Review: The Book of Shadows Tarot, Vol. 1 “As Above”

[Note: This review is long, so I’ve put a brief list of pros and cons at the bottom, but if you want all the snark, I’d recommend reading the review.]

Torn.

That is how I feel when I examine this deck: completely, utterly torn. On the one hand, there’s so much to like, but there’s another side to this deck, the side that’s a complete and utter train wreck.

First, a little background information. As you can know doubt tell from the title, the Book of Shadows Tarot actually consists of two decks. The one that I’m reviewing today is the As Above deck. The companion deck, So Below, won’t be out until March 2013 (the companion book also includes small images of the entire So Below deck, I’ll say a bit more on this in a bit). You might think that this is a cheap ploy to sucker you into buying two decks and it is but the concept of the deck–that of a book of shadows in pictures rather than words. The two decks compliment each other beautifully: the As Above deck represents things of a spiritual nature, the So Below deck takes the teachings that are embodied in the As Above deck and applies them to every day life. For those of you who are curious to try out a two deck system, the BoS Tarot was specifically designed with this in mind.

The Bright Side

In case you can’t tell from the title, the BoS Tarot is a Wiccan tarot, through and through (and yes, your non-Wiccan reviewer knew this before she bought the deck) and the deck is designed to reflect the teachings of that tradition (or, more specifically, the teachings of eclectic Wicca, not the British Traditional kind where you need to be initiated by a teacher with the right lineage). The major arcana, therefore, depict basic concepts like the Sabbats, the Wheel of the Year, the God and Goddess, Initiation, and the Summerlands. Rather than address the cards by numerical order, Barbara Moore groups them according to categories (Sabbats in one, basic teachings in another) and tackles them that way.

We’ll get to my grumblings about the majors later. For now, let’s focus on the minors.

While the majors illustrate the basic tenets of Wicca, the minors go in a completely different direction. The suits are elemental (Fire, Air, Earth, and Water) each suit has its own theme:

Fire – The Planets (yes, Pluto is a planet), Astrology

Air – Communication with the Divine, Divination

Water – The Goddess (yes, the Goddess gets her own suit)

Earth – The Earth itself, nature

This is (IMHO) a very interesting way of looking at the minors. I actually like it a lot. I’ll save my gripes with them for the train wreck portion of the review.

Everyone knows by now that I hate traditional court cards. What this deck has done with the court cards is (as with the minors) interesting. The court cards are titled Elemental, Maiden, Mother, and Crone. One example: The Elemental of fire (Salamander) brings an influx of fiery energy, the Maiden holds a single candle (representing a spark of inspiration), the Mother tends the fire, and the Crone snuffs it out (she’s holding an unlit candle.) No, it’s not traditional, but within the confines of the system Moore (and the team at Lo Scarabeo have created) it makes sense.

In terms of spreads, there’s two 3-card spread (one past-present-future and the other being a decision making spread), two five card spreads, that old chestnut the Celtic cross, and a whopping fifteen-card spread which I will probably never use. The most useful section, IMHO, is a couple pages on working with two decks (which will definitely be useful when So Below comes out, especially if you’ve never worked with two decks before).

The Train Wreck

Where to begin?

For starters, this deck is non-traditional in the extreme. Don’t even think of trying to apply standard RWS meanings to these cards, you will get exactly nowhere. That said, as it’s own system, the cards actually make a whole lot of sense, but then it begs the question: can this deck really be called tarot?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are people who say that if even one card is changed, the deck ceases to be tarot, but in this case, so many cards are renamed (and so many cards are just way out there in terms of imagery) that it really doesn’t make sense to think of the Ten of Air as the Ten of Swords. The majors on the other hand are much closer to their tarot counterparts.

