Feline Influences on Cartoesotericism (Or... What's with all the Frickin' Cat Tarots?!)

Feline Influences on Cartoesotericism (Or... What's with all the Frickin' Cat Tarots?!)

Posted by Jeannette Roth on Jul 30th 2018

Introductory Note:
This is a serious academic and journalistic work that delves into controversial and even shocking topics regarding the origin of tarot. As such, it is subject to the Significant Articles and Tumid Investigative Research Examinations (SATIRE) Act of 2005.

In accordance with that legislation, this article conforms with the act's minimum FSI (Footnotes-per-Square-Inch) requirements. All footnotes are clearly marked in red superscript. For browsers that are capable of supporting HTML's hover feature, the footnote text can be easily accessed by simply holding the mouse over the superscripted numeral and waiting a moment for the caption to appear. Readers whose browsers do not support this feature* may, alternatively, click on the footnote marker to jump to the proper location at the end of the article. After reviewing the footnote text, the "Return to article" link that follows each note will shift the page back to the original marker point.

Got it? Good. Now read on, and prepare to cast aside the Infernal Toe Fungus of ignorance, and embrace the Cosmic Ice Cream Machine of enlightenment.


Fido may be Man's Best Friend, but apparently it's Fluffers who has captured the hearts and minds of tarot enthusiasts. For every dog-themed tarot published, four or more cat-themed decks have hit the market. The sheer volume of such decks begs the question: from whence springs this fortuneteller's fascination with felines? This propensity for pussycats? This tarotist tendency toward tabbies?

Having run out of alliterative interrogatives on the subject, I decided to further examine and explore this esoteric enigma 1, as a service to my blog readers2. And after an exhaustive, in-depth investigation involving not one, not two, but three whole Google searches, a small but promising lead finally appeared...

Current Trends in Academia

An article on an obscure conspiracy website ( www.obscureconspiracies.net)3 provided a promising starting point. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane headed for Angus Fruck University in Apocriph, AL. There, I arranged to meet with Dr. Boyard Umb4, to discuss his rather... unorthodox... investigations into the subject of tarot and cats.

It was Dr. Umb 5 * who introduced me to the "Revised Egyptian Origin" theory of tarot. "We all know the original Egyptian Origin Theory has been completely debunked at this point," laughed Umb. "I mean, imagine... believing the tarot could have been invented by Egyptian priests or something. Those guys couldn't ascend their way out of a papyrus bag. Think about it. This fellow Moses comes along and calls up darkness and some boils, and it doesn't even occur to them to counter with a few torches and little garlic and onion juice6? Gimme a break."

"The problem with the research done up until now is that the investigators have been looking in the completely wrong places 7. Everyone has been searching for evidence that the Egyptian mystics devised the structure and symbolism of tarot. In fact, it was ancient Egyptian cats that gave the secret of tarot to mankind."

Cats? The true inventors of the tarot? The concept struck me as being a bit far-fetched. Determined to get to the truth of the matter, my tough journalistic instincts prompted me to ask the hard-hitting question:

"You really think so?"

"Absolutely," Umb replied. "Whereas man started out with the spiritual enlightenment level of a fetid turnip 8, and has been slowly but dedicatedly trudging toward cosmic understanding ever since, it's been just the opposite story for cats. Thousands of years ago, cats were vastly evolved spiritually. But their contemporary descendents, well... don't even get me started. My own cat can't even do a basic chakra meditation without having to stop and lick his butt when he gets to energizing Swadhisthana."

Origins and Evolution

Umb continued on to explain how, because of humans' inability to decipher the complex structure of the feline language, ancient Egyptian cats instead made the attempt to communicate their advanced spiritual knowledge through a rich but concise iconography. Though lacking the opposable thumbs necessary to hold a paintbrush9, they were still able to provide the necessary elements by using their claws to sketch out the pictorial structure of the major arcana10. Egyptian scribes copied down these images, which they then immediately misinterpreted as requests for little catnip-scented balls of string or bowls of Purina Bast Chow.

As the power and influence of the Egyptian Pharaohs began to decline, cats found it necessary to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And whither goest the cat, so goest the tarot 11. How the secret of tarot was passed down from feline generation to feline generation is not exactly known; what is known is that eventually, a Persian longhair named Alligo, who resided in Milan during the 14th century, tried once again to disseminate the information to humans by attempting to communicate it to his noble Italian masters. Unfortunately, the somewhat "artistically-tempered" Alligo opted for sculpture over the sketching method employed by his Egyptian ancestors. As a result, his creations went unnoticed for many years, since the Viscontis generally left the job of cleaning the litterboxes to their housekeeping staff.

