There are a lot of decks out there, modern, traditional, Tarot, Oracle decks, Angels, Faeries, Crystals – anything New-Age/Fantasy you can think of and there’s a deck of some type for you. Some decks are easy to start with as a reader but lack depth as your skills develop, others have extra cards, cards missing, spurious correspondences, are too obscure, or the author has just removed traditional symbols and attributions randomly.
While innovation and creativity is a beautiful and important thing, the Tarot is above all a tradition – and an ancient one at that. Traditions can evolve and develop but only after long consideration and study of how your new theory applies over time and across many situations.
Smorgasboard eclecticism doesn’t lead to diversity but to blandness. ahem
I prefer tarot decks that are both visually appealing – so the card impresses upon you it’s message instantly – and also have a well-founded symbolic framework. This is what gives the tarot cards their meaning; their inter-relationships within a system of representation that we can all identify because of shared cultural knowledge. Anyhow that’s a whole other essay waiting to be written, no? Back to the decks…
I now read almost exclusively from 2 decks – the Thoth Deck and the Morgan-Greer Deck – the first for a more cosmic view of matters, the latter for a more down-to-Earth perspective. Sometimes it’s just the aesthetic that seems right – if I am mapping an astrological chart I always use Crowley’s deck – for symbolism it is simply the most detailed and precise. If I want to understand a conflict I am experiencing with someone I am involved with, the Morgan-Greer is ideal.
Below are some examples and a little summary of the strengths and limitations of each deck.
Each card functions as a magickal talisman in and of itself. The images are drawn from the Mysteries of the Western Esoteric Tradition including Kabala, Astrology and Alchemy. The Major Arcana are attributed to both a Hebrew Letter and either an Astrological Sign, Planetary Symbol or Elemental Symbol.
The Minor Arcana are attributed to a planet within an astrological sign (8 Wands, Mercury in Sagittarius). To use this deck effectively you will need to learn the symbols thoroughly and study of Crowley’s books (as well as read more broadly myths and legends and literary classics of the Western World). This advice applies to all Tarot study generally, too.
An experienced reader can use this deck for all readings but it is not recommended for the beginner. If you are sufficiently obsessive and fascinated by multiple-interlocking layers of complex symbolism to patiently develop your knowledge, this deck is a path to initiation in itself. It is worth studying just for the mythic and esoteric information alone. The Thoth deck was not designed just for fortune telling but also for meditation, philosophy and vision seeking. It has a specific ritual and yogic uses within the Western Occult Tradition. At the same time, the authors recognised the importance of being able to resolve ‘everyday’ issues through laying the cards – and that ‘everyday’ conflicts reveal in their minutiae, the moving of your sovereign Will.
The colours are vivid and the artwork has a nostalgic 60’s/70’s hippy feel to it. The images are gentle but symbolically comprehensive and traditional. I find the colours lovely and more inspiring than the other popular traditional deck, the Rider Waite.
The small cards, (the Minor Arcana) show many different people unlike the Thoth deck above (which almost exclusively uses elemental symbolism). Like most major tarot decks, the people are Eurocentric – for a deck which shows people of colour I recommend the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot. However the facial expressions – gentle, dreaminess in the King of Cups or fierce determination of the Queen of Swords – are recognisable regardless of the subject’s appearance.
The Morgan-Greer deck is simpler yet still symbolically rich. It answers questions on a personal, microcosmic level. Less complex than the Thoth deck, it is vividly appealing and authentic to the Tarot tradition.
Currently only available first-hand in non-English versions (Spanish or German) don’t let this put you off, the numbers of the cards are easily interpreted. The back of the cards have a beautiful star design against an indigo ground.
Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
The Rider-Waite deck is one of the earliest Tarot decks of the modern era – it appeared just before Crowley’s Thoth Deck. To make you laugh a little, Rider-Waite and Aleister Crowley had a long running feud as to who was the biggest, scariest occultist of them all and also the best author. Pamela Coleman-Smith was the artist who realised Rider-Waite’s vision.
The colours and images have been mimicked and adapted across most modern versions of tarot decks in the 20th and 21st Century. The Morgan-Greer deck borrows strongly from most of the images in this deck. I find the images in this deck a little delicate for my taste – I love bold, dramatic colour – this deck uses water colours and my favourite Rider-Waite version is the Aquatic Tarot – retouched watercolours of the original designs. In this deck, the Major Arcana do not have the astrological, elemental and planetary correspondences written in the card border like the Thoth deck, nor do the minor Arcana so you will have to rely on memory if you want to use that information. I recommend this deck, like the Morgan-Greer, for beginners especially, and there is a nostalgic charm to the cards. The symbolism is still complex and authentic to the Western Esoteric tradition and Ancient Tarot mysteries – but less obscure than Crowley-Harris’ Thoth Deck. Telling the story of the reading with this deck is far simpler.
The Eteilla Deck:
Eteilla was an 18th Century occultist who is the first professional tarot reader we know of. Eteilla’s deck was the first to write about tarot being connected to Astrology, Elements and other aspects of the Western Mystery Tradition. His tarot deck was the first to explicitly connect the cards to occultism.
The aesthetic is antique and the trumps vary slightly from the modern decks – the Plants (Moon), The Birds, The African Despot (!). The meanings of the minor arcana also vary from the modern usage. I use this deck when I want a specific word answer to a question – note that the deck is from France originally so the words on the cards are all French. It is also good for your reading muscles to change decks from time to time. Using multiple decks at different times helps deepen your understanding of tarot symbolism and how the cards relate to each other.
Oracle decks are not Tarot cards. They are a divining tool but they do not carry the ancient and established tradition of the Tarot – which is intricately tied to Astrology, Kabala, Alchemy and the Hermetic, Western Esoteric and Occult traditions. The only real similarity is that Oracle Decks uses cards with luscious symbols to evoke an intuitive response. Oracle Decks are not based on the Western Esoteric tradition in the very specific and careful sense that a ‘true’ Tarot deck is. Oracle decks usually contain far fewer cards and use a range of archetypes for the inspiration – e.g animals, goddesses, archangels etc. Some use them to read/divine, but most are used for a one to 3 card reading to answer simply or to provide inspiration/courage/advice. Many people who do not have the time to study the tarot use Oracle decks with much success at home, other readers who use a Psychic/channelling method also find much success in helping their clients with these cards. They are a great place to start if you find the Tarot too overwhelming to start on!