Recently I talked with representatives of a couple metaphysical stores and asked what their bestselling tarot deck was. I thought there would be a “tarot flavor of the month”—an especially popular current deck—but it turned out that both stores sold the traditional yellow box Rider-Waite deck at warp speeds compared to any other deck, with Ciro Marchetti’s Gilded Tarot a distant second place behind the different Rider-Waite editions. At that moment I made it my mission to educate people about tarot decks and how to purchase them.
The Rider-Waite tarot deck, also called the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck, rightly holds the honor of being the bestselling deck in today’s tarot market. It was developed by scholar and esotericist Arthur Edward Waite, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and first published by William Rider & Son of London in 1909. It was the first tarot deck to have scenic images on the Minor Arcana—a revolution that allowed the deck to be read intuitively or as a story book without knowledge of the cartomantic, historical or occult traditions that inform the symbolism.
To read the cards as a story book, which is the best way to learn, you need to start with a 78-card illustrated tarot deck. So, what do I mean by that? A “78-card tarot deck” means the kind that has at least 78 cards (very occasionally an extra card or two will be included) and is called a tarot deck, not a deck of only the Major Arcana (22 cards) or an oracle deck or other meditation deck.
A traditional tarot deck is divided into the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. The 56 cards of the Minor Arcana consist of four suits comprised of 14 cards: Ace through ten plus four court cards. The numbered suit cards are called pips. The courts are also sometimes called the courtiers, the Royals, the Royal Family or face cards. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards, numbered from 0 to 21. These cards are sometimes called Trumps or keys. They represent the journey of the 0 Card, the Fool, through an initiatory process or epic adventure. The Minor Arcana is often said to represent common, daily situations and activities, whereas the Major Arcana is considered to represent more archetypal influences, issues of major importance, or the hand of fate intervening in the situation.
By “illustrated” I mean that the Minor Arcana should have pictures on the cards. Sometimes the old-style, authentic Renaissance-looking decks have what we in the biz call “pips.” Pips are the icons for the suits: the wands, cups, swords, and pentacles (coins). A card with just the pips might look like a modern playing card, with just the designated number of wands or cups, for instance, and maybe some pretty vines, borders or background images, but not any pictures—by which I mean scenes of people in interesting environments, generally interacting with the suit emblems. You want the cards with pictures. I prefer that the pictures incorporate the number of wands, cups, etc into the illustration; for instance, the five of Cups might show a person turned away from the viewer looking at three spilled cups, while two full cups are unseen behind him. However, I have read with some decks that don’t incorporate the suit emblems into the pictures, such as the Victorian Romantic and Nigel Jackson’s Medieval Enchantment Tarot, which still work with most of the techniques I teach.
There are certain 78-card illustrated tarot decks that I don’t recommend to beginning students. These are decks whose mythology is so unique and integrated so completely into the deck that special research is needed—the scenes can’t be read without knowledge of the tradition behind them. For example, a deck based on the Arthurian legends would not be appropriate for someone who is not already familiar with this mythology if they are just starting to learn tarot. On the other hand, the Druidcraft deck incorporates some Celtic mythology which adds to the experience of the deck when learned, but the deck does not depend on that knowledge to make sense. Likewise, if your deck depends on kabbalah, astrology, or any occult symbolism that you are not familiar with, please save it until you are more familiar with the cards. However, a deck like Ellen Cannon Reed’s Witches Tarot uses kabbalah, but the deck is not dependent on that knowledge, so a beginning reader would be able to use it just fine. Along the same lines, although a background in alchemy adds to the experience of reading Robert Place’s Alchemical Tarot: Renewed, the deck is quite readable without that knowledge. If you are trying to learn the cards and learn the mythology at the same time, it’s just extra work for you. Simply having the mythology integrated into the deck is fine, in fact desirable, if you know that mythology quite well, for instance: Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Hello Kitty, decks about a specific historical period or fantasy world. Your deck does not have to be a Rider-Waite-Smith clone or derivative!