However, it's clear that the poor-but-patiently persistent pussycat 12 finally managed to catch someone's eye13 – if not the attention of the Viscontis themselves, then certainly that of artist Bonifacio Bembo, who was in the midst of his legendary "brown period" at the time14. After re-rendering the revealed occult knowledge in a more acceptable 2-dimensional medium15, Bembo excitedly presented the 78 miniature tableaus to his noble patrons. The artist's timing was perhaps a bit unfortunate, though; that very night, Bianca Maria Visconti's husband, Francesco Sforza, was hosting his annual "Come as your favorite naughty heraldic emblem" masqued ball. In the drunken revelry that followed, Bembo's tiny feline-inspired masterpieces were somehow scooped up, and employed in an impromptu game of strip Canasta16. Once again, it seemed that fate — and a few too many bottles of cheap cognac — had cruelly dislodged the meatball of knowledge from the pasta plate of enlightenment.

Reviewing the Evidence

Dr. Umb's story was certainly fascinating, but deep down inside me, a small voice wondered if perhaps his account was a wee bit questionable in spots. So, once again, with the unrelenting journalistic determination I learned from years of watching Carson Daly and Al Roker on the "Today" show 17, I asked Umb if maybe, perhaps, if it wasn't too much trouble or anything – could he pretty please cite any evidence he might have to support his assertions?

To my relief, Umb seemed more than happy to supply several examples to back up his claims18. After fetching his U.S. Games reproduction of the Visconti-Sforza deck, Umb drew the trump now most widely known as "The Magician," and pointed out several subtle but fascinating details. "The Magician card – also known in early decks as The Juggler – is usually described as a sort of street performer, standing behind a table upon which rest the tools of his trade – juggling balls, for example. But this interpretation is based solely on preconceived notions stemming from a human-centric view of the universe. In fact, the figure depicted is merely a kitchen servant who is preparing the evening meal for the family cat. The item pictured at the right end of the table – typically mistaken as being some sort of hat – can be seen on closer inspection to actually be a pair of fish (see enlarged detail at right), which the servant is about to scale using the knife in front of him. The two round 'balls' located nearby are actually yummy little liver-filled cat treats that will accompany the meal as an appetizer. The cat in this household will clearly eat well tonight, thus illustrating the profound Purrmetic Axiom: As I Stuff, So Miao."

Umb went on to highlight other relevant details in the Visconti deck, such as the tantalizingly "bat-able" string held by the woman in the "Moon" card, and the presence of the catnip plant at the base of the "Tower." "Each has a deep, esoteric significance that can be unlocked through disciplined study and meditation – but you have to think like a cat," explained Umb. "That means you have to feign aloofness from the card. Glance at it only occasionally and briefly, and only with an expression of subtle contempt suggesting that the card is somehow a bit beneath you. Then, when you think it's not paying attention, sneak up from behind and pounce on it, and demand it to reveal its secrets to you, or you'll chew a hole clean through the top border."

Further Historical Precedents

At this point, curiosity got the better of me, and – unheeding of the proverbial fate this state of mind presaged in the cat – I asked Umb which of the historical decks best captured the original Egyptian designs. Umb's response: "Without a doubt, it has to be the various Marseille decks. From the cat in the 'Fool' card onward, every major arcana image and every court card is filled with feline symbolism."

Once again, I expressed my finely-honed sense of journalistic skepticism in no uncertain terms: "Um... is it possible that maybe you could kindasorta be just a bit mistaken about that? And, er... isn't that actually a dog on the 'Fool' card?"

Umb snorted. "Dog on the 'Fool' card? Another utter misinterpretation that has led countless spiritual seekers down the wrong path. Look again at the image," he urged, whipping out a handy copy of the Grimaud reproduction of the Marteau illustrations. "That there's a cat – maybe not the best-drawn cat 19, but it's a cat nonetheless. But of course, it was far more convenient for the 19th century occultists to call it a dog, simply to conform to their idiotic esoteric theories. Wirth actually got it right, but then Waite goes and has Pamela slap that yappy little canine on his card, and the whole world's like, 'oh, wow, man... a dog! Amazing! Yeah, a dog, that's soooo deep!' By the way, I don't sound slightly bitter about any of this, do I?"

