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When is a Tarot Deck Not a Tarot Deck?

This post was written by Barbara Moore
on October 10, 2012 | Comments (7)

The definition of a tarot deck varies quite a bit from person to person. The bare bones definition is a deck of 78 cards: 22 majors and 56 minors (of four suits, ace – 10, and four courts per suit).

There have been, historically, deviations. An example is a Minchiate deck, which has 40 majors, plus the Fool. Modern deck designers have played with this structure as well, sometimes adding a few cards to the majors or adding a court to the minors, or even an entire fifth suit. Some would argue these are not tarot decks.

In addition, there are decks that follow what I call the bare bones structure but deviate wildly from the familiar Golden Dawn (Thoth and Rider Waite) images and meanings. For example, the recently released Book of Shadows, volume 1: As Above HERE. While it expresses the archetypal meanings commonly associated with the Golden Dawn (mostly), it does so in very different ways. In addition, the four suits leave the Golden Dawn completely. Does this make it not a tarot deck?

I think it is still a tarot deck. I think that as long as the structure (the suits and the numbers) are used in a way that makes sense, then it is a tarot deck. Following, for example, the element of fire as expressed by heavenly bodies is a viable and logical use. Different from the RWS? You bet.

Tarot has always been organic. If we stay wedded to the idea that the RWS (or Golden Dawn) is the only “real” tarot, we stagnate. There are so many decks that take a creative approach, exploring energy (both elemental and numeric) in unique ways. Decks that challenge us can be as welcome to our practice as ones that are familiar and feel a bit a like “coming home.”

What are your thoughts? When does a tarot deck cease to be a tarot deck?

Reader Comments

Written By Amethyst Mahoney
on October 10th, 2012 @ 11:50 am

I think of Tarot decks as the 78 cards that follow the RWS pattern, and everything else as Oracle decks. This doesn’t diminish all of the other decks and the ability to read with them. However, it gives me a way to explain it to my students when I teach workshops and classes.

I get a lot of new students, so I like to explain what they may want to look for in their deck, and the differences they might run across. By saying, “All Tarot decks are Oracle cards, but not all Oracle cards are Tarot decks,” it really seems to help brand-new people understand. They need a standard to compartmentalize the information and know what to expect.

Written By Angelo Nasios
on October 10th, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

True tarot is 78 cards in the tradition format. I consider decks with a few extra majors or extra courts to be Tarot, just an adapted version. Then you have tarot-esq which is closely based on the system but with bigger variations like The Psychic Tarot or Osho Zen Tarot

Written By Charlie
on October 10th, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

I have heard a few people say they can’t work with the Book of Shadows As Above because it’s “It’s a Wicca Oracle and not Tarot” I think that view makes Tarot too small.

I get frustrated that so many people say Lo Scarabeo decks aren’t “traditional” when the tradition they are referring to is a 1970’s interpretation of the Rider Waite. This is why I enjoyed Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot because he shows that interpretations of individual cards has morphed a great deal as different occultists weighed in.

A bit of variety helps especially as more people embrace Tarot. This lead to Devil cards that aren’t always leering demons, Hierophants that aren’t always Catholic popes, or (if we want to really go back) Fools that aren’t madmen.

It does mean certain decks require more from us. The new Witches Tarot can be read fresh out of the box if you are familiar with RWS decks (though the companion book will take you deeper). The BoS As Above, like the Thoth and Shining Tribe before it requires more time spent exploring.

Now decks with cats wearing clothing – those are never real Tarot decks. 😉

Written By Ty Bevington
on October 11th, 2012 @ 9:23 am

I feel that cards that stick to a structure of the 4 suites in line with the 4 elements and a court structure and a ‘majors’ or ‘spirit’ suite are essentially a tarot deck, even when extra cards may be added (like the ‘Void’ card in the Robin Wood deck). When the move past that, I have to agree with Amethyst, they become oracle decks.

Written By Kort
on October 16th, 2012 @ 10:51 am

I agree with TY. Not much more to add. It a deck strays too far from what the majority historically expects of a tarot deck, then it becomes and oracle.

Written By Anja Rebekka Schultze
on October 17th, 2012 @ 7:33 am

I see many think that for a Tarot deck to be a Tarot deck it have to follow the classical RW formula, I do not completely agree we had Tarot before RW, however I do think it have to follow somewhat the symbology and structure of what we recognize as Tarot according to it’s history. A deck that deviates allot from this is a oracle deck and not a Tarot deck. I can not however sit here and say exactly how much something can deviate and still be Tarot. I would for example consider the Thoth deck to be Tarot even if it have a few extra cards. I also think that there are a few in between decks which have elements of being Tarot but who deviate so much that it can not be said to be pure Tarot, which then end up as a hybrid of sorts.

To me for a oracle deck to be Tarot it have to first of all stick mostly to traditional symbols and imagery, this can be tweaked and changed a bit but it have to be recognizable. Secondly the deck have to feel like a Tarot deck, and I think the second point there is more important for me, some decks can be rather out there and still feel like Tarot so then I think they are, but like I said it is difficult to set a hard, fast rule of what must be there or not be there for a deck to be a Tarot deck.

Written By Stephanie
on December 27th, 2014 @ 1:16 am

Good morning! Clearly I’m late to the party. 😀 No matter, here’s my response.

To me, a Tarot deck is about the symbols of life and life events. The RWS deck certainly exemplifies that for me. Whether it is the III of CUPS or III of SWORDS, the RWS deck works. I do daily readings for myself, and my two decks of choice are the traditional RWS deck and the Robin Wood deck. Although I have other decks, often my readings are automated (I wrote my own program to do readings at work, and the program allows me to choose a deck) as I’m pressed for time. Both the RWS and RW decks are effective for me.

Do I need 78 cards? No, though it works well today. Could it be done with half that? Possibly, with the right 39 cards. Could it be done with twice that? Considering reversals, that could be daunting, but sure, why not? Done right, 156 cards could be interesting.

A Tarot deck must connect with me. I must be able to connect with it. There are plenty of Tarot decks with which I cannot connect. That’s fine. Isn’t variety wonderful?

When I’m doing a reading, there are times I want the Robin Wood deck. It’s pretty, and just right. Yes, there’s value in art; never doubt that. There are other times when I feel I need something timeless. Rider-Waite-Smith is exactly what I need. There are times I need the empowerment of Pamela Smith’s High Priestess, whether the card is one I choose or simply remains a possibility in the deck. If the deck doesn’t have that power, it isn’t one I’m going to use, no matter what you call it.

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