One of the questions I receive in my mail box the most often is ‘Which deck should I start with?’. In fact, I was asked this question just a few days ago and suggested that I might write a blog post around the subject. Of course, my views on which deck to start with are completely subjective and based on my own experience.
This is a heavily debated topic, which has been fought out between purists, traditionalists, and purely intuitive readers for many years. Opinion usually falls into two camps – those who believe you should start off with a popular and established system versus those who suggest you choose a deck which artistically calls to you.
I began my tarot journey amidst confusion. As I have stated on many occasions, I began with a set I’d found in my local supermarket. While it was geared to the beginner, I’d say it was far from easy for a beginner to grasp. The book accompanying the set (by Jonathan Dee) uses standard Rider Waite correspondences, but the images (by Shirley Barker) are a mixture of the Rider Waite and Marseille-style. To add insult to injury, I then went on to use The Rohrig, a descendent of the Thoth tradition, trying to shoehorn what I’d already learned into its modern and provocative images.
For those of you who are currently unaware of systems and tradition in tarot, there are three big players – the earliest is the Marseille, dated from around the 15th Century (78 cards, 56 of which are illustrated but not scenic). The second is the Rider Waite (78 scenic cards, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and engineered by Edward Arthur Waite in 1910). The latest in line is the Thoth system (78 cards, 56 of which are semi-illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris and devised by Aleister Crowley in 1969). Most other decks you will find follow one of these traditions but, for a beginner, telling them apart and knowing which will suit you is a daunting process. If you mix up a card deck from one tradition with a beginners book focused on another, as I did, you could just end up tossing the lot over your shoulder and giving up.
Having used all three systems, I think each has its value. My advice would be to look at a selection of decks within each of the three traditions and see which suits. If you listen to my mother, she’d have you believe that all of the 300-odd decks in my tarot cupboard are the same, but this is not true. Each has its pros and cons. Take a look at the cards below. Each shows a depiction of the 6 of Swords. The lack of scenes in the Marseille may feel bland to some but will stimulate the imagination of others, down to the floral decoration and the use of elemental attribution and numerology. The Rider Waite’s scenes, showing ‘people doing things’, are relatable to many, but for some readers, may constrict how many ways they can view a card. Somewhere in between, the 56 minor cards in The Thoth are coloured and designed in a way which can seduce the intuition and mood of the reader.
Once you understand a system, you can pretty much turn your attention to any deck designed in that tradition. As an example, the popular Gilded Tarot was built by Ciro Marchetti in the vein of the Rider Waite. It follows the scenes closely (with twists personal to the artist’s vision) and remains true to Waite’s definitions. Marchetti’s work is colourful and modern, which has been an asset for those who find it difficult to identify with Colman-Smiths simplistic artwork.
It is good to do a little research before you begin because there are many traps out there, just waiting to trip a beginner up. For example, many decks labelled as Tarot are not actually tarot decks when compared to the guidelines of an already acknowledged tarot system. For example, I have met many people who use the Psychic Tarot Oracle, believing that it is a standard tarot. It is not. While a great deck (which I own), it does not include the 16 court (or people) cards, has eliminated the ’10’s’ from each suit, and has added a card for each of the chakras. Similarly, The Wolf Pack Tarot and the Daemon Tarot are simply oracles, bearing no relation to any of the three major systems. While these decks, all with beautiful artwork, may call to you, they will only hinder your learning of traditional tarot.
The young man who wrote to me this week is drawn to The Fountain Tarot and The Wild Unknown Tarot. Both are beautiful sets. Could he learn tarot with either of these? Of course. Anyone who shows commitment will be rewarded. However, I do think that both decks would be richer for knowing about the tarot systems upon which they’ve been built. My understanding of the portrait of the fox on the Ace of Wands in the Tarot of the Hidden Realm is accentuated by my prior understanding of the fiery card in standard tarot decks. Understanding the beauty of using Archangel Azrael in Doreen Virtue’s retitled ‘Release’ is only strengthened by a previous knowledge of the traditional Death card it replaces.
I would advise anyone to start as simply as possible. As an example, if it is the Rider Waite system which beckons you, then go check out a copy of either that deck or one which is faithful to it. With hundreds of decks in my home, it is kind of interesting that the one I use for all of my professional in-person readings is the Original a Rider Waite. It’s not the coolest or the flashiest of sets but it has an artistic handwriting which I know and can read easily under pressure. I don’t have to check a card title to know what it is or mix up my Pages with my Knights. It might appear simplistic to some but it never stops illuminating or surprising me in readings.
Once you have practiced and have a handle on a tradition, it is far easier to side-step to a deck which you might like the look of more. With the Rider Waite as an example (since more decks are modelled on it than any other), you may want to explore The Fountain Tarot, Crystal Visions Tarot, or The Illuminati. All will have imagery which is instantly recognisable, despite style differences and the occasional twist. You will find that the steps before will be beneficial to your connection with these decks. If you can’t wait for the fancy set, buy the deck that calls to you and it’s ‘tarot parent’ for comparison: something I would wholeheartedly recommend.
