As a child, I was always fascinated by fabulous animals (fabulous in the older sense of the word; mysterious, out of this world, unbelievable). I remember a TV programme there used to be in the late 1970s with this title. It was aimed at children and the opening titles showed old engravings of chimeras, basilisks, mermen (not just mermaids), unicorns, krakens, kelpies and all manner of mythical beasts. I was always captivated, and still am, and it is this same fascination which makes me love Lisa Hunt’s Fantastical Creatures Tarot and which made me dig it out of its Chinese Dragon bag this afternoon and want to play with it this week. Quite apart from the fact that most of these creatures (and more) make an appearance, there are many more which I hadn’t even heard of. Her swirly, transformational artwork is perfectly suited to these creatures and, of all her decks to date (pending the Ghosts and Spirit Tarot), this one is my favourite. I even forgive it the U.S Games hi-gloss lamination. Only this afternoon I fleetingly wondered what it would look like if it had the borderlessness and matt finish of her Fairy Tale Tarot. Yet I do actually like the borders on this deck, like overgrown, intertwined branches framing magical vignettes.
The atmosphere of this deck is truly fabulous (in that sense), and you can almost hear the howls and groans, twig snaps and weird yelps coming from the misty forest, and the ominous splash of creatures emerging from the deep. So much moss, lichen and gnarled tree roots, seaweed and tentacles. I never normally like renamed cards but some of these card titles are inspired. I love card number 15 (normally The Devil), which is here titled “Chains”, showing the Fenris Wolf pitifully chained up until the end of the world. It being tarot, there has to be a glimmer of hope for there to be rebirth, and our wolf holds the key (in the form of a sword) to escape his bondage. Then there’s Death, a favourite for renaming, but here – thankfully – it is kept intact. The image is superb; Anansi, the spider god, a strange bulbous headed monster from Africa, with a serpent coiled around the branch, heralding “destruction and healing, dying and rebirth”. There are droplets of dew, droplets of inspiration for us to to allow ourselves to be soaked and move on, wake up, with skin shed, and wriggle free from entanglement. I love the Green Man as the King of Pentacles. I always feel there should be more Green Man figures putting in an appearance in more tarot decks. It’s time to reclaim him big time and not just for celtic themed decks. We should all be invoking the Green Man. Tree roots embrace him and the creatures of the forest sit pert and upright, attentive to his presence. Another favourite card has to be The Tower; The Kraken peers menacingly through an underwater ruin. That eye could be the eye of Shiva whose blinking heralds destruction. Even the fish flee.
I never know quite why this deck is rarely mentioned. A thread on the Aeclectic Tarot forum today surprised me with a number of tarot fans coming forward and saying they didn’t like decks with animals. I always thought that was such a safe bet for tarot publishers. Here the animals aren’t even real (except those waking up from hibernation to greet the Green Man). Would I consider the Green Man a fantastical creature? Or the Lady of the Lake? Or gnomes? or the Muses? I don’t think I would, but fantastical creatures can extend to fantastical beings (I think). However, the real death knell for many in this deck would be Hunt’s elemental switch. She always does it. Wands are Air and Swords are Fire (so you have to close your eyes and think “swords are smelted at the forge, wands are waved in air.”) OK, I think I can live with that. Many cannot and so tend to write her decks off. Still she switches, still she insists. But here it’s worth it for me. There is so much enchantment in the deck that it is worth that conscious elemental bending.
There’s a lot to learn in this deck, so temporarily switching elements is nothing compared to all the folklore and mythology that makes an appearance and which has to be studied – at least slightly – before the deck can be read with effectively. I’m all for reading intuitively but take the Two of Swords for example; an old man kneeling by a stream with water in his cupped hands. means nothing (and swords isn’t even water. I have to double check the elements here). It is Gilgamesh, the Sumerian King, most definitely not a creature. After the death of his companion Enkidu, he became obsessed with dodging death, circumventing the cycle of destiny. A stalemate of sorts. Slightly tenuous perhaps but I wonder where intuition alone would take us with this deck.
Am I the only one who finds something sad in the fact that tarot decks with substance are being endlessly published, endlessly awaited and yet a deck like this, with so much to offer, slips downstream? So many decks with substance slip downstream, cast aside (“wrong” elements, no companion book, unloveable borders and no end of other criteria). This is a worthy deck, a deck that would enrich anyone who gave it a chance, give enriching readings if given a chance. It is fascinating researching the creatures depicted here. A companion book isn’t really necessary as all the information you need is out there. Plus the LWB is a good one, with enough information for the reader to see the link between the creatures’ qualities and traits and where it could fit into our tarot concepts. Then you’re on your own, and these images tease the imagination, welcome us into a world which isn’t too twee and isn’t too unreal as to be impossible to relate to. Each card has something of fairy or folk tale illustration – with its ornate border – like a page to be turned. The colours are rich – especially the blues – and shafts of sunlight pierce through the clouds and illuminate the scattered leaves, crocks of gold, tangling weeds, mossy boulders, sleeping dragons. Earthy colours dominate this deck; not just the rich blues, but brown earth and green foliage. I keep coming back to this deck. It’s perfect for this week, as I begin to take note of the earthy hues of autumn.