Review: The Tarot of Northern Shadows
Deck by Sylvia Gainsford, Book by Howard Rodway
Review by Diane Wilkes
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I recently purchased the Northern Shadows deck and don't like the art very much. But the cat on the High Priestess looks just like my dear departed cat, Smokey...so I had to have the deck.
In some ways, the artistic intent is reminiscent of the Shapeshifter Tarot; the front of the Fool's face could be mistaken for a dark mask or a werewolf's stubble, the Magician is enveloped in the body of a horned animal, the face on the Moon card is half-human, half-wolf, and Strength is clothed in a distinctly hairy animal skin. Some of the other animal connections are less overt; the legs of the Chariot's driver are obscured and are evoked by the speeding animals in front, the aforementioned HP cat's fur overlaps her arm, and the very pregnant Empress is ensconced in the curl of the tiger cat lying beside her.
The man in the Justice card annoys me--he looks constipated. I also don't
like the hooded and obscured image of Justice--She may be blind, but that
doesn't mean she's in the dark. She wields the arrow/sword like Death's
scythe, and I don't much like that, either.
Speaking of Death--now there's an interesting version of the card. A bird
skeleton lies in front of a kneeling naked woman, with a fetus held in the
crook of her arm. Interesting. I don't understand it, but interesting.
As soon as I wrote that, I realized that the artist's intent may be to show
the cyclic nature of life and death, or to quote Laura Nyro, "And when I
die...there'll be one child born in this world to carry on..." Still, the
feathers covering the skeleton are disconcerting. Laura Nyro didn't wear
I quite like the Star card. A raven-tressed woman draped in white holds
three golden apples. No doubt she's supposed to represent Aphrodite, but
the Star of David-like star stands out in the sky and she's pleasantly
zaftig, so she makes me think of Miriam or some other biblical Jewess.
The Minors don't contain the power animal theme as often. The Ace of Wands
is a wooden spoon with a wooden lock and key attached. Makes me think of
someone chained to the kitchen, not generally my first impression when I
think of the Ace of Wands. I don't have the book Howard Rodway has written
to accompany this deck, so I have no idea what the intent of the artist was
in portraying this card this way.
In fact, this deck could not be called a Rider-Waite-Smith clone at all.
Most of the images have nothing to do with those of the R-W-S. Another
example: the Four of Cups has a Modigliani-thin white angelic figure
pouring a liquid light on two sleeping souls. It is one of my favorite
cards in the deck from an artistic viewpoint, but totally foreign to my
understanding of this card.
Speaking of the art, I don't find it particularly engaging. The people on
the deck are not ones with whom I want to spend a minute of time with.
Their faces seem bland and stupid, and sometimes a little mean in a brutish
way. The coloring of the deck is also not to my taste--it is mostly pastel
and bland, but not consistently so. In fact, the symbolism seems inconsistent to
me, also--some court cards have rune symbols as jewelry; others have none,
and the animal connections seem equally haphazard.
The deck is not oversized or small, and the backs have a black and white
celtic design. Deck titles are in English and German. The court cards are
Page, Knight, Queen, and King, and since I prefer an even gender split,
this is also something that does not endear the deck to me.
If the High Priestess card didn't contain the image of the cat so much like
my Smokey, I would not have needed to own this deck. But it did, so I have
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Copyright 1998 Diane Wilkes
Images Copyright 1997 AGM AGMuller