By Laure Brézard
Tarot cards are a fairly widespread form of fortune-telling, and as most fortune-telling mediums, they are often fascinating and seemingly inaccessible to us mere mortals. However, with some practice, we can all learn to use them! It takes some studying to become familiar with the different cards and their multiple potential meanings (and yes, granted, some people have more intuition and inspiration when it comes to reading them —but practice helps a lot).
As I learnt more about tarot this semester, I was fascinated by the variety of decks available: classic decks, medieval cat-themed decks, a gummy-bear deck (don’t ask), decks by renowned artists, and so many more. So for anyone wanting to purchase cards, there is an ENORMOUS range of options available. Which is just *slightly* overwhelming, especially when you realize just how differently you could interpret the same card depending on which deck you’re using.
These two fool cards, for instance, both portray the same general new beginning, adventure, and personal development meanings; yet the first one looks naive and easy to manipulate, while the second one looks mischievous and slightly frightening. This variance in aesthetics could make your interpretation drastically different depending on the deck you use.
Scary scary – am I picking the right deck? Is this one ‘legit’? Is there a better/more accurate/prettier one I just don’t know about? If I would interpret this differently with another deck, then is my reading wrong? (Can a reading ever be ‘right’?). There are so many questions, and no real answer to any of them – so yeah, scary, but that’s life? Right?
Our tarot instructor (yes, I really was committed, and took an SSMU mini course on tarot card reading) told us to just pick whichever deck appealed to us and inspired us most, so no pressure, there’s no one single deck you should pick. This however means that anyone interested in tarot should spend some times looking into the different options available to see which decks they like the best.
Here’s a quick overview of the big ones, just in case you are basic scared other ones won’t be taken as seriously (yes, cat pictures are cute, but on tarot cards? They might not be the best way to feel credible when performing a reading).
Tarot de Marseilles: The Ancestral Authority
It was standardized in 18th century Europe and because of that it has that ‘elderly wisdom’ aura (along with a lot of Christian/medieval imagery and white folks). Besides that, it’s pretty colourful and playful.
Rider Waite: The Traditional One
Not my favourite, although it’s one of the most used decks – it just has a LOT of Christian imagery and as many “classics”, it’s super white and moralizing.
Thoth: The Edgy One
This one has lots of energy and so many things happening on each card it can get overwhelming. But that also means more things to interpret, and unlike many decks, all the cards have a name. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation and Orientalism here (sadly, it’s pretty recurrent in tarot decks), so I can’t fall in love with it without reserve, which is a shame because the art is beautiful (sad reacts only).
Cosmic: The ‘Mysterious’ One
Again, the art’s pretty but although it’s more ‘diverse’ than some of the other decks, this deck is also problematic as there is definitely an Orientalism tendency in its ‘universalist’ approach.
As all the most widespread decks are problematic on some level (both because of racism or Orientalism and other issues I didn’t mention in their specific descriptions as they all share them, especially patriarchal views, classism and heterosexism), it’s important to look at alternatives. None of them solve the problem fully, as a lot of it comes down to the very archetypes (understand: categorizations and ‘characters’) which make up the tarot, making it a structural issue which can hardly be overcome, as this article interestingly analyses: “Can the Tarot Survive the Revolution?”. Still some improvements can be made, and many decks have attempted to increase diversity and inclusiveness (here’s a list).
The Black Power Tarot, for instance, is based off the Marseilles deck but promotes Black Representation. Its beautiful art and bright colours make it a nice alternative to the previous decks.
The Ukiyoke deck, by Koji Furata, also adapts Marseilles imagery to Japanese Ukiyoke art, straying away from the exclusive Western narrative of many early tarot decks.
My point originally was really not to get into the politics of tarot, but simply to show how the art of different decks affects our readings, and to explore the diversity of options out there (it turns out there’s way more than I thought – I never imagined I’d find a gummy bear deck. I didn’t end up showing that many decks here as I felt like this was already overwhelming, but if you are interested, there’s a lot to look at). I however think that it’s important to be aware of some of the issues of tarot to be able to buy, use, or admire cards more critically.