Finding the Tarot

Finding the Tarot: A Divination System And An Individual Deck

By Izolda Trakhtenberg of Healer’s Arts

The origins of the tarot are obscure. Some say that the tarot was invented during the Italian Renaissance (the oldest deck that still survives is from the Renaissance, I believe). Others say that it goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. 1 What most might agree on is that the tarot is a wonderful system of divination. Is divination the same thing as fortune telling? I don’t believe so. I believe that divination is more an interpretation of possibilities rather than a knowledge of the future. And as more people are looking to alternative spiritualities to fulfill their spiritual needs, more and more people are turning to systems like tarot or runes in order to gain insight into their lives.

There is a stereotype of the fortuneteller wrapped in rags who sees the otherworld. And yet even as that stereotype sometimes holds true, people seem to want to learn this system for themselves: sometimes to become readers themselves and sometimes just to have a closer connection to spirit through meditation on the cards.

Since the renewed interest in the tarot over the last few decades, the number of decks has increased tremendously. For a long time (since the last century) there were only a few decks available to the seeker. The Rider Waite deck and the Crowley deck come to mind as two of those. However, at present, there are hundreds of decks available and now when someone wants to learn about the tarot and decides to get a deck, there are so many choices that it might be difficult to know where to begin.

There are traditional decks available and that tradition tends to go back to the Rider Waite deck. It’s the grandmother (or sometimes distant ancestor) of most of the modern day decks. And, in part because of that, it deserves respect all on its own. A great number of decks (including my favorite, The Hanson-Roberts Tarot) have relied on the drawings of the Rider deck in order to develop new and oftentimes more innovative decks. It is as if the Rider is the springboard from which a lot of other decks have been conceived. The symbolism on so many decks can be seen as being derived from the Rider. As examples, I can list the Aquarian, the Hanson-Roberts, the Wonderland, the Morgan Greer, The Herbal, just to name a few. And other decks like the Robin Wood, the Ancestral Path, the Tarot of the Old Path and the Witches Tarot can be thematically traced back to the Rider deck even though their individual themes often go in other directions.

The Rider (or Rider-Waite) is the first modern deck to give actual images on minor arcana number cards.2 Previous to this deck, the minor arcana simply showed images of, say, six wands or three swords to designate those cards in the deck. The tarot decks that were around in Italy during the Renaissance did not depict anything other than the objects on the cards. It appears that Waite had other ideas and this deck showed actual scenes that could be interpreted much easier than previous decks. Does that perhaps bias the reader? I am not certain. Actually, I believe that probably just knowing what the cards meant might bias the reader. I guess it depends on whether or not the reader thinks in words or in images. For
me, personally, it is much easier to interpret from an image that tells a story rather than from three cups on a card. The maidens who are raising their glasses on the three of cups show me much more of a celebration than I might otherwise see if just looking at three cups.

What makes someone choose tarot as a divination tool? Well, again, I believe that it depends on how the reader responds to stimuli. I think that someone who thinks in images might be drawn to the interpretable from the line of decks descending from the Rider-Waite. However, other folks might be interested in the learning the exact meanings of the cards from various sources and therefore might be more drawn to the more simple drawings that just depict the number of items in the minor arcana number cards. Personally, I far prefer the decks that give me visual touchstones, if you will.

However, when I first went to choose a deck, I looked around carefully at the decks that were then available (admittedly a lot fewer than there are now). In broad terms, here are some of the things to think about when choosing a deck:

  • Size Is it too big for you to handle easily? How does it fit in your hands?
  • Feel Does it feel comfortable in your hands, is it glossy/shiny or a matte finish and is it resonating with you?
  • Theme You can look at traditions, faiths,
    cultures, and any number of possible themes. For example, if you are pagan, then you might want to look at the Robin Wood Tarot, the Witches Tarot, or Tarot of the Old Path. If you love things Celtic, then, Courtney Davis’ Celtic Tarot might be the deck for you (the only problem for me with this deck is that it is one of the ones that only gives the number of objects in the minor arcana cards). If you want a traditional feel to the deck, you might choose the Rider-Waite, the Hanson-Roberts, or the Morgan Greer. You can also choose a whimsical theme like fairytales and the Whimsical Tarot (by none other than Mary Hanson-Roberts), or if you love Halloween, take a look at the Halloween Tarot. Or, if you wish to move into a completely new and different arena, you might choose a deck like Jamie Sams’ Medicine Cards, or Amy Sohpia Marashinsky and Hrana Janto’s Goddess Oracle, or the Healing Earth Tarot (which is no longer being published).
  • Drawing/painting quality First, do you like the art? Does it speak to you? For example, if you don’t like Art Nouveau then you might not want to look at the Aquarian, or the Morgan Greer decks. Conversely, if you do like Art Nouveau, the New Palladini, and the various incarnations of the Art Nouveau Tarot might be the deck for you. Second, is the actual printing of good quality? You’ll be looking at this deck and meditating on the cards and you want to be able almost to sink into the beauty and quality of the cards. The Robin Wood Tarot is a terrific example of a deck with wonderful drawings. Take a look here at some of her cards.
Seven of Cups

“Copyright © Robin Wood 1991. Used with Permission”

Ace of Cups

“Copyright © Robin Wood 1991. Used with Permission”

The Seven of Cups is beautifully rendered. Here, in keeping with her pagan-oriented theme, Ms. Wood has inlaid additional symbols (take a look at the waxing, full and waning crescent moons on the chalice) to highlight her theme and to give the reader additional sources from which to interpret. The Ace of Cups shows the chalice being lifted out of the water and my favorite part of the card is the mermaid in the chalice. I also love the colors (the lavenders and blues and pinks) Ms. Wood chose to highlight the chalice and the background.

