Favorite Tarot Decks
I've been reading the Tarot for 35 years and teaching it for 30. I am a psychic medium, a counselor, an educator, and a spiritual teacher, but I am above all, a Tarot reader.
I can teach anyone to read the cards. I've even taught someone who is blind to read the cards. And I can read any deck. Hell, I can read a picture hanging on the wall, coffee grounds, tea leaves, clouds, and even the drips that flow down the window during the rain. All visual imagery suggests something to me, and it will to you too since we humans are visual creatures.
When I started out as a beginner, I tried several different decks - Aquarian, Motherpeace, Ryder Waite, and the Thoth deck. I also tried reading non Tarot cards: regular playing cards and even children's alphabet cards, Angel cards, Medicine cards, Rumi cards, and the IChing (which aren't cards but I read it as well).
My hands down favorite is the Thoth deck. I also like the Osho Zen but never read it without the help of the Thoth. I was never intimidated by the Thoth because I didn't worry if I didn't understand all the symbolism on them. I have taken three decades to delve into this deck and still there are parts to discover.
What I love most is the art work of Frieda Harris who painted them. Having worked as a painter and photographer, I value her skill. Her work was painstaking, sometimes making up to 100 drafts of a card before they choose the final one. She studied sacred geometry with a top student of Rudolph Steiner and you can see her powerful renderings of consciousness in The Priestess and The Universe, unsurpassed in any deck.
Harris and Crowley, the authors of the Thoth deck, were a Lennon and McCartney team that, due to their individual brilliance, created a masterpiece. If you get the Thoth deck, buy the large size, unless you have really small hands. The imagery is so dense and vibrant that they require the large size.
I once ordered the large size of the Ryder Waite deck and realized to my surprise that it looked absurd. The imagery is too simple to be viewed on a big card. That doesn't mean the Ryder Waite deck is simplistic. To many readers, it is da bomb of Tarot decks. And it is by far the most popular deck, probably because its images are tableaus or pictures of scenes that make it easy for you to read.
The Osho Zen art is also well done. That did not happen with the other decks whose images were nice but too calm for me.
KEEP IN MIND: that choosing a deck is a highly individual matter. To some, the Thoth is too detailed and hard to decipher. To me it is perfect, long before I ever understood the symbols. I loved the colors which spoke to me, and the images, which conveyed energy to me.
Choose what works for you. Everyone who loves a deck will give you all the good reasons why theirs is the best deck. But it's up to you. What you learn when you read one deck can be transferred to any deck if you choose to change.
I have the same thoughts about the Toth deck. The imagery is wonderful. It was the first deck I was ever drawn to and bought, and the first one I bought again when I delved back into tarot recently. It is quite complex in that there is so much symbolism to work with and learn about if you choose to.
My other two favourite decks at the moment are 'Dreams of Gaia' by Ravynne and the Osho Zen deck. The dreams of Gaia cards are stunningly beautiful. I think I would have them even if I wasn't reading Tarot:) The meanings feel very spiritual to me, and find them most useful for personal readings. I love the artwork on the Osho Zen deck too and find I can connect to meanings and get intuitive results far quicker with this deck than the other two for some reason.
I have tried the Crystal Tarot by Trevisan and I love the major arcana cards, but can't get on with the simplicity of the minor arcana and the guidebook meanings.
The Rider Waite is one that is often suggested for beginners, but I just can't connect to the imagery. I also find the imagery 'simplistic' - that's not to say they are simplistic as they do have a lot of symbology too, but I find I'm drawn to a different style of artwork.
Tarot is definitely very subjective.
I'm not really a tarot reader but I own several decks and love using the cards for meditative purposes. The Thoth Tarot has easily been a favorite of mine for about 12 years or so since I first started exploring matters of a more esoteric nature. Some people seem to consider it "dark" but I've never really gotten that from the deck, although I suspect much of that is the result of people projecting their understandings and misunderstandings of Crowley on it. I personally like the Waite-Rider deck but I prefer the B.O.T.A. deck, which is admittedly a rip-off of the former but includes symbolism Waite intentionally left out (and, as an added bonus, you have to color it yourself!). I'm also a fan of Chic and Sandra Tabatha Cicero's Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot, which, like the B.O.T.A. deck, seems designed with meditation in mind.
(As an aside, I'm Matt... I've been a lurker here for about two years or so. I've drawn quite a bit of hope from some of the predictions I've seen around here regarding the political situation here in the US and this place has helped bolster my spirits.)
