pollack9.jpg (11419 bytes)The Shining Woman Tarot Deck - Review by  Lee A. Bursten

This deck by Rachel Pollack was published by The Aquarian Press in 1992. Although it is currently out of print, it may still be possible to obtain it with a little effort. A good friend found one for me on a store shelf in Pennsylvania.

Pollack’s two-part book, "78 Degrees of Wisdom," was a very influential book which explored the Waite-Smith deck from a psychological and cultural viewpoint. It was one of the first Tarot books I read, and it made a big impact on me. I have always considered her my favorite Tarot author. For this reason, when I discovered she had created her own deck I was consumed with curiosity as to what she had come up with. I also found it interesting that, after doing her part to establish the primacy of the Waite-Smith deck, she was now challenging that primacy with her own deck.

For these reasons I was delighted when my friend found the deck for me. Upon examination, there were things I liked more than I thought I would and things that were a tremendous disappointment. One thing I liked immediately was the suit names -- Trees instead of Wands, Rivers instead of Cups, Birds instead of Swords and Stones instead of Pentacles.

I also liked that Pollack has created an innovation with the Court cards. They are Place, Knower, Gift and Speaker. To quote the book that comes with the deck: "The Place...takes the qualities of [the] suit and shows them as a physical ‘place’ so that we can approach the element as an experience...The Knower then gives us a feeling for what it would mean to understand and know those qualities in our own lives. The Gift cards depict [the] moment in the story [when] the hero who has had the courage to leave our world and enter the magic world of the spirits receives a gift...On receiving his gift, the hero returns with it and uses his powers to achieve a quest, or simply to help others...The Speakers give us images of acting from a place of power within ourselves."

This system seems to me to have the potential to give a lot more to a reading than the standard Court cards.

I also like the art, which surprised me, as I knew beforehand that the author was not an accomplished artist. The pictures are crudely done, echoing styles of primitive art from different times and places, and colored with bright, flat colors. Although I am not knowledgeable about art, it seems to me that many of the cards show a certain visual sophistication despite the crude style. I’m also a sucker for any deck that uses bright, cheerful colors.

I also like the art, done by the artist herself, because the primitive drawings combined with the bright colors make for a certain playfulness and lightness of tone, a quality noticed by Mary Ann Long in her review of the deck published in the newsletter of the International Tarot Society. I’m not entirely sure if this lightness is intentional, because Pollack’s writing tends to be rather serious; but intentional or not, it strikes a chord with me. I have found myself lately becoming a little impatient with decks and authors who take themselves so seriously that one would think that all of life is composed of nothing but complex, arcane correspondences and glum, mystical moods (the Haindl deck comes to mind). James Thurber was able to get a lot across with his lighthearted, rudimentary New Yorker cartoons. In fact, the woman in the 9 of Trees could have been drawn by Thurber.

There are only a few cards where the quality of the drawing is so poor that it distracts from the scene. In the Place of Trees, the women’s faces are so crudely drawn that they appear monstrous. And on the Lovers, who are shown kissing, their mouths are obscured by an ugly blotch of ink which the author describes as "a darkness between the faces...Sexuality is dark, and moist, and mysterious." This is probably an instance where the author’s intention outstripped her ability to create the desired effect.

This is a very personal deck. Pollack has collected images and scenes that are meaningful for her and made a deck of them. I generally like this approach, as it gives each card a poetic richness.

Many of the cards are still recognizable for their similarity to their Waite-Smith counterparts, but some are wildly different. The Magician, for example, is modeled after the Waite-Smith Magician in his stance, although in this card he wears a ceremonial mask, and behind him is a river and what is described in the book as "the scattered lights of a dying city," one of many lovely novelistic touches which are scattered throughout the deck.

The Empress creates quite a different impression from the standard image. A female figure like a prehistoric statue stands on a river, between two trees and two mountains, while stars and two planets hang in the sky. From the description in the book she is apparently standing with her back to us, although one can’t tell that from the drawing.

The Emperor shows a figure wearing a stag’s head and a full-length robe. The picture is meant to show masculinity, with many phallic symbols, but I find the picture disturbing and scary in its lack of humanity. What particularly disturbs me is the implication (or perhaps only my inference based on a visceral reaction to the picture) that male sexuality itself is disturbing and scary, which brings up the subject matter of gender, which I will return to at the end of this review.

In the Hierophant, here renamed Tradition (an innovation which I wish all decks would follow), the traditional picture is abandoned altogether. Instead we have five standing stones at a river’s edge, encircling a flower. Five paths originate from the flower and travel outwards through the standing stones. The stones represent enlightened beings who take energy from the material world (the paths) and transform it into spiritual energy, and in the opposite direction channel the spiritual energy into the material world. It’s a fascinating picture and makes a very nice Tarot card, but I cannot help but think of the question raised by Susan Giles in her book, "The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore," of how far a Tarot card can stray from the original image and still be considered a Tarot card. By Giles’s strict definitions, this card would definitely not pass the test. I don’t know the answer; I suppose everybody must decide this for themselves. Some may feel that it’s a valuable image and the question of whether it is "true Tarot" is merely academic speculation.

