Tarot and Authenticity

20th Century Tarot, Kevin Burne, Skor-Mor
20th Century Tarot, copyright 1970
Astral Tarot
Astral Tarot, copyright 1969

I started reading Tarot back in the early 1970s when I was a young teen, back in the day when there were hardly any decks available apart from the Waite-Smith, and the Thoth (although that was much harder to come by), but it wasn’t long before many more decks began to appear.

Tarot of the Witches Fergus Hall

Tarot of the Witches by Fergus Hall (aka the James Bond Tarot after it made an appearance in Live and Let Die) appeared in 1974. I believe I first saw it at a shop in Berkeley, CA around 1979. A handful of less well-known and probably at the time not widely available decks (although honestly, I was too young when they came out to know for sure) appeared like the 20th Century Tarot (1970), and the Astral Tarot (1969), a couple of quirky black and white decks that pop up on eBay now and then.

Aquarian Tarot, David Palladini
Aquarian Tarot
Dark Fairytale Tarot

And then the ’80s hit, and the ’90s, and the 00s, and Tarot decks were coming out of the woodwork.

Tons of indie decks in addition to endless offerings from the large publishers (U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Lo Scarabeo, Llewellyn, and some exceptional reproduction decks from Il Meneghello) began appearing. There are baseball decks, pirate decks, an untold number of decks featuring cats as the central figure, several centered on dogs, vampire decks, zombie decks, dragon decks, Celtic, Arthurian, Egyptian, Voodoo, fairies, demons, angels both light and dark, Greek gods, mermaids, minimalist, black-and-white, Vikings, pagan/Witchcraft, Halloween or Christmas themed, aliens & UFOs, trees, ghosts, Native American… I could go on, but you get the idea. They were coming thick and fast, and I collected as many as I could of the ones I liked.

At some point I lost my taste for a lot of the decks I was seeing. I found I was sick of all the gimmicky decks and the bad artwork that was showing up, and the apparent lack of any sort of esoteric system behind the designs of the cards. They felt empty, and about as useful for divination or path working as the sale flyer from the local grocery store (which you know if it works for you, go for it). So many seemed to be drawn by the same artist or two in great haste, in the same comic book style, to keep pushing out new offerings. This lead to the Before Tarot, After Tarot, Tarot of the New Vision, Vice Versa Tarot, all purporting to show what happened before or after (or from behind) the illustration on the standard Waite-Smith deck. Now there’s the Romantic Tarot, Jane Austen Tarot, Game of Thrones… they seem to be really reaching for ideas. Some of the worst were the ones that try to shoehorn images from an artist’s existing body of work, with no relation at all to Tarot, onto the cards. The art may be lovely, but for me that wasn’t enough to make it a usable Tarot deck. I’m getting ready to find new homes for some of those. The absolute worst are the CGI illustrated decks, with people so wooden they make Pinocchio look like a real boy.

In the last couple of years, I reached a point of dismissing anything that wasn’t based on an occult/esoteric system. For a while only the tried-and-true Waite-Smith (or a good clone) and the Thoth (or a good clone) were all I was interested in and wanted to work with. Some of the decks coming out veered so far from standard Tarot images and titles they were more akin to an oracle deck than a true Tarot deck. I tired of having to learn new suits (butterflies? masks? acorns?) constantly. Maybe I’m a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, but I don’t “get” a lot of these newer decks. Anything too modern or urban or abstract loses me. I liked my archetypes archetypal. I saw a vid on YouTube by a reader who said he couldn’t read with the Urban Tarot because the Tower card was a picture of the Twin Towers on 9/11 as they were being destroyed, and he couldn’t get past the specificity of that moment in time. Some people prefer very simplistic decks without a lot of “clutter” in the images. and after seeing some that are jam-packed with stuff, but no real meaning, I can understand that. I have a couple of what could be called “minimalist” decks that I do love, such as the Tarot of the Red Jester, and the Celestial Stick People. But in general, I love the ones like the Waite-Smith where every element, even which direction characters are depicted facing, means something.

Tarot of the Red Jester by Beth Seilonen

I haven’t yet run across any mention of the Robin Wood (1991), one of my all-time favorites. I remember when I first saw the High Priestess card from that deck I nearly swooned. I was new to collecting at the time and it was the first pagan-oriented deck I’d seen. I was just making the final break with Christianity around then and that deck was like a gift from the Goddess. For many years this was my go-to, workhorse deck. I still love it.

New Palladini The Empress

I’ve only recently discovered the world of Tarot on YouTube (don’t ask. I’ve had pretty lean finances for a number of years, and had to keep myself away from anything that might tempt me to spend money I didn’t have, and that meant not watching any unboxing videos), and have been watching videos from several people, some of whom have created their own decks. A popular theme is to showcase favorite decks, and I noticed that most people seem to be using and raving about only a handful of the most recent decks, that most of these vloggers don’t mention the older decks, with some exceptions. A couple of people brought up the Morgan-Greer, but I haven’t seen anyone mention the Aquarian Tarot (released 1970) or the creator’s later deck, the New Palladini.

Sacred Rose Tarot Moon card

The Sacred Rose is another older deck that I love, which has come up a couple of times, I’m happy to say. None of the people I’ve run across so far appear to work with the Thoth deck or a clone which I think is a shame. I realize people have strong misgivings about Aleister Crowley, as I do about Osho. I can’t use the Osho Zen Tarot, which arguably is not really a Tarot deck in the strictest sense anyway, but Frieda Harris’s art is wonderful.

Thoth Tarot

Now, as I’ve been watching some of these videos of other readers talking about some of the new decks I find I’m intrigued enough by some of these new takes on the cards to acquire some. Maybe the Tarot world just had some teething pains in those early years. While I will always admire and respect the earliest Tarot decks, and the Waite-Smith will always be my “mental” deck (that deck that you summon to mind to help interpret when you get stuck on some odd card) some of the newer decks are quite innovative and visionary. And as I’m finally in a slightly better financial position than I have been for the last 20 years, I’ve been indulging myself in quite a number of new decks. Some are from Kickstarter, like The Dreamkeepers Tarot, the Muse Tarot and the Lightseer’s Tarot; the Majestic Earth Tarot from the creator of the Tarot of Delphi; the Visconti Modrone which should be shipping soon from Lo Scarabeo.

Still, a lot of them I just plain don’t “get,” when the imagery strays too far from the traditional meaning which could be a failing on my part. My opinion is but one, my perspective is not the only way of seeing the world. My understanding could be (and very likely is) very limited. I don’t mean to criticize any deck creators or anyone else’s taste because as we all know taste is subjective and everyone has a different lived experience, so what works for one may not work for all.

My tastes in Tarot decks expands and contracts periodically. Some decks will take longer to love than others. Some I will never love. But I’m able to see value in lots of different decks, although at heart I will always be a Waite-Smith gal.

Rider Waite Smith, aka Waite-Smith

3 Comments Add yours

  1. karengadient says:

    My favorite deck is an old garishly-colored Albano-Waite, but I’ve got a few others and an equal number of oracle types. For a little while, I’ve been playing with the idea of creating my own deck. I probably won’t do it, of course, but being an abstract artist primarily, I suppose whatever I come up with might be niche. On the other hand, since I also make clip art, I could mix the two into something semi-literal and more widely appealing. Perhaps one day! Or not, haha.

    1. D. D. Syrdal says:

      If I had any artistic talent I would love to create my own deck. Alas, (should I say it? Ok, I’ll say it) art is not in the cards for me! :::rim shot:::

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