The Tarot of Pagan Cats sees the tarot from a cat's eye view. Based on the Rider-Waite symbolism, the pagan connection is subtle and the cards show cats behaving as natural felines in familiar tarot scenes.
It may be said that cats are the archetypal theme for tarot decks, for there seems to be something that links the two together. It is easy to imagine the tarot reader accompanied by a cat, purring at their side, gently pushing at a card with a softly furred paw. The Tarot of Pagan Cats by Lo Scarabeo brings, not for the first time, the world of tarot and cats together in a beautiful and charming new deck. Solidly based upon the Rider Waite tradition the deck plays out the familiar symbols and scenes with the aid of a myriad of beautifully drawn cats. This familiarity of scene, setting and symbol makes the deck instantly accessible to anyone with a working knowledge of the famous and popular Rider Waite deck. This is not to say, however, that the deck slavishly copies the earlier decks images and simply replaces people with cats, instead it endeavours to see the tarot from a cats eye view and imagine the meanings of the traditional cards to a cat.
In structure the deck follows the Rider Waite model, it has 78 cards, 22 trumps and four suits, all of which carry the usual names and numbers, Strength is VIII and Justice is XI, the minor cards are fully illustrated and the backs, showing the faces of two cats within the pagan symbol of the triple moon are fully reversible. The images are surrounded by discrete borders in a pale cream colour enhanced by darker paw prints that march around the picture as though a cat has investigated each and every card and left its mark of approval. Within these borders the cards are titled and numbered using a pleasingly quirky font. The titles appear in 6 different languages and the numbering uses Roman numerals for the major arcana and Arabic for the minors. The card stock, printing and packaging all live up to Lo Scarabeo's usual exemplary standards, the tuck box also holds a little white booklet by Magdelina Messina containing two specially created spreads and basic reading instructions in a number of different languages..
It is impossible to assess this deck without reference to the Rider Waite deck upon which it is based. However even a cursory glance at the deck serves to reveal that although the Pagan Cats follow the pattern of the older deck closely they also bring something new to the cards, something that is more than just the introduction of a cat in place of a person, for the subtle (and not so subtle) differences are far more important than the obvious similarities. It must also be stated that the cats in this deck are not anthropomorphic, they do not stand like humans, act like humans, neither do they wear clothes or hold implements in the hands they do not have. They are cats and they are drawn as cats. Lola Airaghi's beautiful and delicate art work captures dozens of different felines in a myriad of poses. These cats leap, sleep and play; they fight, fall and hunt their prey just as their real life counterparts do. There are a few instances where a cats twinning tail is used to hold a staff or wand; or a hat, collar or suchlike is added to the image for symbolic purposes such as the head gear on the Emperor and Empress, but on the whole such props are avoided and one is left with the impression that these are real cats performing true actions in a symbolic landscape.
The title of the deck announces the cats as pagans and this affiliation is more hinted at than overtly explained. The instruction booklet suggests, half humorously, that all cats are pagans by their very nature and this is indicated throughout the deck by the inclusion of numerous, subtle pagan symbols including a cauldron that appears both as a background detail and as a symbol on a number of cards. The elements, both in their triangular symbolic forms and as the suit symbols and elemental magical weapons also recur throughout the deck, sometimes as a set of four, sometimes in lesser amounts that seem to hold some significance with their placement and numbering. Indeed different ways of imaging the elements is a prevalent feature in this deck. Furthermore such items as magical grimoires and ritual knives, magic circles and lunar symbolism lurk in plain sight amongst the background details of the cards, all indicating the pagan nature of these cats. Even the sexual sacrament is hinted at in the 2 of Chalices as the starry sword enters the cup in imitation of the sexual act. It is therefore no accident that all Christian symbolism has been removed from these cards, and those cards that are most changed from the RWS model are the ones that held the most Christian imagery. Even the stained glass window in the 5 of Pentacles, so similar to it's RWS counterpart, shows the elemental weapons and the cauldron in its design revealing that this is no Christian church that the cats walk past in the snow, but some other kind of building entirely.
