I will start by saying that you only need one tarot deck to be a practitioner. Every deck over one is excess. That being said, if you’re a tarot enthusiast, there will be no convincing you to stop hoarding tarot decks. I mean, you probably only need one pair of shoes, and yet I have fifty. I like to collect. So if you, too, must collect, then at least try to keep your collecting focused. This post will offer tips on building a tarot deck library.
In the mid-1400s, early versions of the 78-card tarot deck emerged in Italy. These decks were gold-leaf and hand-painted for the wealthy. The Visconti commissioned for the Visconti family are some of the most notable versions from the era. Note that many of the early Italian decks may be called tarocchi cards. German, Austrian, and Eastern European decks may be called tarock.
By the 1500s, tarot passed into France and the Tarot de Marseille pattern became popular. Many tarot purists will read with only the Tarot de Marseille. Since the pip cards do not depict readable symbolic imagery like the Rider-Waite-Smith and more modern decks, Western numerology will be instrumental to the practitioner who uses the Tarot de Marseille. (Note that there are substantial differences between Western and Eastern numerology.)
Purportedly in the same century as the Tarot de Marseille, another medieval card game, a variation on the tarot, became popular, called the Minchiate, a 97-card deck. In Minchiate, there are 41 trump cards (keyed 0 to 40) as opposed to the 22 of tarot. The additions include cards for four theological virtues, the four elements, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.
In the 1700s, the occultist Eteilla’s deck was said to have been conceived, now known as the Eteilla decks. Many variations on the Eteilla deck exist, some remaining historically accurate as facsimiles of the original one used by Eteilla and others with contemporary or special interest reinterpretations. Be sure you are aware of which version you are getting.
Marie Anne Lenormand, one of the most famous fortunetellers in history, was said to have read cards for Napoleon, Empress Josephine, and Czar Alexander, among others. Her personal 36-card deck for cartomancy became famous after her death. The deck was reconstructed posthumously and is now known as the Lenormand cards. In the last decade, Lenormand cards were rediscovered by the tarot community and rose sharply in popularity.
Another deck that is often collected is the Oswald Wirth tarot, based on the Major Arcana renderings of Oswald Wirth, a Swiss occultist. The 22 Major Arcana renderings by Wirth were published in the late 1800s. Another artist subsequently illustrated the Minor Arcana for the full deck. The Oswald Wirth tarot is based on the Tarot de Marseille, with slight variations and added symbolism inspired by the works of Eliphas Levi.
Most prominent among the tarot variations is the 1909 deck by A. E. Waite, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, and first published by the Rider company: the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS). The RWS has become the modern day standard for tarotanalysis. It is broadly referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith because the tarot publishing company, U.S. Games Systems, Inc. registered a trademark for its own version of the RWS, called the Rider-Waite®. For decades, U.S. Games staked its copyright claim over the RWS deck. However, the RWS deck is now arguably in the public domain, though copyright laws do vary from country to country. Its most notable differences from the Marseille deck are the numbering in the Major Arcana and the symbolic illustrations on the suits. In the Marseille, Key 8 is Justice and Key 11 is Strength. In the RWS, Key 8 is Strength and Key 11 is Justice, a revision made by Waite to better adhere to Golden Dawn theosophy.
Per current trends at the time of this post’s publication, there are three prevailing deck systems for tarot work: the Tarot de Marseille, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Thoth tarot. The Thoth Tarot was conceived by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Freida Harris in 1969. There are a few distinctions between the Thoth and the RWS. The RWS, like its Tarot de Marseille predecessors, is still rooted fundamentally in Judeo-Christian symbology. The Thoth tarot attempts to broaden the paradigms to incorporate science, philosophy, and Eastern ideologies.
In the Minor Arcana, the RWS suit of pentacles is named the suit of disks in the Thoth. Court cards are named differently as well. There are also key numbering and name differences in the Major Arcana. Instead of the RWS Key 8 Strength, the Thoth is Key 8 Adjustment. Instead of the RWS Key 11 Justice, the Thoth is Key 11 Lust. The RWS Key 14 Temperance correspondent is Key 14 Art in the Thoth. RWS Key 20 Judgement becomes Thoth Key 20 The Aeon. RWS The World becomes Thoth The Universe. A practitioner cannot simply transfer his or her understanding of card meanings and attributions from the RWS to the Thoth. The two are distinctly different schools of tarot.
The B.O.T.A. Tarot by Paul Foster Case should also be noted. In line with Case’s approach to the tarot, which is to use it as a tool for meditation and to access a higher understanding of the universe and the self, the B.O.T.A. tarot is a variation on the RWS formulated by Case specially for meditative study and rumination rather than what Case refers to as “vulgar fortune-telling.”
The tarot enthusiast may find it fun to collect a few special interest or themed tarot decks based on his or her personal interests. There are popular movie themed decks, religious decks, decks featuring artwork by well-known artists, hobby based decks, cultural decks, or decks grounded in a particular ideology. Since most historic decks are patriarchal, some contemporary decks are feminist themed and thus may be more appealing to feminist practitioners. There are also specialty decks tailored to particular sexual orientations. Some decks are darker and explore the more sinister, malevolent facets of humanity. Others are lighter in tone, cheerful, gentle, and are suitable decks for children. Many advanced tarot practitioners eventually create their own tarot decks and may even publish them, adding to the tarot canon. Special interest or themed tarot decks are typically based on one of the three prevailing tarot systems, i.e., Tarot de Marseille, RWS, or Thoth, or a customized combination of the three.