Speaking of the majors, there are a couple of decisions that were made regarding the majors that earned a raised eyebrow from me. Full disclaimer: No, I’m not Wiccan, but I went through the same Wicca “phase” that many Pagans do, and I see a couple of things that I would do differently. For instance, why is Samhain standing in for the Moon and Yule standing in for Death? It would make much more sense (IMHO) for Samhain to be Death (which is when the God DIES and is, after all, a season associated with days like Hallowe’en, Dia de los Muertos, and All Saints’/All Souls days–where we get the term Hallowe’en in the first place), for the Moon to be Esbat (a ritual that takes place on the full moon, and is absolutely in keeping with the theme of the deck) and Yule to be the Sun (when the God, as the sun, is reborn). This is like, eclectic Wicca 101, and it is kind of irritating to me that cards that could better fit the theme were glossed over so that all the Sabbats could be shoehorned into the cards.

Regarding the art, three different artists worked on this deck, but, in spite of this, the deck is fairly cohesive and there are some gorgeous cards in the deck some of my favourites include: Wisdom, the Goddess, the God, Seven of Earth (Sea Creatures), and most of the courts.

But then you have cards like these (posting links because the images are huuuuuge):

Crone of Air – Seriously, this lady looks like she wants to eat my soul. She looks like she would be right at home on a horror movie poster. I think it’s the hair, it looks too symmetrical. It’s gotta’ be the hair.

Initiation – Jesus? Is that you? (Seriously, look at the god on the right.) It’s a bit nit-picky of me, but to me it would say initiation in the witch in question were in a group (although, of course, self-initiation and dedication are not uncommon), plus the description for the card seems to fit a dedication better than an initiation, but maybe it’s just me.

Nine of Earth – This is the saddest cow I have ever seen.

Nine of Air – This card represents the runes. (In a pile to the left of the tree.) You can see them in the image because my scanner has a tendency to blow up images, but in the card itself I had to squint to see them. And that noose! Was Odin hung by his dick or something? ‘Cause I honestly can’t think of any other part that would fit in such a tiny opening, and what’s with all the sylphs flying around? I know they’re part of the suit’s theme, but talk about obtrusive!

In addition to these cards, some of the goddesses (the ones in the water suit) seem kind of wooden, particularly Lakshmi in the Nine of Water, there’s also an (unintentionally hilarious) depiction of Aphrodite and Eros….on the Two of Cups….

Aphrodite and Eros, for those of you who don’t know their Greek mythology, are mother and son, the two of cups is a card about partnership, romance, two becoming one, etc. etc. Now, those of you who have read my posts know that I’m actually pretty relaxed when it comes to divine incest (human incest though? DO NOT WANT, AT ALL!) But in this context it’s just….creepy…and Eros looks like Robert Pattinson, which just ruins the card for me.

But the real kicker is this card (kinda NSFW): Ace of Pentacles

I’m sorry, my trans* and intersex friends, but I don’t think this is an attempt to be more inclusive (although, I make up alternate readings for cards all the time, so feel free to see it as that), I think it’s just a cis man with a censored dong. What makes this card go from “kind of silly” to “offensive” however, is that it’s labelled “Human Body”.

Now, I know, I’m arguing over semantics, and this image seems clearly designed to mimic the Vitruvian Man, but seriously, how andro- and cis-centric is this? That’s not a human body, it’s a cis man’s body with a censor stream. In my mind, this could have easily been avoided by a more abstract image, like a silhouette, or showing different bodies, or not having a card for the human body at all, and instead having a card labeled “human community” (and in the name of every deity, don’t make all the figures in the card white)?

And while I’m on the subject, WTF is with the censoring and complete lack of nudity? WTF Lo Scarabeo? You put out decks like the (NSFW) Sensual Wicca Tarot, the Pagan Tarot has an orgy/great rite  (again, NSFW). Hel, even the highly Disney-esque Wheel of the Year tarot’s Empress is showing a nipple (again, NSFW) and the Devil card from the same deck is basically saying “fuck you” to anything even resembling modesty (seriously, NSFW), that’s not even going into all the erotic decks you’ve done, so WTF? The only reason I can think of is that this deck is meant to appeal to the “teen witch” market, ergo, no nudity. The thing is, this argument kind of falls flat when you consider the original RWS cards, where nudity is present (the Star and the World, anyone?). Yes, when I was a teenager in high school I giggled over the nudity in the Star, but I got over it. It is, I think, a great disservice to a faith that sees nudity and sexuality as sacred things–Hel, a faith that bases its entire ritual calendar on deities that are either going to have sex, are having sex, or have just finished having sex, not to mention practicing in the nude–and then give them this sanitized, no, worse, censored thing that doesn’t even attempt to touch on this central Mystery.

