Tarot of the Cat People by Karen Kuykendall
Review by Lee A. Bursten

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This odd deck was published in 1985, and the accompanying book in 1991. It is quite imaginative and original, despite the B-movie title. There are many decks which have novelistic features, in that they seem to illustrate scenes from a specific story or locale which is more or less mysterious. Kuykendall has carried this concept a step further into what is called "world-building" by science fiction and fantasy authors. In her book, Tarot of the Cat People: A Travelerís Report, she describes in loving detail the world which her deck illustrates, including geography, ecology, zoology, politics, religion, language, economics, art, and costume.

The locale, which is set on an unknown planet, is a territory of desert wilderness called "The Outer Regions," which are broken down into five kingdoms, each with its own geography and customs. Each kingdomís society and customs are reflective of its geography; for example, the kingdom of Thnossis is volcanically unstable, and so its inhabitants are fiery, energetic, and quarrelsome. All of the peoples of the kingdoms are known as the "Cat People," and a main feature of the overall society is the symbiotic relationship between humans and various breeds of cats. The cats serve several functions. Watchcats guard the algae ponds upon which the Cat People depend for survival; "kottis," or housecats, serve as pets; leopards guard herds of cattle and serve as companions for royalty. Kuykendall does not make clear the extent of the catsí sentience. They certainly seem more intelligent and self-aware than earth felines, but they do not seem to communicate directly with their human companions. Cats also figure largely in the humansí art and costume.

At times, the society Kuykendall describes seems like a Utopian vision; there is no war, disease is practically unknown, and the Cat People have a Native-American-like spiritual connection to the land. However, she does describe some of the darker sides of life in the Outer Regions. I found the jumping rats particularly alarming. And Kuykendall reassures us that, "Human sacrifice is rare in the Outer Regions, but it does take place, especially during severe drought Ö in Thnossis a ruler may be sacrificed Ė willingly or not."

While the author goes to great lengths to describe her world as it currently exists, she says nothing about how Earth-like humans and cats originally came to inhabit the planet. Nor does she have anything to say about the relationship the planet has to other planets or to Earth. Also, nowhere in the book does she explain why there is a Tarot deck about these people. Do the Cat People read Tarot? We are left to guess.

I truly admire Kuykendallís breadth of imagination and the fact that she took the time and trouble to so painstakingly create and document such a world. Unfortunately, I find that the deck itself does not serve as a good illustration of that world. The deck certainly has its virtues. It gets high marks for creating an atmospheric mood, and for a unique style. But very many of the details described in the book are not present in the cards. Perhaps this is a function of the book being written after the deck was published, but the fact of the matter is that only the jewelry, costumes, and hair styles described in the book are evident in the cards.

For the deck she has used the Major Arcana and the four suits to represent the five kingdoms. The Valpala kingdom, home of the aristocracy, is represented by the Major Arcana, and the four other kingdoms are assigned to the suits according to the geography of the land and the personalities of the people. The aforementioned fiery Thnossis kingdom, for example, is represented by the suit of Wands.

The basic design of each card is to show a human in an elaborate costume posing against a stark background and holding a few props, usually accompanied by large or small cats. The humans are somewhat stylized, and are usually shown standing. What stands out from each picture is the extensive detail of the costumes. In fact, the pictures look like nothing so much as costume designs from a play or movie, perhaps "Kismet" or "Planet of the Apes."

The costumes and bearing of the figures are certainly striking, and the landscapes are done in a very interesting way. The settings are rather vague, consisting of rounded boulders and sand dunes. The backgrounds are either starry, black skies, or else washes of a single color, like green or beige or gold, which are done with a curious pointillist technique which Stuart Kaplan tells us in the introduction to the book was accomplished by splattering paint with a toothbrush. I did think it a little odd that there were no representations of the searing sun one would expect to see in a desert environment.

Nowhere evident in the deck are many of the subtle details from the book, such as the green glass geodesic domes under which the Twahihic or Sand people live, or the algae ponds which are so vital to the Cat Peopleís survival. (The book identifies the background of Temperance as an algae pond, but to me it just looks like abstract swirls of color.) And the geographical features of the five kingdoms, which are so painstakingly distinguished in the book, are all represented by the same generic rounded boulders and sand dunes in the cards. If I had never read the book, I would never have guessed that the five kingdoms had different topographies.

Although visually striking, I find this style to be ultimately limiting, because there isnít much to go on when looking for interpretive clues. For example, when I look at the High Priestess and the Empress, if there had been no titles I would have been hard-pressed to tell which is supposed to be which, except for the two cat-pillars behind the High Priestess.

Some of the cards make more of an effort to show traditional Tarot imagery, such as the Chariot; while Strength illustrates the symbiotic relationship between humans and cats. Notice that on Strength, as in the rest of the deck, the catís face is much more expressive than the humanís.

Two cards I particularly liked were Death and the Devil, which manage to be amusing and macabre at the same time.

The Minor cards generally follow the Waite-Smith model, but in several cases the meaning of the card is not at all clear from the picture. For example, the Nine of Swords shows a man posing with some swords, but we must read the book to find out that he is a battle leader who is weighing whether the carnage of combat was worthwhile. Many of the Minors have striking details, like the Ace of Cups with its cat who floats on his back in delight.

The divinatory meanings are the standard Stuart Kaplan ones, some of which make no sense to me. For example, the first meaning given for the World is "Attachment," whatever that means.

From everything Iíve read about this deck on the Internet, it seems to have a small but devoted following, and deservedly so. Itís a visually striking deck with a truly unique style, and the book supplies a huge amount of background information which no other deck/book set has ever equaled, as far as I know, before or since. But I was so taken with the details of Kuykendallís world that I was saddened to see so many of them missing from the cards.

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

Tarot of the Cat People by Karen Kuykendall
Publisher: U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
ISBN #: 0-88079-532-8

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 © 1985 US Games Systems, Inc.
Review © 2001 Lee Bursten
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes










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