A mirror and a map: Finding myself in the Living Altar

The work of the modern witch is to disrupt the status quo, to liberate and uplift community, and to dissolve the illusions that resist our collective rememberance of magic. The radical act of reclaiming our altars brings many opportunities for healing and growth, especially in our relationship with self and those around us.
Ylva Mara Radziszewski & Kiki Robinson, creators of The Living Altar

This work, this rich collection of interconnected artworks, is a living altar – a living work of devotion that breathes and moves and speaks and shifts.

Rather than ‘The Living Altar Oracle Deck’; it is simply The Living Altar. Even though yes, this is technically a deck – and indeed a very beautifully made, large and luxurious deck that is a pleasure to hold, shuffle, and use – I can’t bring myself to describe it that way. It is less a product, an output, and more a world, a tool for communication with the beyond.

These are more than cards, they are textured, layerd, multi-dimensional portals into the complexities of our human-ness, our animal-ness, our egos and spirits, our power and magic, our relationship to the seasons of life and the rhythms of the earth, sun and moon. All this is reflected by Ylva Mara Radziszewski & Kiki Robinson – two queer femme witches and decendents of the diaspora – in their vision of an ever-turning wheel of the year.

Kiki Robinson (L) and Ylva Mara Radziszewski

Through the work of The Living Altar, we support the unique expression of magic in our vast and beautiful communities. We seek to generate a radical grimoire for magical resistance and spiritual resilience.

I set out probably a whole year ago to write a ‘review’ of this deck for you, reader. I loved it and I needed it to the core of my queer beating heart and I couldn’t work out how to share it with you. Today, new moon, I think I’ll just tell you how it’s supporting me very personally right now, how much I love it, and how it is so much more than an oracle deck.

Some context. It turns out that an excrutiating part of my journey in claiming and living my most authentic queerness is going through an ugly process of breaking down, coming apart completely, and owning a lot of shit, especially self-hating shit, and projections on folks I love.

Nothing is what I thought it was, and none of my grasping definitive statements, my blurted attempts to pin myself down, are working. (Actually, they are what is making this excrutiating) (which is just this whole extra story of how capitalist culture plays out in my relationship to my evolving self and community.) This process is messy, clumsy, painful – but with incredible moments of joy and simple clarity that urge me to keep going, keep learning how to do this better, with less shame, and more honesty.

I know this is not a unique story! Stepping into authenticity, power, or radical self-acceptance (surely the root of all real power) sometimes feels like being in a maze.

For me right now, the Living Altar offers a mirror, and a map.

The mirror can be scary, unflinching, confusing – sometimes this deck feels like an unpredictible lottery of triggers and affirmations.

But the map – oh the map – it counters this ‘hall of mirrors’ effect by helping me locate and ground myself in the steady rhythms of the earth, moon, or sun. It is a radical, magical combination that bridges binaries: You can be accountable and still compassionate. You can hurt and still hurt others. You will never stop changing. You will learn some lessons many many times – digging, spiraling, grieving, surrendering – before you really learn them. This is some serious femme magic.

The cards form a wheel – or a universe, or a rhizomatic community, or an ocean, or… – that refuses to conform to the absolutes of quarters and elements. These collaged, many-layered cards blur boundaries and reveal intersections, fill in the gaps, turn a square into a circle with ever-shifting nuances and tensions and possibilities of being. I can shuffle and rearrange these, pull together constellations, tilt my head and see first this context, then that.

Reading the New Moon card, I zoom back and see Resource and Boundaries right beside it, and receive a reminder that this is unfinished work – still a space of projection, still in shadow, not yet fully claimed. Understanding that I have certain needs in a relationship is a ridiculously new idea for me… as I read the affirmation spell for Boundaries, I see the connection, and drop myself a level deeper into self-awareness.

