With a zillion tarot decks available on the market where on earth does a beginner start to learn tarot? Well, that all depends on what your philosophical orientation is for starters. I'm going to break up the subject of tarot into two sections. Traditional Hermetic Tarot firstly, and Oracle cards secondly.
To start with, the beginning tarot student will have to identify his or her preferred orientation. The question will be, do you wish to learn tarot as it was intended initially to represent hermetic and alchemical secrets? Or do you wish to rely on your own intuition and do “free form” or “new age” tarot readings?
If your interested in the first, then Traditional hermetic tarot is where you should start. If you are interested in the second, then I will refer you to the many beautiful modern oracle decks that are available on the market to use for readings, but are actually not authentic tarot images. In my book section in the Emporium, you will find two tarot sections that are representative of these two different categories. So you can decide which category you belong in, and then begin your search for the perfect deck in the appropriate category.
Traditional Hermetic Tarot
The traditional tarot student will typically have an interest in hermetic or “ceremonial magic” which necessitates learning the qabbala, astrology, and alchemy. Learning all of these sciences is key to understanding the profound meaning of the traditional tarot images.
To give you an idea of the complexity of tarot, each of the images of the major arcana correspond to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet which has a specific symbolic meaning. That letter in turn corresponds to a number with a specific numerological meaning. Additionally each of the tarot cards correspond to either a path on the qabbalistic tree of life, or sephiroth. Some cards correspond to astrological signs, planets, and elements. Planets have their associations to the seven alchemical metals. And it becomes even more complex then that when you really dive in. Based on this information alone, the process of reading a tarot card becomes an integrative process of reading not just the image in the card, but the number, the Hebrew letter, and the qabbalistic, astrological and alchemical meanings that are all associated with individual cards.
For those of you who have no idea what the Qabbala is exactly, it is a tradition of Jewish mysticism This teaching has it's roots in the Torah, The Bible (mostly old testament) and the Zohar. It's symbol is a hieroglyph of ten wheels or emanations connected with 32 paths. Arthur Waite (author of the Rider Waite tarot) has written a very lengthy book called the Holy Qabbala which gives an account of the history of this system of philosophy. This book is for the hard core student and requires a great deal of devotion to read.
The word tarot also means “wheel”. You will notice that the word itself can be permutated in the following way very much like the motion of a wheel: taro arot rota tarot. (There is an intriguing association here with a very old magical square called the rota/sator square.) Spelled backward tarot reads torat or “Torah” meaning “the law”. And in the High Priestess card, the traditional image is of a woman seated on a throne, holding a scroll with the word Torah written upon it. The Torah is as we have just said a religious Jewish text. Tarot and Qabbala have very mysterious origins. No one really knows where either one of these systems originated. There is a theory that Qabbala is much older then the Judaism and that perhaps it migrated from ancient mystery schools. All we know for sure is that the first qabbalistic texts that were written down, were written by the Jews.
The Rider Waite deck is the absolute base line deck for a beginner deck. The companion book I recommend to go with this deck is “The Tarot” by Paul Foster Case. You can also get the Waite book that goes with this deck, but it is nowhere near as informative as Paul Case is. Alternatives to the Rider Waite deck are renovated versions of this deck such as the Radiant Rider Waite Deck. The only difference in this deck is that the colors are much more vivid making the images very dynamic. This deck is a little “prettier” then the standard one and as a result has a slightly stronger appeal to some.
Additional books that I recommend , when first learning the Rider Waite deck, are by Mary K Greer, the most useful being “Tarot Reversals” and “Understanding the Tarot Court”. Tarot reversals gives you a very good baseline for the meaning of the minor arcana cards (the four suits) which is almost impossible to come by anywhere else. It will also give you an understanding of the difference between the upright and inverted images of both the major and minor arcana, and how the meanings change in a reading. Understanding the tarot court, gives you a very in depth description and understanding of the court cards of the minor arcana (kings, queens, Prince (or knight)/ Princess (or page). This information is equally as difficult to find anywhere else. Most traditional tarot books are dedicated strictly to the major arcana and give you virtually no understanding of the minor cards what so ever.
