Choosing The Right Tarot Deck
Part of Spiritual Awakening is learning to use and trust our intuition – that “knowing” that we can’t explain, because it doesn’t come from logic, but rather that gut feeling we can get without actual effort. And one of the best ways to learn about that intuition is using cards for divination practice.
Over in our Oracle Cards section, I talk about the divination decks in my tool kit, explaining how they are very different from standard Tarot decks. But here I want to talk about how to choose the right Tarot deck, where other factors come into play, because there are “fixed rules” for how Tarot decks are designed and constructed.
To be a Tarot deck, a set of cards must have a major and minor suit. The major suit generally has 22 cards that represent the Major Arcana, or Greater Trumps – I call that the “concentrated Divine energy in the deck.” These 22 cards begin with 0, the Fool, and finish with XXI, The World.
Then, you have four suits, with very definite attributions. In the classic and classically-derived decks, they are Wands (sometimes called Rods), Cups, Pentacles and Swords. In newer decks, they can have a different feel or different name, but they will generally represent and partner with specific elements: Wands are Fire, Cups are Water, Pentacles are Earth and Swords are Air. Some practitioners reverse the Wand and Sword meanings, but I have found that these attributions work best for me. Each suit has ten “pip” cards (ace through 10) and four court cards (Page/Princess, Knight/Prince, Queen and King).
So those are the basic-basic things that a Tarot deck has. Now, of course, comes the complicated, delicious, roller-coaster-adventure part: choosing your own deck.
Take a moment to think about what really draws you to something. Is it the feel? The look? How you interpret what you see? All of these things are important when it comes to choosing the right Tarot deck.
It should be comfortable in your hands, because that is where it is going to live for a long time. Decks come in different sizes, from mini versions to massive. My personal preference is for a deck that is larger than a standard deck of playing cards, because I like the deck to be clear enough to point out diverse elements to my clients as allegorical teaching tools.
The artwork will be key for most of us. A deck can be pale or brightly hued; it can be full of action and figures or simple and clean-lined. It can be realistic or abstract, created with painting or collage work or photographs. It can have animals or people or trees – or aliens! And one is not necessarily better than the other, except for one thing: the best Tarot deck for you will be one that the artwork begs you to fall into, because you will love spending hours on single cards, finding the layers of nuance and meaning in each one. And the more you study your deck, the more it will partner with you for your esoteric work.
I’m going to look at six different deck styles in this article, from the absolutely traditional and well-known Rider-Waite deck, to some of the more modern interpretations. As you read through, you will start to have a “feel” for what calls you as your deck.
RIDER-WAITE: This deck has become the archetypal deck for the modern reader. Created in 1909 by A. E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith and now sometimes called the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, it tends to be where many of us start. The meanings given to the images and cards are standard and clear cut, and many general Tarot books teach with their meanings at the forefront of interpretation. There are literally hundreds of versions of this deck: the Radiant Rider-Waite, the Universal Rider-Waite and the Illuminated Tarot, just to name three. If you are first setting foot on the Tarot Road, no matter what other deck you get for yourself, I recommend you get one of these archetypal decks, so that you can go image-for-image with the general teaching books as you learn.
But once you get the Rider-Waite structure under your belt, where can you go? Here are five variations:
SINGLE THEME: Single theme decks are designed to appeal to a specific audience. Examples:
- The UFO Deck, which is definitely for the Roswell/Area 51 crowd. Created by Bepi Vigna and Arturo Picca, this deck has a plethora of pictures that will conjure up images of The Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone. The Major Arcana are linked with myths and figures of UFO-logy, and the minor suits are populated with the types of ETs that would make 1950s science fiction pulps proud. The colors are muted, the artwork slightly Impressionistic on several cards, with light and shadow play at the forefront. There are no word keys on the cards – for instance, the seven of Cups merely shows the picture of a man in a greenhouse with seven empty flower pots and some eerily glowing plants, so this is a deck to use once you know the 78 card definitions forward and backward — and under an antigravity ray.
- The Steampunk Tarot is just too much fun. Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology. Created by Caitlin Matthews, John Matthews, and Wil Kinghand, this particular deck takes this literary genre and brings it out in splendid ways, with outlandish machines, plenty of gears and brass, and enough Victorian flavor to satisfy even diehards. Lush colors and detailed landscapes give you plenty to think about. Major Arcana cards are linked with the Gods of the Machine, with the suits depicted as Airships, Engines, Submersibles and Leviathans. Again, no word keys on the cards.
- The Vampire Tarot by Robert M. Place is delicious for Goths and horror fans alike. Vampires of all mythologies, stories and styles illustrate this deck, with a very left-of-center inventive style. (Using Poe as the Knight of Stakes is truly evil genius.) The fact that Bram Stoker, author of the classic Dracula was closely tied to the Rider-Waite deck gives this deck extra depth and nuance. The Minor Arcana are Stakes (Wands), Holy Water (Cups), Knives (Swords) and Garlic Flowers (Coins/Pentacles). The court card titles are King, Queen, Knight and Knave. Most of the Major Arcana cards are identically named as will be found in the classic deck, though there are certain differences – Van Helsing as the Hierophant, for instance – that will spark the deck for would-be Sanguinarians.
