It's All in the Cards

Once upon a time many moons ago, in what seems like another lifetime now, I had something of an obsession with tarot cards. I learnt all I could about their history and meaning and while I was not so much interested in their use for fortune-telling, I explored at length their symbolism and the applications for personal and spiritual development. Understanding the history of tarot and cartomancy (fortune-telling with cards) more broadly was an important part of the process and I found that using the tarot structure was a helpful framework for exploring other areas of occult thought.

Fortune Teller - Albert Anker, 1880

About five years ago now I put the cards away. I think it was because I had burnt myself out, exploring every layer of this intriguing system. That's not to say I knew everything, far from it, but one can only view the world through the same lens for so long before losing perspective.While I have left my 'obsession' behind, I do still enjoy looking at tarot cards from time to time. From the perspective of the artwork and symbolism alone they are intriguing. As a tool for clarifying ones thoughts and mapping out a path forward they can be a useful tool. And yes, they have an uncanny ability to provide us with likely outcomes if we remain on our current trajectory.

During the time I was involved in the online tarot community I learnt many things and benefited from the collective wisdom of the diverse groups of people happy to share their knowledge. I'd like to hope that I was able to contribute even a little to what was a generous and supportive network. With the 2017 closure of the Aeclectic Tarot Forum, the community I was part of lost its online home and many members become somewhat more introspective in their tarot practice. And so it is with many things in life, we learn, we share, we change and then at some point, if we are to really integrate the knowledge, we need to sit with it alone and contemplate its meaning for us personally.


I write about this now because in letting go of my focus on tarot, I feel a sense of having a vast amount of knowledge that is somehow going to waste. It's not really a rational way of thinking and yet it niggles away at me. Part of the reason my online tarot life was rewarding was because I could share what I knew and help those just starting out on the path. So, I thought I'd add a post to this site with some information and ideas just in case they may be of help for someone else.

The Alchemical Tarot

My tips for those interested in learning about or working with tarot cards.
  • Learn what you can about the history of tarot as it provides a great base for understanding the cards. BUT, don't buy into fake tarot histories. (Tip....tarot cards did not come from Egypt. I highly recommend reading this post by respected tarot teacher and author Mary K Greer).
  • Connect with a community of people who share your interest.
  • Spend time getting to know one tarot deck before diversifying and turning into a collector of decks rather than actually using any of them.
  • Don't get hooked on doing readings for yourself to solve every little problem. 
  • Build up layers of meaning over time.
  • Be patient.
 

Resources for Learning About Tarot

The archives of the Aeclectic Tarot Forum can be visited here and contain a vast amount of knowledge and information for those interested. From history, to divination, to sample readings, discussions and more, I would highly recommend exploring. Since the Aeclectic forum closed a range of other forums have popped up and may be worth looking at. The only one I joined was the Cartomancy Forum but I have to admit that I don't contribute regularly. Facebook pages may be another option although it's not one I have explored.


When it comes to books, these are the ones I personally found most interesting.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot - Paul Huson
Huson is a wonderful scholar and writer on tarot. His book combines theories on the history of tarot and brings them through to the modern day with a compilation of different meanings for the cards. While I may not agree with everything he says, it is still probably the single best book on tarot ever written in my opinion, and a great starting place.

Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination - Robert Place
Robert Place is both an author and artist and has written extensively as well as creating several tarot decks. This book brings together his theories on the origins of tarot and suggests a Neo-platonic basis for the cards. There is a lot to be learnt in these pages about Neo-platonism as well as tarot and Place's style of writing is easy to read. He is the creator of the Alchemical Tarot, Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, The Buddha Tarot, Tarot of the Saints and several oracle decks. Anything written by Place is worth reading and you can explore more of his work at his website.

Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot - Lon Milo DuQuette
If you are going to work with the Thoth deck, this book really is a must have. Sure, Crowley's own Book of Thoth is the guidebook for the deck, but for those new to the art of tarot and occult studies, it can seem impenetrable. DuQuette writes with clarity and lays the foundations for understanding both Crowley's deck and the worldview that was behind it.

The Tarot Handbook - Angeles Arrien
Widely considered to be one of the worst tarot books ever written, Arrien's book actually has quite a bit to offer those interested in mythology, symbolism and occult studies more broadly. Criticism comes from the use of card images from Crowley's Thoth deck and the fact that Arrien's interpretations are manifestly incorrect for those wishing to follow the deck as Crowley intended. However, as an anthropologist she takes the approach of combining symbolism, myth, cultural knowledge and psychology in ways that are rather interesting. If approached with this knowledge, there is a lot of good stuff available in these pages.

