"Rachel Pollack's Shining Tribe Tarot deck is like coming home to the roots of Tarot- that place where images provoke meanings that surface from inner places that formed early on. Her images draw from the root of ancient sources and civilizations, building a bridge from the soul, back to that central place we are all innately connected to, but often forget. It is a wonderfully intuitive deck for both beginner and professional alike. One that anyone serious about Tarot simply must have." —Robbie Goldstein, The Meta Arts Magazine, www.themetaarts.com
Those of us who love the Tarot often feel a special bond, not only with the cards but with the people who read cards, or create them, or teach about them. This bond makes us not quite a family, but somehow more than that over-worked modern term "community." We can call this bond a tribe, with all the deep connections that that word implies. We do not just join with the readers we happen to know, or the current writers, but with the whole history of divination, whether known or unknown. When we read cards we become part of a worldwide tribe that includes Tarot, astrology, West African Ifa, the I Ching, and the jeweled stones in the breastplate of the High Priest of Solomon's temple. When it came time for me to give a name to the revised version of what I first called Shining Woman Tarot, Shining Tribe said exactly what I wanted the deck to express.
There were other reasons for the name besides the bond between diviners. Many of the images came from tribal and prehistoric art. These include the oldest rock paintings known to humanity but also brilliant contemporary work by world famous Aboriginal painters. The visionary non-realist style of such art has impressed and touched me for many years. To me, such art, whether very old or very new, expressed the kind of otherworldly wisdom that lies at the heart of Tarot.
To honor the deck's tribal and prehistoric perspective I created an origin myth for the cards. We all love such stories. Here are just a few that people have put forth over the years. The Tarot comes from Ancient Egypt. The Tarot comes from Atlantis. The Tarot comes from medieval witches, Christian heretics, mystical rabbis, Hindu magicians. In my own deliberate myth (not to be taken as historical fact), seven spirits, one for each of the "planets" of ancient astrology, first gave divinatory images to humans at the time of the great cave artists, some 35,000 years ago. These spirits were the original Shining Tribe. Whenever we do readings we re-create our link to them.
For some people the imagery of the Shining Tribe Tarot presents a problem. Quite simply, it does not look like the decks they know. While there are literally thousands of Tarot decks, in almost any style, most people know the Rider, designed by Arthur Edward Waite and painted by Pamela Colman Smith. When people see a deck that looks different, in a style unlike the kind of pictures they normally see, they sometimes don't know how to react.
It's not that Tarot people are inherently conservative, or unwilling to try something new. My experience of nearly thirty years as a teacher of Tarot has shown me the great eagerness to learn among lovers of Tarot. But readers want to use their decks. They don't just want to admire them, they want to work with them. Many have spent years learning the symbols and ideas of their familiar decks. When they see something different, at least on the surface, they become nervous, or wonder what to make of it.
Ironically, the Rider deck is strongly present in the Shining Tribe. I love the Rider cards, have studied and worked with them for nearly thirty-five years. Though I did not try to match up the Shining Tribe pictures directly to the Rider (except for one or two deliberate tributes), many of the cards form what I call a dialogue with the older images.
Let us look at a couple of examples.
The fives in the Rider cards are notoriously "difficult." They show struggle and conflict and sorrow. The reasons for this go back to the Kabbalah, and the Tree of Life, where the fifth position reflects hard places in life that help shape our character (for more on this subject see my book, The Kabbalah Tree).
It's important that the Tarot show the harsh side of life as much as its joys. And yet, the question remains, how do we heal, or learn, from such difficulties? In the Shining Tribe deck I have tried to show pictures that not only reveal struggle but carry us beyond it.
Here is the Rider Five of Pentacles.
We see sickness and poverty as two people struggle through the snow. We also get a sense of spiritual isolation, for they walk past a church, a place of sanctuary, and a light shines in the window, yet we do not see a door, and the people themselves do not seem to notice that the church exists.
Now look at the Five of Stones from the Shining Tribe Tarot.
The image comes from a photograph by artist Steve Fitch of paintings in a place called Horseshoe Canyon, in Utah. After I'd actually drawn the picture and placed it as the Five of Stones I read that the Indians sometimes called these figures "ghost healers." The picture speaks of a very intense healing that comes from a deep place in our lives, as if it rises from the rock itself. It heals the body, but it heals the soul as well. In readings sometimes we can gauge a person's relation to their own need to heal from something by their reaction to this card. Some find it comforting, some exciting, some frightening.
