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Michael Goepferd's
The Light and Shadow Tarot
A Deck Review

In many ways, my feelings about the Light and Shadow Tarot reflect the style of the artwork, and the concept behind the deck. I like some aspects of it very much, but I dislike others equally. There is a very large contrast between the cards I like and the cards I do not like; almost as must contrast as exists in the cards themselves.

The Light and Shadow Tarot deck is entirely done in black-and-white, by a process known as block printing. This is a fairly complicated procedure in which a design is drawn backwards and in reverse relief on wood, then dipped in ink and pressed onto a surface. The fact that the artist, Michael Goepferd, is able to do so many prints of such high quality is a testament to his skill.

I will make it clear right away that I am not denying or critiquing Goepferd's artistic ability. But while the concept of the deck is a good and original one, and while some of the cards are very beautiful, I feel that a lot of the cards are unattractive, sometimes to the point of being downright repulsive.

Perhaps I have bad taste in art, or perhaps one needs to know all of the assorted cultural background to get the full impact of this deck. (There is a lot of culture-specific imagery in this deck, including but not limited to African, Native American, Indian, Celtic and European.) But, for some reason, I just cannot convince myself to like the image of a woman giving birth to a large turtle (shown on the World card) or female figures with pointed, spiraling breasts.

A lot of the artwork is too surrealistic for my tastes. The Princess of Wands, for example, is seated on the nose of a huge tiger and she is drawn in such a way that she starts merging with the tiger below her waist. I know what the artist was intending to portray with this card but I think it was taken too far. The tiger is majestic and powerful, but it looks foolish with a woman growing out of its face.

I can say, however, that of the cards in this deck that I do like (approximately half), I like them a lot. Some of the designs were clearly inspired by the Rider-Waite or Thoth decks (such as the Nine of Swords and Eight of Pentacles) but others feature interesting and new symbolism which I have never seen before. The Knight of Swords rides a giant eagle, which I think is quite appropriate to the card. The Five of Swords portrays a group of people attacked by a swarm of locusts.

While the symbolism of the Minor Arcana is easy to see and decipher, I find that a lot of the Major Arcana are extremely complex. Cards like the Devil and the Magician have so much going on that it is hard to see where one symbol ends and the next begins. Some of the symbols make little sense to me (such as the large number of fish on the Magician, which is almost universally acknowledged as an Air card.)

Fortunately, the book that accompanies the deck does a good job of explaining some of the more esoteric and culture-specific symbolism in the cards that might otherwise elude readers. Each card gets at least two pages of explanation in the fully illustrated book by Brian Williams. The short poems that precede the card meanings, written by Mark Hannan, are wonderful.

If you enjoy working with symbols from various cultures around the world, or if you like new and original artwork, you will probably like the Light and Shadow Tarot. The cards are large, so people with small hands or small workspaces may have trouble reading with them as easily as with other decks. I will suggest that, if possible, look at all the cards before buying this deck. If you feel the way I do about some of the cards you may want to leave it on the shelf.

Copyright 2000 James Rioux