Some Highly Opinionated and Biased Thoughts on Tarot (Part 1)
With nerdy historical details
People often ask me how to get started with Tarot. Nowadays everyone’s a tarot reader, or at least uses cards for themselves, and I can’t claim to be too ahead of the trend on that one. I have, however, been working with and reading the cards for about 7 years, first for myself and eventually others, and I definitely have some thoughts. There is a tremendous amount of Tarot info out there, as well a new decks of all sorts, and it can be confusing to know where to start. I am going to share my approach to Tarot, what I have learned over the years, and offer some highly opinionated advice.
First off, you need to decide if you intend to approach Tarot merely as a a fanciful exercise to open your imagination and inspire your creativity and playfulness, or if you want to use it as a tool for spiritual growth and guidance. If it is the first, I advise you to take yourself off to your local purveyor of occult goods, find a deck that is appropriately pretty and dreamy, buy it, and figure it out your own damn self , because I have nothing to offer you.
I do not mean to say that the above is a bad or wrong approach to the tarot. It’s fine, and it’s how I myself tended to approach it after my first baffling encounter with the Marseilles Deck (aka the the OG Tarot). There are many new decks that are wonderful and fanciful and fun, and they can indeed stimulate your creativity and imagination. But the capacity of Tarot is so much more than that, and in my experience, the power of a deck is directly proportional to the either a) the spiritual depth of the person who made it; b) the strength of tradition from which it is drawing or which has developed around it; or c) preferably both.
Let me give you an example to illustrate: After working with the classic Rider Waite Smith Deck for some time and becoming fairly proficient with it, I started offering readings to other people online. Eventually, I decided to offer my services at a metaphysical healing collective near my home at the time. They wanted me to give them a sample of what I offered, so I did an aura reading and a tarot reading. I was nervous, and because this was kind of a hipster cool-girl place, I decided to use a newer deck I had purchased, one designed by a group of women, full of dreamy, quirky, and cute visuals.
I had worked with this deck quite a bit, because I liked the art so much, but the truth was, I wasn’t able to get the sort of clear messages with it that I could with the RWS. And it showed. I was told that they LOVED the aura reading I had done, but felt I needed to beef up my Tarot knowledge. Now I knew that I was capable of giving a damn good Tarot reading. But in my anxiety, I had chosen a deck that I thought would look good and help me present a certain image, rather than what I knew worked best.
You have to develop a relationship with the deck you’re using. I’ll elaborate on this more later on, but suffice it to say, the symbols on the cards will speak to you, and it’s important to learn the language. Many of the most creative and unusual decks are in many ways the product of an artist’s personality, filtered through their understanding and experience, and are therefore necessarily constrained by the consciousness of the artist. Again, this doesn’t mean they are bad, just limited. They often feel more approachable because they reflect our preferred emotional and aesthetic states: beauty, whimsy, uplift, warmth, cuteness, weirdness, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But for Tarot to be a tool of spiritual development, and it absolutely is, it has to be capable of more than that. I sometimes see people, when the topic of Tarot comes up, shudder in fear and disgust and say, “no thank you.” Part of this is due to the stereotype of the fortune-teller who constantly prophesies doom and gloom. But the deeper, truer reason is that Tarot, properly applied, is a mirror of our own soul and psyche, and this is the scariest thing any of us can face, far more terrifying than any ghost story or slasher flick, horrifying not because what is inside of us is so very awful, but because we believe it is. So the vast majority of us spend our lives locking it all up inside the closet and trying to ignore it.
I however, have learned that facing it and allowing all my dark psychic content to be excavated and integrated into my life is a sure-fire way to become more satisfied, at ease, and effective in the world. Unfortunately, the dark cavern behind the closet door is endless and my ego is quite good at distracting and keeping me from entering, which is why I’ve developed a taste for the strong(er) stuff when it comes to Tarot and other forms of soul-mirroring.
So here I will talk a little about the three main decks that almost all other decks are based on, and which ones I recommend for beginners.
1. The Marseilles
I called this the OG, not because it was the very first, but because it was the first to be mass produced and therefore it codified and reinforced the symbolic language that grounds Tarot.
A brief history here: Tarot begins in Italy in the 1400’s, during the Renaissance. The earliest decks are hand painted one-off decks created for the wealthy. They are meant to be playing cards, and are not that different from the modern deck of card we use to play poker, spades, rummy, etc with today. There are 4 suits known as “pips,” although they are now more commonly called the minor arcana: wands, cups, coins, and swords; each has ten numbered cards and four “court” cards. The innovation is that a fifth suit of Triumphs or “Trumps” is added, 22 archetypal scenes and figures with names like the Fool, the Emperor, the Star, and the Devil. These Trumps are clearly deeply symbolic and make references to spiritual and religious themes, which is curious.
