Crowdsourcing Story: the Welcome to Night Vale tarot

As readers of this blog know (and there aren’t many of you, and I love that, because niche readers for niche stuff 😀 ), my spiritual path is rooted in story, particularly in modern stories. We didn’t stop myth-making when we ‘became modern’*. We didn’t even stop shared myth-making across communities. But now we do it in the darkness and on the margins. Most of us think stories are for children. Or if we do appreciate story, we tend to think that only ancient stories are ‘real’ and that only ‘official’ myths (whatever they are) can reveal deity and the Divine. What silly children grown-ups we have become, falling in line with a social contract that serves almost no one.

But story still lives, and communities still make it.

One of the modern stories that inspires me the most is ‘Welcome to Night Vale’. It’s a classic form of community and social myth-building, inspired as it is by everything from HP Lovecraft to the modern conspiracy theory. The active fanfiction/fan art community around it deepens the community aspect of this myth for a zeitgeist. It’s hilarious, deeply sarcastic, and mind-bogglingly weird.

It also challenges social norms, incredibly subtly. I mean, in a town where the City Council isn’t quite human, Cecil and Carlos being in love is hardly that interesting. At a radio station where there’s a cat floating in one of the bathrooms, you barely notice when they announce that the station recently made all the public toilets gender-neutral. In a community where a schoolchild is embodied as a disconnected man’s hand, it’s hardly remarkable that another is a wheelchair user. In a society where the Sheriff’s Secret Police are watching the people all the time (competing with other shadowy agencies for access to your privacy), it’s easy to miss that the Sheriff themself uses the pronoun ‘they’ (and is voiced by a trans woman). And I love how these things specifically go unremarked upon. Janice is a fully-fleshed-out character before we ever learn she’s a wheelchair user, and then only because someone is stupid enough to want to change her, which her uncle Cecil is not at all happy about. Teens in Night Vale might have crushes on girls or boys (and presumably on non-binary people too) – the gender of their crush is not that interesting (unlike the existence of the crush, which is on a register of middle school crushes so that any curious parent can easily invade their children’s privacy). It’s my kind of town… except, y’know, for the enormous despotic glow cloud that controls everyone’s minds. And the many different colours of helicopters all watching everything you do and occasionally abducting people. And the prohibition on wheat and wheat by-products. And the abandoned mine where people are sent if they don’t vote correctly. And the Faceless Old Woman who Secretly Lives in Your Home and eats out of your fridge and critiques the way you iron your shirts. And the period where a corporation dedicated to a Smiling God from the next town over controlled everyone’s lives for a bit – but it was all OK, because young town hero Tamika Flynn and a whole lot of other community members rescued everyone, in the usual show of town unity and community mutual support… and I’m back wanting to live there again.

So obviously, since I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt (three of them actually), I had to have the Welcome to Night Vale tarot deck when I heard about it. (Birthday present to myself.) The WTNV tarot cards are another example of community myth building – the deck was created not by the WTNV creators, but by Hannah Holloway, a fan-artist, and they discussed and crowdsourced some of their artwork ideas with the fan community. See here for Hannah’s master post of WTNV tarot cards, where you can click on each card individually.

On the whole, I’m not very good at tarot. Ogham is much more my bag, because I can relate it to story, by linking associations (of various kinds) to Irish myth. But I’ve always wanted to see more tarot decks based on stories that I’m familiar with, and when I find them, there’s a lot more I can do with them. There are many stories in the Rider-Waite-Smith and other decks, but to access these, you need at least some understanding of numerology, Kabbalah, Christian symbology, astrology, and other systems. I’m extremely impressed by anyone who is able to work with such a range of mythic and symbolic languages, but not everyone is able to. The closest I come is using the Druid Craft deck a bit, which is close to RWS but puts a more familiar (for me) druid-y spin on things. On the other hand, other decks based on other stories can take you to fantastic places, using those ideas but taking them in new directions. I’ve been creating a Battlestar Galactica deck for myself at some point (I’m half way through, but am not able to share it or use it for others because of copyright issues). There’s something about relating characters you know to the underlying concepts and archetypes** of the tarot cards. Which are, after all, no more than a set of crowdsourced stories. Why not keep doing the same thing with more stories, that more people can access?

This weekend I did a test reading for my spouse. This deck is super sarcastic. Which anyone who has listened to Welcome to Night Vale would not be surprised by. I absolutely believe tarot decks have personalities, though I’m never sure on how much of that is about the creator and their art and stories (or the stories that decks are based on), and how much is about me in combination with a specific set of cards. Probably a mix of all that and other things too. (I’m not the type that feels the need to cleanse cards because their ‘energy’ might get muddied, or any of that. To me, they’re pictures on paper. It’s the ideas that have the power.)