Hi Matt. Welcome! I lit up when you said you love the Thoth deck. There is a kind of kinship that arises when you meet someone who also loves that deck.
I’m fascinated with the idea of looking through the other decks you mentioned for meditative purposes. Curious to know what you see when you pull a Thoth card to meditate on it.
Last year I read a biography about Crowley that deepened my understanding of the man. He was the bad boy of his age — a kind of Mick Jagger figure but more accomplished in my mind.
Brilliant, crazy, an accomplished mountaineer who climbed some of the highest peaks. And a scholar of ancient myth. He wanted to know everything that could be known about spirituality and magick. He put it all in the deck for us to read. And Frieda Harris, the painter, had the artistic genius to pull it off for him. Still I doubt I would have liked the man if I met him. But I wouldn’t have liked Paul Gauguin either. It’s what he created and his genius that matters.
To me, the deck is no more dark than the human mind and nature itself which are both exciting, beautiful and yes, harsh. No pulled punches.
Anyway, what do you mean when you say that you meditate, say, on a Thoth card?
Hi Jeanne! Thank you for the kind welcome!
Crowley has admittedly fascinated me for a while now. Before I started exploring these things I was a hardcore convert to Catholicism. I was very conservative and straight-laced but there was something deep inside me that rebelled against the outward persona I had built for myself. Without going into too much detail, it culminated in leaving the Church, becoming a Freemason (a real no-no for faithful Catholics, which was part of why I did it), learning about Qabalah and esotericism, and eventually bumping into Crowley's Thoth Tarot and writings. He was a product of his upbringing and age, which, rather than embrace, he chose to rebel against in a similar manner as I had. I think you summed him up perfectly... not sure I'd like him as a person, I'm at odds with parts of the personal philosophy he promulgated, but he definitely had something interesting to say and that's always refreshing. I've frankly come to the opinion that such is sort of how he wanted it. Lady Harris was absolutely brilliant in her artwork and I've never shown the deck to anyone who has failed to be impressed by it.
My understanding is that certain decks, particularly those that developed out of the Golden Dawn system, are designed with imagery that's intended to make certain suggestions to the subconscious for the sake of personal spiritual development, through the forms on the cards, the symbolism, and even the colors through Qabalistic correspondences. The technique I was taught was to stare at the card and "step inside", so to speak, for 3 - 5 minutes. In practice, it's not much unlike holding an image inside one's mind during a closed eye meditation and, indeed, one could use the images in that manner as well once one has that level of familiarity with them.
I admittedly don't "see" much apart from the images on the cards. I'm not aware of being particularly psychic in the slightest, at least not in any sense that I understand. It's more that I find that the meditations cause my mind to find correspondences between events around me to the symbolic meanings of the cards. My interest tends to be more on the "magical" side of things, and even then for me it's more to do with spiritual development than developing the power to make strange things happen.
It's interesting that both you and Blue mentioned earlier that the Waite-Rider imagery was too simple to look right on a large card. As I mentioned earlier, Waite actually intentionally left certain symbols out of his cards due to certain Golden Dawn oaths that he had previously sworn. Paul Foster Case, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn and who designed the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) deck, based his cards on the Waite-Rider deck but left the blinds in -- it's interesting to compare the two and not what's missing from Waite's deck: B.O.T.A. Tarot Deck
Interesting post Matt, thanks for sharing your experience of the Thoth deck. I like the idea of 'stepping' into the cards, that's a fascinating technique. Regarding symbolism for both sets of cards from Golden Dawn teachings I find the Liber Thoth to be very helpful (link is to a free downloadable pdf).
Thanks, Blue! That is really a fantastic resource. For the Thoth Deck, I'm also very fond of Lon Milo DuQuette's Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot and Aleister Crowley's own The Book of Thoth (although Crowley has a tendency to go for over-obscure at times, and some might be slightly off-put by the fact that he devoted something like 20 pages to the Fool Card alone, fascinating as it might be). On the non-Thoth side, I've also been studying the writings of Paul Foster Case (again, B.O.T.A. deck), who seemed to have a rather deep insight into the Hermetic nature of the Tarot.
I find all of these discussions incredibly interesting if not psychologically and psycho-spiritually fascinating. I was filled with visions of journeys through the cards through your gifts.
I don't own any of these decks nor have I ever done more than a few trial spreds of any kind of Tarot ever, but see imagery and stories through people not cards and visioning in my own ways.
