a Nondenominational Christian, puts a stamp on his deck as well.*
Prudence believes tarot, the Kabbalistic tree of Life and (Christian or Alchemystic) symbolism are an effective means of contemplation. The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot is meant to be a result of spiritual concepts and divine contemplations of numerous philosophers, magicians, alchemists and (well-known) Judeo-Christian believers over the last 1000 years. The deck shows their perception in each of the suits, hopefully to help you on your own spiritual journey. As a result these 78 cards don’t just represent the road occultists have travelled so far, but The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot encompasses theological knowledge, occult history, philosophy and art.
Putting it into one of the three foundational systems (WCS, Thoth-like/Golden Dawn, Tdm/Tarocchi) is pretty much impossible. The AlcheMystic WoodCut works within a tarot structure resembling the Waite-Smith (22 majors, 56 minors. 11 being Justice and 8 Strength) whereas the angle of the deck leans towards the GD variety. However, that’s where any overlap stops. By using several occult schools Prudence goes beyond Golden Dawn attributes and imho the core of each card has been touched by the multitude of belief & philosophies in such a way that using your knowledge of any of the three foundational systems can be thrown overboard: they won’t coincide in many cases.
A good example of this is the fact that all the known suit names are changed. While is nothing out of the ordinary nowadays, it is when the new titles, Alchemists, Mages, Shekinah and Mystics, aren’t explained or linked to an existing pattern at all. You can still work with the construct of 4 suits with a 1-10 and 4 courts, but let go of Swords, Cups, Pentacles (Coins) or Wands. Also let go of the idea that a court shows a figure with a suit symbol in an orderly fashion. While some courts do show a figure of a man for a King and a woman for Queen, more often than not you’ll see a scenic or otherwise unexpected representation of Page, Knight, Queen or King. The AlcheMystic continues the journey that started with the Ace and does not stop after 10. It is one of those decks that counts to 11, 12, 13 and 14 as well.
Even after having studied several cards, including the guidebook, I am still not sure if the ‘originals’ were even used and if you could say, f.e., “Oh the Alchemist suit is Wands (or Pentacles?)!”. Every time I thought: ‘I have it!’ some card or text would come along and ruin my theory. The deck is an entity onto itself. The Shekinah (for the longest time I thought this was Cups… until I saw the 10. Now I think Swords) is the only suit that has an overview of sorts in the book. It is a great example to show you what I mean.
“All of the cards in the Shekinah suit are related to God and humanity’s interactions with Him. The first three cards represent efforts to understand the mysteries of God through different systems: The Kabbalah (Ace), Alchemy (Two), and Mysticism (Three). The Fourth demonstrates that however complicated we try to make it, ultimately it all boils down to having our hearts right with God. The fifth card deals with sin, the sixth with the Great Work and the seventh and eighth with guidance. The later cards deal with a walk of a spiritually mature person (…).”**
See, that does not come close to any of the suits we already know! Reading with the AlcheMystic Woodcut therefore requires a set of choices on what to use, and a personal approach. It is a ‘wow’ that was a little overwhelming, but one I do not necessarily deem negative.
The deck and its companion are deeply ‘drenched’ in Judeo-Christian, Kabbalistic and Magickal/occult symbolism. Therefore it will most likely be attractive to occultists and those who’ve worked with Golden Dawn/Kabbalah inspired decks before. This one just takes it so much further. I personally was happiest with the Alchemist suit but that is because I work a lot with Robert Place’s popular deck and recognised images and ideas. In other cases I could see links with the Tabula Mundi or Thoth for example, but that is just barely scratching the surface.
If you are new to the whole occult thing but are an advanced tarot reader with not just WCS-knowledge, but preferably also plenty on historical decks (TdM or Tarocchi’s) under your belt, you might be up for the challenge too. The companion – with way over 20 pages of historical background on Kabbalah, Rosy Cross, Golden Dawn, the works of Levi, Papas, Crowley and Mathers, including extremely useful texts on each card – can be your crutch. Tarot novices better stay away from this deck. As I said before, it is so far removed from ‘one of the three’ and so rich with information you’d only get confused and frustrated.
