The Perfect Tarot Deck

Like many of you I learned to read cards using a Rider Waite deck. It was great, but soon enough the call of other more beautiful decks called me away. My second deck was a Medeival Scapini, which I consider one of the best decks out there both in terms of beauty and symbolism. Unofortunately, it never spoke to me the way that the Rider Waite deck did. I still love it, and occasionally it has a message for me, but otherwise my Medeival Scapini sits on a shelf.

Though the Rider did speak for me, I just couldn’t go back. The bright garrish colors, the sloppy paint job, the terrible crosshatching, and my god the backs… the horrible blue plaid backs just looked like the most un-mystical thing in the world.

There are other colorings of the Rider. The Universal Wait is too pastel. The Radient Waite is to garrish. The Illuminated Tarot is too psychedelic (and its basically laminated paper). In 1993, they released the original Rider Waite, which was a reproduction of one of the earliest versions of the deck, and while miles better than the regular Rider Waite – it still sucks ass.

My search continued. I moved through many decks through the past two decades…

I stuck with the Thoth Deck through much of my early OTO Days. I like the art, and I like the names of the cards. I was happy for a while. Than I started to reject the Crowleyanic perspective – hard. Once you reject Crowley as the Prophet of the New Aeon and all that comes with it, the Thoth Deck starts to have some serious issues. So, I moved on…

After that I can barely remember the order that I floated through them.

The Morgan Greer was close enough to Rider. The art was better and I liked the borderless design. Unfortunately there is something too cartoonish about the figures. I also never liked close up decks where everyone is seen from the torso up (thus also no Aquarian for me). The cards are also WAY to slick.

Lots of other decks like “Stairs of Gold” and the various Visconti decks get tried. I love the majors, but I just cannot tap into decks without scenes on the pip cards. That cuts out a lot of decks.

Than there are decks like the Ansata Tarot, which may be my favorite set of Major Arcana anywhere. But thats it! No Minor Arcana. :-(

The Egorov Tarot is fantastic and might be my deck of choice today except for one thing: It is impossible to shuffle. The cards are like a full 8th of an inch thick. Cant read with a deck I can’t shuffle.

The Hermetic Tarot shuffles great. Though I tend to reject the GD oriented Khabbalistic interpretations in favor of the cartomantic tradition, this deck does it better than most, and gives me decent readings. Unfortunately the deck is too small, too crowded, and black and white.

In 2008 I, along with everyone else, fell in love with the Lunatic Tarot from Japan. Nice art. Just fetishy enough to be titilating (the chariot is pulled by female slaves with ball gags) without turning it into an erotic tarot. Unfortunately the deck has three distinct styles running through it. The Majors are all consistent and are really well done. The Court cards have a more Japanese paper style to them – equally beautiful, but different enough from the majors to look like a different deck. Finally many of the other minor cards, have only sparse sketches that seem off when appearing next to one of the other very ornate cards. Like Scapini, I love the deck for the art, but it just doesnt speak to me when I try to read with it.

A year or so ago I decided to spring for a Nybor Tarot. This is a $350 Tarot deck that is VERY non-traditional. Everything is re-named and recategorized. Really it is just barely hanging on to being a Tarot deck – but it still is. I keep it at my desk for certain types of occult questions. It reads strategic planning well, and as Ferric says: “if you have the means I do recommendpicking one up”.

Though some reviewers have called the Nybor an erotic tarot, its not. Only about half the cards have naked people on them. That said the half that does not only has naked people, but it has naked people screwing in every possible combination. Man-Man, Woman-Woman, Man Woman. Woman being screwed by wolf (not a werewolf mind you, just a wolf). There are hookers, bondage, old people, young people, cunnilingum, fellatio, and lots of lots of cock. A bit too much cock for me thanks. The biggest problem is the “Family” card. There is nothing sexual happening persay, just a father holding a daughter with son at their side – all naked. Nothing wrong with the card itself, however when it gets sandwiched in between a card showing bestiality and another one showing fallatio it kind of paints it in an uncomfortable light. I take it out for special readings, but it could never be my main tarot.

So I turn to the many rider clones. Most of which either make a couple idiotic changes to the symbolism that bug the crap out of me (its the Devil, Robinwood, not people stealing a chest!) or have cartoonish charaters (like almost all Lo Scarabeo decks) that I just cannot connect with.

