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Review of the Shapeshifter Tarot

This article was written by Donald Michael Kraig, Certified Tarot Grandmaster on October 17, 2008
posted under

Summary: A stunning and transformative artistic deck that is good as an additional deck with a focus on major life changes and magickal work including meditation, shapeshifting, and spellwork. However there are some flaws and the differences between this deck and the RWS "standard" may confuse some people. Although this can be a valuable deck, you should look at the art and check your personal and professional needs as part of deciding whether you are going to use this deck.

Name of deck:Shapeshifter Tarot
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN: 1-56718-384-0
Creators’ names: D. J. Conway and Sirona Knight
Artist’s name: Lisa Hunt
Brief biography of artist: Lisa is an internationally known Tarot artist whose work includes The Shapeshifter Tarot, the bestselling Celtic Dragon Tarot (Llewellyn), and Fantastical Creatures Tarot (US Games 2007, voted a top 10 Tarot deck for 2007 by Aeclectic Tarot. She is the creator of the award winning Animals Divine Tarot (Llewellyn 2005), earning her a 2006 COVR visionary award. Lisa is also the author of the fully illustrated meditation book Celestial Goddesses (Llewellyn 2001). Lisa loves to read and has an impressive collection of books. She has spent her life studying and sketching fairy tales, myths, legends and other fascinating subjects that have driven her muse. She also holds a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis on Jungian Psychology/Art & Drawing. Lisa lives with her family in Florida.
Name of accompanying book: Shapeshifter Tarot
Number of pages of book: 264
Authors of book: D. J. Conway and Sirona Knight
Brief biographies of authors:
A native of the Pacific Northwest, author D.J. Conway has studied the occult fields for over 35 years. Her quest for knowledge has covered every aspect of Paganism and Wicca to New Age and Eastern philosophies; plus history, the magical arts, philosophy, customs, mythologies and folklore. In 1998, she was voted Best Wiccan and New Age author by "Silver Chalice," a Pagan magazine. She lives a rather quiet life, with most of her time spent researching and writing.

For more than twenty years, Sirona Knight has been studying psychology, folklore, and religion with a personal interest in goddess tradition. She has traveled to Europe, Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska on her quest for knowledge of the goddess. She is a published poet, writer, teacher, hypnotherapist, and lecturer and holds a master’s degree in psychology and leisure studies from California State University. Knight is a Third Degree Craftmaster and High Priestess of the Celtic Gywddonic Druid Tradition. She has made radio and television appearances in Northern California, has been an active workshop leader for several years, and has created a series of guided imagery self-help tapes. She lives in the Sierra Foothills with her husband and their son, two dogs, and family of cats. Her writing room is situated next to an ancient Native American site, where she devotes her time and craft to enjoying life, moment by moment.

Available in a boxed kit?: Yes, the box contains the deck, a separate box you can use to store and protect the deck, and a full-sized book.
Magical Uses: Meditation, spellwork, shapeshifting
Reading Uses: Questions concerning major shifts and life changes
Ethnic Focus: Indigenous world cultures, especially Celtic
Artistic Style: Symbolist with a hint of the pre-Raphaelite.
Theme: Shapeshifting, especially from the Celtic tradition
Tarot, Divination Deck, Other: Although this loosely follows the design of a Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (Major Arcana with four Minor Arcana suits), there are so many major differences that this is a unique deck—not a traditional Tarot and not so far from the RWS to call it a divination deck or something else.
Does it follow Rider-Waite-Smith Standard?: Yes, but very, very loosely.
Does it have extra cards?: Yes. There are three extra Major Arcana cards, The Double, The Journey, and The Dreamer which are inserted before the last of the Major Arcana cards, usually called "The World."
Does it have alternate names for Major Arcana cards?: Yes. The cards are renamed as follows (the RWS name is given first):
1 The Fool—Initiation 

2 The Magician—Sorcerer

3 The High Priestess—Sorceress

4 The Empress—The Mother

5 The Emperor—The Father

6 The Hierophant—Knowledge

7 The Chariot—Power

8 The Lovers—The Lovers

9 The Hermit—The Seer 

10 Wheel Of Fortune—The Circle

11 Justice—Nature

12 Hanged Man—The Shapeshifter

13 Death—Rebirth

14 Temperance—Balance

15 The Devil—Choice 

16 The Tower—The Serpent

17 The Star—The Star

18 The Moon—The Moon

19 The Sun—The Sun

20 Judgment—Transcendence

21 None—The Double

22 None—The Journey 

23 None—The Dreamer

24 The World—Oneness
Does it have alternate names for Minor Arcana suits?: No.
Why was deck created?: "The underlying concept of the Shapeshifter Tarot is to help bridge the gulf between people, animals, and nature. The cards in this deck act as merging tools to help access the many different animal energies (some of them magickal) together with the elemental qualities of air, fire, water, and Earth in nature. By using this deck, you can access the knowledge of the eagle, an oak tree, or the ocean—wisdom that is inherently yours and resides within your very being."

Review

As befits a deck that is focused on shapeshifting—the supposed ability to transform from one type of entity into another (the werewolf is a famous model)—this deck transforms from strange and dubious quality to transcendent power and beauty. How can you judge this? Give it a fail for its shortcomings? Give it a pass with high honors for its successes? I honestly don’t know. So instead of giving this an eventually yes or know suggestion, I’m going to share what I think works and what doesn’t work. You’ll have to decide what you want to do.

