Reviewing: Lessons from the Empress by Siri Plouff & Cassandra Snow
In Lessons from the Empress, writer and tarot reader Cassandra Snow and radical witch Siri Plouff use the archetype of the Empress card in the tarot as a guide to explore creative self-discovery, self-care, and self-expression through both tarot and magical ritual. The book offers a unique blend of introducing creatives to the tarot as a system through the lens of the creative process and presenting an embodied, personalized approach to working with the tarot beyond interpreting a card reading.
I expect that this book will appeal primarily to those who aren’t yet very familiar with the tarot, but may also be a helpful tool for readers who aren’t sure how to blend their tarot practice with their creativity and self-care rituals. The focus on the Empress is mainly a framing device, pulling out themes of expression/creativity on the one hand and personal resourcing and self-care on the other to guide an exploration of the cards. I’d describe the book as “how would the Empress do tarot?” and so those who personally identify with this card are particularly likely to relate!
Of course, as a non-binary reader I really appreciate that the Empress is not gendered in this book, and that both authors describe themselves as radical queers, bringing that lens to their teaching. The approach to creativity is similarly decentralized, with plenty of options for exploring creative expression and magic through a broad range of modalities.
If you’re already a creative, you’ll get to know your process in a different way, and you’ll have an opportunity to consider the stories the tarot tells as lessons about creativity itself: the Wands on imagination, the Swords on technical skill and communication of your vision as well as processing pain through creativity, the Cups on our relationship to self-expression and beauty, and the Pentacles on the material aspect of art. You’ll also learn how to work with tarot even if you don’t actually want to read with the cards, and how to apply your creative gifts in getting to know the cards personally.
As someone who has a more complicated relationship with creativity, I was more drawn to how this lens is applied to tarot theory, as well as to some of the spreads offered that allow for creative exploration and self-discovery. A creative approach can certainly expand your practice, and the ritual suggestions add an extra layer.
Each section includes a variety of exercises with different modalities such as journaling, tarot spreads, rituals, and more embodied or playful activities. The reader is encouraged to get outside their comfort zone a little, but you don’t have to work with any creative modalities you’re not comfortable with! There’s also a collection at the end of the book of more activities and ways to work with the tarot that might appeal to particular readers.
The tarot lessons themselves do include a few interpretations I strongly disagree with (as is inevitable!) and I especially found that the keyword lists included as an afterthought actually detracted a little from the more nuanced discussion, but what I do love is how the authors encourage the reader in the exercises to personally get to know the cards and draw their own conclusions.
One of the strongest features of this book this encouragement for readers to develop their own theories. There’s a focus on visual and intuitive exploration of the cards, but also on doing your own tarot story development. This destabilization of the teacher-student binary is so needed in tarot (and everywhere!) and I applaud the authors for the way they empower the reader here. Some of the exercises remind me of how my own teacher, Lindsay Mack, teaches, or of the style of a creative workshop setting.
Plouff & Snow do an admirable job of balancing the need to offer a base interpretation with the desire to allow for personal study. By including specific exercises, it gets a little more concrete than the common advice to “just read intuitively!” which may be overwhelming or scary for a total beginner. I like that they also include connections between cards, which is often left entirely up to the student, prompting the reader to start to develop their own understanding of the cards as a system beyond a simple list of 78 meanings.
One of the most interesting choices from a tarot theory perspective is to focus on a particular storytelling frame to explain the progression of each suit, as well as the major arcana. This fits into a modern tarot approach that pulls readers more into the storytelling or archetypal power of the cards, rather than being dogmatic about meaning, and of course relates to the creative theme of the book.
The hero’s (or Fool’s journey) of the major arcana is a well-known explanatory device, but the authors tweak it slightly by centering the Empress rather than the Fool, outlining a creativity-themed journey rather than a psychological one. Working with the minors, they explore the Wands as a fable, and the Pentacles as a more straightforward story, while the Cups engage surrealism. The Swords are described as containing multiple, non-linear stories, but then the progress of the suit is still explored through the theme of release.
There’s a tension here between a desire to explain the sequential progress of the cards (helpful, if nothing else, as a learning mnemonic!) and the authors’ commitment to presenting the tarot as a non-linear experience. Sometimes it gets a little confusing, but overall I found it to be a thought-provoking treatment, balancing the need to teach tarot accessibly and the importance of not over-emphasizing the “order” of the cards.
Overall, this book is a welcome expansion of the accessible and non-dogmatic approach found in modern tarot teachings. If you’re looking for someone to tell you exactly what each card means, without requiring your own engagement and exploration, you may find this book uncomfortable, but I think most folks who are drawn to the themes of creativity and self-care will benefit.
ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!