Review: Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot

0738736082-2My tarot tastes and deck purchasing has changed dramatically over the last three or so years. In my tarot-past, any deck was potential game – regardless of tradition, complexity, or style – but as my reading habits and needs have altered, so have the decks I buy.

I recently cancelled my order of Nicoletta Coccoli’s new tarot deck, which is released this month by Lo Scarabeo. Her artwork is of a very high standard and some of the cards I saw online touched me deeply. Hers would have been a perfect deck for me five years ago. I read for myself a lot back then and used blogging as a tool for daily self-exploration. I would have found both enjoyment and benefit in holding up Nicoletta’s paintings as mirrors, reflecting on their messages and untangling their meanings publicly with the help of the blogging community.

These days, I read for others more than I read for myself. I am also nearly at the end of my second beginners tarot course, which I am running from a beautiful little shop in a village in Kent. When I am reading for others, I need a framework I understand and which I can explain clearly. I like my Kings to look like kings and for there to be a few knocked-over-chalices in my 5 of Cups. The Rider Waite system works well for me, so for those purposes, I choose decks fashioned quite closely to it. For this moment in time, Nicoletta Coccoli would take me too far away from a framework I read and teach comfortably.

Does the world really need another Waite-clone? Probably not. What’s wrong with my Radiant, my Morgan Greer or my Hanson Roberts? Absolutely nothing. But as many taroists know, sometimes it is good to stir up the waters just a little, if not too much. When I saw how this deck had fleshed-out and beefed-up the Pages [who I recognised well from Rider Waite tradition], I was pulled into buying this set. I can always be seduced by a consistent and strong court.

On first look, the artwork in the Classic Tarot reminds me of other decks I own and have seen. At first, I noticed a similarity to the Sharman-Caselli and the New Mythic Tarot, both illustrated by Giovani Caselli. There is a comic-book-style to the artwork which links it with both of those. However, the style of illustration in the Classic Tarot brought the artist James Battersby to mind more readily; he accompanied Chanel Bayless on their self-published Kings Journey Tarot in 2010. Because I had many pleasant conversations with both creator and artist during the creation of that set (and their second pack), it was this comparison which warmed me to the Classic Tarot. It has a similar energy in it’s loose and colourful pages, which I thought would bring life and movement to my readings.

7 of SwordsThe Classic Tarot follows the Rider Waite Smith very closely. Not every detail is reproduced in the same way (such as the pomegranate tree on the veil behind the High Priestess) but anyone familiar with the original Waite deck would have little problem transferring their knowledge to this one. Some cards are a little different to those in the original. In the 7 of Swords a man is shown climbing away from the scene of a crime. In her accompanying book, Barbara Moore presents a twist, asking whether this is an act of theft or rescue. She suggests that the conclusion drawn is down to the perspective of the individuals involved. Having spoken to my own students about how no card is wholly negative or wholly positive, I like this way of looking at the cardYou may remember this advertisement from The Guardian newspaper in the 1980s. Barbara’s prompt reminds me of how limited our view can often be and this has helped me to see the 7 of Swords in a different way. Could he be climbing back up to the tent to return the swords?

HermitThe colouring in this set is one of its strong points. Being borderless, it allows the images to flow more easily together in readings. In one pair (The Empress and The Emperor), the two images practically join up to make one. There is a comic book style to Eugene Smith’s art, which is possibly why it reminds me of illustrations within a children’s story book. Most of the characters in the cards are active, which gives this deck a lively personality. I find this boosts a reading, as oppose to when designers pose people awkwardly in melodramatic freeze-frames. As an example, it is easier to explain  The Hermit’s journey when he is shown putting one foot in front of the other, rather than standing at the peak of a mountain, doing nothing.

I would not say that this is my preferred style of art but Smith receives full-marks for consistency. My biggest peeve with tarot decks is a recognisable difference in artistic style between the Major and Minor Arcana. In this deck, every card has been given the same amount of effort and is consistent in style. I hardly use my Fenestra Tarot because of the more ornate major cards. If I were to find fault, I’d say that many of the faces in these cards look too similar for them to have their own identity. As an example, the Queens all look extremely alike. The majority of characters have very strong jaw-lines, which results in the majority of females appearing masculine.

