My filthy, battered Greenwood

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.



About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
This entry was posted in cards, Random Reflections and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to My filthy, battered Greenwood

  1. BodhiSeed says:

    A well-loved deck deserves to go to someone who will love it in spite of its smudges and worn places. It definitely found the right home! 🙂 Like you, I often wonder about used decks – the stories they could tell about where they’ve been and who has used them. Probably why I like to wander around in antique stores too…

  2. The way you have written about your new old Greenwood is beautiful. It may actually be more of a treasure coming to you in pre loved condition, since no you will have no qualms about using it. I like pre owned decks and love to use them, but I tend to be a bit “precious” about my brand new decks, and I would like them to look and feel a little more loved. Congrats on your great find!

  3. Sharyn says:

    I’d ask the seller directly if they know the backstory of the deck. I love the usedness of it!

  4. bwitch says:

    Like you, I have two copies of the Greenwood. Both came to me used but in very good condition. One of the decks is kept in pristine condition for whenever my working deck becomes unusable; my working deck is shuffled, handled by querents but has yet to reach the condition in which your latest acquisition arrived, thankfully.

    You expressed my feelings for the Greenwood exactly. It has a primal feel and it’s easy to get lost in the imagery; for me each image can mean something different in different readings. I don’t have set meanings for any of the cards. I agree that the Wildwood must stand as a deck on its own as it cannot replace the Greenwood. The Greenwood is now my only working deck and I can’t imagine working with any other deck.

  5. woley says:

    There’s one in every crowd….I prefer the Wildwood.

  6. jema says:

    I don’t own either of those, but I gotta say that the Ace of Arrows is a really cool image and the rest of the cards don’t at all look cartoony.
    I love getting used decks too. And especially fun if people have written little tidbits in the LWB.

  7. Le Fanu says:

    Thanks for all the comments. AJ, I shall write to the seller and see if they can tell me anything (and update here). Jema, when I mentioned cartoony I meant the Wildwood not the Greenwood! Amanda, I too have struggled with a certain preciousness over decks, but I am beginning to loosen up, though nothing beats getting a deck which has already been worn in, bent and scuffed in all the right places!

  8. Le Fanu says:

    Well I have a bit more information about the deck. I received a very nice email about the previous owner. Much of the information was quite personal so I shalln’t share it here, but it was very moving to hear of the past of this deck. It was bought brand new as a first deck by someone just starting out with tarot at a time when their life was radically changing direction and, like so many others, it was inconceivable that within ten years of buying it from a bookshop in Dublin, it would become so collectible. It accompanied the owner for many years and was used to read for many people in a staunchly Catholic part of Ireland. The previous owner decided to retire it as it was looking so shabby and the time had come to move on, so rather than leave it slumbering in the back of a drawer, decided to sell it. They now use the Universal Waite for readings.

  9. Carla says:

    Wow, from Greenwood to Universal Waite. I envy you this grubby deck. It’s a fantastic thing! Thanks for a wonderful post.

  10. Chesca Potter the artist was a personal friend who has since purposely vanished for the last 8 years (I mean really gone away somewhere so that no-one knows where.) Her original art is scattered far and wide now, but I have 2 original pictures that she painted/etched for this pack. Wherever you are in the forest, Chesca, may you find shelter and heart’s rest.

    • Le Fanu says:

      What a treasure. I respect Chesca’s silence and I feel sure she’s happy with her path. I would love to see up close something, anything ,original that she had created. But for the deck itself we must be grateful.

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