Tarot Card Reading Guide

Chapter 4 Your Personal Tarot Deck

In This Chapter

  • How will you choose your first deck?
  • Which decks should beginners consider?
  • Where can you purchase a deck?
  • How can you properly store and care for your deck?

Henry Ford once told customers they could have any color car they wanted, as long as it was black.

Before the 1980s, tarot enthusiasts could have any kind of tarot deck they wanted, as long as it was the long-suffering Rider–Waite Tarot from U.S. Games. Other decks existed, but they were hard to find.

Today, with thousands of decks on the market, absolute beginners have an entirely different kind of challenge: finding the perfect first deck. Should you tackle the depth and complexity of the Thoth deck? Given your passion for unicorns, should your first deck be the Tarot of the Unicorns? If the face of the Devil card in a Rider–Waite–Smith deck frightens you, should you avoid that deck entirely?

For years, the standard advice given to anyone picking out a personal tarot deck has been, “Find a deck that speaks to you.” But what does that mean, exactly? What happens when a deck speaks to you? Will you actually hear a pack of cards ask, “Where have you been all my life?”

Telling beginners to find a talking deck abandons them to be guided by their own inexperience. As a result, many beginners buy decks that look good at first, but which prove unsuitable for long-term use and study. Frightened, confused, or disappointed, many of these eager beginners abandon tarot altogether.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative to finding a deck that “speaks to you.” In fact, if you’ll keep one simple principle in mind, you’ll greatly increase your chances of finding the perfect deck.

What Do You Want to Do with Tarot?

To get the most out of a tarot deck, begin with a consideration of your personal goals.

Think Function First

After you buy a tarot deck, what do you want to do with it?

Do you just want to own a deck?

Some people want a deck but have no intention of reading or studying the cards. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, if simply having a deck is your ultimate goal, you can save yourself a lot of time, effort, and money by bidding on the cheapest deck you can find on eBay.

Do you plan to become a student of tarot?

If so, you should consider a deck that many people write about, read with, and study. Almost any deck from the Rider–Waite–Smith family of decks (including parallel decks, such as Lo Scarabeo’s Universal Tarots) will serve you well. Just be sure to pick one with a color scheme and style you like. If you have a strong interest in myth, magic, or religion, consider Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot.

Do you plan to read the cards for yourself?

In addition to choosing an appealing pack of cards (you’re going to spend a lot of time together, you know), consider buying a deck you’ll be comfortable using in a variety of settings: at home, at the coffee house, at work, at school, and so on. If you want to carry your deck with you at all times, you might consider buying any one of several mini-decks because they’re easy to pack in a pocket or purse.

Do you plan to read the cards for others?

If so, you might want to take your clients’ needs and expectations into consideration. Many people expect a reader to use a deck from the Rider–Waite–Smith family of decks. You also might want to consider purchasing a deck with approachable, non-threatening images because they’re less likely to frighten or concern potential clients. Consider the author’s own Bright Idea Deck, the Gilded Tarot, Songs for the Journey Home, the Osho Zen Tarot, and any other decks with bright, appealing artwork on every card.

Do you plan to use the cards as a meditative tool?

Those who plan to use their decks as meditative tools should consider decks with calming, luminous illustrations. Look for decks with images that are detailed but not busy, or consider a deck with illustrations that feature one prominent figure in the foreground. Llewellyn’s Gilded Tarot, the Tarot of Dreams (by the same artist, Ciro Marchetti), Carol Herzer’s Illuminated Tarot (from Soul-Guidance.com), or the self-published Fountain Tarot (see www.fountaintarot.com) make excellent choices.

Will you use the cards as a creative catalyst?

Creative applications such as brainstorming, problem-solving, and creative writing call for energetic cards capable of stoking your inner genius. The author’s own Bright Idea Deck is a beginner-friendly deck designed specifically for this purpose. You might also consider any decks with intriguing art (the Navigator’s Tarot of the Mystic SEA, for example) or pip cards that evoke stories (such as Lo Scarabeo’s Durer Tarots).

Other Factors to Consider

After you know why you want a deck, you’ll have an easier time weighing the other factors that should influence your final decision.

Artwork

If the artwork on a deck frightens, disturbs, or repulses you, you aren’t very likely to work with it on a regular basis! By contrast, if you find the illustrations on the cards appealing, you’ll spend much more time with your tarot.