"Anyway, the point is: sure, dogs are loyal, but to the point of stupidity. That dog on Waite's deck is going to go right over the edge of the cliff with his master. They'll both plummet to horrible deaths, and meet their ends none the wiser than when they started. But check out the cat on that Marseille card. He's clearly trying to tell his master that, for heaven's sakes, he's got a giant hole in the tushy of his pants! The Fool is about to go walking all over town with his little pink derriere hanging out, and here's this cat, trying to keep the guy from making a laughing stock of himself. A good friend may go to the ends of the earth with you and beyond, but it's a true friend that cares enough to tell you hey, yeah, that dress really does make you look fat."


After my interview with Dr. Umb, I walked away with a better explanation for the contemporary proliferation of cat-themed decks 20. The phenomenon could now be framed as an unconscious striving on the part of contemporary tarotists to return the discipline to its true roots. And we may well expect the trend to continue, as more and more of the tarot community is able to get in touch with its "inner feline."

Further exploration of the topic will certainly lead to the eventual restoration of the "one, true" tarot, complete with its original rich and profound icons — from the minor arcana suits of Scratching Posts, Milk Saucers, Grooming Brushes, and Hairballs21, to mysterious and insightful symbolic major arcana motifs such as the Goldfish Bowl of the Unconscious and the Illuminated Kibble. And the sooner the better, for the results hold the promise of a better world22. A world where every man, woman and child can be secure in the knowledge that there will be a warm sunbeam pouring through the window where he or she can curl up for an afternoon nap. A world where tummy rubs and cute, squeaky, catnip-filled mouse toys are legal and plentiful. In brief: a world where a man can purr and a woman can lick her own groin without hesitation or shame23.

It could be a beautiful world indeed. If it doesn't all go to the dogs first.


Footnotes (for the browser-hover impaired)

1 Alright – so I had one more alliteration left in the bag. Back to article.

2 Both of them – yes, Dan, that includes you. Back to article.

3 No, not a real website as of this writing – but if you're the domain-squatting type, be my guest. Back to article.

4 Although I was originally taken aback by his response of "Fruck U" when I asked where I might find him. Back to article.

5 Not his real* name. Back to article.

6 Yeah, check your home remedy guide – it works. Back to article.

7 i.e., Each others' research — sadly, that's no joke. Back to article.

8 Research has conclusively shown that fetid turnips score just below rancid socks, but slightly above Sean Hannity, on the spiritual enlightenment scale. Back to article.

9 A fact that probably also explains why so few cats buy button-down shirts and Playstation 4s. Back to article.

10 Mostly in the dirt, but sometimes on the alligator skin upholstery or the occasional tapestry, thus prompting the Egyptians to invent the first scratching posts. Back to article.

11 Definitions for the "pretentious prose" impaired:
Whither (n) – what it's like outside, e.g., "Check the whither report an' find out if it's a-gonna rain"
Goest (n) – a spectral being, e.g. " If ya go into that-thar hainted house, ya might see a goest." Back to article.

12 Got that one from "Alliterations R Us". Back to article.

13 Or perhaps it was a nostril. Back to article.

14 Yeah, say it: Ew! Back to article.

15 One must remember that this was the somewhat more conservative 1400s; today, of course, Alligo Visconti's contribution would not only have been hailed as being a bold and uh, moving effort, it would most likely have qualified its creator for a significant grant from the U.S National Endowment for the Arts. Back to article.

16 A fact which, ironically, landed Francesco in the DOG house the next day with Bianca Maria. Back to article.

17 I don't really watch the "Today" show. I'd have to get up too early in the morning for that. Ick. Back to article.

18 Umb also seemed unusually eager to provide me with copious information on some time-share units in Guadalajara... but I digress... Back to article.

19 At this point, Umb reminded me that the 18th century card makers didn't have easy access to Photoshop and the Internet, and therefore couldn't simply steal a convenient piece of clipart at the drop of a hat. Back to article.

20 As well as a time-share in Guadalajara. Back to article.

21 By the way, did you ever notice how, when spelling the unpronounceable name of God – Yod Heh Vau Heh – that if you're saying it correctly, it sounds like you're hacking up a hairball when you get to the "Hehs"? Back to article.

22 Begin humming inspiring, patriotic tune here. Back to article.

23 Heads up, ladies: you might want to sign up for a yoga class or two before that day comes. Back to article.

* Not her real gender. Back to article.