The Shadowland Tarot
by Monica Bodirsky
The first memory I have of seeing a shadow was an hour southeast of Detroit in Point Pelee National Park, Canada. I was two years old and my parents took our family camping to this beautiful space outside of the city during the hottest days of August. After unpacking after a long day we were exhausted and fell into our sleeping bags for the night in the refreshingly cool night air. We each had a cot and were inside a large, heavy canvas tent, and I felt very safe.
In the middle of the night, I needed to go to the bathroom so my mom put on my shoes and we walked along a moonlight path towards an outdoor bathroom. The night was dark with the moon peeking through trees, and I recall a slight mist against the trees. I looked into the sky, surprised at how many stars I could see.
As we walked along the path I heard what sounded like the unmistakable sound of dog tags clinking, the dog panting and footfalls crunching along the gravel behind us. I turned around and looked and saw two shadows stretching across the road, one of a man and one of a little dog. I heard them clearly, but as I followed the shadows to the source, there was no man or dog…just the sound and their shadows. My brain could not make sense of what I was seeing, and I was attempting to say something, but we had just arrived at the outhouse and went inside. I tried to explain what I had seen and my confusion, but she kept me focused on the task at hand. From inside I could hear the sounds of dog and man move past and fade into the distance.
After we left to return to the tent, I looked around and saw nothing. When I said there was a man and dog but not really there, which was as articulate as I could manage at that age, she said, “It’s dark. It was nothing,” and hurried me back into the tent without another word. It left an impression on me.
Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was exposed to the pop culture boom of ESP, poltergeists, reincarnation, UFOs, Ouija boards and witchcraft, the Addams Family and the Munsters. Shadows, scary things and my own intuitive abilities became normalized in my world, and I learned to adapt by channeling this into art and creativity. My drawings looked oddly unsettling for a little girl from the suburbs.
My first tarot deck was gifted to me by a friend named Louise, who received the cards as a gift but didn’t like them. I was 11 years old and happy to accept them, and I immediately tried my hand at reading. I found the cards frustrating at first but kept at it and saved my pennies to buy paperbacks about how to read tarot. Eventually, I improved and in my teens read for friends at parties. Oddly, this can make you feel simultaneously connected and completely isolated. I think that growing up with familial intuitive abilities and a heritage of advising and seership were the isolating factors, not the tarot. If anything, using cards was a relief from me simply making statements to people that were true and perceived as disarming and uncomfortable.
I’ve lived a life since and turned all of my passions to art, writing, equity, education, and my witch practice. I received professional training both with tarot and with intuitive abilities, as well as how to use them effectively and respectfully. I accepted that I would never blend in with the crowd even when I tried, and I embraced my witch heritage. Although I had a very early experience with actual shadows, I view them now as primarily behavioral and psychological aspects based on Jungian theory. Still, shadows will always remain enigmatic to me.
After a lengthy period of caregiving for family members, I spent a great deal of time reflecting and healing from PTSD, after which I decided to shift gears and create something I thought might help others. Because I had worked as a graphic designer and illustrator, and had the spiritual experience I felt necessary, I decided to self-publish 5 decks over the next four years.
The cards were well received and I felt inspired to dive into something a bit more challenging, and felt I was ready for tarot. The thought of 78 pieces of hand-drawn and painted art was daunting, let alone finding a theme and writing an accompanying book.
So, I sat with this for a while and reflected on all the things I felt most passionate about. At that time I had shifted away from oil painting, shadow boxes, and mixed media work, and I looked through my sketchbooks. I decided to take a chance and be authentic and sketchy rather than overworking every drawing, because it felt right and relatable somehow. Quirky characters emerged and reminded me that, when I was young, these were the images I created to deal with the many spooky things I encountered that had no place to go. I reclaimed a healing strategy: Laughing at the things that scare me.
Then it struck me that I had been looking years for a tarot deck fit for shadow work but could find none that suited me. An idea was born. I could use my lighthearted monsters and odd characters to embody our fears and unacknowledged aspects of ourselves: our shadow side.
After committing to the creation of a deck, I had to sit with my own shadows for a while and ensure that the years of work I had done gave me a good grasp of shadows, their effects, and how I integrate them. I reflected on how to emphasize shadow work as both intensely personal and an ongoing process.
I prepared my space spiritually and physically and ensured I honored the time and space to create, and I dove in. Beginning by collecting sacred moon water for the watercolors I was using, I found earth pigments with particular spiritual properties to paint with and added essential oils to the ink I was using. I journeyed to meet ancestors, spirits, and guides. I created a ritual space with candles for creating art and started my journey into Shadowland.
Each day passed in art-making bliss, and I was in the flow of the energies when I noticed that I seemed to live the message of each card, as it was being drawn and painted. Needless to say, making the Sun card was joyous and creating the Tower card was unpleasant. SO unpleasant that I temporarily went down a rabbit hole of questioning my abilities and a long night or two of facing the shadow of imposter syndrome. Fortunately, my ability to reflect, a supportive partner and community, my spirituality, and sheer stubbornness pushed me through.
After several months of toil, 78 works of art completed, and a manuscript written, I emerged from the shadows and into the light of Spring. I found the entire process intense, cathartic, and ultimately healing. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Our imagination is a space wherein the shadows of memories dwell and in which we alter our narratives to reflect moods and subjective recollections. Suddenly, an average looking person we dislike becomes physically ugly, and a person who said disturbing words to us quietly morphs into being yelled at. Learning to be objective is part of shadow work.
It can be difficult if we see ourselves as helpless in situations in which we can take control, but likewise when we attempt to take control of things that we are unable to change. Perhaps, if we look not directly in the mirror but into those dark corners where shadows hide, we can reclaim and accept neglected bits of our personality without judgment. Shadows are simply part of the human experience.
If along with my own journey of creation I have created a tool that will help just one person bridge the worlds of the seen and unseen, integrate shadows, or overcome doubt, I will be joyful. As I wrote this last statement, several crows cawed outside my window in noisy agreement.
Coming Next Week–
Part 2: How to Use the Shadowland Tarot Deck