Culling the Herd

In agriculture, threshing a wheat harvest means separating the kernels from the chaff, after which winnowing removes the hulls, leaving behind only the edible part of the grain. Facing the bounty of new, old and restored tarot decks on the market today, I feel like a lucky farmer confronting a bumper crop. The phrase “So many decks, so little time” (not to mention money) was invented for this happy dilemma. Collectors and completionists have it worst; those of us who buy decks solely to read with and study have a smaller field to reap based on our personal criteria for usefulness.

I sometimes think the only reason many new decks see the light of day is the rise of self-publishing, which ideally increases the creator’s profit margin while allowing total control of the outcome; on the downside for buyers, the asking price is invariably higher than for mass-market decks, while the standards of excellence and the threshold of marketability are almost by definition lower than a major commercial deck publisher would be willing to permit. There are notable exceptions of course, but much of what I see is either hopelessly derivative or hopefully naive in concept, with artwork of notoriously uneven quality. It makes me think of the old Geico TV commercial: “It’s so easy a caveman could do it.”

To be fair, producing 78 works of original art is no mean feat, even if the archetypes have been meticulously massaged for a century or more. But stray too far from expectations and you bring an oracle deck to market and not a recognizable tarot (although that hasn’t stopped some entrepreneurs from throwing the term “tarot” around rather loosely). There are fortunately a few broad benchmarks that keep formal tarot deck development relatively within bounds.

I recognize four main streams of tarot design that one can filter in search of that “One Deck to Rule Them All” (and its supporting cast of worthy seconds). The most obvious one, that 300-lb gorilla called the Rider-Waite-Smth (aka “RWS”), is almost a sure-fire winner for those new decks that have the requisite level of artistic talent and originality behind them. In most cases I’m not a fan of having my story-telling fare pre-cooked and handed to me on a platter, so I usually look elsewhere.

The Thoth model, rich in symbolic complexity, is second in popularity if not in accessibility. It’s my personal favorite, but also a frequent source of imaginative “clones” that seldom if ever measure up to the intensity of the original. To do it justice, a working knowledge of the numerological, astrological, elemental, qabalistic and Hermetic ideas that underlie its dense imagery is crucial to success. Why put a pelican on your Empress knock-off if you have no clue what it’s supposed to mean? The Minor Arcana cards of the original Thoth possess a compelling combination of color and mood that obviates the need for the built-in narrative vignettes of the RWS; I call them “glorified pip” cards because the artwork is evocative while also not being prescriptive in its story-telling content.

The French Tarot de Marseille (TdM) and similar Italian decks with non-scenic “pip” cards represent the oldest and most fundamental style of deck design. At present, this creative option is almost exclusively the province of historical deck restorers and faithful interpreters. Not many (make that no) major deck publishers are enthusiastically cranking out new versions of the traditional classics with any regularity (although Lo Scarabeo deserves honorable mention with its Italian reproductions). Collectors are more likely to gravitate here because the production values and overall quality consciousness of the revivalists are usually unimpeachable. As reading decks, though, they can be tough to crack when trying to make sense of the sparely illustrated minor cards. There are a number of modern books on the market that attempt to illuminate the dark corners of the TdM pips, but none has fully satisfied me to date.

The last and least favored among important tarot models is that of Ettiella, with its “Continental” esoteric basis rather than the usual trappings of British occultism popularized by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There aren’t many entries in this field, with two notable contributions being Christine Payne-Towler’s Tarot of the Holy Light and Paul Huson’s Dame Fortune’s Wheel. Although Oswald Wirth only produced 22 Major Arcana cards, his original has been fleshed out with 56 additional cards and merits inclusion here. Those diviners who were weaned on the RWS or the Thoth will find that they have to re-learn much of what they know to use it with appropriate skill.

Unless your concept of the perfect tarot collection is “all of them” or you’re easily taken in by the first “pretty face” you see, questing for a new deck involves a degree of research. The major publishers like U.S. Games and Lo Scarabeo make this simpler by printing lavish catalogs, and on-line merchants like Amazon provide a wide range of offerings, while Etsy, Kickstarter and Indiegogo are marketing havens for the free-lance deck creator. Sites like show full-deck scans of older decks, with the approval of the copyright owners, that organize the population into recognizable sub-catagories. If you need enabling or just honest opinions, members of the various tarot forums aren’t shy about praising their favorites to all who ask.

The first major step is deciding which of the prominent streams of deck design you want to tap. After that’ it’s purely a matter of individual taste. Find that deck (or – let’s be honest – those decks) and your quest is over – at least for another couple of months.

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