I particularly like this deck’s Hermit. On a hilltop, a tree stands with the sun in its branches. To the right of the tree is a purple, bird-headed stick figure with a staff. To the left is a blue doorway hanging in the air, beyond which is a lantern sitting on a pile of rocks. Inside the hill a turtle travels from a sun on the right to a moon on the left. This card shows the deck at its very best; just a few symbols combined in such a way as to give not only an immediate emotional reaction but fuel for endless imaginative meditation.

The Minors are more of a mixed bag. Some are drawn from mythological stories, some from natural objects picked up by the author. Some show scenes involving people, and some are simply geometric arrangements of symbols. Some are highly evocative at first glance, like the 8 of Trees, in which a woman soars on a log high above a landscape containing seven trees, two of which are aflame, and a burning house.

Others, however, are arcane scenes or collections of symbols to which one can have no reaction without reading the description in the book. The author writes, "Shining Woman is a sacred Tarot, rather than an esoteric one. By esoteric I mean a code of precise symbols outlining a detailed system of ideas about existence. Shining Woman is more fluid. While it does contain recurring symbols, it does not work according to an intellectual plan." This is belied by some of the Minor pictures, which are personal constructions by Pollack which most certainly do outline a detailed system of ideas, that is, hers, about existence. These pictures may speak volumes to her, but to the rest of us her symbol systems are just as much an intellectual plan in need of explication as A.E. Waite’s.

Finally I must discuss my ultimate disappointment with this deck and why I cannot use it. The first thing I did when I got the deck was sit down and read the book. As I went through each card description I had a growing sense of unease, and by the time I got to the end I knew this was not the deck for me, for the simple reason that this deck’s intended audience is women and I am a man.

Pollack is too intelligent a writer to ignore or banish men altogether, and in her book she seems to be making an effort to be inclusive. The effort shows, however, in descriptions like the 3 of Rivers, where, after each symbol is described as an aspect of "the mysteries of the female body" -- including menstrual bleeding, a downward-pointing triangle representing the female body, a vulva opening, a triple spiral for the Triple Goddess of the Moon’s three phases, a pomegranate symbolizing rebirth, and a labyrinth, "image of the path inward to the Goddess" -- the divinatory meaning is stated as "Harmony, friendship, especially (although not only) among women."

This definitely makes me feel like a second-class citizen, especially in light of the fact that women and the Goddess are stressed throughout the book and deck, while masculine attributes are treated condescendingly (when treated at all), as in the Emperor, who "teaches us that we do not overcome male violence and dominance by suppressing male energy or keeping men as children. Instead, men can transform their vital energy into creativity and service and love." This description plus the frightening picture on the card suggest that male energy in general is something negative that needs to be dealt with and transformed. I think I would have actually preferred it if the author had simply left men out of the deck altogether.

The deck itself makes less of an effort to be inclusive than the book. There are only two cards in the deck in which the figures are recognizably male: the 3 of Trees and the Knower of Birds. The 3 of Trees is actually a scarecrow, so one could say there is only one recognizably male human.

I don’t want to be misunderstood; I am in agreement with feminism as a political matter. I also see the value of using Tarot decks as vehicles to help women empower themselves in our overly patriarchal society. I have nothing against decks like Motherpeace or Daughters of the Moon, which are specifically directed towards women. And Rachel Pollack of course has a right to design any Tarot deck she wants. My problem with this particular deck, and obviously the fault is mine for having unrealistic expectations, is that after being so affected by "78 Degrees," which was inclusive of everybody, I feel as if my favorite author has thrown a party to which I am definitely not invited.

In this deck the female body seems to be used as a general symbol for all existence As a man, I do not have the self-interest that a woman has in her own body, and as a gay man, I do not have a sexual interest in women’s bodies. Therefore a woman’s body does not resonate with me as a symbol. It’s just a little disheartening to receive the impression, true or not, that the author has made a deck specifically for Goddess-oriented women and doesn’t really care about the rest of us (although I suppose there is no reason why she should). As a contrast, I have lately been looking favorably at the Robin Wood deck, which is worlds away from Pollack in terms of sophistication and knowledge and understanding of symbolism, but at least it has an equal balance of men and women and depicts healthy expressions of male as well as female sexuality.

My feelings are obviously conflicted, as there is much I like about this deck. But after reading the book I found myself setting it reluctantly but firmly aside.

Copyright 1998  Lee A. Bursten

Images Copyright 1992 Rachel Pollack

Page Copyright 2000 Diane Wilkes