The medieval and Renaissance worlds were a rich tapestry of symbol and meaning. One only has to look at the figures crouching in the corners of old paintings or twining and frolicking in the stone-carved eaves of an ancient cathedral to see this at work. In a world where very few people were literate and the mass was conducted in a language (Latin) that few people understood, spiritual and religious concepts were presented through imagery, story, and pageantry. Many of the Trumps are familiar figures from the Mystery or Morality plays that were put on to teach these spiritual concepts. It is possible that the archetypes in the Trump suit were added to help teach spiritual concepts, but it is also possible that they were chosen simply because they were symbols that lived in the painter’s psyche and thus were ripe for the plucking, the way Superman and Batman live in our brains and find their way into our doodles and everyday speech.
It has been claimed that Tarot has always been a system of Mystical revelation handed down from the ancient Egyptians. While the scholarly consensus is that this is not the case, what is true is that during this time there was revival of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian knowledge, as many ancient texts were being re-discovered and translated. In addition to philosophy, history, and science, there were many regarding spiritual and mystical practices which form the foundation for the Western Esoteric Tradition. The symbols and meanings encoded in the Tarot are rooted in all of this, as well as Christianity.
So what we have in the Marseilles is a very old set of archetypal images, in the 22 Trumps, with a set of 4 suits that are more like playing cards. For the numbered cards, there are no pictures to provide interpretation, simply 4 batons for the 4 of Wands, or 8 coins for the 8 of pentacles.
My very first foray into Tarot came from an incident at a Catholic monastery, where I was on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. The guesthouse library had a copy of Meditations on the Tarot, a very thick and dense book exploring the spiritual dimensions of the 22 Trumps in the Marseilles. The anonymous author (His name was Valentin Tomberg, but he published anonymously) is clear that he thinks the Tarot is for meditation upon spiritual truths and that divination is kind of hinky. He also believes that the Marseilles is the only authentic, true Tarot, a view that has been embraced by others who do use Tarot for divination, like Alexander Jodorowsky.
As a result of this book encounter (I will not pretend I have read the entire book, and I thought Tomberg was kind of a stick-in-the-mud about divination, but I respected the depth of his insights), I purchased a Marseilles deck, and promptly became frustrated. There aren’t a lot of resources on how to read Marseilles, and without pictures it was hard for me to read the cards intuitively. I know people I respect who swear by the Marseilles deck, and I may return to it some day, but I eventually had to put it aside. I don’t recommend using the Marseilles as a beginner for that reason, but I may return to it myself one day.
2. The Rider Waite Smith
This is the classic deck most people picture when they think of Tarot. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there was an explosion of mysticism and esoteric spirituality, everything from seances conducted by Spritualists to secret societies engaged in Ceremonial Magic. The Golden Dawn was the most famous of the latter, based in England, and it continues to be tremendously influential in to modern-day esoteric, occult, and magical world. They were drawing from the same Greco-Roman-Egyptian philosophies fused with Christianity and esoteric Judaism that the Renaissance alchemists were. This was not a new fusion by the way— Christianity has always been shaped and influenced by these streams, though the Church pretends otherwise.
At any rate, one prominent member of the Golden Dawn decided to create a new Tarot Deck based on the practices and teachings of the order. Arthur Waite employed another member, artist Pamela Coleman Smith, to illustrate the deck, and it became the first to include illustrations for the numbered pips. This is the deck most contemporary decks are based on, it’s the one I learned with, and it’s the one I generally recommend to others. There are some differences in numbering and symbolism when compared to the Marseilles, but Waite and Smith were both serious students and practitioners of spirituality that helps to give the deck depth and power. Over the years, as millions of people around the world have used it, dived deep into it, attuned to the symbolism, and shared their insights, it has gained additional potency.
Arthur Waite wrote brief descriptions of the tarot cards, but nothing that really helps for learning in depth. I’ll speak more about how to learn and read in another installment, but for now I’ll say that if you want to start with this deck, there are many books, but an absolute classic and the one I always recommend is 78 Degrees of Wisdom by the grandmama of modern Tarot reading, Rachel Pollack. She dives deep into the mysticism behind the cards and comes up with many gems of wisdom. For the best Tarot readers, spiritual revelation and divination go hand in hand.
3. The Thoth
Another member of the Golden Dawn was the (in)famous Aleister Crowley, and he created his own deck in collaboration with another female artist, Lady Frieda Harris. A lot of people shy away from this deck because of Crowley’s reputation, and it’s a shame because it is a very good deck, and good for learning. When I started using the Thoth, it took my readings to a whole new level. Crowley, like many of us was a deeply wounded and damaged man who was often a dick with a capital D. He delighted in shocking people and cultivated a reputation for being wicked and outré. He also, like many deeply fucked up people, had times where he channeled genuine spiritual truth, and I think the Thoth deck is an example of that.
Although the numbered pips don’t have the kinds of detailed scene-pictures the RWS does— the best way I can describe them is that they depict patterns of energy— they each have a word that sums up what they represent, like Victory or Disappointment, that make them very easy to read. This deck paired with Lon Milo Duquette’s book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot could be a great way to start if you’re not put off by the Crowley associations. Gerd Zeigler’s Tarot: Mirror of the Soul is another good book that focuses on the Thoth.
This is getting long, so I’ll end it here. In part 2, I’ll go into more depth about how to read and develop a relationship with the cards.