While the tarot’s heritage started as playing cards and only later was adopted for divination work by occultists and fortunetellers, oracle decks are generally conceived with the intent for divination work. The decks differ from tarot in number of cards, division of trumps and pips, and even in suits, if there are suits at all. Oracle decks are usually themed, inspired by a particular religion, belief system, holistic healing, or any other area that inspires spiritual growth. One of the most well-known examples of oracle decks is the Lenormand mentioned earlier. In recent years, I Ching based oracle decks have also become popular.
The tarot predecessors of the RWS, like the Marseille, were created for card games and only later were adopted by occultists for divination. Thus, using them today in card readings requires greater intuition. That is why the RWS based system is recommended for the beginner. Learn to read on the RWS system first. After the RWS system is mastered, the serious practitioner can graduate on to study the Tarot de Marseille or the Thoth system. Even if the practitioner chooses to remain with the RWS system, he or she should still acquire a basic understanding of the Tarot de Marseille and the Thoth.
So, how would I go about organizing and stream-lining a tarot collection addiction?
Continental Tarot Decks: I’m borrowing the terminology from Christine Payne-Towler, a tarot scholar I admire beyond words, and using it to cover all the Marseille-based decks, Eteilla decks, Oswald Wirth decks, and what Yoav Ben-Dov calls the French school decks after Antoine Court de Gébelin. You’re going to probably want to count a couple of continental tarot decks in your collection.
English School Tarot Decks: Decks like the Rider-Waite-Smith based decks and the Thoth are what Yoav Ben-Dov refer to as the English school decks, which often have illustrated pips (the numbered cards in the Minor Arcana) rich with narratives, symbolism, and scenes. Golden Dawn based decks would fall into this categorization, as would all contemporary Rider-Waite-Smith clones or close derivatives. (However, if it’s RWS or Thoth based but follows a very specific theme, like feng shui, or puppies, or hipsters, even if the symbolism is RWS, I’d still put it under Special Interest below.)
Special Interest Tarot Decks: These are the modern decks that follow a specific theme, like cats, mermaids, or sci-fi/fantasy imagery, a particular faith like Wicca, Christianity, or Buddhism, psychology-based decks, angels, goddesses, baseball, or decks keyed to a specific holiday or cultural heritage. Oftentimes these decks will borrow heavily from Rider-Waite-Smith and Thoth imagery. Collecting special interest decks is mainly for fun, at least for me. I don’t read professionally with special interest decks, unless it makes sense to in that situation, i.e., pulling out a cat-themed or animal-themed tarot deck for an animal non-profit fundraising event or the Halloween deck for Halloween, or a lovey-dovey-lovers deck for Valentine’s Day.
New System Decks: I don’t know what else to call this category, so with some reluctance, I’m going to just call it “new system decks” just because I’m lazy and can’t conceive of a better title. So what’s a new system deck? If you’re a seasoned tarot practitioner but after picking up this deck, you realize you still need to go through the deck’s little white booklet to figure out the interpretive system, then it’s probably a new system deck. New system decks are the contemporary decks (created in the last few decades or so) that, even if they take bits and pieces from predecessor tarot heritages, are for most intents and purposes a new tarot deck system. I’m thinking of the Voyager Tarot or the Mary-el. Some new system decks like John Holland’s Psychic Tarot Oracle might be on that fence that straddles the line between tarot and oracle cards. Since many practitioners use and read it as they would tarot, some would call it a tarot deck. Others split hairs and say hey look, it doesn’t have 78 cards, so it’s not tarot. I’ll let you render your own judgment. Same with the Poet Tarot, which has 70 cards, so is it or isn’t it? You decide.
Lenormand Decks: I’m taking this out of the broader “oracle decks” category and making it a category on its own because of its rise in popularity. I had told myself I was going to get only one Lenormand deck for my collection just to have a Lenormand deck, but somehow one became two, which became three, and so on. Thus for me, it’s a separate category from oracle decks simply because I now have so many of them. Within Lenormands, though, there’s the Petit Lenormand, with 36 cards total, which has gained in popularity over the other one, the Grand Jeu Lenormand, with 54 cards.
Oracle Decks: Here I would include at least one Minchiate deck. Any of the 64-card I Ching decks are oracle decks. Pretty much any of the angel, archangel, psychic New Age yada yada decks that have risen in popularity this last decade are oracle decks. Simply put, they don’t have 78 cards, might not even follow the structure of Trumps and Minors with four suits, numbered one through ten plus Courts, and probably have writing on the bottom of the cards, captions of cheery affirmations or Jungian-based archetype labels. Oracle decks are fun to play with, but to be honest (and snooty), I don’t know many serious tarot practitioners who pull out oracle decks (excepting Lenormands here) for professional readings unless the client has asked specifically for such a reading. (Some clients are intrigued by the idea of cartomancy but may find tarot too “intense,” and so opt for these fun little angel card readings or what have you. That’s cool. Customer is always right, so go ahead and pull out those angel cards.)