New Decks and Conflicting Information

by Barbara Moore

Not long ago, my friend Joanne Matthew asked me how I would advise people to choose a first deck and what we should do with conflicting information in books, what we should be aware of so as not to get discouraged.

Many new readers are overwhelmed by the many options of tarot decks available. Most are advised to select a deck with art that appeals to them. That is fine advice, but I think people who are new to tarot could do with a little more guidance than that.

First, be aware that there is a difference between oracle decks and tarot decks. Tarot decks have 78 cards, with 22 Major Arcana cards and four suits with 14 cards each. There are some variations with additional cards, renamed suits, or different ranks for the court cards. Oracle decks have any number cards and may or may not have any structure at all. So the thing you want to do is make sure you are considering tarot decks rather than oracle decks, if you want to actually study tarot.

Second, be aware that there (in my opinion) four schools or types of tarot decks.

The most popular in the US is the Rider Waite Smith tarot and its clones. If you want a deck that will provide you with a common language with which to talk to other readers, this is a good place to start. Another benefit is that all the Minor cards have illustrations on them that help with interpretation. If a deck isn’t advertised as a RWS clone or “in the RWS tradition,” you can tell if it is by comparing some of the cards to the RWS images. If there are enough similarities that you can see the connection between the two decks, you probably have a solid RWS style deck.

The next two are the Thoth and the Marseilles. These are popular in Europe but not so popular in the US. One reason is that some people are put off by the Thoth because it was created by Aleister Crowley (with art by Lady Frieda Harris). A plus of this deck is that it has key words on the Minor cards, although the art is largely of pips (the suit designators artfully arranged on the card). The Marseilles Tarot also has only pips on the Minor Arcana. Most modern American readers find these harder to learn, as the pictures on RWS style decks aid in remembering the card interpretations.

The final category is one I think of as “all other non-traditional” tarot decks. These are ones that follow the structure of a tarot deck but are not bound by any of the three traditional schools. These can more challenging simply because you usually only have the companion book (and your own ideas) as a guide…and if the deck has no companion book, then you have the adventure of discovering the meanings on your own. This is not a bad thing. Tarot is always evolving. It is just worth noting the different types so you can make the choice that is right for you.

Which bring us to the second part of Joanne’s question: what to do with conflicting information in books.

Tarot is not a single truth with any absolutes. Books will have conflicting information because there are so many approaches to the tarot. My advice is to first answer some questions on your own, such as how and why you think it “works,” how it should be used, what kind of advice or information will you seek from it, what will you do with that advice, where do the meanings come from? Ask yourself things like that and find an author who shares some of your main principles. Then read critically. Try new things and determine what works for you. Do not accept things as set in stone.

For a good general overview on tarot, the different types, and the different approaches, is Anthony Louis’ Tarot Beyond the Basics. Even though it may appeal more to non-beginners, I think it is a good place to start because Louis gives a broad range of possibilities so that you can see all the different ways things can work. Then you can decide which work best within your belief system. Because remember, tarot is a tool but the way that it is used depends on you!


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