Of special mention in the Tarot Hall of SHAME is the Dierdre of the Sorrows deck by Deirdre O’Donoghue. This deck is gorgeous. It is pencil with just a few splashes of color. Kind of like the idea behind the Fez Moroccan, but done well. The deck is also printed on this linen card stock that is unlike any other deck. If I ever work with Matt Brownlee to do a Tarot, this is the stock I want it printed on. I just got the deck this past September and when i opened it I was awed at the beauty and simplicity of the scenes which are all slightly Irish pastoral without going crazy with the theme. Just as I was getting into, I came accross the Tower, and I just blurted out audibly: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!

In this deck, that is all country scenes that could be placed in Ireland in the 17-19th centuries (ie: timeless and not modern at all), is a Tower card that shows an American Bald Eagle in the foreground standing on the rubble of 9-11 with the un-collapsed towers in the background. In other words, it looks like a “never Forget” sticker.

Now, I live in NJ. I was close enough to hear the towers when they fell. I passed them every morning on the way to work until that day. I and everyone else in this area literally breathed in the remains of both the building and the people that died. The last thing I want someone in this area to see when I do a reading is the place that their father, husband, wife or other loved one died. I also don’t like it brought up and exploited for no reason what do fucking ever. This event has been used and twisted in ways that are almost as horrid as the event itself. I just cannot understand the thinking.

I was so offended by this, that I actually wrote her just a few minutes after opening it and asked her to explain her thoughts. She claimed it was a tribute to the American people (she has never been here) and the eagle is the spirit rising after the attack showing the good that can come of it, and the tower is in the background because  they can never be truly destroyed, blah blah blah. Apart from changing the whole meaning of the card and ruining the artistic theme of her deck, she answered me in such a smarmy way as if to say “if you were smart enough to realize the symbolism you would understand” that I almost returned the deck. Instead I kept it as an example of bad art.

Sorry. Got off on a bit of a rant there…

Anyway, Last week I was gifted with a deck, that I am now pretty sure is my permenant go-to tarot deck. Its the one that I will use day in and out along with the Sybilla and Mo Dice that I sometimes read.

This deck jumps right into my mind, and gives me reading that are clear as a bell.

Its the Centennial Coleman Smith Deck. In other words: The Rider Waite.

But you haven’t seen this one. This is the deck that comes in the new Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set. This Deck is beautiful. I never knew how beautiful the Waite deck was, until I opened this up.

Unlike the “Original Waite Deck” from 1993, this really is a reproduction of a 1909 Rider Waite deck that Stuart Kaplan purchased on Ebay last year. He went all out and made a deck with clean lines, and coloring exactly how Pixie Smith did it – no more colors running together, no more splotchy faces and crappy lines. This is how it was meant to be done.

The colors are very subdued compared to other versions, in fact the whole deck has a sort of tea-stained look. Even the white on the borders of the cards is not bright white. Before writing this I dragged out my regular Rider Waite and my Original Rider Waite and compared them card for card with this Centennial deck. The difference is astounding.

My only question is why did it take so long for them to do this?

The set is $35 and has a wealth of info on Pamela Colman Smith, a copy of key to the Tarot, and a few other non-occult prints. The deck alone is well worth the price.

About Inominandum

Author. Sorcerer. Consultant. I have 30 plus years of experience making magic a reality for myself, my clients, and my students. For a complete background go to www.strategicsorcery.net
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24 Responses to The Perfect Tarot Deck

  1. Martialis says:

    Awesome rant! Particularly liked that bit about flying to Ireland and whatnot, really lol’d. I’ve also been through several decks and am currently at the Rumi Tarot and Golden Tarot (Liz Dean). I still love my ol’ Thoth deck (first deck ever), even though it doesn’t get much use, cause several of the cards still call to me however I never attached any Thelemic/New Aeon stuff to them cause I don’t dig Crowley that deeply. In any case, sounds like a nice set of goodies. I’m glad I follow your blog or I wouldn’t have known till God knows when. My only question is…what’d you do with all the decks you went through? I’m still wondering what the hell to do with mine. Cheers!

  2. There is something about the Rider-Waite that always calls us back. While I completely agree with you about the asethetics and will definitely look into the deck you mentioned, I can’t help but always come back to the Rider-Waite.

    I’ve used this deck as a professional reader for nearly a decade and its never let me down. Between it, geomancy, and astrology, I am able to divine to the minutest detail. That said, those damned running colors!

    Thanks for the highly entertaining rant and for the great recommendation.

  3. Scribbler says:

    SOLD!!!!

    Hmmm. Now exactly where do I prioritize it on my “to buy” list?

