Review: The Unicorn Tarot

Unicorn-TarotLet me take you on a journey .. back to 1997.

When I first picked up a tarot deck seventeen years ago, things were quite different to how they are now. I feel nostalgic for that time, since I can remember the newness and magic of tarot as if it was yesterday (something we all experience, regardless of when it was that we first discovered the cards). However, there is also something magical about that particular time, when tarot was less-evolved. Enthusiasts and readers did not have as many packs to choose from as they currently have and not as many general bookstores sold such a wide variety of titles. A new title was a big deal back then.

These days, the market is flooded with new decks. People have the facilities to make their own too, so as well as having a larger amount of sets available from major publishing houses, we can also pick and choose from a wide range of self-published packs and even virtual ones for your phone or tablet. With all of this, the design of tarot has become slicker. I’d say that things changed around the time that the iconic Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti  was released. There were a few computer-generated decks before his (noticeably The Adrian Tarot and The Sacred Circle Tarot), but Ciro’s was the first to have a gentler and more painterly style. It wasn’t long before other artists took note and followed suit.

A lot of people were not quite ready for The Gilded at the time, but after a few years had passed, Ciro’s (now classic) tarot began to find a lot of company on the market. These days, Lo Scarabeo publish many computer-generated-art decks and using computer design programs is an acceptable method for deck-creation. Not all artists have Marchetti’s skill and expertise, but in using computer-aided-design or digital collage, it is far easier for a novice to hide the cracks than it might be if they’d chanced their luck at watercolour painting. I speak from experience.

The variety of deck choices out there can be overwhelming. Decks are being created by a lot of people and extremely regularly. Some creators understand the tarot and some simply wish to showcase their art. This influx has left me searching for new packs less frequently than ever before. I never thought I’d hear myself complain about having too much choice, but this is what makes me nostalgic for 1997 and the decks which were created then. Sometimes, I want to return to a time when tarot felt even more special than now and where it was a real novelty to happen upon a tarot pack in a dusty old new age shop or at the back of a shelf in a book store.

Enter the Unicorn Tarot by Suzanne Star and illustrated  by Liz Hilton, which was published by U.S. Games in 1995.

I’d been eying this set up in my own local dusty [and soon to close] new age store for some time. In fact, I’d been eying it up for way over five years because I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there. However, when I went to buy it last week, it had gone, so I ended up ordering it online and it came the next day (something else I’d never dreamed I’d be able to do in 1997).

In truth, I’d been thinking about Dugan’s Witches Tarot of late, but the more I looked at it on the web, the less I felt connected to the images. There are a lot of decks like that out there these days. I knew that if I wanted to recapture that magic I once felt, I needed to take to my time-machine.

The artwork for The Unicorn Tarot is not slick. If you are used to a little Ally Fell (The Steampunk Tarot) or enjoy laying out the photo-real Dark Angels, then chances are that you’d be sorely disappointed with this one. I don’t think that these images were ever intended to be naive, but next to a lot of the decks created in the last five years, they would seem that way. The artist, Liz Hilton, won a scholarship to an art college at 18, but eventually left to pursue a serious interest in fantasy art (which is what probably drew her to the creator of The Unicorn Tarot, Suzanne Star). Hilton is not a bad artist, but her work is very much of its time. It cannot compete with the kind of packs which are released these days; and this is why I chose it. For me, it has a soul which some of the new sets lackSometimes, a deck can be so beautiful or so involved or so photo-real that it prevents the messages of the cards from getting through to me.

From the moment I took this deck out of the box, I was able to understand it. Have you ever tried to read a sign on a shop but have not been able to decipher what it says because the font is so damned fancy? Well, reading with this deck is like looking at a simply-painted shop sign; it’s clear and easy to read. A lot of this is down to it following the Rider Waite very closely in style. It is the same in structure and in the naming of the cards.