Queens

People will complain about the book which accompanies this deck, since it appears geared to a beginner. This is a fair comment, but with Barbara’s commentary of the 7 of Swords as an example, there is food-for-thought to be found within the text if we are open to it. I actually prefer simple and concise text, so the small paragraphs (accompanied by a listing of the symbols and their meanings) for each card provide a decent-enough springboard for a readers own intuition.

In the last class of my five-week tarot course, I bring in a selection of tarot packs for students, recommending those which I believe would work well with their new understanding of tarot basics. I have no problem with adding this one to my modest list. This is one example where an accompanying book would actually provide a good foundation, since it relies on the core meanings of the Rider Waite Smith which I discuss.  It doesn’t add anything radically new to the cooking pot, because in all honesty, it doesn’t really need to. Barbara’s comments on the cards are short but punchy.

So, I am brought back to my original question – does the world (or I, come to think of it) need another Rider Waite clone? We probably need one as much as we need another Cat, Steampunk or Witch tarot deck, but I can see this set getting some regular use on my own reading table. To some, the Classic Tarot might seem like a thoughtless copycat, but there is enough difference in both style and content to warrant its place on the market. Initially, I might have argued that the illustrations could have been a little less cartoon-like (since the Rider Waite already has simplified art) but Smith’s storybook-style does encourage more playful and inquisitive reading, due to the nature of storytelling with pictures. In a market of more and more photographic and computer generated decks (which this might have an element of in its colouring), drawing has become a luxury for me. Many readers coo over the multitude of pretty and inviting tarot sets on offer these days but a lot return to those packs which have a good structure and can be read without too much effort. I would guess that the Classic Tarot will soon become one of the latter for many a reader.

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© Steven Bright Tiferet Tarot 2014

Illustrations from The Classic Tarot by Barbara Moore and Eugene Smith, published by Llewellyn

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29 thoughts on “Review: Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot

  1. …And this brings me back to that discussion I had with my old shaman friend. He did go to the other extreme, poo-poo-ing most tarot decks as frippery, and I would never go that route since I am a true tarot lover! But he did say that his job was to read for others and he had no time for a thousand different systems and pictures. He used the same Naipe, or Spanish bridge cards for decades and said that people didn’t care what fancy deck you have if you couldn’t give them a good accurate reading. He also said that he needed to have the simplest cards ever, since he gave several readings a day and went on to say that actual Tarot cards should only be used once in a while as they could really take a toll on the psyche and were meant to be used at a much higher level…this is just his point of view but there is much to be gained by considering what he meant.
    That being said, I totally understand what you are saying. I too seem to have migrated in the same direction. Nowadays, I would only get a new deck if I could see myself using it for a reading done for someone else. And that perforce means simplicity and quick access to information.
    How interesting the way one evolves over a period of time. Now is our time for giving back to others what the Tarot has so generously given to us.
    This has stopped me from buying many new and beautiful decks out there and I still use my old tried and true ones for my own private sulks and cogitations…but somewhere deep inside there is still that yearning for the “perfect deck”.. 🙂

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    • Personally speaking, different decks are good for different kinds of readings. Now, if you and I were sitting here one evening with a pot of tea and a chocolate cake and wished to delve into and pick at a reading, discussing it together and thinking about all of the different ways a card could be read, then I wouldn’t hesitate in pulling out a deck like the Nicoletta. I’m sure it could teach us a lot about ourselves and itself. But reading for others can be nerve-wracking sometimes, especially if you don’t know the person or they are difficult to read for. I need a deck I understand well and feel comfortable with, which is why I would pick up one like this. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Classic Tarot is not attractive or have a voice of its own; it is and it does.

      Ah, the perfect deck. Part of me would say it doesn’t exist. The other would suggest that it lives in every deck we pick up. Could every tarot be the perfect tarot for the time we are using it?

