Understanding The Cards

He  hiwa ra, He hiwa ra

(Draw close, draw close)

When they first see the Kete O Te Ao Mārama people often ask me: are these Māori cards?

What they are wondering is to what degree the Kete O Te Ao Mārama are purely Māori, and in what way they are different from other cards. People often refer to them as tarot cards. They are not tarot cards and yet they are.

Allow me to explain.

The Kete O Te Ao Marama are, in a way, a tree. They have their roots in Māori ground, in the wisdom of Māori spiritual traditions, of which there are a number, including the Ratana, Io Matua Kore and Ringatu traditions. All are present in one way or another, and at different points in both decks.

However their branches reach into many different traditions. This is what sets them apart. More importantly, while there are overlaps and parallels with the Tarot, they function differently. To understand this, let us look briefly at the Tarot.

The Tarot has existed in one form or another for millennia. In fact there is evidence of their existence in Ancient Egyptian times. They were used in the Middle Ages by the Guild of Stonemasons as a way to teach the apprentices about Life, the human journey, and as a peculiar system of morality. Thus they are encodings of a very ancient wisdom, which was able to be passed on without fear of persecution from the Church. Much of that old wisdom is woven into the Kete O Te Ao Mārama.

The Tarot consists of 78 cards, comprising a Major Arcana, and a Minor Arcana, consisting of four suits; Cups, Wands, Swords and rods. The Kete O Te Ao Mārama have only one set, although there are three components to them- more about that later-, and number 78 in total, the number of the Atua (gods) or Tamariki (children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku).

Traditionally the Tarot has been used for gambling and for fortune telling. While that may work for the Tarot, the Kete O Te Ao Mārama will have none of that. They are not there to tell your future.

Their purpose is to guide, support and advise you on your life journey.

They are your silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) companions on your own hero’s journey. They offer you a picture of where you are at when you consult them, and the more you consult them the better they will be able to advise you. If the same card appears multiple times, then they really are trying to send you a message.

As we climb into the branches, and as you study each member of the Kete O Te Ao Mārama, it will speak to the subconscious side of you, the part of you which…knows.

Trust those feelings and intuitions.

WhiroSo, to explain the layout of the branches, let us consider one card, Whiro, and look at what can be found there.

Whiro is the first card in the Kete O Te Ao Marama, where the journey begins. It is black and white. The last card in the second deck, IO, is also black and white. Whiro insisted on being presented this way. In the beginning of the spiritual journey, choices tend to be like this, binary in nature. Will you step onto the path? Yes or No? The choice is yours.

The circular pattern in the middle is the Taniwha, the monster which dwells below the surface, deep within the subconscious. Notice how it is swallowing its own tail? Also here is Ouroboros, the alchemical symbol of Eternity and Perpetual motion. Our fear(s) keep(s) us going in circles and repeating the same mistakes.

Represented also here is the koru, the spiral of Life we all travel, encountering the same issues again and again.

Also here is the web pattern, which denotes the Vedic metaphor of Indra’s Net, expressed thus:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

The web reminds us that everything is interconnected.


Including our fears. It asks us to consider where our fears have come from and whether they are truly ours or ones we have inherited from elsewhere or elsewhen.

In the top right hand of the card is a spider. It just appeared when the card was being born, as much of a surprise to me as to anyone.

This is Grandmother, the spider who weaves the web of the Universe, and points to Native American traditions.

Lastly there is the crouching figure near the bottom of the card, which appears to have a foetus within its womb.

That is each of us. We are asked to think about our fears, what it is that holds us back, and to consider where those fears came from. Often the things which hold us back have originated from things we overheard or experienced in the womb and which we brought into the world with us at the time of our birth. We have taken on issues which, in actual fact, are not our stuff.

However the promise is there. We all have the opportunity to begin again, to start over and move on.

Whiro challenges us to do this.

Each of the Kete O Te Ao Mārama is a branch of the tree, with its many leaves drawing in the light from different traditions, yet intimately part of a tree whose roots reach deep into the soil of Māori tikanga (tradition).

Piki te ora, piki te kaha, piki te maramatanga

Ma te Mangai, he tautoko mai

Aianei, akenei, ae.

May you have health, strength and understanding

May the Messenger hold you in his loving arms