Let's look at another example. The Six of Cups in the Rider deck shows someone taking care of someone else, usually thought to be a child. While there is generosity and concern in the image, many people find it too close, even stifling. They notice that the girl is so heavily dressed, she can hardly move.
Compare this to the Six of Rivers in the Shining Tribe.
While the picture is only semi-realistic it nevertheless suggests a nude woman, sensual, able to experience her own beauty. The figure emerges from shadow into golden light. I did not design the Six of Rivers as a sort of liberation of the girl in the Six of Cups. It was simply an image that came into my mind. But I am sure that it found its place as the Six partly because it answered, in a way, the issues raised in Pamela Smith’s picture from nearly a century earlier.
Does this mean that you need to know the Rider cards to appreciate the Shining Tribe? Absolutely not. The deck is independent, though it draws on the entire Tarot tradition. What it does mean is that the cards may look different but they form links with the past.
When Llewellyn offered me the chance to write this article I decided to ask the cards themselves for how they can best communicate with their audience. The reading contained five questions.
What is the deck's special quality? What is its limitation? Where does it need to go? What blocks it? How can it go past the blocks?
Notice that this reading treats the Shining Tribe Tarot almost as a person. Many people find that the Tarot speaks to them like an old friend, someone very wise, with long experience.
Special quality—Seven of Birds
This is a card of intense communication. The two people in the picture are almost identical, suggesting a very deep bond. Those who love and work with the Shining Tribe often say how it communicates with them in a far deeper way than other Tarot decks. Because it takes its inspiration from such ancient sources it can give people a sense of connection at a level beyond consciousness.
Limitation—Six of Stones.
Here we see a shaman (based on an Algonkin Indian painting), surrounded by methods of divination from different cultures. There are bone dice from Ancient Rome, a crystal ball, Chinese sticks, African cowrie shells, and a runestone. At the same time, the shaman himself appears abstract, so that some people might miss an ordinary human expression that can be read on his face. His face is filled with revelation, not ego personality. The many different divinatory tools symbolize the deck's many sources. While this gives the deck its richness, some may find it hard to absorb so much possibility. This"limitation" is really a benefit, but for some it might require study of the book that comes with the deck to follow the many strands. On the other hand, you do not really need to know the sources of a Tarot image to appreciate or work with it.
Where does it need to go—Six of Rivers.
We have already seen this card in this article. If we draw from those meanings described above, we can say that the deck's sensuality needs to become more clear to people. The abstraction and ideas of the Six of Stones needs to transform into a revelation of the delight so many people find when they begin to learn and use this deck. Even more directly, we might say that the deck needs to emerge into its own light, so that its full power can shine for people.
Blocks—Two of Birds.
In this graphic image, inspired by a two thousand year old Chinese altarpiece, two birds turn their backs on each other, yet a snake binds them together. As mentioned above, some people find it difficult to look at a deck whose pictures do not resemble what they have seen before. Symbolically they turn their backs on what they cannot recognize. But both birds have turned their backs, and this suggests that in some way the Shining Tribe Tarot itself (with me as its ambassador or spokesperson) has refused to acknowledge the difficulty. The snake represents the strong bond that so many people have found with this deck when they do look at it more directly.
How can it go past the blocks—Ace of Birds.
The connection between this and the previous card is strong. The Two becomes simplified, and brought back to its roots in the Ace. The owl here looks at us very directly, as if the two birds from the previous card—us and the deck itself—have turned around to see each other in the best way. This card often represents the soul. Years ago I asked the cards "What is the soul?" and got the Ace of Birds (for more on this reading, and the tradition of "Wisdom readings" that came from it, see my book The Forest of Souls). Some time after I'd drawn the picture, based on an ancient Egyptian plaque, I read that the Algonkin Indians considered the owl the perfect soul-bird. So the Shining Tribe deck will go past the blocks when it speaks from the soul.
And indeed, those who have worked with this deck often will tell me that it works best for them as a light to illuminate their own soul journey.
* Images from the Universal Tarot, courtesy of Lo Scarabeo