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.
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.
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.”
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:
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’.
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!
I’m a 30-something writer, artist, tarot reader, and perpetual explorer of the space between thought, feeling, and action.
I believe that spirituality and ritual are for everybody. I’m about the journey, in all of its messy, non-linear, chaotic iterations. I am excited by anticapitalist business and living with my whole entire self present. I use tarot cards to bring forth hidden truth, and ritual to affirm my commitment, over and over, to my ever-shifting path.