Meeting the Tarot of the Cat People

All card images and quoted text © Tarot of the Cat People by Karen Kuykendall, published 1985 by US Games Inc.

My birthday present to myself was – of course – a new tarot deck.

It’s been ages since I had a new deck to play with, and the Tarot of the Cat People caught my eye a few weeks earlier – for some reason I’d never seen it before.

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Perhaps it had passed me by because of it’s name – I’m a cat person, for sure, but that doesn’t mean I want a tarot deck based on this theme. As a rule I don’t really enjoy ‘themed’ decks or anything with a touch of ‘novelty’ or ‘whimsy’ about it.

But this is definitely not a novelty deck, nor is it whimsical or twee.

The Tarot of the Cat People, by Californian artist Karen Kuykendall, is bold, colourful, weird and populated by an intriguing cast of characters (human and feline). It’s a sci-fi deck, set in the mythical realms of the Outer Regions. I love the rich colours of the cards, and the sandstone texture of the landscape, which Kuykendall created using a toothbrush.

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To reach the Outer Regions, one must travel through high rugged mountain passes, stopping periodically at way stations. The boundary is obvious: one suddenly looks down from the chill, windswept heights and holds the flat yellow plains of the desert shimmering far below. … The vase expanse evokes a great aw and also fear, for below lies an apparently lifeless, unknown land. From this point on, travellers are strictly on their own.

It’s a haunting deck.

The characters shown are gaunt and seem sort of frightening – even the ones who are smiling. They clearly have powers and knowledge we visitors can’t understand. But a little reading helps me to warm to them (and their awesome outfits and hairstyles help too.)

The little white book describes a people who love arts and crafts, who have adapted to their fierce landscape, and whose belief system rejects organised religion and instead revolves around honouring the elements (wind, stars, sand, rocks, skies…) and the spirits that govern these.

There are five kingdoms (one for each of the four suits, and another for the major cards) ruled hierarchically by kings and queens. These are inhabited by nomadic tribes who have their own traditions and beliefs, “rituals and forms of worship are conducted by the ruling class or rise spontaneously from the people.”

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A peculiar feature is an awesome silence. It is this silence, this feeling of profound loneliness, that most find so frightening. The cry of an animal, the trickle of water, the rumble of a falling rock, the wail of the wind, the gentle ‘ping’ of tiny grains of sand bouncing on soft air currents over the slick-rock, come as a welcome relief from the silence. Sound, when it occurs, can be heard for miles.

The Cat People who inhabit this strange place – which is scorched in the daytime and frozen at night – are so called because of their “mystical rapport” with nature, and especially with cats. As the little white book says, “cats are loved, honoured, even obeyed. … Cats are everywhere, as living animals and as themes in sculpture, jewellery and music, with some instruments imitating their sounds perfectly. A favourite pastime is exchanging cat stories.”

It’s important to note how cats appear in each image.

One to look out for in particular is the Blue Leopard, which chooses its company carefully, and is a loyal companion only to the most special people (surely it’s this cat that accompanies The Moon, above?) I also love the Black Panther ‘ “a cat of the shadows” – which walks silently beside the King and Queen of Swords, and the ridiculously cute leopard ridden by the knight in Strength:

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The cards mirror the standard structure of tarot, with the four suits being the traditional swords, cups, pentacles and cups, gender representation being the usual binary, and card titles being standard.

An exception is Judgement, which here, is called ‘Rejuvenation’.

It’s beautiful:

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Everything in this card exudes a feeling of joyful release. Rather than rising out of a coffin, as in the Rider Waite Smith type decks, here a naked figure is bursting out of a ‘pod’, as though she really is being born. It’s such a happy card. And look at the face of the cat!

It is currently in its ninth life and looking forward to a tenth. Each of the cat heads, which represent the cat’s past eight lives, has a different expression, symbolic of some mood or event in the past.

I’ve only read with this deck once, so far – I used it for my birthday reading, where it served me very well. Reading through the little white book, it’s clear that Kuykendall interprets many of the cards very differently to me, so as always, the book is put away. I prefer to get to know a deck on my own terms first, dipping into the book when journalling or exploring a specific card.

That said, the little white book is worth reading for its description of the Outer Regions and the five kingdoms within – I’m very tempted to get the full length book, the Tarot of the Cat People – A Traveller’s Report to explore the landscape and its people further.

You can buy this deck directly from US Games Inc for $20.

What do you think of this deck? Share your views in the comments!

 

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14 comments

  1. Thank you for this little show case. I have to say, I’m more of a dog person myself but this one has been on my wish list for a while. I didn’t realise there was also a companion book! I’m still sticking with my trust Shaman-Caselli and Magical Forest decks while I’m (re)learning the tarot….So hard not to rush out and buy ALL OF THE DECKS!

  2. Claire says:

    I have been connecting with this deck over the last two or three years, and I love it. I haven’t seen much of it in my tarot Internet explorations, so I’m really excited we’ll get your take on it, Beth!

    The cats add so much depth to the cards for me. They can often add softness or humor to a stern-looking human, or add to their sense of power. They are so expressive!

    • Beth says:

      Yeah, they really do! I’ve not read with it much yet but looking forward to working with it (and possibly using with clients if we really bond) this year.

  3. Cat People was my first deck, more than 20 years ago, and it’s been a good friend to me.

    By the way, there are two novels set in this world, written by Andre Norton, The Mark of the Cat and The Year of the Rat. The first was traditionally published and is out of print, but it’s possible to find in used book stores or online as a pirate ebook. The second wasn’t picked up by a publisher but was self-pubbed years later, and is very hard to find.

    Kuykendall was a Big Name Fan, costumer and SFF artist in the 70s and 80s — which is how she came to know Norton — and made wearable versions of Cat People clothes, including elaborate papier mache jewelry.

    • Beth says:

      Wow, thanks for adding all this! I hadn’t realised that the Outer Worlds and Cat People weren’t actually Kuykendall’s creation, though there’s a little info about her varied career in the little white book that comes with the deck.

  4. Vix says:

    I’ve picked up this deck so many times, but never purchased it. It’s SO on my list though! Ah, with like a billion other decks!!! Love the 80’s-ness of this especially!! xx

  5. Stephanie Francis says:

    This deck was on my mind this morning and upon searching on it i found your post. I have had this deck for some time now and thought of using it again. I enjoyed your review. This deck at first intimidated me, but i have the nudge to use it again. Thank you so much!

  6. Alfie C says:

    I bought this deck as a 17 year old,mesmerised by the beautiful dipictions on each card but found using it hard and I felt somewhat out of my depth. However 25 years later I have recently gone back to it and am at last doing it justice…it’s a great deck! Those Cat People know ALOT and they also know when you’re ready to read with them 😉

  7. I bought this deck back in 1992 in a funky shop in Leicester city centre and it has been with me through good times and bad! I use it for my “daily card” selection every morning and the funny thing is – I never had a cat until three years ago when my wife and step-kids got one while I was out of the country. Now that I have a cat, the cards mean even more to me. It’s cool that you singled out the Rejuvenation card as the unique differentiation with this deck. It is truly joyous whenever that card is revealed. KK did the artwork with a toothbrush?! That’s a quirky detail I never heard before – the cards are fantastic works of art. Thanks for a great post!

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