Your discussion...you, Jeanne and you, Matt, were so incredibly resonating with me that the two of you lit me up. And Blue thank you, for all of your comments as well. I opened the link and am vibrating with its energy. Amazing helpful connections to decades of esoteric readings.
Simply, though not truly simply at all, I was given intense visions and insight from your discussion of Tarot, into a loved one who needs my help with instant imagery.
Apparently, the decks do work in mysterious ways 😉 I am literally moved to tears.
I'm glad I was able to be part of an exchange that resonated so strongly with you!
I feel you touched on something here that is I personally find to be very deep and important when it comes to Tarot. The cards are just tools. All of the power lies with the reader. Good cards present an archetypal symbolism that should evoke a reaction on a deeper level when properly understood. Like I said earlier, any psychic abilities I may or may not have are not particularly well developed but I've studied this stuff a bit... personally, I think there's something very advanced and quite cool about being able to extend the ability to "read" beyond mere cards and instead use the world and people around you as your personal Tarot. 😉
In a deeper sense, I suppose it's very much the same thing!
All I'll add is that it's not the decks that work in mysterious ways... it's you. 🙂
I love this discussion. I spent a few hours reading up on the Thoth Star card (the 17 Trump) a few years ago when I was about to teach it to a class. I have a group that meets locally every Thursday night for ten years now, called the Thursday Night Tarot. Some students have been coming for many years, some just started.
What I learned about the Star Card changed my life. It's hard to capture it in words because pictures evoke more than words can say. But Frieda Harris's rendition of the Star taught me something. The figure in the card is Nuith, the Egyptian sky goddess. She represents the sky and the universe out there with all the loving energies that come to us from above. She's in the curved shape of a spiral, passing along the light of the Universe to us. There's a distant star sending energy to us, like the energies we sometimes feel coming from spirit guides from other worlds. When you are in the consciousness of the Star Card, you have raised the ceiling of your awareness to something much higher than our regular earthly feet-of-clay consciousness. You may be down here in the trenches with worries about climate change or your job or the cruelties of this world. But no matter how worried you are about this world, you can take in the loving light of the universe and know that there is guidance, redemption, hope, and something eternal.
The great Cathedrals of Europe have the high ceilings to provide the same effect of raising your own consciousness to new heights. The Star has the same message.
There's more to see in this card, but that understanding alone sweeps me up in the most positive light when I need it. And I feel Crowley and Harris succeeded in depicting it.
I love your explanation about The Star and Nuith. The Star is absolutely one of my very favorite cards in any deck. It is, as you pointed out, so full of hope. It had particular importance in Crowley's Thelema philosophy, as one of the opening lines of the first chapter of his Liber Al Vel Legis (spoken by Nuith, as you mentioned) says, "Every man and every woman is a star." Every star has its energy and its path and the biggest sin is to attempt to impede the path of another (although Crowley would say that's impossible if one is truly following one's path).
I've personally always found Crowley's changes to the Tarot to be very interesting. The Star in traditional decks is attributed to the Hebrew character Tzaddi, which means "fish-hook" and signifies The Star as representing meditation. A book I have describes it as, "The Initiate here [in meditation] casts the 'fish-hook' of the Hebrew letter Tzaddi into the Waters of Creation (pure consciousness) to catch a bit of Divine Knowledge." Crowley switched it around, based on a supposedly divinely-inspired command in Liber Al that said Tzaddi is not the Star, and made Tzaddi the Emperor and the Star the Hebrew letter "He" (meaning "window") instead. I guess that holds up with the meditation theme as well, considering meditation is a window into the Mind and the Higher Realms of existence. It's also the second and final letter of the Tetragammaton (Divine Name - YHWH) and represents manifestation.
I read once that you could leave a person in a jail cell with only a good Tarot deck and he or she would have all the tools at his or her fingertips to divine the secrets of the Universe. I really like to believe that. 🙂
Wow. Thank you. Love your knowledge. It's so fun to dive into this stuff.
yeah, this is fascinating, Matt! Glad you are here!
Jeanne, how did you teach Tarot to a blind person? I'm curious!
Matt, very interesting stuff. But please, could you translate the Hebrew letter stuff for somebody who really doesn't do Hebrew? I also find synchronicities with the cards, and I'm interested in magic. Maybe one day I'll be able to make strange things happen (good ones, of course), but for the moment, I'm happy when I can sense something ahead of time.