  4. Ron says:

    Great tarot piece and rant. I too have cycled thru many decks and in frustration return to the Waite deck. I like the artwork of the Robin Wood deck and agree with you that she dropped the ball on the Devil card. I also find that she has significantly limited the Hierophant card and the Four of Pentacles, probably due to her religious views.

    One deck that I go to a lot and have had good success with is the Ancient Egyptian deck by Clive Barrett. Great artwork, Egyptian themed, but limited availability now. You can buy it directly from his website.

    I have seen the Commemorative deck in a store recently. I will definitely go pick it up.

    Thanks again for the info.

  5. I have the same thing with the Liber-T, I was so in love with that deck when I got it that I even bought a back-up in case my first deck ‘wore out’ after I heard they were discontinuing it. It’s a thoth based deck but all the minors are illustrated and they are bloody GORGEOUS. This is the best, most exquisite, occult genius deck that I have ever owned.

    Though, as can be expected from a thoth based deck, it is hardcore Thelema. Which I can stomach because it’s so beautiful but what finally got to me was the anti christian imagery on there. Shattered, and inverted crucifixes, priests and nuns torturing people etc. It also has some bestiality which I get in the context of the card meaning but is kinda over the top. Anyway, I finally realised despite how much I loved it couldn’t relate to the deck anymore with all the Jesus hate going on in there. Someone had an axe to grind and they ruined a tarot masterwork for it. My muertos don’t like it one bit either and when I try and read with it these days – it’s pure gibberish. :(

    Now it sits on my shelf and I look at it longingly every so often.

    My main tarot decks are the Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place, although why he didn’t use San Cypriano for the magician card is mystery to me. Then it is the Golden by Kat Black. I also have a soft spot for the Ship of Fools tarot. Though, truth-be-told I mainly read with the Lenormand these days. That’s what my mum showed me as a kid and I guess I ended up going in a big circle, ending up back where I started….

  6. Deb says:

    I find the Housewives tarot works particularly well for me, quelle surprise.

  7. Chrysilla says:

    When I was 14 I picked up Tarot of the Cat People, from a WaldenBooks, with birthday cash. Luckily I REALLY clicked with it, and have used it for 14 more years :-) A lot of my friends started compulsively buying lots of tarot decks in high school, and I didn’t really understand why at the time. In retrospect they must have been looking for the right fit but I’m not sure they were giving each deck enough of a chance.

    I also picked up the Shadowscapes deck last summer and have been slowly getting used to it in personal readings. Very nice artwork, and it blends together a lot of Eastern and Western mythology. Now I mostly use Cat People to read for others, and Shadowscapes to read for myself.

  8. Sold. I was actually in a bookstore the other day holding this deck in my hands, wondering whether it would be better than one of the other recolored Rider decks (there were no pictures for me to look at for comparison). I’ll have to go back and pick this one up now. Perhaps along with the Fallen Angel Oracle Cards that Badwitch mentioned.

  9. Rob says:

    Not to be too nit-picky, but the deck is called the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot, and the boxed set its sold in is the Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Set. You seem to have mixed the two names up.

    Also the idea that the Original Rider-Waite is not a 1909 reproduction are unproven. The deck Kaplan purchased for the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot was the first time anyone had a 1909 deck available for the general public to view, and very quickly it was noticed that the backs were different from the original Rider-Waite. It didn’t help that Kaplan claimed not to own the deck reproduced in the Original Rider-Waite, saying that it was owned by a private collector, and could not produce the original deck to be viewed.

    Eventually, based off of the ebay pictures alone, it was determined that Kaplan had taken a Rider Pamela C deck (a rather obscure Rider printing) and created the backs based on rumors of the 1909 Tarot. This was entirely speculation though, and since then a 1909 deck matching the one used in the Original Rider Tarot has turned up on Ebay.

    Its since been determined that at least three versions of the deck were printed around 1909. The deck used for the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot, the deck used for the Original Rider Waite, and the Pamela A (from my understanding anyways, or it may be a deck that just used a similar back to the Pamela A), which became the standard deck. Unfortunately its unknown which of these three decks was printed first, although Jensen makes an intelligent argument that the Rose and Lily designs most likely came first and then were changed due to issues with cutting the deck.

    The point of correction being, at least as of now, its unclear which of the three decks was the first to be published in 1909, so the Original Rider Waite may in fact be the original deck and the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot may be a later edition. Perhaps Kaplan will manage to dig up some more info and shed some more light on the different early versions of the Rider-Waite in volume 5 of his encyclopedia if it ever gets published (I really hope we do see a volume 5 and that US games continues the series with the same level of quality following Kaplan’s death).