Next I recommend Paul Foster Case again and his book “The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order” which includes a large section that is dedicated to the major arcana cards. I also recommend a book called “The Thursday Night Tarot” written by a devotee of Paul Case. This book is a compilation of lectures that were transcribed into a book about the major arcana cards. It is very helpful for the beginner as well.
As long as we are on the topic of Paul Case, it is important to know that he founded a society called “The Builders of the Adytum” (www.bota.org) which is a mail correspondence school for tarot and qabbala lessons, and it comes very highly recommended by me personally. You cannot go wrong with this course if you are at all serious as a Western Mystery Tradition student. The rates are reasonable and the organization as a whole is very reputable for it's integrity. This school is highly recommended by experienced ceremonial magicians, masons and others who are drawn to the Rosicrucian teachings. I encourage you to look them up on the internet if you are inclined to seriously pursue your path in tarot study.
Once you familiarize yourself with the standard Rider Waite Deck and it's images, you can then move to other “traditional” themed decks that might be more appealing to you on a personal and artistic level. Once you begin to branch out, you'll have to “adjust” your understanding to compensate for some of the alterations of some of the images. Here are some examples of what I mean below.
The Llewellyn tarot. (This is my personal reading deck by the way). The Llewellyn tarot is based on the traditional Rider Waite symbolism. The style of artwork is very different, but the minor arcana images are identical to Rider Waite in structure and concept. The variations you will find in this deck are regards to the Major arcana. The major arcana of this deck are based on the mythology of the Welsh Mabinogian and the Arthurian and grail stories. The traditional “fool” card of the Rider Waite becomes “Peradeur” (or Percival) of the Welsh Arthurian legend in the Llewellyn deck. Instead of appearing to step off of a cliff, in the Llewellyn deck he is riding a horse that is jumping over an abyss. The proverbial “leap of faith”. Each of the major arcana have a specific reference to Welsh mythology and Arthurian lore, but they still manage to maintain remnants of the traditional Waite symbolism. The more familiar you are with the subtleties of these symbols and all of their other associations, the more you will be able to recognize their traditional hermetic relevance, even though the mythology changes slightly in the deck. Here is another example of what I mean. In the Emperor card, the traditional image for “sulfur” is not represented by the crossing of the Emperors legs, however the predominance of the color red in this card indicates an adequate substitute for the meaning that sulfur represents as well as for the association to Mars/Aries and the element of fire and it's correlation to the Pillar of Severity on the tree of life. The Death card, instead of being a skeleton with a scythe, is the God of Annwyn (of the wild hunt) with his hounds of Annwyn riding a white horse. He is still the Underworld god of death “hunting” for the souls to take back to the underworld according to Welsh myth. Regardless of the artistic license that has been taken in this deck and others like it, the artist has still retained knowledge of original intention regarding the authentic symbolism. So the card fundamentally does not change in meaning, it rather becomes embellished with cross cultural ideas and mythos while retaining it's original meaning.
This is the primary distinction between traditional and oracle cards. Oracle cards stray so far away from the traditional images that they loose all meaning in the traditional sense and technically should not even be called “tarot”. This is why I refer to those types of cards as “oracle cards” as distinct from “tarot”.
The Robin Wood Tarot: This is a lovely deck which is very obviously based on the Rider Waite deck much like the Llewelyn Tarot is. The Robin Wood deck will appeal to the Celtic Pagan/Wiccan primarily. Its “tweaks” are that it has taken the standard imagery and put a Celtic-Wiccan twist on it. The magician is wearing stag antlers, taking on the persona of a Wiccan priest, that sort of thing. The magician is still standing in the same symbolic position with the same four elemental tools on his table. Robin Wood is a very well known Celtic mythology artist within the pagan community. Some of her art I believe has even been translated into pagan jewelry.
The Morgan Greer Tarot: Also based on the Rider Waite symbolism. The difference here is in the feel of the artwork. Obviously the artistic “feel” of each deck will be different and that will contribute in large part to how attracted to one deck you are and not to another.
The Tarot of the Templars: This is a beautiful deck. I've included it here because I feel it still resembles traditional hermetic imagery, even if the images are not completely “standard”. If you are inclined toward the Rosicrucian and Templar traditions, or Gnosticism, this deck is worth a look. It's possibly a deck that is for a slightly more advanced student who can interpret the variations on traditional alchemical and Rosicrucian imagery though. If you are a beginner it may take a little longer to understand this deck. The same will apply for the “Alchemical Tarot”
Italian Decks: There are several of these. Some of the Italian images are probably quite a bit older actually, then the Rider Waite Deck is. They have a much more “antique” feel to them and represent a much older artistic representation of the hermetic symbolism. Some of these older images are probably where Arthur Waite started from when he created his Rider Waite deck.
The Thoth/Crowley Deck: This is a pretty psychedelic deck artistically speaking, in comparison to the Rider Waite, but it's imagery is none the less still traditional. It's beautiful. If you haven't seen this deck, It's kind of like tarot on LSD. The important thing to know about the Crowley deck is that Crowley switched the positions of a couple of the cards numerically. What this means is that the qabbalistic correspondences also change because of the numerical change. In the standard Rider Waite Deck, the Strength card is Key 8 and Justice is Key 11. In the Thoth Deck, These two cards have switched places, Justice is moved to Key 8, and Strength is moved to Key 11. This is because Crowley had a slightly different interpretation of these images based on his magical system of tantric and qabbalistic magic. There is one other deck I know of that follows Crowley's numerical order switch, and that is the “Scampini Tarot” which is a lovely and interesting deck. It feels to me like a combination of traditional Italian art combined with a sort of Salvador Dali flavor. I have unfortunately, not been able to find this deck available yet on Amazon, but I will keep looking and see if it ever comes available. The author of the Scampini Tarot was obviously a devotee of Crowley. So if you are a Crowley aficionado you will possibly want to have a look at the Scampini tarot if you have not done so already. To read the Scampini tarot you will want to first familiarize yourself with the Thoth deck (because of the logic behind the numerical switches, since Scampini follows the same pattern). You will want to get The Book of Thoth by Aliester Crowley, and a companion book titled Understanding the Thoth Deck by Lon Milo Duquette in order to learn these two decks. The Thoth deck is very difficult to learn. Crowley did not have a knack for speaking the beginners language. He is complicated to read and he is full of tricks and traps. So again I will refer the beginner to the standard Rider Deck to learn FIRST, and then go ahead and branch out to Crowley if that is how you are inclined but know you have to adjust what you have learned to understand why he made the changes he made to the deck. If there are other decks, like Scampini, that follow in the tradition of Crowley, I don't know what they are, or I haven't come across them yet, but I will let you know if I do. If anyone does actually know of any other decks of this kind that represent these same changes, please feel free to comment below in the comment box and let us know.
You will definitely have to have a working understanding of the Qabbala to understand Crowley and his Book of Thoth. You need it anyway, but you especially need it to read Crowley. Without that foundation you will be utterly lost in that man's writing and you will not have a single clue what he's talking about.
As an antidote for that problem, for the beginner to Qabbalah, I recommend reading Dion Fortunes “Mystical Qabbala” and Gareth Knight's “The Complete Guide to Qabbalistic Symbolism” Get a handle on these two books which are about as simplistic as it's ever going to get on the subject, before you even try to read Crowley. To begin to understand the tarot and how it crosses over to the Qabbalah, these two books will prove indispensable at the onset of your studies, along with Paul Cases beginning tarot book.
Branching out into even more esoteric territory if you are really uber dedicated to tarot study, you can get yourself a copy of Meditations on the Tarot. An excellent book, but recommended for an advanced tarot student who has a good grasp on the fundamentals. Feel free to tackle it as a beginner, I'm not discouraging you, but you'll have to read it again and again and again over the years as you keep learning. This book is huge This is not light reading. It's a journey through Christian Hermetic Philosophy. Martinists will recognize the author as the “unknown philosopher”. This book is a compilation of personal meditations and insights on each of the major arcana cards by a Christian mystic.