Some of the cards in the deck tell you more than others about the perspective of the people that made it. The Fool, the Magician and the World are in a way summaries of the whole deck. And the Sun, the Moon and the Star often show you ways that the deck makers bring a fresh view on things. The Star in the Thoth deck is a good example.
The Fool is probably my favorite card, so I don't blame Crowley for having 20 pages of things to say about it! A big reason it's my favorite, of course, is because that's exactly where I feel I'm at, on my low days. On good days, I think I surely must have progressed a little towards the Magician. I may say: "Hello, any spirit friends here?" And sometimes, I think I get an answer. Most of the time, I just pull my hairs out.
The great thing of the Internet is that you can check out what decks are out there. I only have two (Morgan-Greer and Marseilles) but I love looking at what else is there. I recently found out about a special deck done by Scarlet Imprint:
Like most of the stuff that Scarlet Imprint do, it's for people with advanced skills. (It was sheer luck and coincidence that I got to know about them in the first place.) Anyone can appreciate the artwork, though. The lines are harsher than what I usually like, and if you are one of those people who don't like black & white, you won't like this very much. But I like the compositions of the cards a lot. It's an interesting deck to look at, for sure.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm quite fond of the Fool as well! He is the epitome of innocence and blind naivete -- there's a certain joyful purity about that card. Although, going by traditional images, he really ought to look where he's going instead of up at the clouds... 😉
I'm not much of an expert in Hebrew, actually. What I do know is that each Hebrew letter developed out of a pictograph and that the meanings of the letters are tied into the meanings of the tarot cards themselves in various ways. (I'm hoping the Hebrew letters show up here!)
Aleph - א - "Ox" -- The Fool, Bet - ב - "House" -- the Magus, Gimel - ג - "Camel" -- the High Priestess
Daleth - ד - "Door" -- The Empress, He - ה - "Window" -- The Emperor/The Star, Vau - ו - "Nail" -- The Hierophant
Zayin - ז - "Sword" -- The Lovers, Het - ח - "Fence" -- The Chariot, Tet - ט - "Serpent" -- Strength/Lust
Yod - י - "Hand" -- The Hermit, Kaf - כ - "Palm" -- Wheel of Fortune, Lamed - ל - "Ox Goad" -- Justice/Adjustment
Mem - מ - "Water" -- The Hanged Man, Nun - נ - "Fish" -- Death, Samekh - ס - "Prop" -- Temperance/Art
Ayin - ע - "Eye" -- The Devil, Pe - פ - "Mouth" -- The Tower, Tzaddi - צ - "Fish hook" -- The Star/Emperor
Qof - ק - "Back of Head" -- The Moon, Resh - ר - "Head" -- The Sun, Shin - ש - "Tooth" -- Judgement/The Aeon,
Tau - ת - "Cross" -- The World/The Universe
The attributions do matter... for example, the path of Gimel connects the sphere of Kether ("Crown") to the sphere of Tiphareth ("Beauty"), which crosses over a part of the Tree of Life (here's a good image with cards superimposed over the paths: Tree of Life) known as "The Abyss", which could be likened to a spiritual desert of sorts. Part of the essence of the High Priestess card is reflective of a camel on that journey, I suppose. A great book for covering ALL the correspondences is Liber 777 but I think it would take a lifetime to memorize.
Hebrew letters can be divided into three categories. First, there are three mother letters: Aleph א, Mem מ, and Shin ש. These correspond to The Fool, The Hanged Man, and Judgement/The Aeon and have attributed to them Air, Water, and Fire. Next, there are seven Double Letters: Bet ב , Gimel ג, Daleth ד , Kaf כ, Pe פ, Resh ר, and Tav ת to which are attributed (in order) Mercury, The Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, The Sun, and Saturn. Last, we have the Twelve Simple Letters: He ה, Vau ו, Zayin ז , Het ח, Tet ט, Yod י, Lamed ל , Nun נ, Samekh ס, Ayin ע, Tzaddi צ, and Qof ק, to which we attribute (again, in order) Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. This ties back to a Tarot Deck like the Thoth Deck in that the cards I mentioned will reflect these elemental and astrological influences in the essence of the artwork.
I should be clear that I don't think you need to know any of this to effectively do magic or even to read the Tarot... I just find it fascinating to reflect on how "deep" this rabbit hole really goes! 🙂
And personally, I think the artwork on those cards is really neat! I personally quite like the black-and-white aesthetic!