Anyway, the spouse asked a question about a choice they have to make. I was hoping some kind of direction would emerge – the choices in question were all very different, and a focus could have become clear through the pictures and how I read them.

This was the result:


Image: WTNV tarot cards in a simple spread. Left to right: The World, Nine of Cups, Six of Pentacles, and (clarifying card) Two of Wands. Artwork by Hannah Holloway.

I call this photo “The world is your sodding oyster, now go and do whatever the hell you want to do.”

Like I say, sarcastic. In context, this is deeply hilarious, although also a bit frustrating for the poor spouse.

Stories have a life of their own. And I really love this one. Looking forward to working with it more closely with the deck. I’m having to go back and listen to all the episodes of the first couple of ‘seasons’ of WTNV in order to re-familiarise myself with elements of the story that I’ve forgotten. I am not unhappy about this.


now remember how long it’s been since you last worshipped in your bloodstone circle and go and make the appropriate sacrifices


Image: examples of cards from the WTNV deck. Left to right: Strength (Dana Cardinal), The High Priestess (The Faceless Old Woman), Ten of Pentacles (the Coucil of Elders). All images copyright Hannah Holloway.

*Bruno Latour’s ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ – a book I recommend for anyone who thinks we changed as a society after the Enlightenment. We did not. We just began to think we did. 🙂

**Shorthand term. I don’t really like the concept of archetypes. I think it’s massively over-used in the Pagan community, and that what we think of as archetypes can be very Western-centric, gender-essentialist and diminishing of individual difference. Also: there are more important things.


All that Lies Between: From the Centre to the Margins (and back again)

“…all that lies between the lamp-post and the great castle of Cair Paravel…”

The shrine at Healy Pass, Co. Cork, Ireland (which overlooks quite a view...) Photo by Meredith Desmond

The shrine at Healy Pass, Co. Cork, Ireland (which overlooks quite a view…) Photo by Meredith Desmond

The Healy Pass, built to transport food across the  mountains between Cork and Kerry during the famine. Photo by Dulaman.

The Healy Pass, built to transport food (and coffins) across the mountains between Cork and Kerry during the famine. Photo by Dulaman.

There are the people who seek the centre.

And then there those who are happiest on the margins, out in the wild.

In my re-exploration of Christianity, I’m making an on-again off-again attempt to understand the Christian story from a new viewpoint, from the light of the wild places on the edge. There are many problems I’m having with this, as a polytheistic Pagan. In Christian theology, the Christian God is shown as owning all things and drawing all things to himself. There’s really no other way to see him, except at the Centre.

There are echoes of the margins in the Christian story/ies too. But I’m still thinking that a lot of these are found in the lived-out stories of those who sought the wild Christ, more than in the story of God himself.

Statue of St Brendan the Navigator, Bantry Bay, Co. Cork

Statue of St Brendan the Navigator, Bantry Bay, Co. Cork

St Brendan leaves Ireland in a little boat, and the myth echoes back after him: he reached America, pushed onwards by faith, courage and the other members of his small community who came with him. Is this a tale based on the older Irish myths of imramma, or was a real Brendan inspired by those stories to go out to sea? Does it matter? He is a patron of the margins. This is a man who, if he didn’t personally know my wild goddess, was driven forward from the edge of her land by her wild spirit. For the love of his own wild God.

Jonathan Woolley has been talking on Gods and Radicals about reclaiming the story of Narnia, from the edges and the margins, from the ordinary world, not the great hierarchy of Lewis’s obsession. Like him, I’m not looking for some great castle of Cair Paravel – the institutions and the ordered religion and the power of the state. I seek the magic on the margins, out in the wild woods. Trees my only companions, a dim lamp-post my only light. Out where my wild goddess brings snow and storms across the mountains. I can keep trying to house myself in a church, but I find myself called out to the shore again soon enough. I can keep trying to live in a castle, but I’m always drawn back into the woods. Is there a wild Christ here too? I’m not sure yet. But if I ever find him, it will be out here, where I live.

Mist that hangs like silk
Soaking in the rain
Trees that rise like ghosts
Bearing people’s names
And a sea that takes me
Where I do not know
But I gladly go

Shrouded in the sweetest grass
I’ve ever known
This my earthly bed
My beloved home
But the voice that calls me
To the far away
I can only trust every word you say

And here I am
Out on the edge of the world
With You, With You

– Iona, ‘Edge of the World’, song based on the story of St Brendan’s voyage

Reclaiming Narnia: Walking Trees, Talking Beasts, Divine Waters

And talking of Narnia… Jonathan Woolley writes a fantastic piece on the subject of reclaiming Narnia, on Gods and Radicals today.


