A Very Brief Intro to Tarot and Tarot Decks

For the next 28 days in Roderick’s program (well, 31 since the days of contemplation, devotion, and reflection fall between The Devil and The Tower study days), we’ll be focusing on the cards in the major arcana of the tarot as well as a few basic spreads and other techniques.  Before launching into a study of the Fool card, I thought it might be best to pause and take a moment to outline some tarot basics.

In my opinion, one of the most important things to know about the tarot is that it is not a divination system that has been with us since time immemorial.  Playing cards themselves didn’t arrive on the scene until the 14th century, and current scholarly consensus is that cards that would become the modern tarot deck originated in 15th-century Italy as a game for the aristocracy.  The earliest decks that have been found definitely look more like playing cards than the elaborate illustrations we see today.  The minor arcana cards, for example, just show two circles or two sticks on what would be the two of pentacles or two of rods.  The court and major arcana cards primarily just show a central figure as well.

Tarot as we know it is fully rooted in the late 18th-century.  Though it is true that cards had previously been used in divination prior to this time (the earliest reference occurs in 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forlì), using the cards to do more than select another random oracle was largely the extent of their use.  Different manuscripts from the mid 1700s evidence a more elaborate cartomancy, but the groundwork of modern tarot was largely set in 1781 when Antoine Court de Gébelin published Le Monde Primitif, in which he hypothesized that the symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille had hidden within its illustrations and form the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Thoth.  Court de Gébelin generally tried to read a lot of Egyptian influence into the cards, and even claimed that the name “tarot” derived from the Egyptian words for royal and road (“tar” and “ro”), which meant that the cards were a “royal road” to higher wisdom.  These claims were made well before Champollion decoded the hieroglyphics, however, and subsequent study has found little to uphold Court de Gébelin’s early theories.

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Cards from Wilfried Houdouin’s “The Tarot of Marseilles Millennium Edition” (2011).  This is his ‘reconstruction’ of the original cards, which are among the oldest extant (and most complete) tarot decks.  They might date back to the 15th century.  In this deck, the minor arcana are not as fully illustrated.

The popular culture link between ancient Egypt and the tarot, however, had been indelibly forged.  In 1790, the French occultist Jean Baptiste Alliette published a book linking the Egyptian Book of Thoth along with astrology and the four elements with his own inteprtations of the tarot deck.  Just before his death in 1791, he also produced a special divination deck of cards that brought together his own ideas with older French systems.  As far as we know, Etteilla’s deck was the first specifically designed for cartomancy.

The cards that have most influenced contemporary tarot studies were published in 1910 by occultist Arthur Edward Waite and his contracted artist, Pamela Colman Smith.  Published by the Rider company, these cards are known today as the “Rider-Waite” tarot deck.  The images on these cards are pretty simple as far as the art goes, but Waite and Smith collaborated to include so many details into the cards that they contain a tremendous amount of symbolism.  Waite and Smith also insisted on creating full, descriptive images for each card, including those in the Minor Arcana.  These two innovations suddenly made tarot reading incredibly accessible.  Whereas with older decks you either had to memorize lots of meanings or else be truly psychic, almost anyone can interpret a meaning from the Rider-Waite cards with just a little bit of training and a nice dose of intuition.

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A comparison of different fool cards from variously published Rider-Waite decks.  Left to right:  The “A” version of the 1910 deck, “The Original Rider-Waite Tarot” (1993), “The Universal Waite” (1990), “Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot” (2003).  The Universal and Radiant decks were projects to re-color the Rider-Waite cards using modern printing.  Mary Hanson Roberts colored Universal and Virginijus Poshkus colored Radiant.

Another major influence on contemporary tarot is the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck.  Under directions from occultist Aleister Crowley, Lady Frieda Harris painted (and repainted) these cards between 1938 and 1943.  Neither lived to see the deck published, which was first done by Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis in 1969 (Harris’s original paintings were re-photographed for a clearer deck in 1977, and were re-photographed again for the currently available edition of the deck in 1986).  These cards, some of which are shown below, are completely packed with complex symbols that Crowley brought together from many disparate cultures and systems and can provide incredibly rich readings.  Those familiar with Crowley’s work and metaphysics cannot help but be impressed by the thoroughness of his deck and how well its elements work with each other.

Crowley, however, made several changes to the deck structure established by historical decks such as the Tarot of Marseilles and the newer Rider-Waite deck.  While his changes are very well reasoned within his metaphysical conception, it does mean that readers who are drawn to the Thoth deck cannot rely upon many of the published meanings, symbols, and history of the cards.  Therefore, Thoth readers need to be aware that they must undertake specially targeted research in order to fully understand this deck.  Subsequently published decks by others that have been inspired by the Thoth deck would also require this research.

