Tarot and the Shaman by Valerie Sim-Behi
This is a series of tarot deck and book reviews with an eye to the ones which I regard as good decks for the enrichment of shamanic work. Though there is no direct correlation between the Shaman and the Tarot, many Tarot readers today may find that certain decks are especially appealing to them because of an interest in shamanic subjects. It is my hope that even those who have little interest in the topic of shamanism will find with this article another window through which to view these marvelous cards.
Let's begin with some clarifications and definitions:
1) Shamanic divination as it is referred to in texts on shamanism is not remotely similar to reading tarot cards. I divine shamanically and I also read Tarot cards for personal enlightenment. Two different things entirely. Out of all the Shamans and shamanic practitioners I know, only a small number of them use Tarot cards.
2) There is no right or wrong deck for someone on the shamanic path to use. If I don't mention your favorite deck, please do not take offense! These are simply my personal opinions based on decades of tarot study and several years as a Shaman. Such time spent may grant me the right to present an educated opinion, but it by no means endows me with the ability to write those findings in stone. If you are both a Shaman and a reader, any deck with which you have experienced great personal enlightenment is the right deck for you.
3) A Tarot deck can NOT be used to "go on a shamanic journey". The shamanic journey does not involve the eyes-open shuffling and studying of cards, and reading with a particular deck will certainly not lend you automatic access to the shamanic realms. Tarot can be used for meditation, for dreamwork, and even for some types of journey work, but it is not a launching pad for a full-fledged shamanic experience.
I refer to the Shaman as "she", both for the sake of simplicity and in reflection of my own gender and experience. The overlapping worlds--both modern and ancient--contain many Shamans of both sexes and my simplified designation is not meant as a slight to great masters such as Michael Harner, or to any other male on the shamanic path.
A Shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness at will to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge and power with which to help others. First and foremost, the Shaman is a healer, "one who knows". She has the ability to enter that darkness, to journey wherever necessary, to dialogue with spiritual representatives of the universe, and to use her talents to lighten darkness and pain, and/or to see what others cannot perceive, in order to help and heal those who have sought her out.
But let's give you a definition from one of the world's acknowledged experts in the field, Michael Harner: "Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the world discovered how to maximize human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving. The remarkable system of methods they developed is today known as "shamanism," a term that comes from a Siberian tribal word for its practitioners: "shaman" (pronounced SHAH-mahn). Shamans are a type of medicine man or woman especially distinguished by the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. Most commonly they do this by entering an altered state of consciousness using monotonous percussion sound." (Michael Harner's website)
Shamanism has been practiced on every inhabited continent in the world since Paleolithic times. Shamanic techniques are practiced around the globe in very diverse cultures that have no physical contact, despite widely varied languages and lifestyles. Shamanism is one of the most ancient and unifying practices within our human heritage.
All this has been a brief over-simplification meant as an introduction to the subject at hand, and should be taken as such. For further information on the intricate and complex world of the Shaman, please refer to the bibliography at the end of this article.
PART ONE: MY FAVORITES
The Tarot decks I use the most, with one exception, are not
ones confined to any particular culture or people, but are rather those that
supersede cultural divisions in pursuit of universal shamanic concepts and
practices. These decks do not demand a specific cultural/ethnic background or
experience. They are just decks that work well for the modern Shaman, who
likewise, extends beyond cultural labels and divisions.
I have characterized each of my favorite decks with a key phrase which describes the specific shamanic concept that particular deck reinforces. You can link to the full review from each header.
Animal Wise Tarot
"Meeting the Power Animals"
This deck introduces many power animals themselves, very important to those on a shamanic path, and their correlation to Tarot archetypes, as it's basis. Though I do not agree with the author's animal/Tarot correspondences in every case, I have found this to be an excellent Tarot deck. Even where different, Ted Andrews choices make sense to me both as a Tarotist and as a Shaman. Anyone familiar with the RWS deck should be able to see the appropriate animal energy for most of the cards. (See the Five of Shapeshifters and the Three of Four-Leggeds.) I heartily recommend this deck for those wanting to get a feel for animal symbolism and energy.
Shining Tribe Tarot (and its previous incarnation, Shining Woman)
Here is a deck with a completely different flavor... I nod respectfully to Rachel Pollack here for her masterful transcendence of any particular culture without committing the unpardonable sin of cultural dissolution and/or merging. (See The Fool and Awakening [pictured at right].) This is quite an art! If you don't understand what I mean, please stay tuned for later parts of this essay.
