Decks

Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah. In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and bearing illustrated scenes on all the suit cards.

The images on the ‘Rider-Waite’ deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and were originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. This deck is considered a simple, user friendly one but nevertheless its imagery, especially in the Major Arcana, is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith’s view of Tarot. An important difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. However the Rider-Waite wasn’t the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.

Older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles are less detailed than modern esoteric decks. A Marseilles type deck is usually distinguished by having repetitive motifs on the pip cards, similar to Italian or Spanish playing cards, as opposed to the full scenes found on “Rider-Waite” style decks. These more simply illustrated “Marseilles” style decks are also used esoterically, for divination, and for game play, though the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th century design of German origin. Such playing tarot decks generally have twenty one trump cards with genre scenes from 19th century life, a Fool, and have court and pip cards that closely resemble today’s French playing cards.)

The Marseilles style Tarot decks generally feature numbered minor arcana cards that look very much like the pip cards of modern playing card decks. The Marseilles’ numbered minor arcana cards do not have scenes depicted on them; rather, they sport a geometric arrangement of the number of suit symbols (e.g., swords, rods/wands, cups, coins/pentacles) corresponding to the number of the card (accompanied by botanical and other non-scenic flourishes), while the court cards are often illustrated with flat, two-dimensional drawings.

A widely used modernist esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (Thoth pronounced /ˈtoʊt/ or /ˈθɒθ/). Crowley, at the height of a lifetime’s work dedicated to occultism, engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck according to his specifications. His system of Tarot correspondences, published in The Book of Thoth & Liber 777, are an evolution and expansion upon that which he learned in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In contrast to the Thoth deck’s colorfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case’s B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner.

Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot, which claims to be based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers.

The variety of decks presently available is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck replete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Tree of Life Tarot’s cards are stark symbolic catalogs, the Cosmic Tarot, and The Alchemical Tarot that combines traditional alchemical symbols with tarot images.

These contemporary divination decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; “coaches” and “MVPs” instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like “The Catcher”, “The Rule Book” and “Batting a Thousand”. In the Silicon Valley Tarot, major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire. Another tarot in recent years has been the Robin Wood Tarot. This deck retains the Rider-Waite theme while adding some very soft and colorful Pagan symbolism. As with other decks, the cards are available with a companion book written by Ms. Wood which details all of the symbolism and colors utilized in the Major and Minor Arcana.

Unconventionality is taken to an extreme by Morgan’s Tarot, produced in 1970 by Morgan Robbins and illustrated by Darshan Chorpash Zenith. Morgan’s Tarot has no suits, no card ranking and no explicit order of the cards. It has eighty eight cards rather than the more conventional seventy eight, and its simple line drawings show a strong influence from the psychedelic era. Nevertheless, in the introductory booklet that accompanies the deck (comprehensively mirrored on dfoley’s website, with permission from U.S. Games Systems), Robbins claims spiritual inspiration for the cards and cites the influence of Tibetan Buddhism in particular.

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