Deciding what artwork appeals to you is an extremely subjective process, but here’s a tip: When evaluating card art, try to articulate a concrete response. Instead of “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” shoot for “I like this artist’s use of color” or “I don’t like how this artist avoids drawing people’s faces.”

Tone

A designer’s choice of titles, keywords, symbols, and color palette determine a deck’s tone—also called it’s vibe or voice. A deck that refers to the Four of Cups as “The Lord of Blended Pleasure” will feel entirely different from one that describes the same card with the single keyword “Boredom.”

If the deck were a book, would it be a comedy? A mystery? Science fiction? What emotions do the cards provoke? What moods are the characters in? Are colors muted and somber, or brilliant and dazzling? An analysis of tone is also highly subjective, but if you know why you’re buying a deck, you can easily eliminate decks with tones that seem contrary to your purpose.

Size

Mini-decks can’t be beat for portability. But if you plan to read tarot intuitively (guided primarily by the images on the cards), they might not be your best choice because small cards feature small pictures.

The more complex the images, the larger the cards need to be. For this reason, many tarot decks are larger than poker decks, which can make them difficult for small hands to shuffle. Before purchasing a deck, make sure you’re comfortable with the size of the cards.

Card Illustrations

Some decks feature engaging illustrations on every card in the deck. In others, 40 of the cards (Ace through 10 in every suit) feature suit symbols in various geometric arrangements and very little else.

Simple, unadorned pips allow more richly illustrated trumps and court cards to stand out in a reading. Decks with scenic illustrations on every card, on the other hand, provide intuitive readers with more visual clues to base their impressions on. Only you can know which choice is right for you.

Affinity

Many contemporary decks are affinity decks, which recast tarot’s structure and symbolism in terms of a specific theme. For example, the tarot of Atlantis is for people who feel a special affinity for that particular lost continent. The Tarot of Baseball is for people obsessed with “America’s game.” And so on.

Be very careful when choosing an affinity deck. With time, your passion for leprechauns or movie monsters may pass, and your deck will no longer feel engaging or appropriate. If you plan to read for others, how will you handle clients who don’t share your love for Celtic folklore, gemstones, or vampires?

Text on the Cards

Some decks print little or no text (titles, numbers, keywords) on the cards. Others pack the border with keywords in multiple languages. The Quick and Easy Tarot squeezes two tiny divinatory paragraphs onto each card.

Some people love keywords and prompts; others find them distracting. Before you purchase a deck, take a moment to decide whether the amount of text on the cards is right for you.

Structure

Tarot’s time-tested structure of 78 cards, two divisions, and four suits is the foundation supporting many of the deck’s best qualities. However, for a variety of reasons, some deck designers feel compelled to make changes to this structure.

There’s nothing wrong with innovation. In the end, if a deck contains additional cards, six suits, or a Major, a Minor, and a Really Minor Arcana, it’s up to you to determine whether these features will enhance or detract from your readings.

Companion Books

A companion book can illuminate an otherwise impenetrable deck, bringing clarity to obscure symbols and confusing images. Unlike the little white books (or LWBs) that accompany almost every deck, companion books offer in-depth insights from someone who knows a deck inside and out.

If you choose a well-established deck such as the Rider–Waite–Smith deck or a parallel like the Lo Scarabeo Universal Tarots, you’ll find that many tarot books are already written with your deck in mind. If your deck is an unusual or newly published tarot, a companion book can be especially useful.

Great Decks for Beginners

While some people love to comparison shop, others just want someone to tell them which deck to buy.

The following recommendations are based on years of experience teaching tarot workshops to beginners. All the decks on this list are inexpensive and easily available. You’re free, of course, to select any deck that strikes your fancy, but choosing one of the decks mentioned here will facilitate your study of the tarot and position you for future growth.

Tarot people are very passionate about the decks they adopt. Whichever deck you choose, be prepared—some people will applaud your decision, but others will lament it.

The Rider–Waite–Smith Tarot

Mythic figures lock eyes with the viewer. Men and women costumed in pseudo-Medieval garb celebrate and grieve, meditate and fidget, work and play. Ghostly hands extend from clouds, offering gifts of wands, cups, swords, and coins.