      I remember when I was younger and recoiled at my mother saying she was buying shoes because they were ‘comfy’. I wore a lot of uncomfortable garments in my time because they looked ‘out-there’. These days, it’s not a big deal. I don’t buy outlandish clothes or have a large clothing budget. I buy things I know will fit and suit who I am as a 42 year old man. A lot of the time, what I wear is practical. My tarot buying is a lot like my clothes buying, even though I will readily admit that I have more decks than clothes 😉

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  2. I am not a fan of this artwork for the same reason you do like it The comic style is not appealing for me at all and I love my hermits quiet, silent and still.
    I do love the RW system very much and as I’ve perhaps told you before I sometimes wish I had just a few decks of this system to work with instead of so many different beautiful gorgeous decks which require each a study of there own. I blame my own lack of self control and the enabling aspect of the internet 🙂
    I am so happy the tarot course went well and don’t forget to enjoy a little soul searching once in while with a cup of tea and a journal

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    • It is not my preferred style of art, but I find it less offensive than I might once have. It is crude in places .. but it is talkative. I read for myself with it this morning and it was extremely clear and easy to read. I always liked the readability of the Sharman Caselli. I wasn’t nuts about the artwork in that but I got a lot from it as a reading set. This deck reminds me of that pack, but with a nicer palette.

      Yes, I hear you about decks and systems. I dedicated so much time to the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot, to the Rohrig, to finding my own way through the Favole (extremely fulfilling), to the Enoil Gavat, to decks like the Haindl and the Deva. As exciting and interesting as that was, I prefer decks I can translate system knowledge between now. I think the Chrysalis Tarot is adorable but I just couldn’t be doing with adapting and changing at this point of my tarot journey. I never say never, but just not right now. Just a personal thing, really.

      And I journaled this morning – with this deck and my cup of coffee – many interesting things came to the surface. I got good feelings from the reading 🙂

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      • Yes the Chrysalis Tarot is a good example of decks with a whole different system. I love it but it requires a lot of energy. Just after Tara had died my Mary El tarot was delivered in the mail. For now This deck is too much either.
        Maybe sometimes less is really more
        I am glad you don’t “deprive” yourself of personal readings, journaling and coffee. (a lovely blend even better then “tea and tarot” :D)

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        • The Mary El is another which I find visually attractive but which I think would need time aside from what I am doing at the moment.

          I still play with the cards, drink coffee and journal 🙂 I find that the simple decks also have a way of providing avenues to greater thought too. As you say, sometimes less can be more.

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  3. As I mentioned to you privately, I am fond of comic-like artwork and have several decks that have it. I like that books can be read and understood by beginners and helpful. I do find with major publishers, too much reliance on basic books, streaming out the same canned meanings without analysis or relation to the artwork. Some artist/authors write remarkable books and tie in their art and impetus for meaning in art nicely.

    The Mary-el Tarot book was full of esoteric garbage and mistaken mythology. I’m always amazed at the esoteric crowd, the way they will suck in the information in a book without question, and take away gobbledygook as being wise and deep when it’s a mish-mash of fantasy and re-interpreted facts. Had Marie sorted out the Rod of Asclepius and the caduceus accurately I might not have balked but the book was filled with similar wrong information and she spelled Hermes Trismegistus wrong and said he was Hermes, when Hermes is different altogether. Our society is full of such thinking, where we take for granted what a book says instead of going for original, or at least more learned sources.

    Many people in our society mix up the rod of Asclepius with the Caduceus, probably due to American medicine using the wrong symbol, the caduceus, instead of the rod of Asclepius with regard to medicine and healing. Marie White should have done her research before culling together her nonsensical book. And those are only two instances where she got her information wrong. It’s also why I traded the deck and book.

    I sound like Little Miss Know-it-all, which I am not, being firmly convinced of my own ignorance, but published junk like this gets out too often, and people moon over it and say how tuned-in it is to tarot. It’s not tuned into anything but an author’s ignorance of fact. Sometimes “a thousand different systems” are just a thousand different amplifications of human ignorance.

