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Once you have a good handle on the tarot deck you chose to learn with, it is a good idea to think about introducing another one, to widen your scope, introduce some other ideas and see the tarot through the eyes of another – preferably one who is considered a master in their field with a full understanding of tarot and the systems that are interlaced with it.
A lot of people learn to read the tarot using the Rider Waite-Smith, though not everyone. It is fair to say that even if you didn’t learn to read with it, the deck you learnt with may be a derivative of it and so the Rider is immediately recognisable.
The brain behind the Rider was Arthur Edward Waite, the artist was Pamela Colman Smith, affectionately known as Pixie. They were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was customary to colour your own tarot deck in order to learn and memorize not just the deck, but the colours which all pertained to the Order’s magickal system.
Learning the mysteries of the tarot was considered ‘Inner Order’ work and so was not shared outside of the temple or meeting place. Arthur Waite adhered to this and while you can see Kabbalistic, astrological and Christian influences, between Pixie and himself, they created the first deck in modern times to depict fully illustrated pips, or Minor Arcana cards. This set the deck apart from any other because it allowed for intuitive tarot reading and did not require anyone be a member of the Golden Dawn in order to make it work.
The other main deck that came out of the Golden Dawn members was the Thoth Tarot created by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. This deck, in my opinion, is the most beautiful of all tarot decks ever created. It is very much of its age in style but also surpasses the Rider in terms of magickal colour theory, symbolism and the guidelines found in the Order’s book on tarot – Book T. Lady Harris learnt about Projective Synthetic Geometry and includes it many of the cards. Crowley added very specific symbolism as well as the first marriage of I Ching with tarot. Where Waite had obeyed the Order’s rules about not revealing the Inner Mysteries, Crowley famously revealed them all – through his writings and his tarot deck.
If you learn only two decks, make it these two. Now you may be wondering why they may be different if they followed the same guidelines. It comes down to interpretation of the available materials and other influences – largely Egyptian for Crowley, and Christian for Waite. Crowley also claims to have been instructed by his daimon, Awaiss, on the Hebrew Letters associated with the cards.
Because the Rider has fully illustrated pips, and very little in the way of literary material to support the learning of the deck, intuitive tarot reading was born. A say what you see sort of reading. It works too, but it should also be used in conjunction with the core meanings of the cards for structure and depth.
Crowley very much sticks to the formula of a card’s correspondences blended with each other to derive a precise meaning. This includes the astrology, kabbalah, numerology and I Ching, as well as esoteric colour theory. It makes for a complex but rich lexicon in your hands and could take many years of serious study to fully understand every aspect of every card. Thankfully there are a number of easy-to-understand books written about the Thoth Tarot. Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding the Thoth Tarot is outstanding, and I highly recommend it.
Why it’s a Good Idea to Use More Than One Tarot Deck to Learn with and Also Read With
You may or may not be familiar with the term, Comparative Tarot Reading. It simply means comparing the same card from different decks to note their differences in design and meaning.
There are many cards within the Thoth and Rider that differ either widely or enough to make the card read differently depending on which deck you are using at the time. Two very obvious cards that always stand out for me are the 7 of Pentacles in the Rider, and 7 of Disks in the Thoth. The other card that differs widely is the 7 of Swords. Let’s look at why.
7 of Swords
Rider – An army encampment in the background, a character sneaking off with five of the seven swords available. This card in this deck has come to mean theft. This can be theft of actual material objects, including money, but as it is a sword, and therefore an air card, it can also mean theft of ideas and intellectual property.
Thoth – A central sword has six smaller swords touching it but with their blade tips broken off. Crowley called this card Futility and described it as having so little energy that it cannot bring anything to fruition or completion.
You can see how that definition can also relate to the Rider version. The character taking the five swords and leaving two behind is indeed putting in a poor effort. It’s also interesting to note that nowhere in Waite’s description of the 7 of Swords does he mention theft…
In the DruidCraft Tarot, it describes the 7 of Swords as needing to plan and strategize to ensure success. As the deck attempts to blend the Rider and Thoth, you can see why the creators, Stephanie and Phillip Carr-Gomm and artist Will Worthington, chose this angle. They also talk about using wit, charm and deceit to achieve an aim or recover something lost.
The Gaian Tarot follows the strategy line by describing a hiker using a map to make sure he knows his route ahead of his mountain hike. Plan to succeed and so the effort is not futile.
The CBD Tarot de Marseille describes the 7 of Swords as Sharpness and having a clear goal and doing what it takes to reach it. And in the much older decks, the Grand Etteilla calls it Hope, while Papus in his tome, Le Tarot des Bohemiens, having now blended the Cabala into the cards, describes it thus: Success assured to the enemy.
It’s an interesting exercise to look at the older decks and see what definitions they used centuries ago. The key is not to get so hooked up on this as to lose sight of your objective –how you can give better tarot readings through deepening and enriching your knowledge and understanding of the cards.
Recommended Tarot Decks
Without doubt, I highly recommend the Rider and Thoth. For the joy of reading, I reach for the DruidCraft Tarot. While it is a blend between the Rider and Thoth, it is also a marriage of Druidry, Wicca and Witchcraft. It is clearly pagan but the artist, Will Worthington, made one of the best modern tarot decks, visually speaking at least. It’s very chatty and lends itself well to intuitive tarot reading, as well as directional dignities due to the excellent way Will Worthington drew the people in the cards.
The Gaian Tarot is rooted in earth spirituality that celebrates all who follow this path. It is not religious in any way and while it follows the structure of the tarot, it is far enough removed from it to create its own identity. It’s not for everyone but the book that Joanna Powell-Colbert wrote to accompany the deck is worth the price of the deck alone. It does read in a different way but is also a useful deck for comparative tarot study.
If you do decide to include a Marseille deck, the CBD Tarot de Marseille is a good choice as Yoav Ben-Dov really brought the descriptions of the deck into the 21st century. His website provides full access to the images of the cards as well as definitions. At the time of writing, there is a free three card reading page. Unfortunately, Ben-Dov passed away in 2016 and the website is run by his son. You can buy a physical copy of the deck as well as a printed book with extended tarot card meanings and an extensive explanation of his Open Tarot Reading style.
Choosing Your Own Tarot Decks for Comparative Tarot Reading
I cycle through the decks I recommend, for my private work and for social media posts. You may have other decks you’d like to use for comparative tarot reading and that is fine. It is worth remembering a few pointers though.
The depth of the esoteric knowledge of the deck author will come through in the cards and accompanying text. If they are knowledgeable and highly experienced, you can guarantee a solid tarot deck, whether you like the art or not.
A commissioned artist can only produce art based on the lead and information given by the deck author and so if this knowledge is of a single layer, the deck may seem or feel empty. It may look pretty but readings will be basic without nuance or the ability to shift or change meanings on any card depending on the setting.
This brings me to modern offerings that follow a design trend. Currently we are seeing single line offerings and small colour palettes. I’m not really a fan, though they look nice on Instagram et al, they don’t offer much for the intuition to tap into. And, if we take the criteria above, knowing a few basic symbols and core meanings is not going to create a tarot deck of depth and longevity.
If you are at the beginning of your tarot journey, it may be tempting to opt for a simplistic tarot deck like the ones I’ve just described. I would advise against this as you will outgrow your deck very quickly and begin looking for something more substantial. Tarot Swap groups on Facebook are awash with these decks, including the ‘safe’ angel oracle decks and some of the more obscure themed decks. These may seem like a good idea at the time, but I think they are more suitable for adding to your collection when you have a better understanding of the major themes across a couple of solid decks.
It’s useful to consider decks that move outside the line of ‘traditional tarot’, such as the Gaian, because they offer a different perspective. I don’t follow new deck releases like I used to, but the Urban Tarot is a visually stunning deck that is created using collage and is based on life in New York City. It is based on the Thoth Tarot but may offer modern perspectives on older ideas. The Wild Unknown is too reductionist for me, though it has wide appeal. It may sing to you.
The individual cards in The Fountain Tarot are beautiful but the deck never really sang to me collectively. So, a consideration is: are you looking to learn to read with a new deck or learn from the deck author? Some decks work best as a daily card because they can lose themselves en masse in a reading. The Shadowscapes Tarot is one. I love this deck and use it in my blog work a lot, but the similarity of the cards to each other can make it difficult for cards to stand out from each other in a reading.
So, lots to consider when you want to add a new deck or two to your study. It’s important to remember that this should be an enjoyable experience and if you begin to find it’s not, then you can change things around until you feel you are getting something more out of it. Remember, it’s your tarot journey – it’s got to work for you.