The Major Arcana closely follows the RWS model for most of its cards. The white cat with the red collar upon The Magician is surrounded by the usual roses and lilies that grow about the table upon which he sits with the elemental weapons of pentacle, sword, cup and wand around him, but there, carved upon the edge of the table we see one of the many clever conceits of this deck, the elemental creatures as a cat might perceive them, for air there is a bird, for fire a lizard or salamander, for water we see a fish and for earth there is a mouse. These elemental creatures appear in this form again upon the World where they replace the apostolic creatures of the RWS. In keeping with the removal of Christian symbolism The Hierophant has been shorn of his religious connotations but not of his acolytes, he sprawls before them, a wise cat surrounded by books of wisdom and the elemental symbols, their teacher and their guide. Likewise the angels have gone from The Lovers and Temperance. Judgement has been completely revisioned, instead of the dead rising from their graves we see one small cat leaving behind the comforts of home to enter the wild world of the night, following the call of a starry vision in the sky, truly a rebirth from tame to wild, surely the finding of one's immortal soul. One of the most extraordinary images in the whole deck is upon The Devil. In this card there is no goat foot god upon the stone, instead two cats are loosely chained to a black block engraved with a reversed pentagram, upon their heads are the ears of rabbits and in the mouth of one there is a shining green gem. What temptation is this? What need, what slavery that turns predator into prey and holds it chained? The image is both disturbing and enthralling, haunting the memory and the imagination. Most cards however are lighter in tone than that dark image, Strength for instance reverses the usual role of the feline and here we see a cat subduing, with a single paw, its arch enemy, the dog. Lastly upon Justice we see the only god that a cat might worship, the Egyptian Bast, goddess of the ancient world now pictured here as the sphinx, dispensing judgement as she weighs the truth upon her scales.
The Minor Arcana carry the usual suit names, Wands, Chalices, Swords and Pentacles and here we again see the familiar RWS images cleverly reworked to fit the theme of the deck. Commonly Pentacles would denote material wealth, yet money has no meaning to a cat, it has neither shops in which to spend it nor pockets in which to keep it; instead the Tarot of Pagan Cats imagines what wealth would be to a cat and we see upon the 4 of Pentacles a cat guarding its wealth symbolised as such delights as fish and milk. The wealth upon the 6 of Pentacles, to be shared or withheld is here shown as balls of wool, feathers and bells as their owner considering whether to share with those that come to beg. Similarly the victory in the 6 of Wands is the triumph of the hunter as he, crowned with the laurels of the victor, catches the mouse before the silent eyes of the watching throng. Likewise the suit of Chalices shows those things for which a cat longs, and for the most part these are not so different to the desires of a human, love, comfort, pleasure, yet in the 7 of the suit we see the minutiae of a cat's dreams of desire and temptation. Here the familiar cups are filled with those things that would delight only a cat, in one is a mouse, in another a dish of milk, and in another grows the catnip which it cannot resist. Lastly the Swords follow this trend, the 7 shows the thieves as mice, stealing cheese from the sleeping cat while the 6 shows a mother cat and her kitten in a cart, drawn across a bridge that crosses water rather than the familiar boat, for what cat would willingly ride in the small craft usually pictured upon this card?
The Court Cards show the usual Knave, Knight, Queen and King. Like the RWS these are obviously elementally coded, Chalices are set in watery locations, Wands in deserts, Swords show high mountain tops and wide skies while Pentacles are set amongst plants, trees and rolling fields. The Court characters are also portrayed in the usual way, Knaves sit or stand with the symbol of their suit, the Knights all ride through their element upon a suitable beast, a fox, a turtle, an owl and a goat showing their mastery over that world. Queens lie in state accompanied by an animal symbolic of their suit; for Wands this is another, smaller cat, for Chalices it is a gold fish in a bowl, Swords has a small owl and Pentacles has a rabbit. Kings are enthroned upon grey stone blocks, each of which is decorated again by creatures that are elementally suitable, lions, fish, butterflies and bulls. Without a doubt these court cards show off the artist's talent for drawing animals, for all of them are fully realised and perfectly delineated; the sly and patient goat; the eager, leaping fox; the flurry of the owl's feathers as it rushes through the air; all are as beautifully drawn as the cats which they accompany.
I must confess, I am not a great lover of cats, nor am I a fan of cat themed decks but from the moment I saw it I was entranced by this deck. I found it to be both fun and beautiful. I had expected a cat themed deck to be both shallow and twee, yet not only was I utterly charmed by it I also found that it had unexpected depths. It makes me think as much as it makes me smile. Part of this seems to be due to the similarity with the Rider Waite deck, at first glance the images are familiar, almost too familiar, but a second glance shows difference, some small, some large and this draws the mind to considering why these changes have been made, what they mean and what they might be saying. The deck also seems to read very well, the familiar card meanings come to mind easily and these are enhanced by the details of the images that add to the basic interpretations in suggestive and meaningful ways. It is a pleasure to use as much as it is a pleasure to look at, both for cat lovers who will surely adore it for its naturalistic portrayal of cats and also for others who I hope will be as charmed as I am by this delightful and thoughtful deck.