January/February 2016 Issue
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Three Simple Principles to Help You Find the Tarot Deck of Your Dreams
This article was written by Mark McElroy
posted under Tarot
Remember the good old days when ice cream came in two flavors? When televisions received just three networks? When Henry Ford offered customers any color car they wanted … as long as they wanted black? What speaks to you might not be good for you. Let’s face it—some people have an unfortunate affinity for saccharine. Some of these people may think the Tarot of the Teletubbies speaks to them … or coos to them, or yammers at them, or whatever the heck a Tarot of the Teletubbies might do. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Tarot of the Teletubbies will always be the best possible home base for their exploration of the Tarot.
Back then, even buying a Tarot deck was simple. At our local bookstore, Tarot decks came in just one flavor: Rider-Waite. The deck came in just one size: big. And I could have any color box I wanted, as long as it was hot, bright yellow.
Today, we live in a world of options. Ice cream parlors offer a minimum of thirty-one flavors. My DirecTV receives more than two hundred channels in both standard and high definition. When shopping for cars, I can buy from dozens of manufacturers—from Acura to Volvo—in any of several hundred colors.
And yes, these days, even oracles come with options. As anyone even remotely interested in Tarot knows, the lonesome Rider-Waite now has ample company. Tiny bookstores in small towns frequently carry half a dozen decks. My local metaphysical shop stocks more than a dozen. Even here in the buckle of the Bible belt, I have on-demand access to more than fifty unique decks through Borders, Books-a-Million, and Barnes & Noble.
With this variety, though, comes confusion. As Tarot becomes increasingly mainstream, the question I hear most is no longer “Aren’t Tarot cards demonic?” Instead, the number one question—the favorite of bewildered first-time buyers and curious students alike—is, “What deck should I buy?”
While the number of decks has increased, the number of answers to this question has not. For years, I’ve heard Taroteers trot out the same reply: “Find a deck that speaks to you.” Frankly? Especially for people just getting to know Tarot, that’s easier said than done. As a strategy for narrowing down options, “Find a deck that speaks to you” fails the practicality test. Here’s why:
If a deck actually speaks to you—with a voice, I mean—you should probably be concerned. (Unless the deck is the Thoth, of course, in which case the voice you hear is probably just Uncle Al, playing a posthumous prank.)
- You can’t take it literally.
What if every deck speaks to you? Through an online community called Comparative Tarot, I’ve met several folks who seem to be determined to buy every single deck that’s out there (much to the delight of the folks here at Llewellyn, I assure you). If you have a lot of cash on hand (or if you married well), buying every deck in the universe is definitely an option, but not one that’s practical for most people.
What if you can’t find a deck that speaks to you? Confronted with hundreds of options, many people just shut down: eventually, all the boxes just become a blur. When this is the case, even the friendliest of decks will seem as tight-lipped as a two-year old resisting a spoonful of boiled beets.
The good news: finding the deck that’s right for you needn’t involve pressing your ear to the box and listening for a still, small voice peeping, “Buy me!” As it turns out, once you sensitize yourself to three simple principles, the process of finding The Perfect Deck becomes amazingly straightforward.
With these secrets in hand, rank beginners can identify the deck that’s right for them. In fact, even experienced buyers and collectors can use these tips to evaluate whether that sweet little deck on eBay is worth a hundred and fifty bucks—before they click Buy It Now.
- Buying a Deck on Purpose
Before you shop Llewellyn’s online store, before you rush off to read the deck previews at Tarot Passages, before you plunk down $65.00 for that mass-produced-but-somehow-suddenly-extremely-rare copy of the Caveat Emptor Tarot on eBay, spend just ten minutes thinking about your purpose for buying the deck.
In other words: how will this deck be used?
Often, people respond to this most important question with a blank stare. “I dunno,” one fellow said. “I just want one, I guess.”
If your purpose is, indeed, just to have a deck—and not to use it—any deck will do. Your choice will be an easy one: buy the cheapest cards you can find. (On eBay, old decks by Miss Cleo and the Caring Psychic Family often go for pennies a pack.)
Most people, though, aren’t quite this flexible, and, as a result, they really could benefit from thinking about what they plan to do with the deck. In classes, I encourage students to finish this statement: “Primarily, I want a deck that will help me _______.”
Completing this phrase forces people to think of a Tarot deck strictly in terms of its utility. Will the deck be a learning tool? A meditative tool? A magickal tool? Will they read with the deck? If so, will they read for themselves? For others? For adults? For kids?
Defining your purpose in advance of your purchase will greatly reduce the number of decks you’ll have to consider. To make things even easier, the examples below pair common purposes with readily available decks, creating a list you could easily copy for your own shopping purposes.
- Learning Decks. Not every Taroteer agrees with me, but I’m a firm believer that beginners need decks with bright, approachable art. After all, who’s going to use a deck that scares her?
In addition, I also recommend that beginners adopt a deck that mirrors the Rider-Waite structure. Whether you love or hate the Rider-Waite, you have to admit that, for years, the Rider-Waite was Tarot. As a result, more books are based on the Rider-Waite images than any others. Getting to know Rider-Waite-style decks, then, provides the beginner with the broadest range of resources.