    This is why I am so adamant that publishers do not hold me hostage to buying a book with a deck. There are some books that I want the opportunity to buy with a deck, and many others where I know the book will be an added expense for nothing.

    No junk thinking for me. I am not a bloody hostage.

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    • Yes, me too. Even though I find this deck quite cheery, there is other comic book art in decks I prefer – like the Fradella and The Gay Tarot.

      I don’t know much about the Mary El, aside from seeing her art and liking it. However, I knew it wouldn’t be a deck for me, due to all of the reasons I have mentioned here, so it never became a buying consideration. It is a big shame when information is incorrect like that. When people lose confidence in the book and author, they then lose confidence in the deck (with the beautiful artwork) and it is pushed away too.

      Yup, I also agree about major publishers and basic books. This might be one case where I was not so concerned, since it is a deck which I guess many could choose as their first pack. I get the feeling that there was little more which could have been written here, since the images in the cards ware so like those from the original Rider Waite, which has been written about so much already. If there had been the option to buy just the deck, I would have. In recent times, I have seen there is the option to do that with some Llewellyn sets (like the Gilded).

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  4. I love how more of their decks are borderless. 🙂

    And it’s odd; when I first looked at the 7S, I saw him climbing up. That surprised me. As if he was, as you said, “rescuing” the swords. Very interesting…

    Also, I don’t believe there’s a “perfect” deck, either. Just the one we resonate with the most at the time. Which, as you mentioned, can change. I never work with one long enough to give it a chance, always thinking that one of the others will work ‘better’. I have, though, stopped buying new ones, knowing that they will most likely sit on the shelf in the hopes that it all makes more sense than the previous decks. I’m 1/2 Pisces, 1/2 Virgo; the two sides war, what can I say. 😉 Funny thing is; I’d traded in my very first purchased deck (the Hanson-Roberts) because I hadn’t used it in ages. A year or so later, I felt drawn to buy another even though I am happily working with the Druid Craft (and sneaking in the Tarot Nova). Why??! LOL

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    • I’ve done the same, Pip. I traded decks and wondered why. Then bought them again.

      My main reason for not buying sets willy-nilly these days is down to having a cupboard full of packs I really don’t use – Enochian, Crystal, Arthurian, Pic Tarot – many which stray either too far from the path or which I didn’t visually research beforehand and bought on a whim, not wanting to leave a shop with nothing.

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  5. The Arcus Arcanum Tarot is a quintessential comic book style deck and even if I am not a big fan of this style it did indeed provide me a platform for some amazingly insightful readings-I saw a few things that were literally impossible to know-even I was flabbergasted lol there’s no telling what our psyche will latch on to at times but I’ve noticed in my case too that there are some styles which might not be to my taste at all but somehow did the trick. This also happened with the Shapeshifter deck as well (anyone here remember that one?)…I remember reading on a tarot blog how someone really hated the Witches tarot by Ellen Cannon Reid but performed the most incredible accurate readings…
    How odd that is..
    Can’t figure it out !
    I always wanted to try the Fradella but never got around to it, I bet is does allow for good readings probably for the same reason.
    As for the famous Mary-El, the book was indeed such an odd jumble of stuff. It reminded me a bit of the ravings of a lunatic university professor gone mad in the NYC subway I witnessed a few years ago. I read it through once or twice but it left me with a strange feeling of having overeaten a big meal and being left with an empty stomach. I couldn’t retain anything. Since I am very ignorant in all things mythology esp. the ones she talks about in the book, I couldn’t tell if they were accurate but I certainly couldn’t make heads or tales of the story’s relationship to the cards.
    I never could do a very accurate reading either for some reason, with this deck. All my perceptions seemed slightly off the mark. But the artwork is certainly arresting. I did have fun playing with it for quite a while in spite of the difficulties. My niece actually recoiled from them when I pulled out my trimmed version-I thought her reaction was quite interesting!
    And by the way-I love that setting for our rap session with the cards 🙂 yum.
    Quite right. when reading for strangers I do need a simple deck, it’s already nerve racking enough! But oh it’s sooo much fun delving into a complicated or weird away from professional obligations.