Vision Quest Tarot
"Visions and Dreams"
This is the only deck I endorse that uses Native American themes as its foundation. There are still some glaring problems with this deck, but overall, I enjoy it immensely. (See Integration and Moon) Many of the flaws of the previous "Native American Tarot attempts" have been alleviated here. There are no insulting designations such as "brave" or "squaw", and Native American cultures are not blended ignominiously, as in other earlier decks.
Tarots of the Origins
"Ancestors and the Underworld"
Don't try this at home!!! .... Oh all right, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but this is not a deck for everyone! This deck is disturbing to most non-Shamans and even to many who are. I use it as the grit, blood and bone of the shamanic journey. (See Abundance pictured at left) It feels ancient. It is not a Rider-Waite-Smith clone and will not be understood by Tarotists who relate only to RWS and its clones.
Light & Shadow Tarot
"Confronting the Shadow"
I am virtually positive that this deck was not conceptualized with Shamanic practice in mind, yet Michael Geopferd masterfully created a deck that is an asset in confronting the shadow and using that as a basis for self-knowledge and healing. Such knowledge and ability are integral to the healthy Shaman. Only by confronting her own shadows can a Shaman continue to function for those to whom she is dedicated. The interwoven tale of light and shadow is interwoven all through the deck, frequently many times within the same card. (See The High Priestess and The Endless Dance of Death.)
I like this deck a lot, but will admit that it feels more pagan than shamanic to me. It is a joy to work with and reads well, but I use it infrequently for shamanic enrichment. When I want a good pagan deck, this is one of three I grab most often. (See Greenman and Greenwoman.)
"The Upperworld and Astral Visions"
This is my last choice in the first group, but I regard it as superior to those decks which promote a misunderstanding of either shamanism or NA society/culture composed of all its disparate parts. The scenes are very astral/otherworldly (see the Two of Wands and The High Priestess at right).
PART TWO: "ALSO RANS"
I call these "also rans" because they are considered
by some Tarot readers to be shamanic decks, several simply on the basis of their
Native American themes/symbolism. I find all of them objectionable for reasons I
will detail in the material that follows in synopsis here and in detail within
the individual reviews.
Native American Tarot
I don't like this deck at all, for a lot of reasons... This deck commits many taboos... The Hermit is a white man and the Eight of Vessels [pictured at left] shows a drunk Native American! And many different NA tribes and cultures are combined in this deck. What's up with that?! The Sioux is not the Hopi, is not the Cherokee, is not the Iroquois. All of these cultures are deserving of separate and respectful treatment. This is about as logical as having a Swedish-Italian-Irish-French deck, and works as well as you would expect that last combination to do.
Tarot of the Southwest American Tribes
Better than the Native American Tarot in both artistry and presentation, but still not one that works for me. This deck is another one wherein various unique NA cultures are lumped together, however, the deck's creator does confine herself to one geographical area and approaches the deck via the art of such cultures rather than as catalog of their spiritual commonalities and differences. Many of the images are obviously RWS spin-offs. (See Three of Wands and Eight of Swords.)
Medicine Woman Tarot
New Age woman meets the NA stereotype... You would think I would especially hate this one, yet I find it far less objectionable than the others in this group primarily because it has it has an entirely different focus. It doesn't claim to be a Native American deck, yet rather addresses the the arch-feminine and female empowerment via stylized indigenous symbolism. It is "fluffy" but uplifting. (See Healing [pictured at right] and Seed.)
What a disappointment! I saw a couple of illustrations for cards in this deck and loved the artwork. I bought the deck expecting to love it, but was almost instantly repelled! One of my main objections here is its clumsy attempt to give the deck culturally unfaithful "sex appeal". Far too many cards depict inappropriately naked or scantily clad women. (See Bear Matriarch and Inner Power.) This is ridiculous as Native American people were very in-tune with their environment and dressed accordingly. In winter time, clothing was used for warmth. In the summer time clothing was much lighter, but it was still worn to protect the skin from the sun. Clothing was not designed to be chic or sexy. Other objections will be addressed in the review itself.