If your purpose is to begin learning Tarot basics, I recommend Lo Scarabeo’s Universal Tarots. The deck’s images are based on the most widely recognized Tarot imagery in the world. You might also consider Llewellyn’s Robin Wood Tarot, which preserves the same structure and themes, but illustrates the concepts in a more contemporary style.
Many of my students like the traditional 78-card structure, but don’t connect with the artistic style of the Universal Tarot or Robin Wood Tarot. For them, I recommend the colorful, whimsical art of the Medieval Enchantment/Nigel Jackson Tarot or the bold, multi-cultural art of the World Spirit Tarot (the perfect alternative for those who find more traditional decks to be what one student called “mighty white”).
- Reading for Yourself. When reading for myself, I find I have “comfort decks”—decks I return to again and again—and “study decks” with new or challenging art that forces me to see old cards in new ways.
My comfort decks include all the beginner decks, plus a couple of art decks with illustrations I really enjoy: Lo Scarabeo’s Durer Tarots and Tarots of the Renaissance.
My stack of study decks changes constantly, with new titles constantly displacing older ones. Lately, I enjoy comparing familiar cards from my comfort decks with bold new cards from a wide range of new and challenging decks: Llewellyn’s new Buddha Tarot, Lo Scarabeo’s intriguing Tarot of the New Vision, the glitzy computer-generated imagery of the Quest Tarot, or the unusual Lo Scarabeo Animal Lords Tarot.
All of these feature evocative images on every single card, and all of these, in addition to featuring luminous art, are extremely easy to read with.
Perhaps the ultimate study deck is Lo Scarabeo’s Comparative Tarot. It’s four decks in one, with each card depicting four card images—especially handy for comparative readings (and a lot easier than spreading out four decks!).
- Reading for Others. Reading for others poses an entirely different set of challenges. The deck you’ll prefer for a public reading deck will vary according to your personal reading style.
I enjoy collaborative readings, in which I ask my clients to take an active role in exploring the cards and unraveling their stories. As a result, I prefer bright, engaging decks which draw clients in with bold, approachable art.
All the beginner’s decks (Universal Tarots, Robin Wood Tarot, Medieval Enchantments/Nigel Jackson Tarot, and the World Spirit Tarot) are perfect for public readings. (I frequently put out five or six decks, allowing clients to choose the one they feel most comfortable with. Given this opportunity, eighty percent of my clients choose the Nigel Jackson deck!)
I default to these decks, then, but I also allow the occasion to dictate my choice of deck. Kids get a kick out of the Oz Tarot … and many respond well to the primitive art of Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe Tarot. My young coffeehouse clients love the Quest Tarot; older adults often respond well to the dapper (and under-rated) Tarot of the Master or prefer the prim simplicity of the Classical Tarots.
- Art Decks. Some of us enjoy collecting decks simply because we enjoy the art. If you’re looking for functional decks with an extra measure of artistic appeal, you might consider the rich Visconti Tarot, the Victoria Regina’s elegant collage art, the edgy Secret Tarots, or any number of the Lo Scarabeo decks, including the Leonardo and Giotto Tarots.
- Brainstorming/Corporate Decks. As the author of Putting the Tarot to Work, I’m always on the lookout for decks I can use when brainstorming with corporate clients. Thanks to the special HR sensitivities in business settings, I have to be careful what decks I choose; as a result, I frequently find myself removing cards that could prove problematic in the lawsuit-happy corporate world.
Generally, this means avoiding decks with overt occult content, dark and disturbing art, or nudity. The decks that might be perfect for an adult party or a night of naughtiness (including the Tarots of Cassonova, the Erotic Tarots of Milo Manara, and the Decameron Tarot) are right out!
With a card or two removed, I find my friends in starched collars respond well to the Medieval Enchantment/Nigel Jackson, the Durer Tarot, the Tarots of the Renaissance, and the Quest Tarot. These will do until 2005, when Llewellyn will publish The Bright Idea Deck, a Tarot deck free of nudity and overt occult symbolism, specifically designed for brainstorming, business, and creative use.
I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What I Like
With your purpose pinned down, the next step is to determine the artistic style that appeals to you the most. After all, how often will you really work with a deck you find tacky, ugly, tepid, or frightening?
To find a deck with art that you connect with, consider these four factors:
- Illustrated Pips. Almost every Tarot deck features evocative illustrations on the trump (or Major Arcana) cards and the court cards (the Kings, Queens, Knights, and Pages of each suit). Many decks—usually decks designed and manufactured after the turn of the twentieth century—feature illustrations on the pip cards (the suit cards numbered from one to ten) as well. As a result, we say these decks feature “illustrated pips.”
Older decks—or new decks based on older ones—often feature “non-illustrated pips.” Modern playing cards feature non-illustrated pips: on the Ten of Diamonds, for example, you’ll find ten little red diamonds. In Tarot decks with non-illustrated pips, instead of a picture of a little girl buying flowers from a diminutive man, the Six of Cups in a deck with “non-illustrated pips” will feature, well, six cups.