Seriously, if Wicca had anything close to blasphemy or sacrilege, this would probably be right up there.

*takes a deep breath and a sip of water*

Okay, now that I’ve calmed down, there’s also the newbie mistake of thinking that Wiccan = Pagan and treating Paganism as if it were a single religion. This is all I say to that:

WICCA DOES NOT EQUAL PAGANISM!

Regarding the companion book as a whole, IMHO, it’s pretty much useless if you aren’t Wiccan (and even if you are). Unfortunately, because the system is so unique (and the minors in particular are minimalist) and unless you are a very intuitive reader, you will probably need the book if you really want to know what each card is supposed to be depicting. Personally, I’d recommend waiting for the regular deck to come out if you really want this (although the kit comes with space to hold both decks and the box is sturdy).

For the people who don’t want to read all that, here are some Pros and Cons:

Pros

  • Non-traditional system
  • Interesting court cards
  • Beautiful art
  • Cards come in a sturdy box
  • Makes a good teaching tool for those interested in eclectic Wicca
  • Designed for reading with two decks (especially the So Below deck)

Cons

  • Non-traditional system
  • Some figures seem wooden, creepy
  • Lack of nudity/sexuality, does not address one of the core tenets of Wicca (thus diminishing it’s value as a teaching tool)
  • A bit androcentric (although, to be fair, the courts and the suit of water are gynocentric)
  • Book constantly equates Wicca with Paganism and acts as if Paganism is a single religion

The Light in the Darkness

OMFGs the So Below deck!

Close to the back of the companion book, there is a sneak peek at every card in the So Below deck. The images are small, but I really like what I see.

Unfortunately, I can’t post pictures because the book won’t lay flat enough for my scanner to pick it up, so here is a list of things I’ve noticed about this deck that give me hope for this project:

Features of the So Below deck:

  • Modern and Urban-centric – In other words, the exact opposite of the As Above deck. I see yoga classes and children playing in an inflatable swimming pool. I see a woman baking in the kitchen and a potter molding clay on her wheel. I see an artist hard at work, businesspeople, and crowded city streets.
  • Heavily RWS-based with a few changes. For the most part, you should be able to recognize most of the cards (particularly the minors) but although you won’t see a corpse pierced with swords in the ten of swords, you will see some pretty creative ways of expressing the traditional meanings. The Devil card, for instance, depicts and honest-to-goodness sundae with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, and a cherry on top next to two tubs of ice cream each missing a scoop. The Death card shows a couple in the middle of winter standing next to a “For Sale” sign, likely about to leave the house behind (the Lovers shows the opposite–a couple coming into a house). The oh-so-scary Ten of Swords shows a woman facing away from a flaming pot (a cauldron?) and releasing a bird that looks suspiciously like a phoenix). Seriously, these cards are all kinds of awesome.
  • Funky colour scheme! I think a lot of people are turned off by this deck’s unusual colour scheme (meant to illustrate magical energies in our every day lives) personally, I love it. The colours are bright without being trippy, and I just love the way fire is illustrated in this deck (the Ace and Two of Wands are favourites–and I normally don’t like the wands suit).
  • Diversity! A.K.A. OMGs there are black people in this deck! I’m sorry, that probably came out wrong. My point is: As Above? Pretty much all white. Yep, I just checked, all white. Yes, that even includes the (east) Indian goddesses, yep, I know, WTF? Although, perhaps they aren’t so much white as….pale? Anyways, in the So Below deck, here is a list of cards that show non-whites: the Chariot (maybe, in the background), Temperance (two, actually), Eight of Pentacles (making pottery), Five of Swords (the winner in a competition), Ace of Wands (a hand lighting a candle), Three of Wands (seems like she’s relaxing after having taken a shower/bath), every single Pentacles court card (the Queen of Pentacles might be an interracial couple), and that’s just the ones I’m certain of. Some of them might but the colour scheme makes it difficult to tell. I’m also not sure if there are any Asians (of any sort) or Hispanic people. A couple cards show multi-generational families and a few appear to show people over fifty. I don’t see any same-sex couples, although the couple in the Death card could be two women (it’s hard to tell, but the one has long grey hair and there is a bit of a bulge in the chest area, could be a guy wearing a baggy shirt, though.
  • The court cards – The courts are all single gender (some show couples) but with a twist – men are depicted in Cups and Pentacles, and women in Wands and Swords. IMHO, it both illustrates and subverts the idea of gender polarity. The Page of Cups is actually very interesting. From the back, the long hair (and the way it’s pinned up) seem very stereotypically “feminine” but the reflection staring back at the character is undoubtedly a guy. Could the Page of Cups be trans*, perhaps? (Note that the reflection’s hair is the same length, but whose to say he likes it long and wants to keep it that way?)