If you are taking my beginning tarot class, The Magician’s Tools, you do not need to purchase the bound book that is associated with the deck or any books of tarot card meanings. The techniques I teach prepare you to read the cards, not memorize someone else’s ideas of what the cards mean.
I want to stress that it is imperative that you be able to see a deck before you purchase it. In the old days, any good bookstore or occult shop would have an open sample of every deck they carried so that you could look at any and all cards. That way if a certain card makes or breaks a deck for you, you can see that particular card. However, with the inundation of new decks, stores are carrying more decks than ever, and since the cost of tarot decks is kept low by maintaining a low mark-up on them, it is not profitable to tie up a lot of capital in display decks and few stores do this anymore. But there are still some out there that do! Go to a good local metaphysical shop to buy your deck, and make sure to ask if you can open it before you buy it or if they have sample decks for viewing (sometimes sample decks are kept safe behind the counter). Often a store might have a few cards on display if not the whole deck. You can also see sample cards online at many websites, such as Aeclectic Tarot, Isis Books or The Tarot Garden, which usually have images of about six to eight cards. A fantastic way to see a variety of decks is to find a local tarot group, such as a Meetup group, and have a deck show-and-tell night!
When picking a deck, find one with images that really resonate with you. Huge bonus if you feel that you already understand the cards in the deck or if you feel like they talk to you. If so, that is the deck for you!
My first deck was the Barbara Walker tarot. I loved the imagery and symbolism, but was unfamiliar with much of the mythology she referred to and found myself frustrated by having to consult the book too often. My second deck was the Morgan Greer, which I loved from the beginning and found that I could read it perfectly well just based on the card images. To this day, this is still one of my favorite and most reliable decks.
In order to empower new tarot readers to try different decks, I have compiled a list of ten decks, not including the Rider-Waite-Smith, that are suitable for beginners, fairly easy to find, that I like and have worked with, and that my students and colleagues have had success working with. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I had a very hard time cutting it down to only ten decks! Plus there are hundreds of good quality, easy-to-read decks available that I simply haven’t had the time to try, and as good as they might be, I didn’t consider them since I don’t own them. These are all decks that are found in my personal collection.
I created a chart to provide the basic information in an easy-to-read format. I included the original publication date for each deck to give you an idea of how long it’s been around, as well as listing the publisher, author and artist to assist you in locating the decks. The chart indicates whether the cards are strict in following the RWS imagery so you’ll have an idea which ones are the most traditional. I also marked which decks contain no nudity, since that can be an important consideration for some. Lastly, I indicated which decks stray the furthest from the RWS imagery, or use a different system for establishing the card meanings, for those who don’t want to be limited by standard imagery. I included links to the artist or creator of the deck when there was a current, detailed site that also had ordering information on it; otherwise I linked to the publisher.
I would love to know what your first deck was and what you liked about it! Please leave me a comment letting me know what you recommend for a beginning deck, or if you’re brand new to tarot, which deck you plan to make your first!
|Deck||Publisher||Author/Artist||Year Published||Pips Are Strict RWS?||No Nudity?||Not RWS Derived?|
|1||Morgan Greer||US Games||Lloyd Morgan/Bill Greer||
|2||Sacred Rose||US Games||Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman||
|3||Motherpeace||US Games||Karen Vogel &Vicki Noble||
|4||Tarot of the Old Path||AGMüller||Sylvia Gainsford /Howard Rodway||
|5||Robin Wood||Llewellyn||Robin Wood||
|6||Druidcraft||St. Martin’s||Stephanie Carr-Gomm & Philip Carr-Gomm/Will Worthington||
|7||Alchemical Tarot: Renewed||Hermes||Robert Place||
|8||Legacy of the Divine||Llewellyn||Ciro Marchetti||
|9||Lo Scarabeo||Lo Scarabeo||Mark McElroy/Anna Lazzarini||
|10||Steampunk||Llewellyn||Barbara Moore/Aly Fell||
Joy Vernon is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Reiki Teacher in Denver, Colorado. Her specialty is the Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which combines energetic and esoteric modalities to help her clients break through blocks and align themselves with their higher purpose. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2013 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.