The Marseille Tarot Revealed - Yoav Ben-Dov
For those interested in learning with historical decks, I would recommend this book which provides helpful information for reading with the Marseille style decks that can be readily applied to decks with non-scenic minors, or pips.

I can also highly recommend the Tarot Heritage Website which has a huge amount of information worth exploring.

Other authors I respect a great deal are Mary K Greer and Rachel Pollack.


For the technologically minded, I'd also recommend the The Fool's Dog Tarot Apps which, for a small fee, can be a good way of learning the card meanings and also exploring different decks before committing to buy a hard copy.

 

One of the biggest questions that a newbie to tarot asks, and one of the hardest to answer, is 'what deck should I get?' I will share a few recommendations based on my own experiences but it is by no means a definitive list. It's important to note here that most tarot books are written based on the 'Golden Dawn' system and to be more specific, the Waite-Smith deck or it's derivatives. If you choose a different style of deck, which is definitely an option, then just keep this in mind when considering books. The other thing I would recommend is choosing a deck that has enough symbolism to get your teeth into. While many modern decks are very pretty to look at, often they are quite empty when it comes to symbols and layers of meaning. If you are working with fully illustrated decks it is important to enjoy the artwork, but this alone doesn't make a deck worth spending time with, in my opinion.


If you want to work with historical decks, there are many amazing options from recreations to photo reproductions. Working with non-illustrated pip (or number) cards can seem more difficult but in fact it's just a different way of thinking. My favourite historical decks are:

Ancient Italian Tarot (published by Lo Scarabeo)
I adore this deck. At one point I had over 100 different decks in my collection, but this is my absolute favourite. It is a photo reproduction of an Italian deck from 1880, based of the earlier Soprafino decks. Many years ago I wrote a review of the deck here.

Visconti Tarot (Lo Scarabeo)
The Visconti decks are the oldest surviving tarot decks and were hand painted in Italy in the 1400s. I have the mini version of this which I used as a travelling deck or just the flip through and admire.

         

Tarot of Marseille (Hadar)
There are a huge variety of Marseille decks available today but my favourite is the Hadar. 


Modern or Occult decks I'd recommend:

Waite-Smith (also known as Rider-Waite)
I don't love this deck and I've never used it for readings, but there is no doubt that it can be a good deck to learn with. Most modern decks use the same system of meanings and so it provides a good foundation. I'd recommend the 'Original' version as the colours are more muted than the bright yellows and blues of the standard edition.


Thoth
Love him or hate him, Aleister Crowley put his own spin on the Golden Dawn tarot system and created the Thoth deck which was illustrated by Lady Freida Harris. The result sits part way between illustrated and non-illustrated pip cards and is rich in colour and symbolism. While I don't love his system, there is no doubt that this deck 'reads' well and is worth exploring at some stage.

         

Druidcraft
If you are looking for a deck that is stripped of all Judeo-Christian symbolism (which is actually the basis of tarot) then the Druidcraft is a solid choice. The court cards are without equal in my opinion and the gorgeous artwork of Will Worthington make the deck a rewarding choice.


Alchemical 
For something a little different the Alchemical Tarot was created by respected author Robert Place and provides and richly symbolic system. It is based on the Waite-Smith system but with enough difference to make it unique.


Finally, here are a few other personal favourites (with cards pictured below in order).
  • Medieval Enchantment (or Nigel Jackson) Tarot
  • Mythic Tarot (my first deck and what triggered my fascination with Greek Mythology)
  • Cosmic Tarot (see a review that I wrote as 'sapienza' here)
  • Ukiyoe Tarot (in the style of the Japanese woodblock prints)
  • Halloween Tarot

Fool's Dog Apps

Wildwood
This is an interesting, albeit a little controversial, re-imagining of the older Greenwood Tarot. It may be worth exploring if you are interested in nature based magic and shamanism and features the illustrations of Will Worthington who also illustrated the Druidcraft deck.


Everyday Witch
This is a whimsical and fun tarot for those who love witches, cats and fantasy illustration. The accompanying meanings are direct and easy to understand, and a bit of fun.


To explore more tarot decks you can visit the Aeclectic website which has an extensive database of tarot and oracle decks and reviews.


Questions? Post in the comments and I'll happily help if I can.

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