A century after its first publication, the Rider–Waite–Smith Tarot (commissioned by Arthur E. Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) remains the most widely recognized and written-about tarot deck of all time—making the deck a perfect choice for beginners. Today, U.S. Games publishes several versions of the Rider–Waite. These differ primarily in how the images are colored.

The basic Rider–Waite tarot cards are dominated by flat yellows, reds, oranges, and blues. The Universal Waite features pastel hues and detailed shading, and the Radiant Rider–Waite infuses each image with a burst of blazing, vibrant color.

Rider–Waite–Smith Clones

Many modern decks very closely mimic the Rider–Waite–Smith imagery, redrawing Smith’s designs or mimicking Smith’s artwork to some degree. Though the term is technically inaccurate, most collectors and tarot enthusiasts call these decks clones

Among these, excellent choices for beginners include Lo Scarabeo’s Universal Tarots; Llewellyn’s Robin Wood Tarot, the Medieval Enchantment Tarot, the World Spirit Tarot, or the Gilded Tarot; and U.S. Games’ Connolly Tarot or the Hanson-Roberts Tarot.

Other Options

Beginners interested in something completely different should give the author’s own Bright Idea Deck a try. Beginner-friendly by design, the deck was created specifically for people interested in the creative applications of tarot: brainstorming, creative writing, and problem-solving. It can also be used for spiritual or meditative readings, of course. The deck’s bold colors, 1980’s vibe, multicultural cast of characters, and simple keywords reinterpret the tarot’s structure and power for contemporary audiences. Though out of print, it’s still readily available from Amazon.com.

Classic or antique decks—usually with non-illustrated pips—make another intriguing choice, especially for beginners interested in deriving pip card meanings primarily from numerology, astrology, elemental considerations, or Qabalah. Consider any deck with the word Marseilles in the title, including Lo Scarabeo’s Ancient Tarot of Marseilles.

Where to Buy Your Deck

Today, even in small towns, bookstores and gift shops carry a deck or two. With the advent of the Internet, you have better access to new, intriguing, rare, and collectible decks than ever before. Your shopping options include the following.

Major Bookstores

Major bookstore chains carry at least a dozen decks in each location. To make shopping easier, the larger chains, often provide preview decks: a handful of decks with holes punched in the upper corner, fastened together by a chain. Alternatively, some chain stores supply a three-ring binder packed with laminated card images from each deck in stock.

Many bookstores keep tarot decks locked in a cabinet or hidden behind a counter. Don’t be surprised if you have to ask a clerk to open a display case for you.

Independent Metaphysical, Book, and Gift Shops

With the explosion of interest in alternative therapies, comparative spirituality, and New Age topics, metaphysical stores (or “body, mind, and spirit shops”) are now branching out into much smaller markets.

Independent book and gift stores with an emphasis on New Age titles (such as Phoenix and Dragon in Atlanta and Edge of the Circle Books in Seattle) often stock several decks. In addition, because these stores often keep a tarot enthusiast on staff, they might be better equipped to help you find the deck that’s right for you.

Small metaphysical stores are much more likely to offer up-to-date sample books featuring several cards from each deck. They are also more likely to offer sample decks, allowing you to shuffle and read the cards before making your purchase. Especially if you’re a hands-on shopper, you might want to invest some time in a trip to the small, independent metaphysical store nearest you.

Online Tarot Shops

If you don’t have easy access to a bookstore or metaphysical shop, don’t fret: A well-stocked tarot bazaar is never more than a mouse-click away.

Amazon.com carries hundreds of decks—just do a keyword search on “tarot” to see the list. Most decks on Amazon.com are mass-market decks from larger publishers such as Llewellyn and U.S. Games. So, don’t expect to find much in the way of independent, hand-crafted, or out-of-print decks here.

TarotGarden.com stocks decks from major publishers and has a huge inventory of rare and hard-to-find decks. The web site offers scans of several cards from every deck TarotGarden.com sells, making it easier for shoppers to find decks with art they find intriguing.

AlidaStore.com is another online store with a huge inventory. Alida consistently stocks decks other stores have difficulty locating, and international shipment—despite its location in the Republic of San Marino—is fast and reliable.

[This site recommends the Book Depository for tarot deck orders.]

Review Sites

If your local store lacks a preview or sample book, do a web search on “tarot deck reviews” to find many sites—some still active, some not—offering libraries of tarot deck reviews.

You’ll also find reviews at Aeclectic.Net. There, many of the hundreds of deck reviews include up to six sample cards. Best of all, after you choose a deck, the user forums give you access to a lively community of people who share your passion for it. Read a few entries to get a feel for the forums; then dive right in.

Reviews on web sites often include Amazon.com associate links, making it easy for you to purchase the decks and support the site at the same time.

eBay.com

On the Internet’s most famous auction site, eBay.com, tarot decks, books, charms, art prints, boxes, bags, and other products are for sale by the thousands.

But let the buyer beware! While many of the people selling decks on eBay are entirely trustworthy, it’s not unusual to find common, inexpensive decks promoted as “rare” or “out of print.” Decks marked as collector’s items might still be available directly from their creators’ websites at much lower prices.

For this reason, you might want to shop elsewhere, particularly for your first few decks. After you get your feet wet and you have a feel for the market, you can shop eBay with confidence.

If you’re determined to shop for a deck on eBay, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Verify the condition of the deck—Is it complete? Are all the cards intact? Are any cards bent or damaged? Are there any stains or marks?
  • Verify the condition of the packaging—Is the deck in its original box? Did it come with a booklet? Is the booklet included? What condition is the booklet in?
  • Know the history of the deck—Is the deck new or used? If it’s used, what is its history? Who owned it? How was it used? How was it stored? If the deck has been released more than once, is this an early edition or a reprint?
  • Do your homework—Google the name of the deck and read reviews. Check the price of the deck on Amazon.com, TarotGarden.com, and the deck designer’s website. If a copy of the same deck has been auctioned recently, use eBay’s advanced search feature to check its closing price.
  • Be skeptical—In previous eBay auctions, people have paid top dollar for “haunted” paintings and “possessed” trinkets. As a result, listing an item as “haunted” or “possessed” is a common ploy used to drive up tarot deck prices. Take such claims with a grain of salt.
  • Clarify shipping costs—Unscrupulous sellers auction items for very low prices and then hit buyers with unusually high shipping and handling costs. Always get an accurate estimate for shipping costs to your address.
  • Contact the seller—If the listing doesn’t give you the information you need, contact the seller by email and ask your questions. Some sellers know very little about tarot and might not realize what buyers need to know.

Concerns with Used Decks

Practically, apart from the physical condition of the cards, odor is the primary factor that can ruin an otherwise great used deck. Cards stored in a smoker’s home will absorb the odor of cigarettes; if you are not a smoker, you might find this unpleasant. If you’re sensitive to fragrances, you might also want to ask whether the seller or the previous owner burns incense. Even sealed decks tend to absorb strong scents.

From a metaphysical point of view, some people believe cards absorb vibrations from their users. That’s why many used deck listings describe in great detail how a deck has been stored and cleansed. If you are concerned about whether a used deck has absorbed negative energy, you should ask about its history. Even in the best of cases, you might still want to cleanse a used deck using any of the rituals described later in this chapter.

Caring for Your Deck

Many books on tarot provide elaborate, specific rituals for storing and caring for decks. Some people who use tarot feel these rituals are critical; others dismiss them entirely. The cards perform equally well for both camps. That said, here are some tips designed to enhance your enjoyment of the cards and keep them in good condition for years to come.

Preparing a New Deck

Here are a few sample rituals for preparing a new deck for use, along with practical and mystical justifications for each.

  • Reviewing each card. Go through the deck and take a good look at each card.
    • Practical reason: Check the deck for missing or duplicate cards.
    • Mystical reason: Acknowledges the wisdom of each card and attunes the deck to your personal energy.
  • Fanning open. Fan the cards out on a table for at least an hour.
    • Practical reason: Dispels the strong odor of ink associated with new decks.
    • Mystical reason: Clears residual chaotic energy arising from the deck’s production.
  • Ritual: smudging. Pass each card through smoke from sage, tobacco, or stick incense.
    • Practical reason: Dispels the strong odor of ink associated with new decks.
    • Mystical reason: Blesses and cleanses the deck; consecrates each card as an important spiritual tool. Combine this with an invocation, if you like.
  • Ritual: shuffling. Shuffle the cards thoroughly at least seven times.
    • Practical reason: Randomizes the cards, reducing the chances that first readings will contain sequential cards.
    • Mystical reason: Imparts the mystical energy of the number 7 to the deck, priming it for use as a spiritual tool.

To be clear, none of these rituals are compulsory. tarot is a universal tool; adopt only the rituals that make sense in terms of your faith, your relationship with the universe, and your personal approach to tarot.

Storing Your Deck

Tarot decks can be stored in a number of ways. Your choice of method will be influenced by your ultimate plans for the deck.

As a Collector’s Item

To maintain the value of your deck, you must keep it pristine condition. If you are purchasing a deck with an eye toward selling it in the future, consider buying one copy to work with and one to store in the unbroken, original packaging.

Keep receipts to document the price you paid for the cards. If you must open the box, do so gently, being careful not to tear the cardboard flaps. Keep all materials—the little white booklet, any bags or accessory items, and the companion book—together because this will preserve the value of your investment.

Store the cards in a temperature-controlled, fragrance-free environment. To minimize damage to the edges of the box (called shelf wear), store it flat on its back in a sandwich or freezer bag.

As a Spiritual Tool

If you plan to use your cards as a personal divinatory, magical, or meditative tool, you need a storage solution that will provide easy access to the deck and express the degree of reverence toward tarot that you feel is appropriate. Some suggestions:

  • Wrapping. Set the cardboard box aside. Wrap your cards in a silk cloth and store them in a wooden box. For transport, transfer the wrapped deck to a silk or cotton drawstring bag.
    • Practical reason: Cardboard boxes are flimsy and crush easily. Cards wrapped in a cloth are less likely to be lost. Wooden boxes stack easily and make the cards readily accessible. Drawstring bags fit easily into a pocket or purse and help keep the deck together. Handling your cards carefully makes a statement to others about the seriousness of your work.
    • Mystical reason: Some psychics assert that silk recharges and cleanses the cards; at the very least, it’s an all-natural material with neutral or positive energy. Surrounding the cards with natural materials such as wood or stone reinforces their elemental magical properties. Handling the cards with reverence communicates gratitude and reinforces the fact that the cards are, to you, more than just laminated cardboard.
  • Dedicating space. Keep the cards in their original boxes in a special cabinet or drawer.
    • Practical reason: If you own more than one deck, this method allows you to identify a specific deck at a glance. Having a single storage place for your cards facilitates finding them and prevents loss. A cabinet can offer a degree of protection from sunlight, fragrances, and unpleasant odors.
    • Mystical reason: Dedicating a storage space—a cabinet, a drawer, a chest, and so on—reinforces an attitude of reverence. Storing all your decks together concentrates their magical and vibrational properties. A dedicated space can also be used as an altar.
  • Going with the flow. Store the cards casually, in a box or out, wrapped or unwrapped, in whatever method is most convenient, practical, and simple.
    • Practical reason: This method gives you maximum flexibility. On a hike? Toss the cards into waterproof baggie and go. On a trip? Slip the cards into your luggage. This approach increases wear and tear on the cards, but it also communicates to others your conclusion that tarot is first and foremost a practical tool.
    • Mystical reason: The universe is a big universe, and God (or the Goddess or your higher self) is a big god. This approach celebrates the belief that there is no clear line between the sacred and the common and that mystical potential is an essential quality of all things (including an apparently mundane deck of cards!) and is more a matter of personal intent than ritual practice.

Reviving a Deck

As decks age and the lamination becomes damaged, cards can stick together, making your tarot progressively more difficult to shuffle.

Simple maintenance can breathe new life into old decks. Fan the cards out face down and lightly sprinkle them with unscented talcum powder, baby powder, or cornstarch. The most effective treatment is fanning powder, or zinc stearate, sold at shops that cater to stage magicians.

That done, give the cards a long series of gentle overhand shuffles, allowing the deck to shed any excess powder. Your cards will now shuffle with ease.

Cleansing a Deck

Cleansing a tarot deck is a metaphysical practice that:

  • neutralizes the energies accumulated during the reading process.
  • dispels negative energy that can be imparted to the cards when they are handled by unpleasant, unhappy, or malicious individuals.
  • recharges the mystical properties of a deck.
  • boosts the performance of a deck that is believed to be missing the mark during readings.

Those who see the tarot primarily as a practical tool dismiss the need for cleansing or recharging decks entirely. From their point of view, the power of tarot originates in the mind and heart of the user and exists independently of the cards.

A number of tarot users, however, do attest to the effectiveness of cleansing, claiming it restores the performance of decks that have become problematic. Over the years, books and individuals have recommended a variety of cleansing rituals. Most of these involve one of the following:

  • Exposing the deck to moonlight, immersing it in pure intuitive, subconscious energy
  • Storing the deck in the earth, grounding it and allowing negative energies to be processed and absorbed
  • Recharging the deck by placing it in close contact with a source of clear energy—topping it with crystals, smudging it with fragrant smoke, or fanning it out beneath the radiance of a single white candle

If cleansing rituals make sense within the context of your personal spiritual path, feel free to create your own—or adopt one of these:

  • Moonbath

    Wrap the cards in silk. At the full moon, place them on a window ledge, porch, or table where they can spend the maximum amount of time possible in the pure moonlight. (Be sure, too, to choose a location where the cards will be protected from the elements and from curious creatures of the night!)

  • Burial

    Wrap the cards in silk or another natural fiber; then seal them in an airtight plastic bag for additional protection. On the night of the new moon, bury the deck in the earth. On the night of the full moon, unearth the cards.

  • Candlelight bath

    On a ritual table or altar, light several white candles. Place the deck face down on the center of the altar. Surround it with objects that are precious or sacred to you: photographs of loved ones, flowers, stones, ritual objects, or religious figures. Place a large crystal—usually quartz or rose quartz—on top of the deck, where it can amplify and channel the candlelight directly into the deck. Leave the cards in place for at least an hour.

  • Water cleanse

    In the vicinity of running water, such as a stream, a river, or a lake, spread the cards out on a table or stone and sprinkle them with sea salt. Don’t actually put the cards in the water, though!

Any of these rituals can be combined with incantations, prayers, or meditative sessions—whatever makes sense within your own spiritual tradition.

Disposing of a Deck

Decks used frequently will, with time, deteriorate. Edges fray, cards crimp, corners become dog-eared, and, despite our best efforts, cards become lost. You might also find that over time a deck that once appealed to you no longer does, or that a deck that once sang has, for a variety of reasons, fallen mute.

A small minority of tarot users simply throw such decks away. More reverent alternatives include:

  • offering incomplete or damaged decks for sale or trade on tarot-related newsgroups. Cards from another incomplete deck can give your deck new life, or cards from your incomplete deck might be of use to someone else.

  • swapping decks you’ve outgrown or no longer care for with other tarot enthusiasts at conventions or swaps, or offering complete used decks for sale on eBay.com or other auction sites.

  • giving a deck a ritual burial. In extreme cases such as decks with water damage, torn cards, or cards with other critical damage, it might be best to retire a deck completely. Wrapping the deck in silk and placing it reverently in the earth is perfectly acceptable. You might also consider ritually burning the deck, perhaps adding fragrant herbs or incense to the pyre.

In a Nutshell

  • When shopping for a first deck, rather than looking for a deck that speaks to you, spend some time thinking about how your deck will be used.
  • Other factors to keep in mind when deck shopping include the artwork, size, tone, theme, and structure of a deck. Consider, too, whether the presence of keywords or the availability of a full-size companion book is important to you.
  • Good decks for beginners include any deck from the Rider–Waite–Smith family of decks, including the Universal Tarots, the Robin Wood Tarot, the Medieval Enchantment Tarot, the World Spirit Tarot, the Gilded Tarot, the Connolly Tarot, or any version of the Rider–Waite deck published by U.S. Games.
  • Advanced students or beginners with a special interest in the occult, comparative religion, or myth will appreciate the depth of the Thoth Tarot. For something completely different and contemporary, try the Bright Idea Deck. For something classic, try any deck with Marseilles in the title.
  • Chain stores, local metaphysical gift and book shops, and any number of online outlets carry a wide variety of decks. Use review sites to look at card images before you buy, and always exercise caution when buying on eBay.com.
  • Many rituals are associated with preparing, storing, revising, cleansing, and disposing of decks. None are compulsory. Adopt the ones that make sense to you, and ignore the others.