There are a couple of Jungian books on tarot that I recommend. Jung and the Tarot and Tarot Revelations. These are a more “intermediate” level tarot book and will appeal obviously to a student very interested in Jungian psychology. Tarot Revelations will appeal to any Jospeph Campbell fans out there , although I have to say, in my personal opinion, I'm not convinced Joseph Campbell had quite the correct grasp on the tarot cards and their meaning, but his insights are interesting at any rate. I think the Jungian insights are a little more accurate though.
New Age Oracle /Tarot Decks
What sets traditional tarot apart from other oracle decks? Well for starters the tarot of the cat people which has a very cute picture of a different cat on every single card, is not going to communicate to you the secrets of the Rosicrucians or give you the directions for the making of the philosophers stone, nor will it give you any accurate astrological correspondences. Neither will the Unicorn deck, the shamans deck or the Goddess tarot or the angel cards..... You get the idea. I recently bought a tarot deck that I fell in love with called the “fantastical creatures tarot”. It makes absolutely no sense to me from a traditional perspective. Actually a few of the cards make sense but many of them do not. If I were to use this deck for reading, I'd have to switch gears to a completely Jungian perspective and read only based on “archetypal” mythical themes and what they mean. The numbers, the astrology, the numerical order, the qabbala and the hermetic meanings have little to no relevance in the images of the more modern tarot/oracle cards.
Oracle decks really do not require a lot of education. They require a lot of intuition. Traditional decks require both. The kind of education you will need for an “oracle” deck is going to be fundamentally in the area of mythology. If you find a deck with a particular mythos that appeals to you, then it is basically up to you to find sources of information that will provide you with information on that specific mythology. In other words you are kind of on your own. The goddess Tarot (a stunning deck featuring the art of Susan Boulet) for example, will require you to know something about cross cultural representations of the different goddesses around the world from different cultures. The difference in the card meanings will be the difference in whether you pulled the Aphrodite card or the Persephone card. One is the goddess of love, the other the queen of the underworld. So you have some guidelines for interpretation if you are educated on the mythos. There will be very little astrology, and no qaballa involved. Perhaps a tad bit of Jungian alchemy may come into play. Some of these decks like the cat people deck are just plain silly and fun. If however you are well schooled in the Rider Waite deck you can take the cat deck or any deck for that matter, provided you can remember in your minds eye what each card in the Rider deck looks like as you are looking at a silly deck, and read traditional meaning from memory, regardless of the image in front of you. In this case you will be focused strictly on the numerology of the card in front of you, while you recall the traditional image from memory that number is associated with. Or you can simply try to interpret the image in front of you which will very likely have little or nothing to do with the numerology it's assigned. In this case you are reading the card based on your understanding of archetypal or symbolical images alone. A Jungian education would be very helpful in your path of learning oracle decks. Otherwise again, you are entirely on your own unless these decks come with little companion books that at least help you a little. These decks will have many different cultural representations. Some will be Native American, some will be fantasy oriented, (dragons, fairies, unicorns). I think there is even a stone oracle deck with different crystal and stone images... so a knowledge of stone lore would be necessary for such a deck.
As a result the meanings of the cards are entirely different then traditional “authentic” tarot, and leave a lot more room for your own creative and free form interpretation This is not to say that these decks are any “less then” authentic tarot but they should not be confused as authentic hermetic images. It's only to say that they are designed for an entirely different purpose which is assisting you to be more creative with your own intuition from a much more “shamanic” level. At the very least a basic knowledge of numerology might help you with some of these new age decks if nothing else. These decks will not ask you to memorize reams of technical hermetic information and specific, symbolic correspondences, including Old Testament biblical symbolism, that traditional tarot described above requires. There are hundreds of these oracle decks on the market and more that are created and published all of the time.
I'll be updating both of these sections every so often and adding more decks as I see fit to this category when I find some juicy ones so keep checking back and feel free to ask questions in the comment box below if you have any. I update the blog once a week, so it might take me a week to see your questions.