My own reading style and emphasis on brainstorming pretty much require the use of a deck with illustrated pips. On occasion, though, I enjoy using an antique deck. When I do, I reach for the Visconti Tarots, the Classical Tarot, or the Tarot of the Master (which features what might be called “semi-illustrated pips”—intriguing arrangements of ornate suit symbols).
If having an illustration on every card is important to you, be sure to get a deck with illustrated pips!
- Media & Colors. Most decks feature hand-drawn or hand-painted art in a variety of styles.
If you favor etched and shaded line art that evokes classical illustration, you’ll enjoy the Durer Tarot, the Giotto Tarot, the sepia-toned Ship of Fools Tarot, or any of several of the Lo Scarabeo decks. Like gentle watercolors? Try the Renaissance Tarots. Like bold lines and well-defined fields of bright color? Try the World Spirit, the Buddha Tarot, or the Tarot of the Saints. Like collage? Try the Victoria Regina (a good choice for the color-weary, too, as all the cards are in black and white). Like computer-generated art? Try the Quest Tarot, or the upcoming and eagerly-anticipated Gilded Tarot.
- Style. If you lean toward the classical, you might enjoy one of the antique decks: the Visconti, the Classical Tarots, the under-appreciated Tarot of the Master, or any of several Lo Scarabeo decks, including the Ancient Enlightened Tarots.
Those with more traditional tastes might enjoy the Victoria Regina, the Universal Tarots, the Medieval Enchantment/Nigel Jackson deck, the Durer, or the Tarots of the Renaissance. For those who favor the contemporary, the Robin Wood, World Spirit, and Quest decks all put a more contemporary spin on familiar Tarot themes.
- Theme. One major benefit of the growing interest in Tarot? Whatever your interest, there’s a Tarot deck designed specifically to appeal to you. Trust me on this. A casual glance at the Llewellyn web site reveals Tarot cards designed to appeal to lovers of animals, Buddha, Celtic lore, druids, Egyptian art and mythology, erotic art, faeries, German painters, gold foil highlights, the Golden Dawn, Italian artists of every stripe, Leonardo da Vinci, mermaids, Native American lore, the occult, Oz, all things pagan, primitive art, Pythagoras, the Renaissance, shapeshifters, witches, vampires, and wild spirits.
An affinity deck might not be the best choice for a public reading deck (after all, your clients may not share your delight in Celtic Dragons). Still, if the deck is just for you, why not indulge yourself?
Our Feature Presentation
Once you narrow your choices down to decks that suit your purpose and offer art that you find appealing or engaging, the last step in finding the perfect deck is to select one with features you’ll use and enjoy.
- Text on the Cards. Beginners may jump at a deck with keywords, but should also consider whether the keywords will prevent them from building additional (and often valuable) associations with each card. Some people adore titles and keywords. (If you do, you’ll love Lo Scarabeo decks, which frequently have text, titles, and keywords in four languages printed on the borders of each and every card!) Some people—usually those who prefer an intuitive approach to reading the cards—think any text at all is distracting.
One reason I like the Nigel Jackson and World Spirit decks? The text is contained in the card borders. After a borderectomy (Snip! Snip! Snip! Snip!) I’m left with nothing but the eloquent art. (Can you tell I’m not much for keywords and titles?)
- Structure. While many decks stick with a 78-card structure, variations are out there. One of the most common variations is the “Strength-Justice” swap—in some decks, Strength is Trump 8 and Justice is Trump 11, while in other decks, these two cards are reversed.
Another variation in structure involves adding entirely new cards. The Quest Tarot, for example, adds an additional trump: the Multiverse. Other decks, instead of adding new cards, give familiar cards new names: substituting the word Sage for King, for example, as in the World Spirit Tarot, or Elemental for Page, as in the Pagan Tarot.
Ultimately, you have to decide whether the order of the cards, the additional cards, or the renamed cards work for you.
- Companion Books. I love a great Tarot deck—but I love a detailed companion book even more! For me, the availability of a detailed companion book often makes or breaks my buying decision.
If you enjoy companion books, seek out these decks, all of which offer companion books of amazing depth: the Buddha Tarot, the Egyptian Tarot Kit, the Pythagorean Tarot, the Quest Tarot, the Robin Wood Tarot, the Tarot of the Saints, the Sacred Circle, the Visconti Tarot, and the Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot.
The Deck is Out There!
Focusing on your purpose for the deck, identifying artistic styles that appeal to you, and concentrating on the features you find useful will take the mystery and confusion out of deck purchases. Pair this practical approach with a quick glance at available reviews and previews, and you’ll greatly increase your odds of finding and buying a deck you’ll use for years to come.
After purchasing his first Tarot deck in 1973, Mark McElroy began terrorizing other neighborhood nine-year-olds with dire and dramatic predictions.Today, he calls Tarot "the ultimate visual brainstorming tool," and shares techniques designed to help... Read more
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