In short: WHY THE FUCK COULDN’T THE AS ABOVE DECK BE THIS AWESOME?! Okay, so the So Below deck isn’t perfect, but compared to the As Above, I’d say it’s light years ahead, wouldn’t you?

The bottom line: In spite of all the things I’ve said about it, I don’t hate this deck. It’s an interesting deck with some good ideas. I think it would be best for my sanity, however, if I forget about the companion book and go with my gut for this one. In all honesty, I’d probably recommend this deck to teenagers who are interested in Wicca but are (for whatever reason) averse to nudity in their decks, but even there, I think there are better decks to use. It really is a shame that such gorgeous art (and some of it is quite gorgeous) and interesting ideas are mixed up with such a watered-down, f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fluffy (there, I said it!) version of Wicca.

Seriously, why am I not on a design team for a tarot deck? I can totes tone down the swearing if that’s what it takes. (Offline I actually don’t swear that much, no seriously, if you hear me swear irl, I’m either with close friends or I’m really mad.)

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Shadows Tarot, Vol. 1 “As Above”

  1. I think you missed the point on the nudity: none of the images you linked to showed full frontal male nudity any more than this Ace of Pentacles did. That’s the cultural standard, right? “Female nudity is titillating – male nudity is icky.”

    Not trying to excuse this deck’s offense – which for a Wiccan deck is pretty heinous, I agree completely – just sayin’ that from what you’ve shown the others aren’t really any better in this area.

    1. There are actually a bunch of male nudes in the Sensual Wicca, but to be fair, it was specifically intended to be an erotic deck. The Devil. The Two, Three,Four and Five of Wands all have full frontal male nudity (only the Devil has an erection, though). Oh, and you can also see the Magician’s balls, but I don’t think that counts.

      It could also be that male nudity is often a subject of derision. On the AT forums for instance, you can’t find a discussion of the Hanged Man in the DruidCraft Tarot without mentioning his “banana”. I know of a couple people who have actually drawn pants on the figure in the Ten of Pentacles in the World Spirit deck (although I suspect that has more to do with the fact that he’s around children, you can’t really portray a naked male around children without coming across as….creepy…. ),

      What baffles me is that the card in question is pretty much the only one showing that much skin (except for Transformation/The Chariot, who isn’t really wearing much of anything, just a little strip of clothing across one breast, and neither are the Lovers, but you don’t see anything). Hel, even the World is fully clothed, IMO, if they really wanted to avoid showing man parts, there are a bunch of other things they could have done.

      1. Ah, on the Sensual tarot I was just going from the images you posted. It all seemed very “male gaze”-y to me.

        (I really need to explore more Tarot decks – there are so many new ones out there since I last looked.)

      2. Eh. Can’t edit my comment apparently. By “images you posted” what I meant was “images on the AT page you linked to.” Which I suppose wouldn’t include the raciest.

        1. Ah, yeah, I know a couple sites that show the whole deck, but I was tired when I wrote the post (as you can no doubt tell from how incoherent it was) so I didn’t think to link to those. And, to be fair, Lo Scarabeo is definitely more generous with the boobage than the crotch shots. 🙂

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