The Forest of Souls: A Walk Through the Tarot

The Forest of Souls by Rachel PollackRachel Pollack
Llewellyn Worldwide ($14.95)

by Kris Lawson

Rachel Pollack's The Forest of Souls is a metaphysical study detailing a new way of looking at Tarot cards and their use. Pollack—known for her fiction and comics work as well as for her expertise in Tarot—advocates a meditative, almost holistic method of divination. She's even drawn her own deck, using her knowledge of symbology, tribal mythologies, and art to produce the Shining Tribe Tarot. The Forest of Souls is not a guidebook, however; as Pollack herself says "all the thousands of pages that carefully lay out the meanings of the Major Arcana (yes, I include my own books here) cannot give you the true experience of Tarot unless you allow yourself to enter the pictures. I do not mean a formal guided meditation, but simply an openness to really look, to let the pictures go inside you by going inside them."

In the book, Pollack contrasts cards from her deck with cards from such decks as the Marseilles (a historical reproduction from the Renaissance), the Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, and the ubiquitous Rider-Waite deck of A.E. Waite and Pamela Rider, as well as more contemporary decks of Pagan, Wiccan and multicultural sources. Although Pollack appreciates and explains the history and method behind these decks, she's careful to point out that many of the historical decks have traditional, sometimes rigid rules laid down for their use. For her, however, using Tarot can be a more creative experience: "We analyze the cards, symbolize them, look them up in a reference book, all to make the Tarot rational and safe. We try to pin it down, to give it an origin . . . all to take it out of its dream state and land it safely in history . . . [but] we can use Tarot and its dream playfulness to remove the pins that hold down all those traditions."

The Forest of Souls thus combines a look at the history of Tarot with her own ideas of re-working the cards' traditional meanings. For example, Pollack discusses the Egyptian and Hebrew symbols on traditional cards, drawing a line of numerological coincidences between Egyptian mythology, the 72 names for God in the Kabbala, and the 12 signs of astrology. She compares the story of the Egyptian god Thoth, who "gambles with the Moon" to win five days (or 1/72 of an Egyptian year) not already present in the calendar, with the story of another god, Seth, who uses 72 "henchmen" to measure Osiris for a trap, a box constructed to his exact measurements, in which Osiris suffocates. "It is the same for us," she interprets. "Virtually from the moment of our birth, society measures us. . . . With every measurement the box becomes tighter, and more elaborate. Just like Osiris, we suffocate in a box that limits us to one degree of who we can become."

In another example, Pollack compares Tarot to quantum physics: by observing, the observer "creates" a reality from the infinite number of probabilities; by using Tarot, the questioner consciously or not selects the cards that convey the answers. "In any Tarot reading, the card itself is only half the answer to a question. The other half lies in the way we interpret it. This too involves the will, for we must will ourselves both to explore what the card can mean and then apply what we get from the card to the actual questions or situations."

Pollack's Tarot method involves thinking of the cards not as coded messages to decrypt by using a reference book, but as a collection of 78 images which one can use as "keys": "Maybe we can say that, rather than unlocking readymade secrets, the Tarot keys unlock us from all our definitions and limited conceptions of ourselves and the universe." She goes on to confess that "Something I've learned over the years I've worked with Tarot is to give myself permission to break the rules, even the ones I make up myself."

For Pollack, it's not which tradition is correct, it's that all of them can be linked together. Her examples demonstrate this imaging and layering method. For some readings, she uses her cards to construct questions instead of answers, and finds more inspiration when her questions are "answered" by other questions. In other readings, her simple, symbolic drawings suggest many traditional meanings, which link together to form a story. Pollack also suggests alternative "spreads" (the order in which the cards are displayed and read) that use a multi-directional relationship with the cards around them rather than the standard over/under/crossed traditional methods.

Perhaps the best thing about Pollack's book is her belief that the magical is rooted in stories:

The modern world has largely stripped away the sense of the miraculous from the patterns of the world. We break things down and study them in pieces, and steadfastly deny that anything connects to anything else. But there are ways to restore that sense of wonder. One of these is divination, for divination demonstrates that patterns really do exist, that the world really does fit together. . . . Fairy tales and myths and Tarot cards do not code wisdom in simple forms in order to keep it from the uninitiated. They do what they do because we can absorb wisdom best when it thrills and fascinates us.

As a storyteller herself, Pollack knows how to convey information; while not exactly thrilling, her book is indeed fascinating as it encompasses and twists the traditionalism behind Tarot readings into her own style. Absolute beginners may be confused, as Pollack assumes her readers will have already had some experience with traditional methods and are looking for a new way of conducting readings. For the dedicated dabbler or serious student, however, The Forest of Souls is a fresh and appealing work about a path much tread.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003