Medieval Cat Tarot by Lawrence Teng
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

A friend of mine who lives in the city but visits her pied-a-terre most weekends has a unique way of thinking about and purchasing decks. She looks for "matches," decks that "play well together." Ironically, they never do get to play together; one lives in her weekend home and the other remains in her primary residence. Her philosophy is that these decks have similar qualities and by buying in pairs, she can always lay her hands on a particular and specific kind of deck.

So, when the Medieval Cat Tarot crossed my path, I thought of my friend immediately because this deck is so similar in theme to the recently-released Baroque Bohemian Cats Tarot by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, a deck my aforementioned friend owns. Not only are the decks both populated by and illustrated with felines, these felines are both attired in older costumes. This literally places both decks firmly in the same category.

The Baroque Bohemian Cats Tarot is a photographic collage deck, though. The Medieval Cat Tarot looks as though it were created using computer graphics. The Major Arcana are particularly well-done; they are full- length presentations of the archetypes, whimsically created in muted, but rich colors. The dark beige outer borders outline a dark brown lattice-like border, so the actual images are on the thin side (kind of like an underfed alley cat). All of the Major Arcana images are placed against a brown-on-brown patterned background, so all elements of the color scheme contribute to the old-fashioned, yet opulent, feel of the deck.

The Fool, dressed in a rich wine overcoat, has elongated lower extremities. They look more like tapered flippers than paws, which is the kind of feature that makes these cats less like real animals and more like fanciful creatures. In keeping with this whimsicality, the sun that shines on the Fool has thin lines representing rays, which, against a dark brown patterned background doesn't make for any kind of realistic scene.

However, cats in clothes demand a suspension of the rational mind, so get into a Disney mentality and enjoy the catwalk through the Fool's Journey. The Magician holds a candy cane wand as he looks outward at an unseen crowd. The Empress (at top) is unusual in that her kittens (who are rather grown-up little creatures) accompany her in the card. (The Emperor is far better dressed--I bet it's because he can avoid kittysitting duty!)

While the images are based on the Rider-Waite-Smith iconography, they are often simplified and stripped of symbolism (what a surprise in a cat deck!). The Pope wears the fancy hat and holds a cool scepter, but he has nary an acolyte (acatlyte?) to call his own. The Lovers contains a small Cupid-like kitty angel (he carries a bow and arrow) watching over two cats holding paws--there's neither a trace of Eden nor an attempt to show a male cat having to choose between two females. The Wheel of Fortune has four cats riding on the sides of the circular wheel, with another holding fast at the center position. It's a cute enough image, but if you are trying to place the four evangelists, give up now.

One of my favorite cards is The Hermit--the wise cat is attired like a whimsical Sherlock Holmes and has an owl perched on his shoulder. While none of the cards are numbered, the cards' order in the box indicates that Justice is VIII and Strength, XI.

There are only two cards that don't feature a cat. One is Death, which shows part of a skeletal face underneath a rich fur cloak hood. Butterflies surround the bony figure, and the large scythe arcs over the image like a dangerous silver moon. The Devil holds a dark black cat mask, but we see an orange fox face peering out from behind the mask.

The Moon is a thick crescent that weeps--and a sad orange cat cloaked in fine fur stands in front of it--no doubt mourning the mouse that got away.

The only two cards that are titled differently than the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot are the High Priestess and the Hierophant, which are the Popess and Pope, respectively.  The Court Cards are Page, Knight, Queen, and King and the suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins. If we had no little white booklet (LWB) to refer to, we wouldn't know the suit titles unless we looked at the Court Cards, because the Minors don't contain any written designators.

Before you get too excited, thinking that fact indicates the images are undefiled by writing so you can enter them more easily, calm down. It ain't gonna be easy to enter these Minors! Why? Because they are very, very small. Imagine how large we look to our cats. Imagine how large cats look to mice. Well, using those proportions, these Minor Arcana images are akin to mice to our unaccustomed (and possibly aging) eyes.

Speaking of mice, the Ace of Pentacles is graced with three sighted ones--mice, that is. The Ace of Swords is adorned with birds, the Ace of Cups, a fish, and the Ace of Wands, a salamander. While the last three are traditional correspondences, the first is the most cat-appropriate--though my cat would consider a bird or a fish a nice gift, too.