I didn't get a chance to check out the Marseilles and Morgan-Greer until just now (I was up way later than I had planned typing out that last post)... these are really neat decks that I might have to pick up myself. The Marseilles Trumps very much remind me of the Trumps in the B.O.T.A. Deck I mentioned above.
I started out with the Aquarian deck back in 1975. About 20 years ago, I found the Alchemical deck, which uses a lot of Jungian Archetypal imagery. LOOOOVE it! Today I am getting the Golden Tarot. I like the way the artist assembled medieval imagery-there is a lot of attention paid to lights and darks, which I find pulls up impressions for me.
Working on a series of needlefelted Tarot paintings....Starting with Ace of Cups.
Jeanne, how did you teach Tarot to a blind person? I'm curious!
She put little electronic tabs on the cards so that when she pulled a card and touched her electronic wand to the little tabs, they spoke out the name of the card and a short meaning. She came to my Thursday Night Tarot group for about a year and learned to give readings. She is incredibly psychic and highly evolved, so when we gave each other readings, everyone stopped talking and listened closely to what she said. She speaks in a quiet thoughtful voice. She said she liked how the cards can structure the reading and give her grounding. Otherwise, she's just reading from her imagination. We have developed a long and close friendship since then. She is an amazing person.
Matt, whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m damn glad you exist in the universe. I’ve recently been delving more into Cabalistic tarot, and the Hebrew letters (and their profound numeric correspondences!) have always fascinated me.
Jeanne, the story of your blind student-now-friend is beautiful. And I was moved by your explanation of The Star imagery in the Thoth deck. I’ve been contemplating a new deck for a while, maybe waiting for a sign. Your post was it.
I agree with you both about Crowley. He was intense, autodidactic, and utterly willing to follow his curiosity wherever it led in his search for deeper knowledge; I can appreciate all those qualities. In a certain respect, I’m even a little grateful for his less-than-ethical excesses in service to that quest, if only for the way it shaped what followed him. His karmic story is instructive.
Were he living, I actually would want to know the man (I’m fascinated by all characters). But I’d never want to be enthralled to him.
The first tarot deck I owned, I bought in high school. It’s the Enchanted Tarot, and I still treasure it like something beautiful I’ve inherited from my younger self. More recently I’ve been using the Wild Unknown Tarot (in personal readings). I admire Kim Krans’ artistry, but this deck hasn’t entirely fitted itself inside me.
I’ve collected other decks over the years, and cards and their images are always finding me. I was living on my own at 18 (studying the Golden Dawn, incidentally) and struggling to overcome the toxic, sometimes terrifying family story of my upbringing, so that I could somehow thrive instead of falter. I was feeling defeated one afternoon, sobbing on a riverbank, when my foot found something in the sand.
I reached down to investigate and uncovered two cards: the Magician and Strength.
You have the power to re/create your reality.
You have the strength and resilience to overcome your hardships.
Talk about your instant state-change. I recall feeling simultaneously mind-blown and kissed by the universe. In all the years I’ve been enamored of tarot since, that feeling hasn’t left.
Those little cards were from a limited 1992 reprint of the Soprafino deck (only 2,000 were printed). It was originally commissioned in 1885 and engraved by artist Carlo Dellarocca. I still have them with me, and they may be the reason I’m most fond of Medieval imagery in tarot.
If I could get my hands on a pack of Le Tarot Noir, I’d make them mine.
VestraLux,Thank you so much for your kind words. You really have no idea how much that made my day.
While Crowley obviously reveled in being "the worst man in the world" (at a time when the fascists were rapidly rising to power, no less!) and seemed to delight in violating the mores of the era, part of me sometimes wonders if perhaps he had an ulterior motive of sorts. He received a strict Christian upbringing and the story of Christ appears to have had a huge impact on him -- so much so that he supposedly crucified a frog to break the programming. He had to be aware that "prophets" (and he did consider himself one) are always at risk of being deified and part of me suspects that he didn't want that and instead chose to live a life that would thwart those sorts of characterizations from ever arising. I don't know how true that is but it's something I like to believe when approaching his works.
I found your story about how finding The Magician and Strength touched your life to be deeply moving. I think that might very well be one of the most Magical things I've read. 🙂
And those decks -- wow! When I was younger and more conventionally religious I used to collect Bibles but recently I decided to collect Tarot decks instead and this thread has already given me some wonderful suggestions for building my collection!