CULTURALLY THEMED: Culturally themed decks are just that – decks that celebrate a culture, people or place. Examples here
- The Ukiyoe Tarot by Koji Furuta bases itself on the Marseille symbolism, dating back to 1760 and the archetypal deck that the 19th and 20th century creators such as Crowley, Waite-Smith, and Harris. The deck is viewed through a Japanese filter, deck, with traditionally dressed figures and names on the Major Arcana, but undecorated minor Arcana, relying on multiples of the suit symbol for identification. A wonderful example of the “flavor” is the Lovers card: traditionally a couple overseen by an angel, here the goddess of compassion Quan Yin sails overhead, and the two lovers are accompanied by a chaperone to make sure nothing untoward is going on! The art is clean-lined and a gorgeous homage to Japanese art and woodcuts.
- The Tarot of Cleopatra is steeped in Egyptian art and culture, and definitely for those for whom Pharaohs, Sphinxes, and the Egyptian Gods are of great interest. Framed against papyrus-like backgrounds, the Major Arcana display the major Egyptian gods such as are linked with 22 ‘superior’ Ancient Egyptian divinities, and Minor Arcana cards running the gamut of minor gods, calendars and the Egyptian zodiac. These cards do not have numbers or word keys, or even standard Rider-Wait picture compositions, but separate people, animals, glyphs, and Egyptian objects in compositions. This deck is suited to someone who has a Tarot background and can interpret based on experience – but it really is a beautiful deck, especially for those for whom sand, Set and Sekhmet have a siren call.
- The Native American Tarot by Magda Weck Gonzales is one that I used for some years when I wanted to access First Nations traditions in my reading style. This deck is based on many different tribes, which I find appropriate – “Native American” or First Nations does not mean a single people, but a huge number of tribes, here shown as diverse as Apache, Hopi, Iroquois, Papago, and Yaqui, just to name a few. There is a bit of “translation” in the majors: Coyote, Corn Maiden and Medicine Woman, for instance, replace Magician, High Priestess and Empress, but the translation still rings clear. The suit equivalents are blades, vessels, pipes and shields. It’s a simply-rendered deck, with black and white drawings and added color. A solid, useful deck with a cultural shading that will add to your reading style.
NATURE BASED: Nature based decks are just that – rather than based on mankind and civilizations, they use flowers, trees, weather and animals. While most nature decks do tend to be oracle cards rather than standard Tarot, there are a couple of notable exceptions:
- The Animal Wise Tarot was created by the master of animal understanding, the late Ted Andrews. This deck is photographic, as are many of his other decks. While the 78 cards are true to the Rider-Waite idea, it is creatures only, no humans. The suits are reinterpreted as Ancients/Wands (turtles, amphibians, reptiles), Shapeshifters/Cups (insects, worms, butterflies),Winged Ones/Swords (birds), and Four-Legged/Pentacles (bison, cats, rodents, moose etc). As many other reviewers have noted, this deck has a positive slant without being, as I call it, “all glurpy purple” and overly sentimental. There’s real connection with the animals depicted, which allows even a beginning reader to delve into the world of Tarot without fear. A perfect example of this is the animal chosen for Death – usually shown as a skeletal rider in typical imagery. Here, it is a Turkey Vulture feasting on carrion – a brilliant interpretation of “death as transformation into something useful, different or nourishing.”
- The Herbal Tarot by Michael Tieris and Candice Cantin hews very closely to the classic Rider-Waite in design, but with an added level of understanding by giving each card a specific herb to deal with as well. Within the Major Arcana there’s a bit of renaming, but nothing so outrageous as to make the cards unrecognizable: The Hierophant is the High Priest, The Wheel of Fortune is the Medicine Wheel, the Hanged Man is the Suspended One and the Devil is Pan. This is a great example of “learning beneath learning,” in that as you study the cards (and read the accompanying book) you’re likely to pick up quite a bit of herblore, and it may get you intrigued in a whole new subject.
The last two styles are rarer in the Tarot pantheon, but I’ve found a good example of each one that will be both beautiful and useful in your collection.
COLLAGE DECKS: College decks are just that – pictures and creations put together from several different sources. A good example:
- The Transformational Tarot by Arnell Ando is probably the deck that Hieronymous Bosch would have loved to use. You’ve got Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite flavorings with Van Gogh and Renaissance masters and a few oddball items here and there thrown into the mix. When I say collage, it’s exactly that! But it follows the standard Rider-Waite 78 card meanings, and with a little effort the pictures can translate well into the traditional meanings. This is one of those decks you really need to spend time learning about and introducing yourself to; if you do, it will become one of your “personal” decks as well as what you use to read for others.
PHOTOGRAPHIC DECKS: Photographic decks are primarily photos, rather than drawn art, but can be wonderfully evocative. A good example:
- The Silver Era Tarot was created by Aunia Kahn and Russell Moon and I think it’s one of the best marriages of Rider-Waite traditionalism and photography that I’ve seen. Genders are changed on many of the cards, with the usual male figure being changed to a female one, but there is a lovely lyricism to this deck that makes you want to read with it. The cards are black and white for the most part, with touches of somber color here and there – enough to enhance, but not to distract. The fact that the photographs are simple in composition are definitely helpful for beginners. The names of the Major and minor cards are those used for the Rider-Waite. Once you have used the Rider-Waite for a while and want to branch out, this deck will make you think about the card meanings in a different way, and open you up to some new thought. Really nicely done.
So there you have it. Tarot decks can be as varied as Oracle decks in style, mood, and flavor. It’s why so many of us have wide-ranging collections. But no matter what style of deck you pick, if it’s the right one for you, it will leave you down gorgeous pathways of mystery and knowledge.