    • Inominandum says:

      Hi Rob.

      Thanks for the info. I will change the titles in the post, which I ran off rather hastily last night as sort of whistful musing than a proper review. Still accuracy is important.

      As to what deck is most original – I couldn’t care less. The new deck had sharp images, great coloring, nice feel, and highlights what a really beautiful deck this actually is.

      • Rob says:

        I was mainly only commenting on the idea that the Original Rider Waite is not a real 1909 reproduction like the new edition, especially since it implies that US Games was defrauding its customers by claiming otherwise, because that’s nothing more than Internet speculation that’s been mostly disproven. Granted it was advertised as being the first Rider-Waite at the time of publication, but at that time there was no reason for US Games to believe otherwise.

        I do agree though that the Original Rider Waite is not a very good deck, at least for readings or other practical work (it does hold some value as a historical reproduction), and unlike you I actually like the standard Rider Tarot published by US Games, or at least I liked the pre-digitalized version. US Games definitely spent a lot more time and money on the new edition, and it along with the newly photographed edition of Crowley’s Thoth deck have been on my want list for sometime. Unfortunately every time I’m about to buy one I end up buying a different tarot instead, mainly because I already have so many different versions of both of those tarots it’s hard for me to spend money on yet another edition.

  10. Skybrighte says:

    Hahahahahaha. I would probably have that same reaction if I had a “9/11 remembrance card” dropped into one of my decks. *notes down not to buy that deck*

    I really like the Fenestra Tarot when I want something somewhat related to the RW tarot. It’s quite a beautiful rendition of the original RE with the author’s own twist. And it has roses. Both in my name and favorite flower. :(

    I’ve never really worked with the actual RW, though. Its sloppy design and hideous colors always scared me off. I learned on the Arthurian Legends deck by Fergusson which is pretty much nothing like the RW at all. I wasn’t intending to buy that one but when I got to the store, it basically jumped out at me and demanded I take it home. My favorite part of this one is the intense amount of symbolism and depth to each card … I still can’t read it fully without the book, a half decade later. XD

    I also have a celtic type tarot which appears to be based off of the Thoth tarot (which I now also have a la my boyfriend). Both of those decks read quite powerfully for me (in fact the former has declared itself “for ritual use only”) but I don’t really like the symbolism of the Thoth tarot … it makes intuiting my own definitions a little hard and a lot of the imagery just makes no sense (probably because I don’t really know much about Aleister Crowley or his work).

    Anyway I have been on the look out for a RW type deck to add to my collection. I may consider looking into this one… Google is showing some nice art work though I don’t feel particularly pulled to it. I may get it just as a curio…

    • Skybrighte says:

      Huh, there was more to that paragraph on the Fenestra but it seems to have cut it off and left just my sad face. I commented that I really do not like the fact that ‘US Games” is printed on the back of that deck which gives away whether or not the card is upright. A very serious flaw in my book.

  11. cgil says:

    Did anybody try Lon Milo DuQuette’s “Tarot of Ceremonial Magick” (depicted at http://www.manteia-online.dk/deckreviews/dr054.htm e.g.) ?
    Contrary to the other decks, actual magickal “cross references” have been added to each card (Goetia, Enochian, the Angels of Shemhamphorash etc.), apparently allowing for a multi-faced interpretation. I used it for a while, and (although I’m a beginner) I got surprisingly accurate answers.
    I knew there was a certain parallelism between the various systems, but I was surprised to see that a certain Enochian symbol e.g. could have such a direct relationship with another symbol in Goetia that both could be inserted on the same card.
    Maybe the relationship is a loose one however, and maybe this deck is to be considered as a “4 decks in one”. Any opinion?

  12. Frater AIT says:

    I was all set to hate on you for talking trash about Pixie’s work on the set…..and then you went and did the opposite at the end. Well played, sir.

    The commemorative set is gorgeous! I had to get away from my well-used Thoth deck too, and for the same reasons. This is a wonderful alternative. Thanks, great post!

  13. JC says:

    I love the rider waite tarot deck. I have the lovers deck and don’t like it as much. I started reading cards with a friend of mine and she used the rider waite deck. I also like the Gypsy tarot deck. It doesn’t have really pretty pictures and is way different from a regular deck, but it is so accurate. It does have rules though, but I really love it. The Gypsy deck is truly special.

  14. Greatly enjoyed this post. I too have purchased the Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Set. It’s a beautiful edition, though I think the backs are quite lame. You’d think they could have thought of a better design than Smith’s signature, which we get to see 78 other times in the deck..