While the artwork on the Aces is deliciously large, the rest of the Minors are decorated with the suit totem as the background and a very small cameo image at the center. These images are often quite simple and sometimes hard to distinguish from their background, such as the Three of Pentacles shown here. The picture of a cat holding a stringed instrument is cute enough, but doesn't provide much of a mnemonic for a novice reader, and the color scheme makes it difficult to see this card as anything but a glorified card back. The cards that have some blue in the central image are the most exciting, because the contrast allows the picture to stand out a bit.

Experienced readers can extrapolate traditional interpretations from the central image, and many of these cameos transmit a lot of information considering their diminutive size. All of the Minors are clearly based on the Rider-Waite Smith iconography. Particularly clever (and one of the most unusual depictions) is the Seven of Swords, which shows an innocent looking cat standing beside an open birdcage...and some loose, tell-tale feathers float by, indicating the innocuous feline has seized more than the day.

There are only two Minor Arcana cards that don't compute initially. The Eight of Cups shows a cat tipping vessels into a well. This flummoxed me, so I referred to the LWB: "The Eight of Cups has a similar energy to the Four, in that we are taking personal inventory and considering what we have already completed on emotional levels in our lives as having no more to offer us. However, when we go in search of new emotional fulfillment, we must guard against "Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater. We may be able to bring new pleasure in to enhance that which we have already gained." I looked at the image again, and could see neither "Baby" nor kitten, so I remain flummoxed.

The other confusing image is the Ten of Coins, which features a crowned cat wearing a tartan cape. I can see the idea of legacy via clan-dom through the Scotch plaid, but the message according to the LWB is that it represents the pinnacle of material reward. How will a novice discern the Ten of Coins from its King?

It's not a huge problem. Just a tiny one.

Like the tiny images. Which is more of a problem for me--and the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this review. She ordered the deck with the express desire to mate it (asexually speaking) with the Baroque Bohemian and then saw some of the cards online--and hissed. She was so disgusted at the size of the Minor Arcana central images that she spoke of canceling her order. While the deck is certainly very "readable," its size impacts its aesthetic power.

And while that wouldn't be a reason to eschew the deck if you wanted one with a adorably attired cats, when there are two that have such a specifically comparable theme, it is only natural to...compare them. Choose between them. And the Medieval Cat Tarot is sadly undermatched in such a comparison--it's not as clever, it's not as charming, and it's not as pleasing to the eye. If both of these decks were at the ASPCA and only one could go home with you, which would you choose?

That doesn't mean the deck doesn't have any redeeming qualities. Far from it. The production is very professional and the set is highly attractive. The brown and beige backs are tasteful and complement the images well. The interpretations in the LWB are longer and more complex and, as such, will be more valuable to beginners than the skimpier ones in many LWBs.

Unfortunately, the playful tone of the deck is not matched by the writing, and a lot of the descriptions are not specifically based on the images, despite the LWB being co-authored by the artist. For example, in The Fool, we read: "[O]ur Fool travels light--he does not even carry a backpack." A cat without a knapsack is a rather unremarkable sight. This is a deck devoted to cats, yet there is nothing about felines in the LWB. According to it, "[I]n The Lovers card...we see two young people." No, "we" don't; there are only cats in my deck. Yet the LWB alludes to humans as seen in the cards again and again. The description of the Wheel of Fortune contains a quotation about flies, yet nary a word about felines. I don't get it. Two unique spreads are provided--one is a Court Card-based layout and the other is a 12 card "Short But Sweet Spread." Twelve cards is not generally considered a short spread, but the authors assert that you can read the cards more quickly because they are read in pairs. Reading cards in pairs does not shorten my interpretations--if anything, decoding the synergistic message fully expands and lengthens them.

For me, the best thing about this deck is that all of the cats featured are orange ones. As the mother of an orange fur creature, I am a bit partial to this choice. The whimsicality of the images, combined with their Disney-like gentleness (The Tower, The Devil and even Death are not even moderately frightening) make this an excellent deck to use with children. It would also work well for storytelling--especially children's stories. Lastly, you'll find this deck rather easily in your local Barnes and Noble--as opposed to the Baroque Bohemian Cats Tarot. This could save you time and energy, which any cat could tell you is advantageous--more time to take a nap!

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI  n/a  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Discs) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element X  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                     X
Thinner than standard           4 3/4" x 2 1/2"                   X
Larger than standard                                               X

Illustrations from the Medieval Cat Tarot reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA.  Copyright 2005 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  Further reproduction prohibited. 
Review and page 2005 Diane Wilkes