The Fool, Moon, and Aeon cards from Crowley's Thoth deck.

The Fool, Moon, and Aeon cards from Crowley’s Thoth deck.

Today, I believe it is safe to say that any one of the hundreds of currently published tarot decks will fall into at least one of five main categories:  a Marseilles-influenced deck, a Waite-influenced deck, a Thoth-influenced deck, an art deck, or a novelty deck.  It is definitely important to understand the influences of whatever deck you are drawn to and whether or not they are even appropriate for readings.  Some may be exquisite cards, but leave you with flat readings.  For example, I acquired a Dante Tarot deck several years ago.  It was a joke gift from a professor whose “Virgil and Dante” class I was taking.  I was completely uninspired for one of the long “reading journal” papers she insisted we write, so I made an academic stretch and hypothesized about a connection between Dante’s Divine Comedy and the tarot.  For my trouble, I got an A, the lone comment “Wild!” and this tarot deck.  I would consider this deck both an art deck and a novelty deck, and I loved its amazing illustrations, but I couldn’t get a decent reading out of these cards at all.  I’d lay down a spread, look to see if I could note any patterns…and get absolutely nothing.  Despite having a good understanding of the symbolism of both tarot cards and Dante’s work, they didn’t tug on my intuition one bit.

I do find that art decks and novelty decks in general aren’t the best when it comes to being a working divination tool.  However, there are some good “art decks” that do make great use of established tarot imagery.  One such deck that I do have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for, however, is Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot, which was published in 2010.  Law’s work is exquisite–if a bit ‘fantasy’ for my personal tastes–and very dream like.  Despite the amazing originality of Law’s images, though, I find that a Rider-Waite reader would be able to see tons of similarities between Law’s deck and the ‘old’ standard.  Once you thoroughly understand the Rider-Waite cards, you can’t help but see their meanings and motifs jump at you from Law’s images.  I almost can’t wait until I can get my hands around one of these decks!

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The three of swords, eight of pentacles, Fool, and Star cards from Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot.

In my years as a pagan, I’ve owned several different tarot decks and had loads of friends with plenty of others.  In my experience, I’ve found that I can pass on most art and novelty decks, as well as those inspired by the Marseilles deck (they read as “empty” to me, and I sorely miss illustrated minor arcana cards).  I think that Thoth decks are incredible and rich, but I’ve never been drawn to study Crowley in any great depth, and I always feel that much of my readings with these cards are “missing something.”  This means that I do most of my work with Rider-Waite cards and those with a strong Rider-Waite influence.

That being said, I despise the copy of the Rider-Waite cards that is most available today.  They worked off of a poor printing of the original, and have made the line work is so heavy, it obscures many of the finer details.  The colors also make you want to gouge out your eyes.  Marginally better is The Original Rider-Waite deck (1993), which has better coloring, but uses a what looks like a heavier-lined version of Smith’s “C” deck for the outlines rather than the clearer “A” deck.  I prefer to use the Universal Waite Tarot, which is Mary Hanson Robert’s 1990 recoloring as my main reference point.  Influenced by the “A” deck lines and coloring, it offers a softer, richer, and incredibly more precise art (the scanned images on that link are over-exposed, the cards are really lovely).  Another popular re-coloring is Virginijus Poshkus’s 2003 Radiant Rider-Waite, which is highly color-saturated and slightly redrawn.  There are plenty of Rider-Waite ‘clones’ that directly redraw the cards in a style that might be considered more appealing.  Timothy Roderick recommends the Universal Tarot as one of these decks.

There’s also about a million cards that might not be completely identical to Waite, but still display a very strong influence.  Two decks like this that I use frequently are the Hanson-Roberts Tarot and the Robin Wood Tarot.  Truth be told, my Hanson-Roberts deck gets the most play because its cards are small (about 4 inches by 2 3/8ths inches) and easiest to shuffle and handle.  I enjoy the coloring and dynamic figures in her rendering, though I do find that some of the faces border on the ‘cherubic’.  I’ve had a lot of great readings with this deck.  Most recently I’ve been working with the Robin Wood Tarot because it is what my HPS uses and teaches.  It has several cards that are completely different from Rider-Waite’s images, but Ms. Wood has excellent reasons for her choices.  She also includes plenty of imagery that British Traditional-trained witches will find very appealing and evocative.

From here on out, I will be sharing images of my three main decks:  Universal Waite, Hanson-Roberts, and Robin Wood when we study each of the cards in the major arcana.  Enjoy!

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