What Doesn’t Work
First, I want to look at the book and some of the claims. The authors claim this is a deck about Celtic Shapeshifting. Fair enough. This is a field that is ripe for exploration. However, the art of the deck makes this look far more as if it is focused toward indigenous world cultures, and not just the Celtic path. For example, card 7, Power, shows a man shapeshifting into a tiger—an Asian tiger. Card 16, The Serpent, shows a morphed women and snake. The snake is hooded, like a cobra, a native of Asia and Africa. The book described kundalini, a concept more associated with India than with Celtic lands. Card 24, Oneness, features people from all over the world. The book describes, this, as well as the Egyptian goddess Maat, none of which is part of Celtic culture.

The Tarot has been adopted by many Neopagan traditions, even though the modern tradition, based on the RWS deck, comes from the ceremonial magick path of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. One of the major differences between Neopaganism and ceremonial magick is that some Neopagan traditions associate Swords with elemental Fire and Wands with elemental Air, the reverse of what is popular with ceremonial magick. My guess is that Ms. Conway and Ms. Knight, following the Neopagan format, chose to use the Swords/Fire, Wands/Air associations. I have no problem with that. It’s an easy change to make. However, they fail to change the associations with the elements. That is, Swords/Fire now have the attributions of things associated with Air (such as intellect, justice, etc.) while Wands/Air, have the attributions associated with Fire (creativity, motion, etc.). Sorry, But I just don’t think this works. Perhaps they did this so that the descriptions of the meanings of the cards would relate, somewhat, to the RWS deck, supposedly making this deck easier to use for Tarot traditionalists and neophytes, especially if they consult other books, but it doesn’t make sense or hold together.

Similarly, the authors, rather than collaborating on each card, have chosen to separately interpret alternate cards, making the book more of a stew than a melting pot. I think it would have been much more cohesive if they had worked together rather than separately.

There’s also a rather bizarre prudery. Yes, there is some occasional nudity, but the males have been castrated, missing their genitalia, and the females have breasts with no nipples, making one wonder as to their purpose. Certainly these attributes could have been covered or made more realistic, but the current solution doesn’t work at all. Also, the "negative" cards have been

Finally, almost all of the cards have been renamed and made, uh, "nice." For example, Death becomes Rebirth and The Devil becomes Choice.

What Does Work
It looks like there are a lot of negatives to this deck. In actuality, they are few in number when compared to the positives. The problem is that the negatives described above are quite jarring. But let’s look at the positives and what does work.

First, we have to look at the art. The art varies from being similar to the richness and clarity of the pre-Raphaelites and symbolists, to a sort of hazy and gauzy feel, as if one item of crystal precision is in the process of changing to another. This is ideal for the purpose of the deck, which is changing, shifting, shamanic alterations. Some of the art goes beyond being ideal and all the way to breathtaking. For example, I love the color and intensity of card 2, Sorceress, the energy and transformation of 6, The Lovers, and the symbolism on 8 Courage. As you go through this deck you’re going to find cards with meaning that leaps out at you.

Next, I want to compliment the book. As I wrote above, it isn’t really cohesive as the authors separated their work. However, what they do is great. Of course, they describe each card in detail, giving the meaning and how to interpret the advice given by the card. This is a step above what is given in most books and is very good.

Also included are descriptions of five spreads that are specifically for this deck. Most books and booklets included with Tarot decks give spreads, but often the information is far to sparse and there are no examples to see how to give a reading. Here, the authors provide two sample readings, something that will definitely help beginners. Curiously, they are separated from the instructions on the spreads, but at least it is there.

Another great feature of the book is a "key words" section, basically a brief listing of the meanings of all the cards. If you read the book a few times, this section is all you’ll need to remind you of all the concepts found on each card. It’s a great time-saver.

Conclusion
While some reviewers—mostly because they love the art and/or began with this deck—suggest this is a good deck for daily divinatory work, I have to disagree. For giving readings, this deck is especially good for dealing with questions of changes or shifts. In other words, I find this deck especially good for questions about major life changes. What will be the result if I leave my boyfriend? What will happen if I move to another state or country? What will be the result of changing my job. These are all major changes and shifts.

The authors suggest that the cards are good for meditation. Specifically, if you have issues you need to deal with, they suggest you find the card that represents the energy you want to acquire and "meditate" on it. Well, I think they’re right. There are two questions they leave unanswered: 1) How do you choose which card and energy to use, and 2) how do you meditate? That’s a lot to leave out. There are many books that can teach you how to meditate (including my own Modern Magick and Magic and Tarot), and I would advise you to study some so you can learn to meditate effectively. The solution to the first question is even easier: ask the Shapeshifter Tarot which card you need.

The authors also suggest you can use this deck with spellworking, but again, their instructions, consisting of one short paragraph, are all too brief. Again, you can find out more information on this in my book, Magic and Tarot. It’s unfortunate that the authors didn’t give fuller explanations, but it does give me a reason to offer my own work as a companion to this set.

The authors do provide a brief chapter on the skill of shapeshifting, of merging your consciousness with that of another entity, such as a plant, animal, or even a stone or the earth. Although brief, it does provide the basic concepts, and the bibliography provides other books that go into greater detail.

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