When I review, I like to speak about the things I don’t like in a deck first, so that I can finish on the positives. I’d known that the art style for The Unicorn Tarot is pretty basic before I bought it and since I actually find its simplicity charming, that is not a problem. However, one thing which always niggles me with a tarot deck is when there is a strong difference in style between the Major and Minor Arcana. What I imagine sometimes happens is that an artist starts at the beginning of the Majors and by the time they reach the minors, they’ve lost momentum. When this happens, a deck looks as though it has been rushed. In cases where time-constraints from publishers are an issue, this may be the case. The difference between each arcana here is not as glaringly obvious as it is in some other decks, but there is a lighter and more detailed feel to the majority of the Major cards than the remaining fifty-six. Some of the Minor Arcana are flatter and have thick black lines around the figures.

sunwands

As far as the remainder of the deck goes, the pros outweigh the cons. These days, I prefer to stick with the Rider Waite system, so this deck reads well [out of the box] for me; with the exception of just one card. Even where symbolism is at its most watered down, there are references to a card’s character in the subtlest of details (such as the Queen of Pentacles displaying her nurturing-side through the petting of her unicorn), but the 5 of Pentacles has completely thrown me from the get-go. Even though Suzanne’s pamphlet describes the card as being about ‘financial struggle’ and ‘illness’ (as per RWS), the image shows an artist painting a unicorns portrait – nope, I don’t get it either. I have never had a problem with decks doing their own thing, but when just one card recognisably strays from the system (but is not acknowledged for doing so in the ‘little-white-book’), it can be a little frustrating.

queen5pents

Some reviewers have complained about the unicorns in this deck, saying that they appear plonked in each card for the sake of it. This is a fair criticism, but personally, I do like the interaction between human and animal. In most cases, I have a stronger emotional connection with the unicorn and Hilton was definitely better at painting animals than humans back then. It would appear that it is the unicorn (and not the man) who is leaving in the 8 of Cups. And it is a unicorn which replaces the dog in The Fool.

The courts are pretty traditional. This pack does not overly convey the traits of their characters, as many modern deck do, but I like this older approach to the tarot families. Each sit amongst a similar background. This is especially nice when Kings and Queens match up in a reading, making an obvious elemental pair.

cups

On the main, the suits are colour themed, which I always like, since I can get a good overview of the elements in large readings – a wash of emotional-blue will let me know that a spread is heavily connected to the emotions, for example. In this deck, Wands are accompanied by an intense orange, Pentacles have an autumnal mix of greens and golds, Cups are mainly blue, and Swords are tinted with purple.

I have heard people say they would not recommend this deck to a beginner. If a person wishes to learn the Rider Waite system, then I would always recommend beginning with a Rider Waite, but as a second deck on their tarot-journey, I think The Unicorn Tarot would be a nice one. As a reading deck, it is not cluttered with symbols and is simple and easy to interpret. People should not confuse simplicity with inadequacy or lack. Having less scenery allows for stronger messages in readings for some readers.

I can imagine that this would be a good reading deck for those who [obviously] like unicorns or who want something a little visually ‘less-involved’ than a lot of what can be bought on the market these days.

For me, it is an underrated blast from the past.

cards

Illustrations from The Unicorn Tarot by Suzanne Star, illustrated by Liz Hilton, published by U.S. Games Systems, 1995

© Steven Bright Tiferet Tarot 2014

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22 thoughts on “Review: The Unicorn Tarot

  1. I can understand your desire for a deck which revives such lovely memories. I have the same experience. When I started my tarot journey, it took me four years after I’ve got my RW deck to buy my second deck (Daughters of the Moon) I only allowed myself to buy it because it was totally different from the RW. When I bought (again years later) the Robin Wood I figured I had enough decks and denied myself the Goddess tarot, Two weeks ago I finally bought this deck which I’ve always wanted but somehow something always got in the way.
    I never could have guessed back then I would “need” so many different decks, I sometimes long for the time when I had only my RW deck I’v been gifted by my husband in its red velvet magical bag

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    • I have probably used my ‘Original’ RWS the most out of all the packs I have. It’s a firm favourite. It is like a handwriting I can read well.

      I think I must have had my Rohrig for a good two or three years before I really started buying more tarots. I think I had only the Russian Tarot of St Petersburg to keep it company for a couple of years.

      My need to go back and seek this one out was to try and recapture a slice of tarot before the gloss and hype took over. Before Steampunk and faeries and vampires and how tarot looks now in 2014.

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      • Don’t get me started about my “first love” Some how I keep thinking the next deck will be “the one”., while “the one” is already home with me. It is like i have a wonderful diamond and keep shopping for bling. Although i have to admit occasionally I am pleasantly surprised 😀
        Always, after I’ve been reading a while with different decks I go back to my RW to feel the grounding familiar energy, to come home again

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        • I thought the next deck would be ‘the one’ since I started ..

          I probably always will, however few and far they are between.

          But I think the RWS (in its variations) will always be the one which I am tied to. I often consider an affair with The Thoth, but with my own classes beginning, I feel I have a lot more to learn about the RWS tradition, rather than start afresh.

          I know what I like more these days so it is often easier for me to choose and dismiss decks.

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  2. I’ve had good experiences with self-published decks lately, but not so much those from the big three. The self-published decks are often too expensive for me. U.S. Games publish fewer decks but they are better, more thoughtful, more careful about publishing things of substance. Poor Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo publish hit and miss, almost cheesy or laughable things, and Schiffer seems to publish often terrible decks that would never have seen the light in days gone by. There’s a reason they should never have seen the light.

    I vividly remember (like Ellen) when I had five decks and kept wondering how people could have so many, now I feel burdened by quite a few stinkers and very privileged to have some shining moments in deckdom.

    I would like at some point to get the Silicon Dawn, but it’s over $20 so…at $15 I can usually buy but over that and it becomes too high. I don’t feel I’m missing too much though.

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    • Yes, it seems that the big three often follow trends. It is a business for them and money must be made. I remember a time when LoS interested me but their style has changed a lot in recent years. I have seen a few interesting artists coming up, but for my reading purposes, many lack substance, even if I like the style.

      I also feel burdened with the stinkers in my own collection. I will hopefully unburden myself by selling at a fair eventually.

      Ah, the Silicon Dawn. I have looked at that in person and I put it back quickly. I think it would mess with my tarot-brain, haha.

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        • I may have to resist selling them at the next fair, since I am trying to reserve a pitch for reading. But I will sell them off eventually. There are many which are not used.

          Yes, I can imagine the SD being one you’d like. Also, I think you’d get less hung up on systems than I would.

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  3. Sometimes I just want to toss all the decks!.
    It does feel like a burden to have so many just collecting dust. And to think of all the money thrown away on them! OY! But I can’t seem to be able to let go of them, lol-I don’t know what it is!

    Today I seem to have started to get more set in my ways.
    I used the Victorian Romantic and the Mary-El (upon which I performed a borderectomy) for a long time then suddenly tired of them and put it away, quite inexplicably. Now I use:

    1) Journey Into Egypt (rich yet so full of emotion, simplicity and purety; speaks to the spirit)
    2) Diary of a Broken Soul (another borderectomy) This deck is so near and dear to my heart-the first indie deck, back when I hardly had any decks at all-such a powerful experience it was.
    3) Hidden Realm (the portaits are the embodiment of the card menaings; mystery and magic)
    5) Watcher Angel (the art grows on you; one sees new details every time and the stories are so interesting and touching: has a life of its own which is so special)
    6) Spiral (Beautiful clear imagery; poetic for the majors-down home irish grandma for the minors)

    I seem to have wearied of trying out new decka–is it a sign of old age? dare I eat a peach? Or simply is it that one is heading toward a deeper, more meaningful relationship with only a few good trusted friends instead of buzzing about on every flower and never getting to truly know it?

    However, for all that….
    I do confess I have been valiently resisting the purchase of DameDarcy’s Mermaid Tarot

    Wouldn’t it just be beyond silly? Like an old man’s fling with a red sports car?

    And lastly: what a coincidence PLN–I was just looking at the Unicorn deck not even two days ago and thinking the exact same things as you!!! 🙂

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    • And what a flashy red sports car the ‘Mermaid is’. I like the look of that. I recognise the Queen at the top. She is from a Pierre et Gilles photograph –

      That is an interesting selection of decks. When you look at it, you might wonder why anyone would need any more since the choices you have made are so rich. I have seen some of the Diary of a Broken Soul deck on other blogs. It looks very emotive and very well thought out. The same goes for the Egypt and Watcher. I have often considered The Spiral. But as I mentioned in this review, a pet-peeve of mine is ‘difference of style in one deck’. If it had been all of one or the other, I probably would have it by now.

