Renee, Janina. Tarot Spells. Llewellyn, revised edition, 2000, originally published 1990. Paperback, 294 pages.

More than anything else, this book reminds me of a cookbook. In fact, it reminds me of the Southern Living Annual Cookbooks put out by the magazine of that name – a decent cookbook, with some recipes that are good, and quite a few that are serviceable, but nothing stunning. A beginning to intermediate practitioner who wants to expand the use of his Tarot deck beyond the occasional reading could definitely pull this book of the shelf and do a spell.

It is definitely what it says on the label: Tarot Spells. It is not about understanding Tarot, and it is not, by any means, about how to create your own spells. I want to give it credit for what it is, but I also have some criticisms about how the author decided to frame the book. These don’t outweigh what the book does well. I want to acknowledge that since I’m someone who enjoys crafting her own spells, some of these critiques might be a bit like Anthony Bourdain complaining that Southern Living’s cookbook uses too much salt and sugar and not enough different spices and cooking techniques.

What the author did well was make the book simple to use. This leads to a lot of repetition; although Renee sets up a general ritual for how to perform a Tarot spell in the introductory material, she repeats most of that content, with some variation, for every spell. This indicates to me that the book is clearly not intended to be read in order – it’s set up as a reference, where each spell or small group of spells can stand independently.

To add to its reference value, it also includes 101-type information like an FAQ, a list of color symbolisms, and some other suggestions for enhancing spells. But these suggestions are basic and bland. (And in places, simply false: piezoelectricity has many practical applications, but it is most certainly not true that “If you squeeze a crystal, it will build up an electrical charge.” (p 281)) The basic introduction to ideas of magic in the introductory material also makes it accessible to the beginning practitioner. But the abstract material is more of an appendage hung on what is, at heart, a practical book.

This is my one complaint: it’s so relentlessly practical that it doesn’t do anything to help the reader move beyond the 101 level. At the end of this, you might have picked up a few ideas about creating your own Tarot spells, just by example, and sure, there are a few ways you can customize the spells a bit, but it’s a cookbook, definitely not a textbook.

Again, if that’s what the reader wants, great. The Tarot material here is definitely more specific, and hence more useful, than broad generalizations like “Combine Tarot cards to represent an image of what you desire.” I also very much like the idea of Tarot as a set of symbols that “can be used to make complex statements.” (p 1) To switch to that metaphor, this is a phrasebook, not anything that teaches you how to construct statements in the symbolic language.

If the author had taken time and space to explain a little more about why each card was chosen, and how they interact, I would have liked the book more. If the author had made the effort to explain how the reader might adapt or customize the spells in more detail, I might have loved it. As it is, I can see how it would be useful to some readers, but I can’t recommend it universally.

I also have some ethical concerns with this book. There are plenty of good spells for three of what I call the Big Four, the four most common purposes that drive people to try to use magic: Renee includes several variations for prosperity, love, and healing. But she walks a fine ethical line in a few places: there is a love spell specifically to gain the love of another person, which I find unacceptable, and there is a spell that borders on revenge (the last of the Big Four). It specifies that a thief “feel nothing but pain and torment” until the stolen item is returned. (p 268) Wishing ill on an ill-doer is certainly a common emotional reaction, but acting on that wish is a very dangerous action and should only be taken in specific circumstances after significant consideration of the ethical issues involved. This is certainly inappropriate in a generalized spell against a thief.

On the good side, the use of symbolism in the suggested card layouts is sometimes interesting – pyramids, staircases, and more complex arrangements provide variety, and are sometimes quite clever. But the layouts vary between narrative – telling a story in order, towards a defined goal – and simply descriptive, with different cards representing different aspects of the desired outcome. Expanding the understanding of that, and possibly incorporating more narrative and less wishing, might have made the spells more interesting and adaptable.

To return to culinary metaphors, since they’re not designed to be customized, and they’re addressed to the widest possible audience, the recipes – or spell recipes – are adapted to generalized tastes. They rely on the basic flavors, with lots and lots of salt and sugar, but a dearth of more interesting seasonings.

The most obvious example of this reliance on a few simple ingredients is the repeated use of cards like the Star and the World, which are used in so many different ways that they become leached of more complex meanings and start looking like generic “good outcome” or “wishing” cards. In 72 spells (aww, almost the same number of spells as there are cards in the Tarot deck, how cute), the Star appears in 18, the World in 17, and the Magician appears in 13 as a general symbol of the person doing the spell. Five other Major Arcana cards appear 8-10 times each.

On the other hand, there is very minimal use of the Minor Arcana. No pip card appears more than six times, the rest only once or twice, and more than a dozen of them do not appear at all. Yes, there are suggestions to use the court cards as significators, but the constant reliance on Major Arcana cards – and especially on a thin handful of pretty generically positive symbols – mean that ultimately, a lot of the spells look alike.

For the casual or beginning magic user, this could be a handy reference with some good examples. I’m sure that’s why it has sold well and been reprinted multiple times. For the reader with a palate for more variety and flavor than basic comfort food, this work will not satisfy your appetite.

6 thoughts on “Review: Renee, Tarot Spells

  1. 78 cards in a Tarot deck and they couldn’t come up with spells that used only the Minor Arcana? Not necessarily a good thing for people who may not always have access to a Tarot deck, but have more access to a playing card deck.

    1. Actually, it’s a little worse than that – the whole book uses the Robin Wood deck, which I really like, but some of her uses wouldn’t work quite as well with cards from another deck, depending on how different they were. Of course, since Robin Wood stuck close to the RWS imagery, and so did Renee in her interpretations, it’ll work okay with most RWS-based decks, but that’s another big reason the book isn’t as adaptable, or widely accessible, as it could be.

  2. If there’s 72 spells in the book, that doesn’t quite match up to the number of cards in the deck (78). I carried the book in my shop, but I don’t think I ever actually read it. Now I know that it’s probably not worth the bother, although if I find a copy in my inventory, I may give it a once over to form my own opinion.

    1. Right, that brainfart is why I changed it to read “almost” as many spells as cards. Distracted writer was distracted.

      I guess my real assessment is that while there’s a few ideas there that I may use, I feel like once I’ve seen those, there’s no need for the book itself as the reference it’s intended to be; I’ll be building my own spells from scratch anyway.

      If you do want to look through it, you can literally look through it for just the pictures – the card layout images contain all the interesting ideas/information.

  3. I find the *idea* of utilizing the Tarot to build spells…interesting. I have always considered the Tarot a means for teasing helpful, useful, relevant information out of the subconscious. A means, perhaps, of making clear a pattern that was not coming into focus. The idea of reversing that flow, of defining energy by a particular selection and arrangement of cards, and somehow putting that energy “out” into reality by our will would not have occurred to me. I guess I consider the Tarot a passive tool, not necessarily suited for active use in spellcasting (bearing in mind, of course, that I am not a Tarot practitioner of any kind). Perhaps I will have to reconsider it and see how it might be used for this kind of work. 😀

    1. Perhaps the other thing I should have said is that this modality could be especially useful for people who are highly visual, but want support in creating their own visualizations. I’m not sure that either of those applies to you, so those might be reasons this never occurred to you.

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