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 lack. Sometimes, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Illustrations from The Unicorn Tarot by Suzanne Star, illustrated by Liz Hilton, published by U.S. Games Systems, 1995
© Steven Bright Tiferet Tarot 2014