I know we just hit the spring equinox. There’s rabbits and eggs and budding flowers everywhere and everyone’s all anxious to go outside and roll in the grass or whatever. I know.

But I really just want it to be Halloween.

Spring is nice, and I like warm weather well enough, but I’m a fall/winter person. Here in North Carolina, we don’t get many crisp mornings and gentle snowfalls. The weather is erratic enough that we can’t count on beautiful color-changing leaves or toasty sweaters by October. Halloween is more likely to entail mosquitoes and sticky rain. Spring is sticky and buggy, too, but with less witchcraft and awesome spooky shit.

I always want it to be Halloween, and I’m absolutely okay with living up to some witch stereotypes here. For those of you who feel the same, here are a couple of decks for your consideration:

photo 2The Halloween Tarot by Kipling West has been around for several years now, but we just got a miniature version in at Laughingbrook and I’m obsessed with it all over again. It comes in a little tin (there are several other versions, in various boxes and sizes), and it’s the perfect size for casual shuffling. The Halloween Tarot is an uncomplicated copy of the Rider-Waite, but with Imps, Pumpkins, Bats, and Ghosts in place of Wands, Pentacles, Swords, and Cups. Many of the cards are directly transposed from the familiar images and will translate right away for those of you who work from a Colman-Smith platform. This deck is just straight-up charming. A must-have for Halloween-loving tarot people. This makes me want to give Halloween-themed readings in the Etsy shop just for the hell of it.  Don’t be surprised if that becomes a thing.

photo 3The All Hallows Tarot, by Robin Tisch Hollister, came out first as a majors-only set.
Now you can buy a full 78-card deck plus a Happy Squirrel. The drawings are quirky and with the sort of imprecise line-work that I really dig. Like my Halloween Tarot, the cards are miniature (2.65 in. x 3.65 in), which makes shuffling a breeze. At $40, this isn’t a cheap deck, but it is nice to have something so unique. My deck came with a more-ornate-than-usual nylon pouch, wrapped in a plastic Halloween goodie bag of the sort distributed at parties.  A good choice for a Halloween lover who wants something more unique.  Buy it here.

Contemplating the High Priestess

Sorry for being MIA these past few weeks.  March has proven to be a big month, with a new job, new projects, and some super big blog-related news that I’ll be blowing up the Internet with in just the next week or so (EEEEEEEE!!!!1!).  I’m still a bit swamped, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following essay from www.thornthewitch.com, circa September 27, 2013.  It’s written for Wald Amberstone and not a general readership, but I think the points still stand.  Fair warning: I’d been spending a lot of time reading Judith Butler (whom I don’t even pretend to understand most of the time).  Also, for those of you who don’t know, I’m working exclusively with the Rider-Waite tarot illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Most other decks are simply reinterpretations of her work, so it stands to reason that, in a thorough study of tarot, we should cut out some of the middlemen.  At least for now.

So onward:

Before our last conversation, I would likely have delved into my contemplation of The High Priestess saddled with associations developed through my role as a high priestess.  You pointed out that when I’m functioning as such in a coven setting, what I’m really doing is more akin to the work of The Hierophant, and this was a profound realization for me.  This card, more than any so far, has posed a great challenge, because I have so much invested in what I think it means even before I really begin to study it.  I have to consciously let a lot go in order to engage in contemplation.

When I do, the central meaning comes to be about boundaries.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, not just between the twin pillars or between the world and the abyss, but at all boundaries.  And just as the melting point of ice is simultaneously the freezing point, boundaries are simultaneously a point of uniting and a point of division.  Boundaries sometimes feel harsh to us—they keep us out or keep us in—but without them we lose the ability to engage the world in meaningful ways.  We lose language, and, as a result, we lose identity and selfness.  As you said to me over the phone, there is no distinction without contrast.  Duality may be arbitrary, but it is necessary.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, beyond which lies the Holy of Holies, the Mystery, the Abyss.  To gaze upon these is to be destroyed.  Without boundaries, there is no self.  I is no longer an I.

Still in contemplation, having had the above realization, I initially thought of the figure of the witch.  The witch is sometimes described as a “hedgerider”—a boundary-crosser.  She passes out of the town and into the wild places, produces unguents that separate soul from body so that it might travel to unseen places, and uses otherworldly magic to alter reality.  But that’s too easy, I think.  Boundaries like that allow her to retain her self-ness.  By engage in these activities, she actually reinforces her identity as a witch.  Paradoxically, by crossing boundaries, she reinforces them.  The Mystery guarded by The High Priestess is beyond that.

