Tarot of the Animal Lords by Angelo Giannini
Review by Lee Bursten
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
This is truly the most delightful tarot deck I’ve ever seen. My guess is that the artist experienced a strong current of sheer joy in the act of its creation, and when I look at these cards I feel a corresponding happiness.
It could certainly be called charming, but I think this deck goes beyond charming. Angelo Giannini has created a fantasy world as fully-developed and nuanced as the best fantasy novels. I wouldn’t characterize it as a whimsical, light, or fluffy deck. Although there are some cards which are joyously whimsical, there are many others which embrace mythic and/or tragic dimensions.
The “gimmick” of this deck is that the scenes all take place in natural settings, and the figures on the cards are humans with animal heads. As Bepi Vigna points out in his well-written introduction in the Little White Booklet, animals have always been very basic and important symbols of different aspects of human nature. As it turns out, the animals in this deck are wonderfully effective at communicating the archetypes of the Major Arcana and the everyday moods and characters of the Minor Arcana with an electric immediacy which is rare in tarot decks.
The artwork is amazing; so amazing that I had a devilishly difficult time choosing which cards to scan for this review. Each card presents its own little world, and the animal/human figures, the costumes, the props, surrounding animals, settings, and atmospheric conditions all blend together into a seamless whole, despite the logical incongruities inherent in many of these combinations. Like the best fantasy literature, the scenes are fully realized and really seem to come alive. For this reason, these would be excellent images to enter for meditative purposes.
I am told by someone whose opinion I trust that there are various technical flaws in the artwork, such as anatomy and perspective. If I look closely I can see some of them; on some cards, for example, hands grasp and hold objects in not quite the correct way. But I plead guilty to a lack of knowledge of the technical side of art. I’m just one of those “I know what I like” sort of people, and I like this artwork very much.
One effect I particularly like is that all the cards have been “distressed”; that is, various translucent blotches and stains are visible, as well as faint lines where it appears that the original artwork has been literally scratched or scraped. This is a wonderful effect; it gives one the feeling that the pictures are imperfect transmissions from another world, and reminds me of the staticky radio transmissions from the underworld in Jean Cocteau’s film “Orphée.”
Giannini has obviously chosen the animals for each card with a great deal of care. (Thank goodness, the animals on the cards are listed in the little white booklet (LWB). If this were a U.S. Games deck, we probably would have been forced to buy an accompanying book to find out what the animals were.) Some, like the owl on Justice (top), carry mythological associations (in this case, the owl is traditionally associated with Athene, the Greek goddess of justice). Others, like the mongoose and snake on Strength, are derived from the characteristics of those particular animals. Several of the animals seem to have been chosen simply because they make for a picturesque image, which gives the whole deck a nice absurdist edge.
There are several extremely clever choices. For example, the Wheel (the Wheel of Fortune) shows the life cycle of a butterfly. The Tower shows a beaver falling as a wall of water destroys his dam.
I was absolutely astounded to see that Giannini’s inventiveness and fertility of imagination continues unabated in the Minor Arcana, every card of which is as carefully imagined and painted as the Majors. The artist uses the general idea or mood from the corresponding Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) card and communicates that same idea or mood without mimicking the RWS picture. For instance, the bravery and high adrenaline level of the Seven of Wands is effectively shown by a frilled lizard wielding a sword. In the Seven of Swords, illustrating the subtle art of diplomacy, one snake confides in another, while both keep their knives out of view. And the aforementioned mythic dimension is evoked in the Eight of Chalices, in which a mendicant yak contemplates his path, holding a staff decorated with skulls.
As often happens with Lo Scarabeo decks, there is something of a disconnect between the artist and the author of the LWB’s divinatory meanings. While the art effectively evokes the RWS meanings, the LWB’s author seems to be on a different page, so to speak. As an example, the gnu on the Five of Chalices bears a suitably melancholic expression, but the LWB speaks of “Protection on behalf of the family, groundless fears, secrets, dread, dangerous alliances.”
Lest anyone think this is a simplistic or childish deck, there are several cards which are quite serious, such as the Ten of Swords which shows a gazelle shot dead with arrows, while vultures perch nearby. And the Queen of Swords (also not pictured) as a praying mantis is quite the horror story.
Finally, who could look at the King of Chalices and not feel deeply happy?
In a nice design touch, the suits are assigned specific animals, which appear in a small circle at the upper left of the numbered Minors (Ace through Ten). Wands are salamanders, Swords are butterflies, Chalices are crabs, and Pentacles are beetles.
This deck will have wide appeal to anyone who enjoys seeing traditional tarot figures pictured in new and exciting ways. Needless to say, it’s a terrific deck to read with, as well as to simply enjoy looking at. I predict it will be one of Lo Scarabeo’s most successful decks.
Tarot of the Animal Lords by Angelo Giannini; Instructions by Bepi Vigna
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
Distributed in U.S. by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0738704474
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
You can peruse a sample reading with this deck here.
Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages. He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot.