If you’ve ever felt drawn to jump into the world of Tarot, and gotten all excited only to find yourself bewildered by the enormous choice of decks available, you’ll understand just how hard it can be to choose a suitable deck.
For the beginner, choosing an appropriate deck can be crucial to success; choosing the wrong deck can take the wind out of one’s sails and result in an aborted mission; an emergent intuitive desire to explore Tarot as a sense-making tool, with all it’s potential for wisdom and self-knowledge can end up unrealised simply because we started in the wrong place.
It may come as no surprise when I say not all Tarot card decks are equal, there are literally hundreds to choose from. So why does it matter so much which deck to start with?
There are a number of reasons:
Many decks are based on earlier decks, providing artistic variation for the user, but often because they are copies made with little understanding of the system itself (many of the artists know nothing about Tarot and do not use it themselves), important information and nuance are lost in translation.
Because most derivative decks are produced primarily to make money, their accompanying books can leave little to be desired - in my experience most accompanying books are very watered down and provide little useful information for reading purposes; the meanings offered are often hopelessly limiting.
Some decks are more complex than others, with layers of symbolism that for the beginner can be too much to assimilate and use successfully; overwhelm and muddled readings are the prime reasons why anyone gives up the Tarot journey.
So if you are curious, interested, and fascinated by the system of Tarot, here are my top 6 decks and why you might choose them.
The Rider-Waite Radiant deck is a recently “refurbished” deck: a true copy of the original Rider-Waite deck (published in 1909). Artist Virginijus Poshkus has re-illustrated the earlier artwork by Pamela Coleman-Smith making it clearer to see and more uplifting to look at. A. E. Waite was probably the first to attempt a systematic study of the history of western occultism, and his knowledge has deeply influenced this deck with rich symbolism. It is perhaps the most popular deck used because of its relative simplicity and its obvious foundation on hermetic principles. Although to the modern eye this deck isn’t as exciting to look at as some of the newer decks, there are a fair few books available offering a lot more information about the cards. This is a reliable deck to learn from. Please note that the original version is equally good but I find the details in the images harder to see clearly and the colours are less vibrant.
The Crowley-Harris deck is another great deck suited to the more advanced student of Tarot. The reason why I would recommend beginners postpone use of this deck until later, is because it is by far the deck with the most layers of symbolism within its artwork, that can be overwhelming to the novice and thus difficult to wield well. For many the art-deco style artwork by Lady Frieda Harris is very pleasing to look at, and Crowley’s passion for western esoteric wisdom saturates each card in a way that offers both depth and dimension to readings. Also of benefit are the numerous books on this deck, which make it more accessible to the serious student. Although Aleister Crowley is a controversial figure, with some believing him to be a black magician, and others an occult genius, I have not been able to find any ‘dark’ or sinister elements hidden in the card imagery; in my view he is a person steeped in mystery and we simply do not know either way. Tarot is a tool, and all tools can be used positively or negatively; the choice is ours.
The Osho Zen Tarot is a significant evolution of Tarot in the sense that it strongly draws the reader to respect the power in the now moment. Osho drew our attention away from obsessing about potential futures toward looking within at what was going on in our personal psyche. The art-work is bright and well illustrated and the accompanying book is excellent, packed with both insight and wisdom that invigorate readings. It is harder to recognise the underlying hermetic structure of this deck, yet it offers a fresh approach to the system that only adds to one’s depth of understanding. This is a good deck for beginners because it acts similar to an oracle deck and it’s quite easy to get insight from it, while the deck is underpinned with a classic tarot structure. At the same time it is also a good complimentary deck for more advanced readers.
The Mythic Tarot was created by Liz Greene, Tricia Newell, Juliet Sharman-Burke with a foundation in Jungian depth psychology. It too has an innovative approach to Tarot, the most obvious of which is the application of classical Greek mythology to the cards. I think this deck can be a good learning deck because the minor arcana cards are arranged in complete stories, which deepens one’s understanding about how the number cards develop. It is also a good deck to improve synthesis skills as the stories really help with bringing the many parts together; its much easier to remember a story such as Cupid and Psyche for the suit of cups, or Jason and the Argonauts for wands, and more readily remember what specific cards mean therefore. Additionally the major arcana cards are also designated storylines from Greek mythology, which again helps with the assimilation of card meanings. I think this deck is great for both beginners and intermediates alike for this reason. Beginners will be able to make effective readings, while intermediate students can hone their emergent synthesis skills.
The Druid Craft Tarot by Stephanie Carr-Gomm, Philip Carr-Gomm, Will Worthington is a beautifully illustrated deck derived closely from the Rider-Waite deck. As a result the imagery is well-tuned to the card meanings. If the early style illustrations from the Rider-Waite are less appealing, then this deck is a good alternative that doesn’t deviate too much and doesn’t water down the wisdom.
The Fountain Tarot by Jonathan Saiz, Jason Gruhl, Andi Todaro offers fresh modern imagery clearly modelled on the Rider-Waite deck. I particularly like the facial expressions and the way the art captures the nuance of meaning of each card - it has less obvious symbolism and instead offers the essence of each card in a more emotional and textural way; its a very human deck. This is not the best deck to get started on (partly because the accompanying booklet is not deeply informative), but if you are reasonably familiar with Tarot it is a refreshingly subtle innovation and offers clients a more human experience during readings.