      So, did this review turn you either on or off of the Unicorns?

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  4. Well, hard to say 🙂 It’s just so amazing that 2 people from this blog decided out of the blue, this week, to dig up that deck and actually consider it as noteworthy. There is something naive about it which is actually touching and would perhaps allow for a few good readins. It reminds me of the fascination I used to have with kitch and really ugly home decor, furnishings and clothing. I used to visit used furniture stores in the 80s so I could immerse my self in 70’s retro hiddeous stuff and get a kick out of it (sounds sick?) things were so ugly they became beautiful and cool, if that makes sense.
    But you know I always love your reviews and this one is no exception.
    What I like is the fact that you understood the tenderness that lies behind the awkward art and colouring, the botched images, the clunky minors and didn’t take it to task as you did with Virtue’s decks which totally deserved it! 🙂
    That was nice what you said about my collection of decks-it does make me happy to have found, if not THE one, at least the ONES lol
    So this Dame Darcy is a bit of a strange one isn’t she? She writes alot of childrens books I think, Meat Cake etc. but there’s a little kinky side that she adds to the mix at the same time…hmm.
    I still must resist purchasing this deck! I am going to write that one hundred times on a sheet of paper and put it under my pillow…

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    • Since I wrote the review, I have been working with it more. This evening, I pulled out a few other packs, but the images felt cloggy and the messages were stuffy. As an experiment, I laid out a Celtic Cross with the Unicorns and it made perfect sense. Was as clear as day. The other decks were good decks, but I just found the Unicorns easier to interpret. I didn’t have to think too much about what the cards meant; the reading just flowed.

      As I explained in the review, tarot decks have changed a lot since this one was released; I think that sloppiness in design is more offensive these days and the naivety of this set can almost be forgiven, due to its age. It is clunky in places, but interestingly, that does not interfere with how it reads. It is very similar to my experience with the Titania Fortune Cards (effectively, a Lenormand) and many other Lenormand oracles on the market. Lo Scarabeo published a beautiful Lenormand in an Art Nouveau style. It is so lovely that I would love to use it, but I doubt I will ever be able to read it as well as that gaudy Titania Oracle. The latter is simple and in brash colours, but the messages come through like a voice on a crystal-clear telephone line.

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  5. Funny, I didn’t remember the odd Five of Pents. Overall, I agree with you, a cute, readable deck 🙂 Yeah, Schiffer have a double downside: questionable deck selections sometimes (there are definitely exceptions – I adore the Tarot of the Sidhe!), and overly thick card stock.

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    • It really is. I think that it is ‘illustrated’ enough to get the message across, but not too stacked with symbolism and scenery – despite my enjoying the artwork, the Pearls of Wisdom and Illuminati are a little too cluttered for me to pick out themes and connections easily when reading large spreads for others. The more I have been reading with the unicorns, the more insights I have been getting. I ordered the accompanying book, just to see if any extra light might be shone on that strange old 5 of Pentacles.

      There have been a few Schiffer decks I’ve liked and their packaging is first-class, but generally, what I have seen this far has not been to my tarot-tastes. I have quite an eye for what I know I will work with these days (the Unicorn Tarot being an example of that) so I disregard buying sets which I know will not get a lot of use. I have seen that they are releasing a Kabbalistic tarot, illustrated by Scapini, so I will be very interested in seeing how that is. It comes out in September. I have often wondered how they decide on publications and have considered approaching them myself. The deck I am creating here would probably look nice on that stock and in that packaging.

      Kabbalistic Visions: The Marini-Scapini Tarot
      http://www.schifferbooks.com/kabbalistic-visions-the-marini-scapini-tarot-5550.html

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        • Thanks for the link, Chloe. I do like some of the images in the video, but it does look like the kind of deck that wouldn’t get much use from me, unfortunately. In the old days, I would have just jumped on it, but I really think about how I use my tarots these days. I have enough packs in my cupboard which were too ‘out there’ or required the learning of a whole new system. Right now, I want to try and master (as much as is possible) the system I use, rather than start learning a new one. So, maybe not for me.