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    • I remember looking at both the AA and the Shapeshifter many times, but never owning either. I quite liked the style of the AA but the characters looked even more alike than in the Classic: very similar-looking-men in the same pictures. I love Lisa Hunt’s art but found her element differences for suits (air and fire) confused my understanding in some of her packs. I have her Celtic Dragon only and love it a lot, but have not bought any of her others to date.

      Interesting to hear more about the Mary El. I wonder how the deck would have been received without the book.

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  6. P.S. Suddenly I was moved to pull out my neglected Haindl tarot…we might make a comparison here with the Mary-El, regarding mythology and artwork. This was one of my best and favourite decks at one point and I have a larger version too. Again, am no expert but it does seem that the stories were much more carefully researched and taken in a more loving and quietly reverent manner if you wish. JJ what do you think?

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    • Oh boy, you’re asking me? The thing with the Haindl is that Rachel Pollack did a capable job of writing about artwork not exactly produced for the deck–particularly obvious in the minor pips (Stones anyone?) Some of the art was taken from pre-existing artwork, so she made it work by weaving the new tale. In a sense, this is what many of us do with decks, so not such a stretch.

      I doubt very much that Rachel would jumble a bunch of nonsense together without fact checking. Haindl himself seems to have had deeper knowledge of I Ching, runes, and Kabbalah than a casual glance to cull a bunch of stuff together for deck publication. I also doubt that any publisher but Schiffer would have let the Mary-el book be published without editing of facts, grammar and spelling. It was simply appalling that any business calling themselves a “publisher” would have let that book out.

      I was thinking of the Shadowscapes deck–pre-existing art but a careful book, with poetry and lots of information related to the art. Information not jumbled together. Careful, relevant. I think Mike Indovina was the same. He had done comics with mythology and adapted his art for his Silenus Tarot. It works beautifully. No book there just a sheet of meanings, but it’s accurate so you can delve deeper into each story of mythology. He knows his stuff, comic art or not.

      Okay, so everybody go buy the Fradella! It is a gem, one of my favourites.

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      • Please don’t tempt me lol I’ve had Fradella in my shopping cart since 2009!
        And oh I went to take a peek at the Silenus tarot I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. It does seem very interesting and has a lot of movement to it-it’s very lively. And that makes it even more interesting since it’s managed to capture such liveliness while representing a theme which many have depicted in such a dull, serious, scholarly way. We forget how in ancient times people were surely vivacious, mischievous, raunchy and all the rest.
        One can almost feel the energy from here. But does it give a good platform for reading for others?
        I too seem to really be going more in that directions these days…

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        • I think you would need to be familiar with Greek mythology to read for others with this deck, if you want to use it straight.

          However, like with most art, you could probably just read with it.

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  7. p.s. I thought you all were talking about the Fradella Undersea tarot…I didn’t realize there was the Fradella Adventure one..

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  8. I too didn’t like the queens all having the same face. That is until I realized why they do. At least this is what makes sense to me: they are all aspects of the same person. Some days I might be a queen of wands. Other days I might be a queen of cups. Etc. Now the sameness of their faces doesn’t bother me at all. 🙂

    Btw, I just found this site. I love your reviews. Will be a regular reader. 🙂

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    • Hi Lisa

      I wondered if that was why they’d done that – a bit like in Cannon Reid’s ‘Witches Tarot’, where the same figure wears different colours and carries a different emblem for each suit.

      I have used this deck exclusively since I got it and I really like it. When you get into it, the pictures really open up. It has a soul I had not anticipated initially. It’s moved right up to the top of my reading deck list.

      Thanks for your kind words. I am really happy to know that people enjoy the reviews. I try to write the kind of reviews I’d like to read myself. There is always so much more to a deck than what the card stock is like and whether the box is sturdy 😉

      Hope to speak again 🙂

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