    I will say, for me personally, that I disagree with your statement, “Once you reject Crowley as the Prophet of the New Aeon and all that comes with it, the Thoth Deck starts to have some serious issues.” I disagree because the images (in my mind) aren’t necessarily New Aeon. I think it was Dion Fortune who said that once you understand Kabbalah you can get accurate readings with playing cards. The images don’t influence me, one way or another. And I consider myself a Christian magician. Even “The Aeon” replacing the Last Judgment is fine, as the concept of Aeons didn’t begin with Crowley (earliest Gnostic Christians had a similar concept). I also see the elemental attributions more than the actual “picture” drawn on the card.

    Also, I learned Tarot originally using the Opening of the key spread, and the Thoth is best for that spread (again, for me personally). Waite is annoyingly sly and even disingenuous at times. Witness his having conflicting age attributions for the significators – i.e. knights vs. kings for younger vs. older men. He seems to follow traditional Golden Dawn rules, however, as he slyly incorporates lions on the throne of the King of Wands, Bulls on the King of Pentacles, and these clearly match up with the Golden Dawn Princes, thus making one suspect that the Kings are the Princes and the Waite Knights are the GD Kings…

    I reject wholeheartedly Crowley as a prophet of a new aeon, but the cards represent, to me, a balanced representation of the forces depicted on the Tree and, thus, work pretty well for me. Nice post, great blog.
    Peter

  15. Inominandum says:

    Hello Peter,

    Thanks for your kind words about the post.

    It’s good that you are able to look past, integrate, or ignore the Thelema specific art in the deck. You are not the only person to do so of course and one of my first Tarot teachers also used the deck but was not a Thelemite.

    For me the art used on decks is part of the key to how I read, this includes the specifics and intentions behind them. Take the Aeon card for instance. Of course Crowley did not invent the concept of the Aeon, but it is Horus there on the card, with all the hallmarks and intent of a Thelemic interpretation. Strength as Babylon from revelation would take on a different meaning from certain Christian perspectives. The Ace of disk bearing the seal of Babalon which is the seal of the AA. Etc.

    Now a large part of this might just be that I was in the OTO for years, and though I never took anything past 2nd degree (due to ethical disagreement about Liber Oz) I did have a camp run out of my living room, and spent a good amount of time circling around Thelemic thinkers even after I rejected it. Someone that was never invested in it at all would feel less distraction/pull from those symbols.

    Now Dion Fortune brings up that you can use Khabbalah to get a good reading from an ordinary deck of cards. All I can say to that is one gets a better reading if you delve into the European cartomantic traditions where there is a long history of reading with playing cards – and of course the evolution of the Sybilla, and later the Leormand systems. Even in Tarot I am somewhat suspended between the Khabbalistically derived meanings and the European cartomantic meanings from Etiella and co. It depends on what deck I am using.

    Strangely, since this writing, I have reverted to a deck that I just uncovered with a bunch f other high school things of mine: the Sacred Rose. Other than the colors and the art, there is no specific symbolism that I am preach about this deck. It just pulls me in through the characters blank eyes, and gives me very accurate readings.

    Thanks again.

  16. You’re welcome, and thank you for sharing your work with all of us; it’s greatly appreciated. You know, I wrote a quick “Part Two” to my earlier post and tried to post it, and my screen froze up, and I tried twice. I agree with what you’re saying and, in fact, only recently have I been able to look past the symbols. A year ago, more or less, I was forcing myself to use the Waite deck because it was more “Christian”, and when I heard about Waite’s other deck I was all happy and goofy (until I learned there were only 22 cards). Strength as Babalon is a great point, as I had written a quick post once on the “Strength from God” concept of Waite’s version (more or less) and Strength as Lust as Babalon. I think the spread I had been using, all of them being sequential vs. positional, had a lot to do with my choice of decks.

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  21. Stray says:

    I love your rant, it’s so spot on. :)
    For myself I started with a tarot Nova at 14. It’s too happy. Weird complaint but still, I couldn’t connect. I had an original Rider-Waite (like the one you displayed), but again never connected in four years….funnily my sister loved it so it’s hers now. I briefly considered getting the Shadow Tarot but only the Majors are illustrated well, then I saw the Deviant Moon. Love at first sight, I got it in the borderless edition. The art was evocative, every single card is unique with in-depth and hidden meaning. (Minors are as carefully illustrated as the majors.) and I connected, though it’s an extremely lunar-influenced deck which probably wouldn’t suit a lot of people.

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