          To be honest, I haven’t thought too much about publication and know next to nothing about self-publishing. Did you approach people with the idea first? Or with sample cards? There are so many good unpublished decks out there. I’d only thought of Schiffer because they seem to be open to a wide selection of designers.

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          • I was “lucky” with the Celtic Lenormand – I started blogging about being involved in this project, and someone emailed me asking if it was a Lenormand. When I said yes, she said she knew US Games were looking for Lenormand’s, and gave me the email of someone to contact. They jumped at it.
            Generally, though, for the big publishers you have to send in a whole spiel- target audience, what makes your deck special, a couple of images etc. Most publishers have an on-line form for it that you can download.
            Otherwise, in terms of self-publishing there are also lots of options. For example, I used printerstudio.com for the first edition of the Kindergarten Lenormand. They get cheaper the more you buy, and are really very reasonable. However, that means you still have to sell them yourself. As I understand it, there is some way of getting them to post decks out individually (I think from a pre-paid set number), but I haven’t been able to find out the details of that yet. Mostly, their postage seems quite pricey for single decks. The other option is a more print-on-demand service, like the GameCrafter. The benefit to you is that there are no initial costs – you just upload your deck to them and start marketing it. The cardstock quality is very nice, even nicer than printerstudio imo. And they print boxes, which is important if you have some shops that would be up for retailing your deck, as then you can add on an ISBN and sell anywhere. Once again, though, their postage costs are pretty high 😦 There are certainly other options out there, so it’s a question of researching and deciding which model you want to follow…

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            • This is all very helpful information. Thanks Chloe. It’s a big world out there and I wasn’t completely sure how a lot of it worked. Maybe we could chat nearer to the time, if I still think it is a good idea to do this when the deck is complete? I really appreciate your advice. I like this silhouette deck, but I also think it would be a really good set of images for someone new to tarot. There is enough in them to get your intuition talking, but not to much to confuse.

              I only have one Schiffer deck – the Tarot Deck of Heroes. I have never really used it. It was an impulse buy, but the images are so dark that I just can’t read with it, so it has never really made it out of the box.

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  6. I feel the same way about the odd choice of Schiffer’s card stock. Impossible to shuffle, and frequently with black heavy borders. You know, I saw the Mary-El tarot samples on her site before Schiffer published them and they had thin white borders which in my opinion provided a much better frame and show case for the artwork.
    Did you ever see the William Blake tarot? Such an fascinating deck. It was recently redone in brighter colours; I thought perhaps it would be nice to see this link and slide show–
    http://blaketarot.com/Tarot-Deck-Sample.html
    I have the old original as a keepsake which I treasure because it’s a good collection of Blake’s art done in such a lovely way, but unfortunately I’d never be able to do a reading with them because of a certain quality of the imagery and I can’t put my finger on it….would someone like to take a look and share?

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    • As mentioned to Chloe, I only have one Schiffer set. I’ve never really used it so I don’t know about the problems with stock. Their decks always look well packaged when I have seen them in shops, but I have not found one which I connected to enough to buy yet.

      The William Blake looks nice. Very lovely images but possibly a bit too much going on for my personal reading tastes.

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  7. I have Sol Invictus from Schiffer. It is very thick. I do love to riffle shuffle, so the thick card stock is a bit of a turn off. Not a deal breaker, though! I’d say if a publisher is interested in you, don’t say no because of the cardstock! 😀 Go for it! x By the way, I like this Unicorn Tarot. This is the sort of art I tend to favour.

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    • Thanks for the advice, Carla. I think I would be open to any interest, thinking about what would be a good option or ways that things might be tweaked.
      It’s great and useful to hear all of the opinions here. I’m not sure I could finance self-publication at the moment, as well as being busy, but I am open to all options.

      I like this Unicorn Tarot too. And the book which comes with it (I ordered afterwards) is very good. Great for a beginner, looking at pairings as I do on the blog.

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