The Atavist Tarot by Sally Annett (Deck) and Rowena Shepherd (Book)

Review by Lee A. Bursten 


I really wanted to like this deck.  It features strikingly attractive and original artwork.  The artist, Sally Annett, has a refreshing lack of respect for consistency.  Most of the cards are painted in acrylic, but some are photographs.  Several of the cards are in landscape orientation.  Many of the images have been digitally manipulated.


According to the back cover of the book, “Indicating a return to primitive or ancestral forms, ’atavist’ perfectly describes the authors’ intellectual and spiritual quest for fundamental principles.”  To me the artwork actually seems quite modern, but it does have a certain savage energy.  The figures (when they aren’t stick figures) are multicultural, in keeping with the artist’s statement that “as well as being aware of our individual identities, we should also be aware of the similarities of our lost joint histories … we may have fought long and deadly wards amongst our different tribes, but in the beginning and forever, we are all part of the one human race.”


The Chariot is a good example of Annett’s vivid style.  The Magus (The Magician) is perhaps more typical of the Major Arcana, which are mostly rather dark and murky.  Some of Annett’s pictures are a little too abstract for my taste, such as Death.  My interest in a Tarot deck always wanes considerably when I need a label to tell me which card I’m looking at.  The book says that there’s a “hidden skeletal figure,” but I don’t see it.


Although the style and content are original, one can discern influences from the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck, and in fact it’s stated in the book that the Thoth was the only deck the artist had used before painting the deck.  I was impressed by the fact that the original canvases measure five feet by three feet, which must surely set the record for originals of Tarot paintings.


The Minors are more varied in media.  Many of them are digitally manipulated photographs.  I liked the Discs cards the most, which feature photographs of landscapes with various kinds of discs added digitally, such as the Eight of Discs.  The landscapes provide a welcome relief from the claustrophobia induced by the dark, swirling Majors.  For me, though, the other suits seemed disjointed and overly manipulated.


The Court cards (Man, Woman, Girl, and Boy) are also quite varied, ranging from the charmingly mundane (the Man of Cups) to the completely incomprehensible (the Boy of Swords).


Personally, I like very much the variety of media and styles.  It really opens out the deck and helps each card to make more of an individual impact.  When the cards are laid out, you get the pleasant sensation of walking through a museum or art gallery.


My real problems with the deck begin with the choice by the artist to photograph several of the paintings with an out-of-focus camera, which I can only assume to be deliberate.  She was obviously going for a certain effect, but for me the result is that the first thing I think when I look at the card is, “eww, it’s out of focus.”  I find this distracting and uncomfortable.


Next, I did not care for the digital manipulation.  Compared to such digital wizards as Stevee Postman (Cosmic Tribe Tarot), Paul Mason (Sacred Circle Tarot) and J. Philip Thomas (Tarot de Paris), this work seems clumsy and outdated.  Many of the pictures look like they were photographed off a computer monitor or television screen, and in fact remind me of video performance art from the ‘70s.


I also don’t like the repeated use of images.  The Girl of Swords features a well-painted and interesting face, but the attraction dims when the same image is used (with some digital fuzzing) as the Woman of Swords.  There are several instances of this throughout the deck.  I suppose it could be seen as adding cohesion to the deck.  Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see completely new artwork for each card.  Otherwise, I can’t escape the feeling that the artist simply couldn’t be bothered thinking up something new.


The book, by Rowena Shepherd, is excellent.  I love the titles of the sections (“The Front Path,” an introduction; “The Front Door,” meeting the deck; “The Hallway,” instructions for reading and spreads; “The Study,” card interpretations; “The Attic,” tarot history; “The Kitchen,” essays about the creation of the deck and the views of the authors; and “The Library,” a bibliography).


Shepherd has done an excellent job in coming up with interpretations for the more abstract cards.  For some of the cards, I said to myself, “Let’s see her come up with a good meaning for that one!”  But, sure enough, she does.  For the Majors, she provides a short, lyrical paragraph or poem, keywords, divinatory meaning, advice, questions, and elucidation of the symbolism on the card, as well as a list of Qabalistic correspondences.  For the Minors she supplies keywords, divinatory meanings, advice, and discussion of symbolism.  She also provides a fairly thorough introduction to Qabalah, and I particularly appreciated her sample readings, which demonstrate a sophisticated sense of how cards can relate to each other during a reading.  She also has a rather extensive chapter on Tarot history.  Toward the end of the book the artist herself contributes some essays, which were interesting, but some of them, like “The ‘Lost’ Female Histories” and “Genetics and Race,” seemed to have been included simply so she could get some of her pet theories in print, and not because they had anything to do with her Tarot deck.


The book has been excellently produced, with a stiff paper cover which folds out at the front and back covers, and inside the covers are full-color reproductions of all the cards, with page numbers so you can easily find the interpretations in the book.  Unfortunately, the cards are the worst-produced I’ve ever seen. The edges all bear thick paper nubs from when the printed sheets were separated.  On one card in my deck, it wasn’t just a nub but a quarter inch of paper hanging off the card.  And the card stock must be the thinnest of all the decks I own.  The set does come with the cards in their own box, but the well which holds the deck is made up of flaps of cardboard which aren’t attached to anything, so the deck falls right through them.  When I first opened the package, I had to fish the smaller box out of the inside of the larger one.


I was amused by the copy on the back of the set, the back of the book, and the front and back cover flaps of the book, which is overflowing with fulsome praise for the author, the artist, and the deck.  I haven’t seen such self-congratulatory prose since reading James Wanless’s book for his Voyager deck, “The Way of the Great Oracle.”


As of this writing (March of ’03) the deck is only available in Great Britain.  I got mine from British Amazon (see links at top and bottom of this page).  The deck and book are available separately and as a set, although I can’t imagine anyone being able to make use of the deck, at least for the more obscure cards, without the book.


Overall, I find that this isn’t a deck which calls for me to work with it.  But I’m sure the artwork will appeal to many, and if one does want to read with it, the book provides a pleasant and indispensable guide.



The Atavist Tarot

Deck by Sally Annett, Book by Rowena Shepherd

Published by Quantum

An imprint of Foulsham & Co. Ltd.

The Publishing House, Bennetts Close,

Cippenham, Slouh, Berkshire

SL1 5AP, England

ISNB Numbers:

Deck  0-572-02806-7

Book 0-572-02582-3

Set 0-572-02810-5


Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © Quantum
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes