I came across a cheap copy of The Greenwood Tarot this week. Not exactly $5 cheap, but cheap compared to the usual pricings of Greenwood decks (somewhere in the $400-$500 range). I already have a copy of this deck, in pristine condition, complete with book, box and Wheel of the Year map, but jumped on a (very) reasonably priced second copy to be able to carry round and use when reading for others. However, this one, I knew from the seller’s description, was not new. It had been used, so I was prepared for it to look healthily shuffled. It arrived quickly (from abroad), landing on my desk three days later. I was quite taken aback though when I opened it up. It had been wrapped in a silk purple scarf, heady with the smell of incense fumes. The edges were grubby from years of repeated shuffling and laying out, the card faces smoothed and slightly worn in places. Here was a deck I would have no qualms whatsoever about using and letting others use, no fears of it getting dirty (it already is) or worn (ditto). There is perhaps a natural, faint disgust (it looks so filthy) but at the same time something quite intriguing.
I love The Greenwood. I love the artwork, I love the myths that have grown up about it since it was published by Thorsons in 1996. I love the concept, I love how it reads, the depth and emotional intensity, the hallucinatory, visionary images of Chesca Potter. I love the idea of losing oneself in a deck of 78 cards as analogous to losing oneself in a labyrinthian forest, eyes peering at dusk, distant drumming, sunlight on snow and the sound of unidentifiable animal cries. There is so much atmosphere in these images, the cycle of seasons, the primeval swamp, the love that radiates from the Earth. There is much hype – perhaps – but the deck has a magic which comes as much from the myths surrounding it (the artist reportedly renouncing her shamanistic beliefs and now untraceable) as much as the artwork and concept. It is a very special deck. Up there in the pantheon of decks that have made a difference in the world of tarot. Whether we like it or not (who cares?) it looms large. The trend for Celtic and pre-Celtic decks has moved on, but still The Greenwood looms. All other decks can only dream of being this desirable, and still it intrigues us with its enigmatic symbols, wild swirls, shamanistic trances and unreal colouring. An attempt in 2010 at reissuing/rehashing/repackaging (call it what you will) The Greenwood and calling it The Wildwood has appeased and consoled those who do not have the original, but it is a different deck entirely. The ludicrous comic-strip artwork, lanky Greenman and general cartooniness do not sit easily with the attempt to muster serious shamanism. It just doesn’t work. And so The Greenwood continues to tantalise.
So there it was. On my desk. Wrapped in its purple silk. And I think of all the stories it must be able to tell. I don’t think I have ever seen such a well-worn deck (the grubbiness doesn’t show up well in the photos). I am fascinated by who the previous owner was. Somebody who didn’t care how valuable it was, somebody who wanted a deck that lived and breathed and could be used. To them it was a tool, a pathway into a private realm that evidently gave answers as they went back to it again and again and again. And it must have kept on delivering the goods judging by the state of it now. I reflect on my taste for well used decks, decks belonging to people who shuffle and read and don’t worry about value or posterity or whether a deck will look shabby with time. What happened to the previous owner? Did they think it was time to retire the deck? What made them let the deck go and thus have it fall into my lap? Death? A conversion to Catholicism? The arrival of a new deck? The Wildwood? I will never know. But I love the stories and conjectures one can spin out of a deck like this. The filth amplifies the magic. How many trembling, sweaty hands have shuffled this deck, fearing answers but giddily wanting to know more? An old tarot deck tells us so many stories. We have to always hope they fall into the hands of those who feel the compression of energies, and not into the hands of those who see only dirt and ugliness and something to be tossed out with last night’s leftovers. There is nothing more beautiful than old, used books, or decks or shoes (that hold the step enclosed). I have always been captivated by the way use erodes the things we love. The way love erodes the things we love. And this Greenwood is a beautiful example of such a thing. It is a magical deck when brand new in the box, but now – so filthy and battered – it vibrates with all past shuffles. I shall treasure it. And use it.