Golden Tarot by Kat Black
Review by Diane Wilkes

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

This deck is even more beautiful and complex than the story of its publication. Black originally created a deck for herself and put it on the Internet, generously sharing her artwork with other tarot aficionados. Unfortunately, some less-than-ethical individuals pirated her Major Arcana images and published them as a "Tarot Kalendar 2002" without informing the artist. When Tarot Garden began to sell these decks, tarot enthusiast Diane Turek directed them to Kat Black's site, letting them know that the artist had been illegally thrust out of the profit equation. Tarot Garden stopped selling copies and, in addition, they, along with Judy Tillinger and many other fans of the deck, started a campaign to get this deck legally published--and today, it is.

Well, sort of. US Games wanted the deck to hew to the RWS iconology as much as possible, and Black altered many of the original cards to reflect that desire. Those who remember the pirated calendar cards note that more than half of the Majors are completely different (The Empress, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgment and the World). In almost every case, I prefer the new versions (though I have a lingering fondness for the old Chariot and Star cards).

Artistically speaking, while the deck creator has focused on what she refers to as International Gothic Art, one's first impulse upon looking at this deck would be to attribute the majority of images to Italian Renaissance painters. However, Black has seamlessly woven a deck that is rather diverse in its origins--Flemish, German, and Swiss artists are all resources for the collaged images. The priority seems to have been to create RWS-derived images, as opposed to choosing a "pure" genre. The art is all taken from the years 1200 - 1500; this 300 year period covers a wide range of artists and artistic styles and approaches.

If these cards were simply beautiful renditions of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), the deck would be an achievement, but because the artists Black draws from weren't planning a tarot based on the RWS, she has had to approach things creatively, adding subtle differences that add to the reader's arsenal. This is what makes the deck such a great gift.

The Fool is a woman troubadour of sorts, drumming in a flowering forest. She has a fixed quality often lacking in this archetype, giving her a shamanic or earth-based strength. The Magician is a holy man who seems able to communicate with animals--more Dr. Doolittle than Dr. Faustus. The Empress holds a healthy baby on her lap, escalating potential creativity to its manifestation. Assuming the reader uses an image-based approach, these shadings impact and enrich a reading.

The Chariot (at top) depicts a woman who looks as if she is standing on a moving dais, emphasizing the victorious warrior aspect of this card; she is not actually driving the swan-drawn vehicle. The imagery on The Wheel of Fortune is dominated by a woman suckling a babe on her bed as an older man stirs the fire, giving us a vignette of the eternal cycle of life. The Wheel itself, bordered by the Four Evangelists, is more of a wall decoration than the focus of the card.

Justice, numbered XI, is particularly fascinating, offering much in the way of interpretation. On it, an angel balances the scales of humanity. Tipping the balance to the nether world, a man is pulled downward by demons, but little angels are lifting a woman on the other side upward towards the heavens. Along with the angel's red wings, Black gives Justice a vitality not often seen in this card.

Some of the more ominous Majors are lightened, but not in a treacly way. Death is a beautiful woman of sepulchral white, holding a flower as angels rush to her side. The Golden Tarot Death is far less stark than the RWS skeleton version, yet in its own way, just as blatantly irreversible. The Tower shows someone hurtling downward from a burning building, but his Guardian Angel is by his side. This doesn't mean he's not going to die, just a reminder that we are protected in death as we are in life. Also, there is a grieving family at the bottom of the image, taking up half the card. This seems a reminder that worldly comfort is transitory and we must deal with the aftermath of our own blazing buildings.

Black has given the Minor Arcana the same loving attention as her Majors--perhaps even more, as some of them must have been quite challenging to replicate. Anyone familiar with the RWS Minors will recognize these images immediately. Even so, these cards are enriched by the special touches the images evoke. The Five of Cups, for example, shows a grieving Pope, comforted by an underling. The three cups that remain upright indicate that, while weeping endureth for a night, peace will eventually be returned one morning--and that it isn't weakness to feel sorrow--it comes to all of us, great and small. The Three of Swords includes a veined ruby heart pierced by the conventional three foils, yet you also see a sad, but strong, woman in red covering her heart with her arms, which somewhat softens the image. The Nine of Swords shows a man in bed, head in hands, as nine rapiers hang above him, but Churchill's "black dog" of depression adds a recognizable nuance that can be addressed by the reader.

