This post outlines my journey though the tarot, and all the various decks I have used along the way. If you are starting out with reading tarot cards, or just sort of curious, maybe this will be helpful to you. Also, even if you’re not interested in fortune-telling, the tarot has a rich library of primal archetypal symbols—and a working knowledge of such is a help for esoteric studies as a whole!
I’ve been reading tarot cards for about 20 years. I cannot believe it has been this long—I can remember when I was just starting in the mid-1990s, and barely had a hope in my head that I would ever be able to remember all those meanings and symbols.
But my very first introduction to the tarot was when I was around seven years old, and read Justice League Of America #194, which featured the figures from the tarot brought to life and fighting the superheroes.
The villains looked very much like the figures from the well-known Rider-Waite deck, and they had a very visceral impact on me—even though I believed I had no prior exposure to these icons. It makes me wonder if these images are so ingrained within our mass subconscious, even seeing them within some random comic book triggered them off in my brain with recognition.
Then jump to the early 1990s, when I encountered a copy of my friend’s copy of Eden Gray’s book The Complete Guide To The Tarot. This was a very good tome full of important information (and apparently a classic on the topic), but unfortunately all that talk of symbolism intimidated me. Nowadays, I would really like to look up the Gray book again and give it another shot. But the time, I was extremely new to esoteric stuff in general, and I was overwhelmed.
But I was still interested in learning how to read the cards, so I sought out a different book that put things in a slightly more practical, simple manner for a beginner like me. The name of this particular book escapes me at the moment (though I believe I read it so often the pages started to fall out), but the larger point I want to make here is…you need to find the guide-books (and guides) that work best for you.
There is nobody with this stuff you need to impress or please, other than you. Find what you personally grok to, whatever it is; it could be “The Angry Birds Guide To Reading Tarot,” I don’t care. Just move forward with it!
The same for the first deck you choose. The Rider-Waite didn’t immediately “do” it for me, and I think a big part of that was because I didn’t understand the symbolism of the imagery yet.
So after a long time of browsing and researching, I purchased a deck that would combine the basic symbology of Rider-Waite with something I could relate to a bit more: the Mary Hanson-Roberts tarot. This is essentially if a Disney storyboard artist drew a tarot deck. It also kind of looked like comic book illustrations (bringing me back to my first experience with tarot imagery).
But most importantly: the Hanson-Roberts deck maintained the iconography of the classic Rider-Waite tarot, complete with major and minor arcana, four “suits,” and general layout of each card. The symbolism wasn’t almost completely obliterated, as they are for some of the more “commercial” art-centered decks.
While I said before that you should feel complete freedom regarding which way you want to go with the decks…I think having one with at least some of the most enduring archetypal symbols is important, especially at the beginning. You see, these primal images…they are like a direct connection within the massive psychological-mystical switchboard. (more on what happens when the art in a deck doesn’t click!)
And so through trial and error I began to learn. It took a couple of years before I felt like I finally “got it”—and a key to that was not just learning the various pre-established meanings, but understanding that I had to blend my own personal meanings attached to these images as well.
It’s not like you go: “well Judgment=this meaning,” and that’s it. The key is: how does that particular card image make you feel? And then you blend that intuitive feeling with the traditional meaning of the card.
After Hanson-Roberts, I actually moved over to the Rider-Waite tarot, using an old deck my mom gave me. It turns out, not only did she read cards when she was much younger…but a number of people on her side of the family did!
Almost 5 years after my initial encounter with Rider-Waite, I felt FAR more comfortable with it. It was something that I had to “grow” into…and using the Hanson-Roberts deck as a primer, the symbolism was a lot more easier for me to remember and interpret. Plus, there was the additional “cool” factor that I was using a “family” deck.
Then after a while I decided to give the Crowley Thoth deck a try. Unlike Hanson-Roberts, there were a lot of images and meanings here that varied from Rider-Waite. It was far more a tarot that fairly demanded serious study and research into the symbols. And I did do some of that, but not nearly enough…and finally I decided to shelve them for another period of time when I was ready. (very anti-climatic of me, I know, but more is coming soon…)
Back to shopping for a new deck, I chose the lovely Art Nouveau deck. Here is a great example of a tarot that looks super-beautiful but doesn’t have that “soul.” The symbolism was very light, and it was far more a deck you bought because you collected decks and art and wanted a lovely thing.
So after a month or so I was finished with that, and put the almost unused deck on eBay.
Years passed, and I lost interest in reading cards. I had moved on to I-Ching, dream interpretation, etc. Then I attended a party thrown by Kris Waldherr, and bought her Goddess Tarot on the spot.
The Goddess Tarot used Rider-Waite as a guide, but definitely had some of its own “cosmology” and set of meanings. As the name suggests, it was very Goddess/female spirituality oriented. And the illustrations had a deep deep soul quality to them.
I ended up using the Goddess Tarot for almost seven years. By that point, tarot reading was second-nature to me.
And yet, I began to feel restless again.
In a local toy shop that was closing, I came across a damaged tarot gift-set that had the Hanson-Roberts cards—a deck that was long since out of my life (I don’t have a habit of keeping decks around once they lose their “mojo”). I bought them at a discount, and began using them again. It was like I had never “left” them.
Then, couple of years ago, I purchased the Psychic Tarot For The Heart. I was definitely not in the market for a new deck at the time, and wasn’t really open to “spiritual cards” outside the basic tarot structure (such as oracle cards, “angel” cards, etc.). But I was just strongly “drawn” to the deck.
Psychic Tarot For The Heart uses some of the traditional tarot categories, but also, much like the Goddess Tarot, as its own symbology. Simply put…the illustrations are really gorgeous, and, unlike the Art Nouveau deck, maintain a great deal of soul and power.
I can see how some more traditional card-readers might sort of write decks like the Psychic Tarot off as being too “new age” and “fluffy.” Lord knows, there are more decks out there than ever before, and many are of this “new agey” aesthetic and feel. But it’s going to be ultimately what is personal and meaningful to the individual; if it “works,” it works.
As for where my tarot interests lie at the moment, it’s in the correspondence of the tarot’s major arcana (the 22 first cards in the deck) with other esoteric systems like the I-Ching and the Zodiac…and the correspondence between all of that and the psychological/evolutionary stages as mapped out in Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit Model Of Consciousness.
While the 8-Circuit model has been expanded upon by Robert Anton Wilson in Prometheus Rising, I am particularly interested in re-reading Leary’s The Game Of Life, which includes all the esoteric correspondences and connections, with a real focus on tarot symbology.
On top of that, I do want to give the Thoth deck another try, though more as a research thing than a “fortune-telling” thing.
It’s funny…I really started using tarot cards as just another method to “predict” things. But that’s not really the bottom line with this stuff. It’s about self-discovery and understanding yourself better. If the cards are “right” about this or that, it’s a bonus…but that shouldn’t be the main thing that drives you with all this.
And that’s my journey through tarot.
Note: I originally put in the Amazon links to all of these decks, but I think you should really try, if you can, to purchase these at your local esoteric shop. The price-points will not be that much different, and you’ll help keep these places in business!