By Jonathan Woolley

stock__narnian_lamppost_by_elfhorse-d3duaza Image by Skullb3at

I – Radical Voices from the Lantern Waste – Opinions That Won’t Be Chronicled by Prof. Lewis.

“Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roaring caterwauling of Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all other truths. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.”

“There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.”

“Aslan, or the White Witch? The messianic agent of some foreign emperor, or some despot from a dead world? Are those our only choices?!”

“Susan was the best of them, really. The High King was never here; more interested in fighting foreign wars and chasing valour than government. Edmund was…

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Photo: Bluebells, by Jillyspoon (Creative Commons).

Photo: Bluebells, by Jillyspoon (Creative Commons).

This is the story of six bluebells.

It’s Lag Ba’omer – Jewish bonfire night – and I’m in the countryside just north of London, on land that’s been allowed to go a bit wild. SJ and I go for a walk, as far out into the knotted trees and long grass as my mobility scooter will take me. Suddenly, under the trees, there they are: bluebells. Half a dozen, fighting to peep up through the grass and among hardier plants – delicate, tenacious, shining.

I’m struck by the power of life, of the  ecosystem we are privileged to be part of. These tiny bluebells will feed bees, who in turn will ensure that we are fed. Looking after the most insignificant of bluebells, we move one step closer to real-ising our interconnectedness with all life.

Later, at the bonfire, a child comes running up. “Mummy! I got flowers for you!”

In her hand, half a dozen bluebells.

We are a frighteningly powerful species. We think nothing of destroying entire ecosystems to gain more of what we want. More *things*, ripped from the face of the earth. Bluebells in our hands.

We’re also often a profoundly stupid species. We can’t relate well to the destruction of entire rainforests or the extinction of entire species. We only understand the little stories. Thousands of people dead in a natural disaster or a war? It’s too much. We need one story to relate to.

This is the story of six bluebells.

That Damned Christian Story

“I will sing the wondrous story…
Sing it with the saints in glory
Gathered by the crystal sea”

I don’t tell the story like they do.

I don’t sing “of the Christ who died for me”. I can’t relate to that God. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s, or maybe it’s just who I am, but that isn’t my Story.

I sing the story of Liberation. The Liberator God, who frees his people from slavery and from oppression.

I am the oppressor and the oppressed. I am the prisoner and I am the chains that bind her. I am the problem and the solution.

There is no Pagan story I have ever found that matches this one. The gods I honour are powerful and fascinating, and Beara will always be my deity. But her stories, while wonderful and valuable for many other reasons and purposes, don’t give me freedom.

Gnosticism is a mighty story from that perspective. God creates Sophia, the incarnation of his wisdom. Sophia, in her fallen confusion, births the Archons, false rulers who create greed and fear and oppression. Sophia is liberated by the incarnated Creator, and with her, we are liberated from the Archons.

It’s only a story. But it’s one I can work from.

Here’s another version of that story. God’s people are slaves in a foreign land. He liberates them. And then he does it again, and again, and again. But in the end, it’s all one Story, all one Liberation. Sophia is lost and enslaved. Christ finds her and frees her.

There are other, related stories I love. The beautiful Avatars of Sophia, like the Marys – the Mother and the Follower. Loyal saints (a saint: someone freed from liberation), like Catherine of Alexandria, my patron, liberated from a life she did not want. (Ironically, Catherine is partly known for converting from Paganism to Christianity and refusing to convert back. I think my gods and spirits like irony.) St Patrick the Celtic hero, who finds God in all the elements of the earth. St Francis, the friend of the animals, who shows us a gentler way to live in freedom. Mother Julian of Norwich, hermit and lover of Christ. St Anthony of Padua, who freed prisoners and preached to the fishes in the sea. St Catejan, who worked for freedom for the poor. Martin Luther King, a saint to me and to many. Great ancestors. Great liberators.

All of them looking to the Great Story, to Christ the Liberator.

Does this mean I’m a Christian? I don’t know. I don’t know if labels matter. I don’t know if it matters that I am also a polytheist, trying to understand this story from the perspective of a very different worldview from most Christians. Maybe, like the chaos magicians, I can move from one perspective to another, when I need to. A human being is a complex thing who needs many stories.

“My chains fell off and I was free
I rose, went forth and followed thee…”

The Wood Between the Worlds

Wood Between the Worlds by Victoria Thorndale

Wood Between the Worlds by Victoria Thorndale

This is the space between Worlds.
The light is ageless and strange.
Dark pools the portals, those many Connla’s Wells,
doorways to Other places.

Here no river of fate can flow.
A hundred World Trees whisper to each other.
Yggdrassil’s branches touch those of a brother Tree
and somewhere on an alien landscape, a strange man looks up and shivers.

Slowly, the drip-drip-drip plays out a timeless, tuneless lullaby.
You drift…
deeper into this place where Nothing happens.
The ground is so soft, so silent.
Just a few minutes more.
Forget who you are.

You can walk with the Great Ones here,
the stilled Forces behind time and tide —
But you might rather not.
They pass the pools and stare into them.
Sometimes they reach in and stir the waters,
and smile.

From here you can look down and watch
a thousand lives woven into the great pattern,
a thousand existences beginning and ending in a moment.
And you far away from it all.

Dark pools the portals.
But which leads where?
It has been a long time, and no time,
and you can no longer find the lock for your golden key.


With thanks to CS Lewis and The Magician’s Nephew.

Polly the Sensible, and a Map for the Journey

“Stop,” said Polly. “Aren’t we going to mark this pool?”
They stared at each other and turned quite white as they realised the dreadful thing that Digory had just been going to do. For there were any number of pools in the wood, and the pools were all alike and the trees were all alike, so that if they had once left behind the pool that led to our own world without making some sort of landmark, the chances would have been a hundred to one against their ever finding it again.

– The Magician’s Nephew

She was quite as brave as he about some dangers (wasps, for instance), but she was not so interested in finding out things nobody had ever heard of before; for Digory was the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books.

– The Magician’s Nephew

Polly is a very sensible adventurer. Reluctant, literally pushed into her Otherworldly adventures, she retains her good sense throughout.1 She knows to mark out the way home, when Digory would rather just jump into the next world and not worry about getting back. She would rather not ring the mystical bell that, though she doesn’t know it, is there to wake the ancient kings and queens in the ancient hall, for she looks on the face of Jadis and knows that this isn’t someone to mess with just for the Adventure of it. But she also knows when it’s time to take a risk to fix the chaos they’ve created. Her good sense relates, for me, to the ADF virtues of Wisdom and Vision.

I need my myths and metaphors to be very accessible to me personally. There are a lot concepts I’m planning to explore through the Narnia stories over the coming year – concepts that I’ve previously had trouble with. Winter Queens and seasonal cycles. Battles. Sovereignty. Magic that plays with space and time. Journeying in the Otherworld. Appreciating both sides of an apparently black-and-white issue, and appreciating gods and spirits that have been cast in the mould called ‘evil’. These are concepts I have difficulty relating to, in a ‘basic Pagan’ myth set, and that I need new perspectives on. I’m sure there will be many others, too, as I go.

Some people like their guides to the Otherworld to come in the form of modern step-by-step-journeying-for-idiots guidebooks, or ancient irrelevant tomes. Some people insist that their myths are hard-boiled: overcooked, and set to last a long time, but ending up fairly tasteless and cold. I have long taken my wisdom from wherever I find it, and I find it in a lot of disparate places.

But still… Narnia. Often not popular, seen as indoctrination.

But still… ‘pop culture Paganism’, as it’s dismissively called.

What if I could reclaim both these things, for myself? What if, like Polly, I could choose the sensible option? No, it might not make me a famous professor-adventurer when I’m old. By which I mean, it might not earn the respect of my ancient-myth-researching peers. But it might just save my life – or my faith. Or my hope. Or my love.

You might have noticed that I’ve been exploring the Wood Between the Worlds as a starting-point for Otherworldly journeying. I’m also working with the concept of the White Witch as a Snow Queen/Faery Queen type, the keeper of wisdom and magical secrets – with whom you have to be very careful, like the bean feasa/fairy doctors had to be careful with their own Otherworldly guides. And I’m working through the stories to see what the characters have to teach me. Like Polly, and her Good Sense in the face of an irresistible journey.

A Map for the Journey. Worth no more or less than ancient myths. Just as full of unease, and difficulty, and compromise, and the need to keep shifting perspective.

May the Forces that echo through every myth, ancient and modern, teach me new lessons.

And may Polly the Sensible teach me that Sense is more important even than Adventure. For without it, the great Adventure can end very abruptly.

1: I dislike the term ‘common sense’, since that was always something I didn’t find easy to develop, thanks to my Asperger’s. But good sense – now that’s something worth working on.

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