The first step in choosing a deck is to ask some questions. What kind of things do you like? For example, if you are into mythology the Mythic Tarot (based on characters from Greek mythology) might be great to start with (it’s intuitive and the images are evocative and easy to inerpret). Or, if you are into photographs, then you might want to look into the Voyager Tarot (a really beautiful but somewhat difficult to read photo montage deck).

If I were to choose a deck, I’d look for one that felt right in my hands and that had images that I enjoyed looking at (because you’re  going to look at them a lot) and that spoke to me – made me want to tell stories about them. The traditional tarot cards are mainly captured in the Rider-Waite tarot and its various incarnations. (There are a number of different Rider-Waite decks to choose from as well. They mainly differ in coloring but the drawings are all the same for each of the decks). It shows the standard suits (cups, wands or rods, swords and pentacles) and the traditional scenes on each card. It’s pretty easy to intuit the meanings from the very beginning. Two other decks are really good as far as capturing the traditional cards (both meaning and symbolism). They are: the Hanson-Roberts (my first deck and the one I still read with) and the Morgan-Greer.

There are tons of decks out there and as people make more and more new ones, they’re moving into new and sometimes more interesting/fascinating fields. However, sometimes, that can cloud the original meaning of various cards or at least make it more difficult to intuit the meanings. What you might consider doing is going to a store that has a pretty good selection and look at some decks. See if they have sample decks to look at so that you can get a feel for the cards (how they feel in your hand [if they’re too big for you to handle easily for example], whether you like the images on them, and whether they speak to you in any way. Sometimes, when someone finds the right deck for her/himself, there’s almost a little buzzing feeling when you’re holding the deck.). But in the end, it’s how the deck feels in your hand and what you think/feel when you’re holding it that will decide you. You’ll end up getting to know the deck really well by looking at it a lot and so you should really like what you see and feel when you do so.

If you conduct a search and none of the decks you look at resonate for you, there are other ways learning about the tarot and incorporating the divination system into your life.

One of these ways is to find a deck online. My absolute favorite online tarot deck is Lunaea Weatherstone’s incredible Full Moon Dreams Tarot. This is a collage deck that Lunaea created. She also wrote the meanings for the cards next to the cards as a stepping stone to interpretation. You can choose a card a day or look at the cards individually from her site.

Here are a couple of cards from this deck.



“Copyright © Lunaea Weatherstone 1999-2000. Used with Permission”

Guardian of Earth

“Copyright © Lunaea Weatherstone 1999-2000. Used with Permission”

The juxtaposition of the full moon and the cat is evocative. The card doesn’t follow the traditional idea of a dog and a sea creature looking at the moon, and then for me it doesn’t have to because the cat is so easily a creature of the moon. And the collage work itself is flawless. Here is a beautiful card that speaks its meaning clearly. The watchful eyes of the animals give pause for thoughts of preserving what we have.
In the meaning of the card, Lunaea says that, “Tenderness and protection of earthly treasures is called for, honoring nature’s gifts,” and, to me, the animals are those gifts.
Another way of finding a tarot deck is to make your own. Nancy Garen’s, Creating Your Own Tarot Cards,” is a terrific workbook for this very thing.3 In the book, Ms. Garen goes through the many steps of creating the cards. She gives correspondences and many symbols. And then the reader must lay out cards (here you might have to buy a deck, perhaps the Rider-Waite and use it to complete the exercises in the book) and do a lot of searching into your own feelings about the cards. Then, you have to describe the card as it might appear to you and any corresponding similarities. I began to create my own deck and started with the Fool.

To me the Fool meant, “The journey begins.” The unknown, the blank slate. And I am a musician; I wish eventually be a full time artist and that is the road less taken in today’s society. So, when I drew my card it was with these ideas in my heart. You see the card from the perspective of the Fool. There is a fork in the road. The Fool sees the castle and all of the footprints from those who have taken that path. And s/he sees the path to left which is the unknown. On that path lies music for me and that is what I attempted to represent with the card. Now when I see the card, it resonates on a deep and personal level for me and it might not for anyone else. So this idea may only work for those who wish to develop a personal divination system. Although, it might be a really good way of interpreting for others because it is so personal.

Fool“Copyright © Izolda Trakhtenberg 1998.”

There are any number of ways of learning about the tarot. However, once you find a deck, you need to learn about that specific deck in order to be able to read with it.

Here are some suggestions to learn about the deck you find. Once you are ready to get to know your deck, choose a card and meditate on it. Write in a journal any images or thoughts that came to you as you meditated. Get to know each card in the deck this way. Another traditional approach is to sleep with the deck under your pillow for a while. Look at a card or two every day and see what images float up. Eventually, your knowledge about the deck wi
ll increase and you will begin to see patterns and connections among the cards and your interpretation of the cards may become more intuitive than anything else. (Here is a great site for learning how to read the tarot. It is Joan
Bunning’s “Learning the Tarot: an on-line course.” Or, you can purchase her book on the same subject.

In a way, these images are archetypes that Jung might have described as floating in the river of the unconscious. When we describe or interpret them, we are “dipping a ladle” into that river in order to bring forth new ways of thinking about a problem or a situation. To me, that is what the tarot is all about. It gives me a chance to connect with the sacred and bring back some of the magic of what I experience in that connection.

1. Lyons, Albert S. Predicting the Future: An Illustrated History and Guide to the Techniques, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY, 1990
2. Lyons, Albert S. Predicting the Future: An Illustrated History and Guide to the Techniques, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY, 1990

3. Garen, Nancy. Creating Your Own Tarot Cards, Fireside, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1991

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