Another of those decks I "wanted to love". The whole concept of shapeshifting is intriguing to me for obvious reasons. And I liked the refreshing idea of a deck that used Celtic Shamanism as its basis. I approached this one eagerly after finding the excellent Greenwood Tarot to be more pagan than shamanic. But this time I was really disappointed. These cards don’t show shapeshifting into a specific power animal, but rather multi-morphing into animal conglomerations a Shaman wouldn’t seek to embody. See the Sorceress (pictured at left). Much closer to what is meant by real shamanic shapeshifting would be Susan Seddon Boulet’s "Animal Spirit" cards (see Peacock), but they are an oracle and are not the subject of this series of reviews.
PART THREE: NOT ESSENTIALLY SHAMANIC, BUT COMPLEMENTARY
Ancestral Path/Blue Moon - These decks, conceptualized and masterfully illustrated by Julie Cuccia-Watts, are not technically shamanic decks, but her multi-cultural research and love of journeywork enable Ms. Watts to imbue these decks with a flavor that works well for the shamanically-inclined Tarotist. See the Hanged One and the Two of Sacred Circles [pictured at right] from The Ancestral Path Tarot. Even more powerful in some ways is her "Blue Moon Tarot". See Death from that deck. You can read a review of the Ancestral Path by Michele Jackson here and a review of the Blue Moon Tarot by Diane Wilkes here.
Tarot of the Ages - created with a similar goal as the Ancestral Path, this deck is less successful in creating that shamanic feel...You can read a review of this deck by Michele Jackson here.
PART FOUR: TAROT BOOKS THAT SUPPLEMENT SHAMANIC INTERPRETATION
Shining Tribe Tarot (Book) by Rachel Pollack
The cards contained within this deck/book set are reviewed
separately, but I felt that this book has so much to offer the contemporary
Tarotist/Shaman it required it’s own review. This is no "little white
book" treatment of the deck. It is a 300 page goldmine for all who read it,
and is a shamanic lens via which to view specifically this deck and card-reading
in general. Ms. Pollack is quick to state that she is "not a Shaman,"
as she has had no formal training, but her worldview, her approach to
spirituality, and her extensive reading on shamanic subjects, have helped her to
create a book that will resonate with those on the shamanic path.
Tarot Shadow Work by Christine Jette
Llewellyn Publications writes of this book: "Tarot
Shadow Work shows you how to free yourself from the shackles of the shadow’s
power. Through tarot work, journaling, meditation, creative visualization, and
dream work, you will bring the shadow into the light….By exploring the dark
and uncharted territory of the unconscious mind, you will work towards
understanding and integrating the shadow…You will learn to use the cards as
a tool to help you break free from negative patterns and self-destructive
In conclusion: This is by no means an exhaustive list of decks and books for the Tarotist/Shaman. It is merely a list of those with which I have worked while pursuing both paths... I look forward to hearing of other shamanically flavored decks from any culture that have worked for others so inclined ;-)
PART FIVE: SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, University of California Press. 1968
A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan, Simon & Schuster. 1971
Shamanism: As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, Crossing Press. 1996
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Pantheon. 1964
Shamanic Wisdom Keeper, Sterling Publications. 1999
Halifax, Joan (ed.)
Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives, Dutton. 1979
The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Rowe. 1980
Soul Retrieval : Mending the Fragmented Self, Harper San Francisco, 1991.
Shamanic Guide to Death and Dying: Includes Meditations & Rituals, Llewellyn Publications. 1999
Shamanic Experience: A Practical Guide to Contemporary Shamanism, Harper Collins. 1998
Stevens, Jose and Lena
Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You, Avon. 1988
NOTE: ALL underlined words in this article are links to further material.
Valerie Sim-Behi is the founder and moderator of Comparative Tarot, an email list devoted to studying cards of different decks in comparison to each other. She has worked with the tarot for over 30 years. Valerie created a spread that will appear in the book accompanying the Victoria-Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall, and has written various articles, including one on the Comparative Tarot method that will be published in Llewellyn's Tarot Calendar 2002. You can visit Valerie at the Comparative Tarot website. Valerie wants to offer special thanks to Leah Pugh, Scanner Goddess for this series.
Article © 2001 Valerie Sim-Behi
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes
Images © (from top to bottom) AGMuller; Llewellyn; Lo Scarabeo; US Games (3); Llewellyn; US Games)