The Court Cards are more of a mixed bag for me. I love some of them, but others seem flat and less nuanced than the other cards. The elaborately adorned Page of Cups has a gentle dreaminess that is quite evocative, and the Page of Pentacles is an interesting combination of the scholar and the materialist. The Knight of Coins is properly immobile, but the Knight of Wands seems static and the Knight of Cups is a bit too much of a ramrod in form for such an emotional court card. My usual significator, the Queen of Wands is simply glorious, but the Queen of Swords seems simultaneously bloated and anemic and the Queen of Coins seems to have found a bad smell--a rotten fish, perhaps?--in her famed kitchens. The King of Cups card stands out as one of the few cards that employs a deep blue color, and effectively provides an emotional ebb and flow to this Court Card. The King of Coins is perfect, a King Midas who appreciates his gold and the fruits of his wealth without being obsessed by it.

Speaking of the courts, the astrological attributions are inconsistently and intermittently applied--the Queen of Swords is given the astrological attribution of Virgo, but there is no symbol to represent that sign (which is normally attributed to the earthy Pentacles--Coins, in this deck). The other Swords Courts aren't given astrological attributions, but a power animal (the butterfly); no other suit follows this repeated animal emblem. Some Pages are assigned astrological suits, but there seems to be no rhyme nor reason--the Page of Coins is assigned the cardinal suit of Capricorn!

Instead of the textbook Little White Booklet (LWB), an almost 200-page companion booklet is included with the Golden Tarot. However, if you are looking for in-depth card interpretations, you will be sadly disappointed.  Almost 80 of the pages are devoted to providing the original art sources for each card and appear at the end of the booklet. I am grateful for this information and think it is most appropriate, though I would have liked the art sources integrated into the card meanings.

Speaking of the card meanings, the interpretations are not particularly in-depth, and some of them are downright odd. The meaning given for the Empress, for example, starts with the sentence, "In a true victory, both sides are winners." This seems irrelevant within the context of the archetype and the specific Golden Tarot image. However, the Emperor's meaning begins with the words, "There can be no winners without losers," and I imagine Black's intent was to draw a contrast between these two closely connected cards. However, since we see no losers in the Emperor card, the contrast escapes me.

Another curiosity is the provided meaning of The Hierophant: "This card indicates a time of change, particularly in relationships...It is time to leave the past behind you, clearing your mind of past thoughts and feelings." The first sentence in the meaning for The Chariot: "Horses will only follow the reigns [sic] if they want to," which later goes on to stress the importance of working with others to achieve victory. The given meaning for the Hanged Man starts out, "Trust that all will get what they deserve." These are very modern and unconventional interpretations, and not in keeping with the time period of the artwork. In The Star, the artist has chosen to keep the traditional number of stars (signifying the planets as they were known at the time of the Renaissance). She fails to explain that choice to the reader, which would be beneficial and era-appropriate, yet speaks of pessimism and negativity. Within the context of the deck, this seems problematic to me, especially as the progressive psychological approach is not applied throughout the booklet ("If there are more than four Swords in a spread, this could be an ill omen.").

In all fairness, however, Black states at the beginning of the booklet, "[Y]our own interpretations will become more important than those I've given here. Consider my words a guide only." Veteran readers will probably want to refer to the interpretations rarely, if at all. The good news is that the cards, multi-layered and sophisticated, offer wonderful and innovative approaches to the Major and Minor Arcana, yet are based on the familiar RWS iconography.

The mode of packaging is new for US Games and is both lovely and practical. An elegant, well-constructed box holds the deck and the companion booklet upright. It has a separate top, as opposed to a fold-in. This box is far sturdier than US Games tarot boxes tend to be. The gilt edging of the cards, precisely because of the exquisite artistry of the images, adds a luxurious note that harkens to an older time when craftsmanship mattered more than it does today. The card backs evoke the feeling of a golden tapestry and are reversible. A title card and a card with a brief note from the author are included with the 78 cards, and I have found that I can easily keep them separated by using the book in between them. That way, I don't have to go through the process of making sure I am not mistakenly including the extra cards every time I use the Golden Tarot.

Which will be often, because the combination of beauty, intelligence, and the interesting nuances added by the unique symbolism of the individual art make this a great reading deck. I give the Golden Tarot my highest recommendation, and though it's early days yet, I don't think it's too soon to declare this the mainstream deck of the year.

Golden Tarot by Kat Black
Publisher: US Games
ISBN#: 1572814349

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

You can peruse a sample reading with this deck here.

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

Illustrations from the Golden Tarot reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA.  Copyright 2004 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  Further reproduction prohibited. 
Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes