Decks for readings
DECKS are the primary tools of the tarot reader, and how they inspire readers differs in more ways than it would be productive to enumerate. I seem to have fallen under the same spell as many of my fellow readers in that I have more than a few decks in my possession. Below is a list of the decks that I’m currently using for readings, as well as links to my “interviews” with each of the decks.
Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot
Artist: Pamela Colman Smith
Publisher: U.S. Games Systems, Inc. (website) © 2009, 2015
Publisher Description (excerpt): The Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot Deck is a faithful reproduction of the original deck created by Pamela Colman Smith in 1909 under the direction of Arthur E. Waite. This classic tarot deck features full pictorial scenes in the muted colors chosen by “Pixie” herself.
My Take: For those familiar with the “traditional” depiction of tarot cards in popular culture (and its earlier attribution as the Rider or Rider-Waite deck), this is probably the deck that you know, and that familiarity can have tremendous power, especially if it provides comfort and a sense of confidence in the reading. Many decks also reference this deck in iconography, card meanings, and/or ideas and stories within the cards, so it would be strange not to at least consider using it.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: Honestly, this deck is a classic, and it’s good for any reading and just about any client. It’s a traditional and muted deck, so someone that is looking for an unconventional and/or loud response to their situation might find more resonance with other decks. But it’s hard to imagine a situation in which this deck would be inappropriate, at least for me as a reader.
The Fountain Tarot
Creator | Author | Artist: Jonathan Saiz | Jason Gruhl | Andi Todaro
Publisher: Roost Books (website) © 2017
Publisher Description (excerpt): Move your creativity and life forward with this gorgeously designed deck. The Fountain Tarot draws on tradition, but provides a modern voice and distinct approach that highlights our everyday lives as a source of insight, wisdom, and growth.
My Take: I’ve heard that some people find this deck to be cold, and I can’t imagine being one of them because the deck is rich with interesting and recognizable figures. It’s easily one of my favorite decks, and I turn to it when I have to ask myself some serious questions, and I want to be able to able to tap into that Fountain of interconnected je-ne-sais-quois that gives me insight and inspiration when reading tarot. (Side note: there’s a unique 23rd major arcana, number ♾, called the Fountain in this deck.) It’s modern and the people seem more like real everyday people than most decks I know, which can be helpful in “seeing” actual people that might be involved in your tarot reading. It has many dark cards (literally as well as symbolically) but there’s a good mix of unsettling and uplifting images.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: This deck was designed for personal development in all its forms, and I find it exceptionally helpful for soul searching, personal accountability, coaching, and shadow work (see “What is Shadow Work?”). The relatable people on the cards help to tie stories together in clear ways, so it’s useful for creative inspiration. And it can give readings about relationships some semblance of concreteness, although the potential for unsettling images makes it more useful for interpersonal situations where there are issues to resolve. Because of its reflective silvery edge and rich illustrations (and its switching Pentacles out for Coins), I also find it helpful for readings where money or business are involved. I can’t provide financial advice, but the deck is definitely suitable for career coaching, business planning, and creative solutions to business issues.
The Linestrider Tarot
Artist & Author: Siolo Thompson
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. (website) © 2016
Publisher Description (excerpt): Spun with soft strokes of vibrant color and intricate detail, The Linestrider Tarot features gentle yet evocative images that dance on the edge between magic and logic. With grace and innovation, Siolo Thompson's captivating minimalist art will enhance your readings in powerful and profound ways.
My Take: This deck looks gentle, but it has a sharp edge to it that can be surprising at first. There are lots of small details that take on special meaning in some readings and go totally ignored in others, and I’m always drawn to something new, especially when a card appears in the reversed position. It was actually my first non-Smith-Waite/Rider deck, and I’ve gotten tremendous use out of it. I don’t always love the predominance of animals in the deck, but it makes seeing human figures so much more meaningful when I draw cards with people on them. It has more female representation than some of my other decks, which isn’t all that hard to do: the Pages are all women; two of the Kings are animals; and many of the cards that show men in other decks have become animals or women. Some animals, like lions and deer, are still clearly either male or female, but it’s refreshing to know that it doesn’t really matter what sex the card’s figure is as long as the opportunities for insight are there.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: Its superficial softness and surprising edge make it perfect for relationship readings, which usually have a mix of dreamlike fantasy and harsh reality. Its depth of imagery also makes it useful for anyone looking to reflect deeply on themselves or their place in the world, so it’s a good deck for soul searching, business planning, creative inspiration, and shadow work (see “What is Shadow Work?”).
Tattoo Tarot: Ink & Intuition
Artist | Author: MEGAMUNDEN (Oliver Munden) with Diana McMahon-Collis
Publisher: Laurence King Publishing Ltd (website) © 2018
Publisher Description (excerpt): The stylistic elements of the art of tattoo inking are well represented in Tattoo Tarot, including beautiful and iconic symbols . . .. Beginners and more established readers will be able to work well with this symbolisms, which also crosses over to more modern Tarot territory.
My Take: This deck is certainly not for everyone, but many will find it refreshing, even if you don’t have any tattoos. (I don’t have tattoos, but I have come to like the deck. Most of the time.) You’ll find major arcana with sleeve and/or neck tattoos and a King with a tear drop tattoo, so this is a different take on the same cards as in the Smith-Waite deck. I find it to be an exhilarating and simple deck to interpret, although its less detailed “pip cards” (the numbered cards in the minor arcana) can be challenging for some people to connect with. Thankfully there’s a little more to go off of than in a traditional Tarot de Marseille deck. I expect most people to have a gut reaction of love-it or hate-it to this deck, so follow your gut on whether it’s even a contender for you.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: If you have a straightforward question, and you’re hoping for a simple answer (yes/no) or prediction, you might like this deck. I won’t give you a simple yes/no or perfectly predictive answer, even when reading with this deck because that’s not how I read tarot, but I have more of an instinctual response to this deck, and it’s not meant to be used with reversals, so there’s generally less dwelling on the cards in this deck than in other decks. This card also follows the Marseille system of using Coins rather than Pentacles, which feels a bit more modern and removes the blend of spirituality and materiality that the Pentacles implies. If you’re tied to the Strength or Justice cards by birth number, you should know that they are reversed from the Smith-Waite numbering (Justice is 8 and Strength is 11). If you appreciate a fierce woman, you might also like this deck because the women of the major arcana are fierce.
Author | Artist: Brigit Esselmont | Eleanor Grosch
Publisher: Running Press Miniature Editions, Hachette Book Group (website) © 2018
Publisher Description (excerpt): Everyday Tarot brings a new perspective to the cards, giving modern soul-seekers the tools they need to access their inner wisdom and create an inspired life.
My Take: It’s modern while retaining key iconography, it’s simplified with clean lines and three colors (white, purple, and goldish), and it’s teeny tiny, which make it a great deck for readings that benefit from that energy and portability. I love the colors and the subtlety of the faintly swirling pattern in the purple. It adds a little bit of depth when you need it. I also particularly appreciate the greater balance of male and female figures throughout the deck, and the interchangeability of many of them while offering subtle modern variations on appearance. The same figure is easily found in several cards, providing ways to connect the images that aren’t there in more detailed decks. Some changes will be better liked than others. I for one love the replacement of the Smith-Waite King of Cups and his bizarre headdress with a well-kempt merman royal; it completely changes my appreciation of that minor arcana.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: Because of its size and energy, I associate this deck with smaller readings, lighter relationship readings (e.g., friendships, budding romances), and quick decision-making because it’s a small deck and you can easily do readings in more places. The on-the-go feel of it also brings to mind (smaller) business or career readings. That said, it’s good for almost any reading, just like the Smith-Waite/Rider deck it’s based on. It’s not going to suit everyone because of that pared-down imagery and updated look, but it’s not inappropriate for many readings. Even bigger picture, soul-searching readings can benefit from its simplicity if there are many cards in the spread. Since there’s less to delve into in terms of imagery, I shift some of that visual appreciation time to contemplating more intuitive connections, but the readings themselves aren’t any shorter.
Artist | Author: Christine Zillich | Johan von Kirschner
Publisher: U.S. Games Systems, Inc. (website) © 2018
Publisher Description (excerpt): Beneath the colorful surface are layers of meaning and archetypal symbolism through which Zillich Tarot visually explores mythological and astrological influences. The cards . . . present Thoth keywords as well as kabbalistic signs.
My Take: This deck is full of esoteric meaning and unusual imagery. The water colors make it feel very soft, but like a rose there are thorns beneath the gentle façade. It aligns more or less with the Thoth system, which gives it power and limitations. The Thoth decks give names to all the cards, and these are printed on the minor arcana in this deck. That helps provide some context for those cards, which often have no clear connection to their suit or number (e.g., there are no swords on the Eight of Swords, and the word “Interference” is listed). Because it’s in the Thoth style rather than the Smith-Waite/Rider style, similar cards have different names and orders in sequence; those aren’t worth listing here. Beyond those standard Thoth differences, there are some idiosyncrasies: Aeon is Justice and Art is Temperance. It’s not a deck for purists, but most people will be drawn to the artwork, and such minor oddities aren’t likely to change that.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: Because it’s a Thoth deck and the makers of the Thoth system were part of the Order of the Golden Dawn, I always consider using this deck when reading a Golden Dawn spread. When I want to work with astrology, dates, and elements, this deck becomes a strong contender. And if there’s anything particularly arcane that I want to examine, then I’ll think about this deck since it has a fantastical feel. On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable with those things, then it might not be a good deck for your situation. It can also be helpful for relationships since the Thoth system has more gender balance thanks to its use of Princesses instead of Pages. There’s so much to each of the cards’ illustrations that it’s well suited to in-depth personal readings. Despite the amount that you can get out of a single card, I would not recommend it for readings with fewer than three cards because the Thoth system is just not designed for small readings: there is such discrepancy in the inherent depth of meaning in each card; the was not designed with reversals in mind; and the Thoth system examines “dignities” between multiple cards. It’s still possible, but it’s not the intended use.
Tarot del Fuego
Artist & Author: Ricardo Cavolo
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo srl (website) © 2016
Publisher Description (excerpt): Featuring high-energy art that pops with bold colors and fiery motifs, Ricardo Cavolo's Tarot del Fuego is a deck that invites you deep into the heart of the spirit in a unique way. With rosy-cheeked figures and omnipresent eyes of fire, nothing escapes the notice of one who reads with this adventurous deck.
My Take: This deck reminds me of a brightly colored version of Picasso’s Guernica: it’s full of blood and tears, severed hands and wild-eyed horses, and grimaces aplenty. There are some symbols that I can’t quite understand since they seem arbitrary, but they offer the chance for seemingly random connections between cards. It’s actually a pretty upsetting deck if you’re conservative in your aesthetic choices. Beyond the garish colors, which I love, there’s something uncanny about the figures in the major arcana: they’re all “off” in some unsettling way. But it’s definitely high energy, and many readings will just give you a big jolt, for good or ill.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: If you want something unorthodox that will cut straight to the point, this deck could be perfect for your situation and temperament. It’s not sensitive in its depictions, so readings that might need a soft delivery or that will cover light and airy dreams might be poor fits for this deck. Because it favors the unsettling and upsetting, I would find it confusing to look at this deck in terms of soul’s purpose, but it could be excellent for shadow work (see “What is Shadow Work?”). Because the imagery is so confidently odd, it works well for situations involving creativity, “queer” readings (and not just in the LGBTQIA sense of the word), and anything sort of “out there,” like dreams. The intense visual heat of the cards makes them good for exploring fresh starts and opportunities to fire yourself up.
Artist | Author: Stephanie Pui-Mun Law with Barbara Moore
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. (website) © 2010
Publisher Description (excerpt): Weaving together Asian, Celtic, and fantasy styles of artwork, this breathtaking new Rider-Waite-Smith-based tarot deck by renowned artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is infused with universal symbols found in fairy tales, myths, and folklore from cultures around the world.
My Take: I actually discovered this artist when I was in high school, back when I spent a lot of time looking at fantasy art online using a dial-up modem, so I associate this deck with that innocent sense of fantasy. The deck is very optimistic in the way that the creators have phrased or depicted even the difficult situations. It’s not designed to be used with reversals, although I tend to still use them in order to temper the naïve optimism and escapism that I find in this style of fantasy. Don’t get me wrong; it’s gorgeous art, and I love the blend of mythical references, but it feels distant from reality, which will not suit everyone.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: Readings where negative responses are not particularly relevant can benefit from this deck’s optimism, so it works well for larger, timeless questions, like explorations of life path or soul’s purpose and lessons from imagined past lives or other worlds. It’s also great for creative exploration. Really, this deck can be used for just about any question as long as the reading is for someone who loves fantasy and is easily able to understand how the depicted myths and fairy tales (or similar) parallel everyday life through archetypes and symbols.
Tarot de Marseille
Creators: Phillipe Camoin & Alejandro Jodorowsky
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo srl (website) © 2016
Publisher Description (excerpt): Based on years of research with the goal of creating the definitive Tarot de Marseille, this deck is a labor of love that possesses fine details and the passionate workmanship of the last heir to the centuries-old legacy of Marseillan cardmakers. Influenced most heavily by the deck of Nicolas Conver first printed in 1760, this premium deck is a treasure for readers and collectors.
My Take: The Tarot de Marseille has a historic legacy that lends some old-fashioned mystique to its simple designs and bright colors appropriate for any carnival card-slinger. I decided to buy the deck at the same time as I bought the Thoth Tarot, as an attempt to add a bit of purism since I was using other decks inspired by both. The Tarot de Marseille was confusing to get to know at first. There isn’t much in the deck to aid your interpretations, just as the pips of the deck don’t offer much in the way of visual aide. There’s a system to the colors of the deck, but I actually tend to ignore that and instead treat the cards in their simplistic terms: suit and number (or role) for the minor arcana and archetypal forces for the major arcana.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: The simplicity of the deck doesn’t allow me to get quite the same depth as I might get from other decks, but it does get to core factors quickly, and that a can be all some people need or want. The deck seems especially good for the sort of simple questions I don’t typically answer because I have less faith in their answers than in those where I can gain more context. But for questions with simple answers or few interfering factors and for lots of rapid-fire questions that build off each other (such as during a live reading), this deck can offer quick guidance.
Designer | Artist: Aleister Crowley & Lady Frieda Harris
Publisher: U.S. Games Systems, Inc. (website) © 2006
Publisher Description (excerpt): The 78 cards were painted by Lady Frieda Harris according to instructions from the occult scholar, Aleister Crowley. The magnificent art deco work contains kabalistic and astrological attributions described in Aleister Crowley's The Book of Thoth. The art deco artwork of the Thoth is rich in Egyptian symbolism. To each of the twenty-two Major Trumps of the tarot is assigned, by tradition, a Hebrew letter and a path on the Tree of Life, as well as an astrological sign, element, or planet. The deck also reflects Crowley’s interest in alchemy and magic.
My Take: This deck is a lot to take in, but I love it. It’s full of sacred geometry and traditional symbols made esoteric and bizarre through alchemical, astrological, and magical associations, as well as plenty of phallic imagery. There’s far more to each card than one can expect to include in a single reading (and some, like the Hebrew letters, only rarely make it into any of my readings), but all the writing about the cards and their esoteric associations help create a boatload for the intuition to draw upon. Unlike the Smith-Waite/Rider minor arcana, the pips in Thoth are abstract, so much meaning is derived from their keywords, the numerology, and astrological correspondences. The deck is especially handy for getting out of the medieval feeling of the Smith-Waite cards and into a more ritualistic, abstract, and sometimes trippy mood. I almost never use reversals with this deck because of the interactions between elements that are already part of the tradition of this deck’s style.
Where I Find this Deck Most Helpful: I use this deck a lot now. As with all the Thoth style decks I use, the Thoth Tarot is especially good for the Golden Dawn spread and other spreads with a ritualistic or spiritual bent. The deck’s astrological associations and the cards’ interconnectedness through that astrology and through the elemental associations all help to provide very layered readings. There’s often a bit more ambiguity in my readings with the Thoth, but it’s great for those bigger, complex readings or readings about big picture issues. Because of its model fo elemental dignity, it’s best to conduct readings with multiple cards so that they can play off of each other, but it can be used for just about any reading.