Reading the cards I see helps me sense the energy of each space I move into, then to discover myself within it, naming what is going on. The colours help. The messy textures help. The scratched-out words. The permission to be ugly, clumsy, to miss the mark. They help me to meet myself there, in that place of raw truth, with awareness, but a lot less judgement. Finding what aligns, being unafraid of my yesses and my nos, bringing these without shame or fear or projections. They help me to see where I am in relationship to the people I love, they spotlight my triggers and fears with compassion, they place my journey in the context of a greater whole – my queer ancestry, my white ancestry, my participation in capitalism… it is an invitation to total honesty.

Some advice. No one can give you what is yours to name.

For each card, there is a spell. An affirmation for each landing point, words with which I can ground myself and claim myself back from shame and fear. Words that lower my defenses, help me access the soft kind of power that I long for – a power that is my own. Reading these spells aloud is forceful magic, and highly recommended.

Today, a warm Tuesday in early September, a time when all around me, plants are going to seed… and the map tells me this is a time for celebration. I welcome this reminder. I find summer a little tortuous in the best of years and by this time I am always craving the drawing in of nights, the beckoning of the dark. Soon, the map says, there is still warmth, still the work of harvest to be done, and the welcoming of that bounty and its lessons.

I don’t want to miss the beauty of this liminal season, harvesting rosehips, bottling summer medicine, tending to those intimate relationships with self and close ones, seeing what we have, and reflecting on experiments of the busy season that is now fading. There is so much sadness, hurt and grief in this space. The Living Altar reminds me that within all of this, there is also beauty, and even abundance, if I will choose to see it, if I will choose to show up for it.

I let my work speak for itself. I choose celebration. I allow myself to rest in that place in my heart that is nourished by witnessing my magic discovering itself in this world. I let go of any ligering expectation of what this expansive discovery can look like. I allow myself to take pride in the fostering of this magic. I bask in the glow of my vulnerability and revel in the excitement of sharing something I love so deeply.

The art of The Living Altar is messy, perhaps disgusting in places. Not afraid to show scars and burns and the decaying flesh of more-than-human… moss, twigs, a fragment of wing, a letter, threadbound bark, which lie on the cards before me as if in three dimensions – I can reach out and touch them, feel the regenerative, life-affirming, death affirming power of this raw, natural world we are so powerfully part of, whether we accept our selves or not.

The stitches, in heavy red thread, touch me especially. They remind me of the ways I am trying to pin down certainties in the midst of my inner turmoil. New Moon (today!) shines with mismatched bolts of clarity against a chaos of symbols I don’t yet understand, crystals and gems not yet uncovered yet gleaming with promise. In Elderhood, stitches rise like soft sparks from ancient standing stones, filling the cool night sky with their wisdom, there for all to find. It asks me to search for it, to be open to receiving.

Today I have used this deck to sit in the liminality of this season, this harvest-time. To find myself here in early September. I laid the cards in a circle according to instinct, following the loose colour wheel Kiki and Ylva offer. I can look at all the cards in this area and find oranges and greens, pawprints, fields, berries, masks, rivers, mountains. I can ground myself in the magic of early autumn, and find safety, comfort, and perspective here.

I often use the deck seasonally, like this – I am reminded to turn to it when I feel that sense of change on the wind. But other times, I pull a card for a single affirmation – requesting the wisdom of this deck, I shuffle and ask: ‘please show me something’. These single cards frequently move me to tears – they show me the power of pausing to witness myself, to witness the space in which I stand.

My gratitude for this tool, and for the queerness and permission and chaos and raw beauty I receive from it, is a mile deep. This is a deck I will treasure and keep near me always. This ‘review’ is my offering of gratitude for the gift of these two witches, Kiki and Ylva, and all the wisdom and radical possibility they bring with this powerful work of art.

Return home again Witches. Return home to the spirits that remember you even if you don’t know their names. Call to your ancestors, not just of blood and family. Call to the Transcestors, queer ancestors, the ancestors of social movements. Feed the spirits who ground you to your cultural roots despite assimilation, diaspora, and genocide. Leave gratitude, even if you don’t know the preferred offerings. Do not take what is not yours to give. Do not give what is not yours to receive.

You can find The Living Altar here in the Little Red Tarot shop, or buy directly from Kiki and Ylva here.