Belief & techniques
The bible verses that are used throughout the companion (and let’s not forget about the Christian symbolism on the woodcuts) could be what makes you turn away from The AlcheMystic. Initially I was a little put off (yet again, another wow with a gulp on top). I really had to get use to it, like stepping over something. But once I did I realised that Prudence gave the deck, or the companion, a layer I did not know I wanted until I got it. I at least won’t be ‘intimidated’ again…
While the creator thinks anyone who does not ascribe to his belief system or the ones mentioned in the guide could easily work intuitively and visually with the deck – and I agree up to a point – it will be much, much harder for those readers. Mostly because the used symbolism is part of the entire background and extremely important to how it was created. That means you either need to start learning what it means regardless, or completely let go of the things you do know and read the imagery more as you would an oracle. Sometimes no mean feat for the more analytically inclined tarot reader.
In order to become a proficient reader of The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot you need to study, study, study and practice, practice, practice. Using a TdM way of reading, including elements when they are shown and/or numbers when it comes to the minors, works great by the way.
I can also understand if you don’t want to lean too much on the whole Biblical thing or on using a companion. However, the guidebook is such a source of fascinating information that discarding it would be a shame. It is basically a free workshop on secret wisdom and the Old Testament stories (etc.), and it supports the deck in a tremendous way. I used the aforementioned way of reading plus the book in all my test readings and the results were even a little scary. It hit home every time. I mostly tested with the heavier personal & spiritual questions – how the deck was intended -, but I am sure its rich symbolism will make practical questions no issue either by just using the imagery.
The AlcheMystic Woodcut Tarot is a deck that challenges you in many ways. The creator is obviously knowledgeable and put a tremendous amount of work in his amazing companion. It goes beyond any of the occult decks that are currently on the market, but there are similarities with others to help. If you are a beginner start with those others***, the AlcheMystic is not a deck for you yet. It is going to be quite the work for most advanced readers.
It is one of those decks that took a lot of effort to create and will take a lot of effort to work with. Though once you come to the stage of bonding with your AlcheMystic, the results will be great and worth it. My problem with this deck lies in the many biblical references – though I could work with those after a while – and definitely with its aesthetic execution. Those stacked borders, the color choices and laminated stock feel all wrong and do a huge disservice to the woodcuts for which this deck was named. If you can look past that (I know, kinda hard), this tarot is going to be a welcome addition to the collection of any occultist and philosopher.
* I’m a so-called Trusted Reviewer for The GameCrafter – meaning The GameCrafter supports me in stalking designers for review copies 😉 – and suddenly realised I’d seen him on that page. The AlcheMystic is the latest in a list (5) of other tarot & divination related products with a Christian angle: a tarot deck, a toracle and what I personally found coolest: a Tarot Board Game (intended to improve your tarot readings & Christian counselling) and the “Urim and Thummim Divination Kit”, the only practical implementation of the divination method mentioned in the Bible (risky! Would love to review). If you love a little God with your Tarot check out his The GameCrafter Tarot profile.
** p177 companion. Image wise – and according to the author – this suit is the one that focuses the most on Christianity and the relationship of men with God. But you can expect bible verses and the word God throughout the companion. Every bit of the deck relates to the search towards understanding ‘Him’ and creation. When you don’t prescribe to the/a Christian faith this can be a little too much. In other words: using all that material to your advantage while not ‘dissing’ your own belief system asks for quite the ‘translation’ or simply looking at it as just another technique/vision. That can be hard. Be aware of this before you order.
*** Crowley’s Thoth, The Hermetic Tarot, Tarot of the Holy Light or the ‘softer’ The Star Tarot are ideal decks to start with for budding occultists. MM Meleen’s Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus is a step up. Her original Rosetta Tarot is a nice alternative to Crowley’s Thoth deck.