The Light and Shadow Tarot – A Review

a review by Sarah Ovenall

The Light and Shadow Tarot is a marvelous example of an all-too-rare occurance: a deck that works on both the artistic and esoteric levels. The deck was created as a series of linoleum block prints by the late German artist Michael Goepford, and originally published in a limited edition as the Contrast Tarot. Goepford’s art has been re released as a deck and book set (book written by Brian Williams) by Destiny Books.

Goepford’s art is superb. Tarot enthusiasts accustomed to decks that look like illustrations from a sword and sorcery novel will find Light and Shadow a pleasant change of pace. The cards show all the expressiveness associated with block prints, but are finely detailed, with delicate, clean lines. As is common with block prints, the cards are all black and white. Unusual for a Tarot deck, but fortunately the cards are well-printed with deep blacks. The effect is not one of cheapness but of rich, complex art. At 5.5 by 4.25 inches, the cards are fairly large: with my relatively small hands, I had difficulty shuffling at first. I find that turning the cards sideways makes them much easier to shuffle.

Structurally the Light and Shadow Tarot is a standard 78-card deck. For the most part, the trumps retain their traditional names and ordering. Justice is 8 and Strength 11. The only alteration in naming is Death, which is called “The Endless Dance of Death.” The imagery on
the trumps keeps fairly close to tradition, though Goepford has made some modifications. The Emperor, for example, stands at a podium with arms outstretched, in front of a city.

Temperance features a male angel, pouring water from one cup to the other behind his back. Death shows a man dancing with a skeleton. Between the towers on the Moon sits a four poster bed. The World shows an African mother figure giving birth to the world in the shape of a turtle. All the trumps feature rich symbolic imagery; every corner of each card is filled with tiny details that add additional meaning, reflective of Goepford’s interpretation of that trump.

The minors are generally based on Waite, though a few minors are based on Thoth (for example the Four of Cups, Four of Swords and Eight of Pentacles). Goepford does exercise some creative freedom in interpreting the minors.

The Two of Cups, for example, shows in Indian man and woman seated on a lotus, embracing in a clearly sexual position, while water pours from their cups and over their heads. The Two of Pentacles shows a white and black man clasping each others’ faces, with a snake wrapped around their waists to form an infinity symbol.

In some cases I find that Goepford neatly skewers a meaning with an image totally unlike that of Waite. For example, his 5 of Swords depicts farmers using swords in a vain attempt to fend off a swarm of locusts.

To me, this illustrates the concept of “futility” much more clearly than Pamela Colman Smith’s image. Like the trumps, the minor cards are richly illustrated with symbolic details. Each minor also bears astrological symbols, to add meaning for readers who combine astrology and
Tarot. Some of the cards contain partial nudity (the Lovers, Judgment and the Devil for example) and occasional sexually explicit poses (Two of Cups and the Lovers). Nothing too overt in my opinion, but you might want to think
before using this deck to read for the unusually prudish, or for children. (The imagery on some of the “darker” cards, such as the Ten of Swords or the Tower, is also pretty expressive and might unsettle a child.)

The book accompanying Light and Shadow is as enjoyable as the deck. The book was written by Brian Williams, creator of the Renaissance Tarot and Pomo Tarot, based on interviews with Goepford. The same size as the cards, the book fits into a small box with the deck, making it easier to carry than decks that include full-sized books. The book is attractively produced, with
a much more professional look than many I have seen. It includes detailed interpretations, with a clear reproduction of each card, and (rather cleverly I think) one element of each card is clipped and used as an ornament on the page, in place of a drop cap.

The book also includes a brief biography of the artist, with examples of his non-Tarot work. The only weak part of the book is its treatment of interpretations: a half-dozen pages, most of which are taken up by yet another presentation of the Celtic Cross, finishing up with a recommendation that the reader try Mary Greer’s Tarot for Yourself. This section reads like an afterthought and would have been better left out entirely in my opinion.

Light and Shadow Tarot is one of my favorite decks, a highlight of my collection, and is the deck I read with most often. I highly recommend Light and Shadow Tarot as an art deck for collectors, to readers who want a fresh perspective on the Golden Dawn tradition, and for anyone interested in block print art.

Review Copyright 1998 by Sarah Ovenall; used with permission

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