For those who work intuitively, none of this will really matter, since readings will work on image alone – a deck can be chosen simply by what attracts. There are many roads to the same place and there are many readers who practice successfully this way. However, through my own experience, I believe that a combination of learning and intuition can only enhance our reading skills. Your intuition has a greater ability to fly when you power it up with a little tarot knowledge. When three knights arrive in your reading, knowing that a Knight is connected to movement will provide a new layer to your read and stimulate further feelings and thoughts. Understanding the conflict between The Devil and the 8 of Cups adds a dynamic to a session which a client might need to hear, regardless of how the artist has painted them.
Learning tarot should be fun. Too many rules can make it a chore. My best advice is to take it slowly and surely. Remember these clichés and you can’t go wrong: ‘don’t run before you can walk’, ‘you only get out of something what you put in’, and ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
Here are a few decks I would recommend beginning with …
Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot
Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot, created by Barbara Moore and illustrated by Eugene Smith, is extremely faithful to the Rider Waite Smith system. There are a few twists and turns in the artwork, such as a different way of looking at the 7 of Swords, but on the whole, it follows Pamela Colman Smith’s paintings and Arthur Edward Waite’s vision extremely closely.
So what makes it different to the Rider Waite? I brought this deck to one of my classes and my students loved it. It fleshed out the characters in many ways and they felt that it gave them more personality. With a story-book feel, Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot is bold and jewel-coloured. If I didn’t have my trusty Original Rider Waite to hand, this would be the one I would pick up. Barbara’s accompanying book (included in the set) is a great resource for the beginner.
Golden Tarot was created by Kat Black and published by U.S. Games in 2003. Following the Rider Waite system, it brings together existing (and well-known) artwork through digital collage. The result is a deck which looks as though it has fallen straight out of the Renaissance.
What makes this different to either the Rider Waite or Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot? Some readers will want an object of beauty to read with. This deck, with its gilded edges and sturdy container, will delight on the table. While the scenes are recognisable, the deck has an antique and special feel to it. It is not as bold as either the Llewellyn or the Waite, but it would be a great learning deck for anyone interested in the art of the said period, since Kat’s accompanying book details the origin of all works used.
Legacy of the Divine Tarot
Legacy of the Divine Tarot is the third tarot by artist, Ciro Marchetti. His first deck, Gilded Tarot, has been received very well by the public. Some years later, with more experience, he returned to the project and re-created its images, releasing the Gilded Royale independently. As well as his second tarot, Tarot of Dreams, Ciro has branched into the world of oracle, Lenormand, and is in the process of creating his own Kipper deck.
The Gilded Tarot became popular because it brought tarot art up to date. Not everyone was ready for it at the time but it paved the way for many of the modern decks we have on the market today. By the time Ciro created Legacy of the Divine, he had much knowledge, skill, and praise under his belt. I believe that it is in this deck that he found his signature style. The images are more sophisticated and are slightly softer, making it a sensitive deck for reading for clients.
Unlike the other decks mentioned, Ciro does not follow the Rider Waite imagery to the letter. He has taken Waite’s definition and visually developed them in his own way. Accompanying the deck is a thick volume, written by Ciro and featuring a selection of great tarot writers.
The final deck on my list of recommendations has been at the centre of much controversy within the tarot community. The Angel Tarot, by Doreen Virtue and Radleigh Valentine, has been criticised for being unbalanced and focusing too heavily on the positive aspects of life. While I agree that tarot should reflect both the dark and light of human experience, I do believe there is a place for a deck like this.
I work with a lady who uses one of Virtue’s tarot decks for her public readings. She had previously owned a Golden Dawn themed deck, which she felt uncomfortable using and which scared her. Not everyone has the same needs and a deck like this, whether accepted by the worldwide tarot community or not, will suit the more sensitive readers amongst us.
When you get into Angel Tarot, you will realise that a lot of the darker aspects of tarot are hidden within plain sight. Doreen and Radleigh have not wiped them out, but instead, found new ways of looking at and dealing with them.
Angel Tarot appears, as many Hay House decks do, with short interpretations on the cards. I would not advise a student to become reliant on them but, at times, these affirmations can be comforting and inspirational. The suits are also colour-coded for convenience. I do use Angel Tarot for specific professional readings and find it a soothing deck to use and return to.
Images from The Original Rider Waite Tarot by Pamela Coleman Smith, from The Thoth Tarot by Lady Frieda Harris, from Tarot Classic, from Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot by Eugene Smith, from Golden Tarot by Kat Black, from Legacy of the Divine Tarot by Ciro Marchetti, and from Angel Tarot by Steve A. Roberts.