In the Archetypal Description, you state that, “She answers the questions that cannot be asked in words.”  Further, the Transcendent Interpretation reiterates this theme of silence.  The High Priestess is beyond words because there literally are no words.  Beyond the boundary, there can be no language.  Not only does the category of “witch” cease to exist, but so too do all categories: woman, human, self.  The question was, “Who is The High Priestess when The High Priestess is you?”  The answer is that The High Priestess is at the root of everything that makes me a self.  Every identity category that I occupy (student, woman, American, witch, daughter, coffee drinker, cat lover, on and on) only exists because it stands in contrast to something else.  I become The High Priestess every time I make distinctions, think of myself as an individual, use language, or otherwise exist in a world defined by duality.  Paradoxically, I am also The High Priestess when I don’t do those things (at which point I cease to be). photo-4

On Reading Runes

photo 2Those of you who follow me on YouTube or elsewhere on the Interwebs probably know that I also read runes. This site has focused on tarot exclusively, and lately I’ve been thinking I should take the time to introduce this part of my magical repertoire to Tarot Skeptic readers who may be curious.

My approach to runes is quite a bit different from my approach to tarot. The lines aren’t always clear, but I have some very distinct tendencies that are worth noting.

Tarot to me is very much an intellectual exercise rather than a religious one. I don’t practice any sort of purification ritual, before or after readings. I don’t think gods or spirits are speaking to me through the cards. Tarot is not directly connected to my practice of witchcraft. I even tend to avoid religious language, insofar as that’s ever really possible. My tarot study is rooted very strongly in a particular understanding of history (and a belief in the relevance of that history) and within the context of particular esoteric traditions (e.g. the Golden Dawn, BOTA, etc). There’s a level of objectivity (again, if that’s ever a thing at all) present in my understanding of tarot that I find is often missing in other approaches to the cards. When I want to understand the meaning of a particular card, I turn to a scholarly text on either the card itself or the tradition from which it arises, as opposed to meditating on it, consulting some kind of spirit guide, or engaging in a flow-of-consciousness type intuitive exploration. That’s all fine for other people, but it’s just not how I like to roll when I can help it. It feels too nebulous to me, and I’ve never been the sort of person who likes to openly emote.

With runes, all that goes out the window. Reading runes is absolutely a religious activity for me. The runes belong to the gods (a particular group of gods, and, still further, specific gods within that framework) and I’m turning to Them (at least in part) when I use them, whether it’s to perform a reading or if I’m using runes in magical work. I get emotional, I get woo-woo, and I’m quicker to discount all of my usual empiricism. Dana Scully checks out and my Mulder-brain—wantonly, gleefully—takes over.

I’m constantly wrestling with the question of whether or not a commitment to the gods is required in order to work effectively with the runes. For me, this is a constant back and forth, and increasingly I lean toward yes (at least, for myself). When I first was learning about the runes, it was casual and from the place of a non-practitioner. I was simply a witch curiously exploring systems outside of my own. But since I began using them seriously, I’ve built unanticipated religious and social connections within Heathen spaces. I talk to gods that I previously didn’t have relationships with. My attitudes about divination are different now. Runes exist in a completely different headspace from tarot. They’re magical and sacred in and of themselves, unlike tarot, whose power is consciously constructed.

I realize that’s magical thinking all on its own, but there it is.

It’s challenging moving between the two over the course of a day’s work, like stepping back and forth into different social roles. I love both, but differently.  Tarot stimulates my intellect and fuels my love for history.  Runes are about my connection to the gods.

For those of you who practice other forms of divination, do you find that your approaches are markedly different?

Deck Showcase: Prisma Visions Tarot

photo 4It’s here! It’s here! The Prisma Visions Tarot, by James R. Eads, popped up on Kickstarter this past fall after plenty of online buzz. I found out about it on Tumblr right before the campaign went live and was able to snag a nice rewards package (many of them sold out right away). Eads’ earlier deck, The Light Visions Tarot, sold out promptly and is now, sadly, practically impossible to obtain (got one to sell? Hit me up). My decks and extras arrived early this week and there was plenty of jumping up and down and squealing.

Prisma Visions is a 79-card deck (the extra card is “Strawberries”—a bonus trump and Eads’ original creation). It comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a flip top (not the usual tuck box) and an attractive 96-page instruction booklet. The cards themselves are thick and glossy and—best of all—the edges are silver-gilt. These cards fucking sparkle. They’re so pleasing to handle that they’d be worth buying even if you never read with them. But they’re sturdy, easy to shuffle, and full of provocative imagery, so reading is a pleasurable task. The trumps are bordered, but the minors are borderless and fit together in beautiful panoramic sequences. The symbolism is relatively traditional Waite-Smith and will translate nicely for those comfortable in this system.

There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation surrounding this deck, and it’s absolutely justified. Prisma Visions is a worthwhile addition to any collection and the $45 price tag is worth it.  Buy it here.

photo 3 photo 1 photo 5 photo 2

The Celtic Cross is Kind of Terrible

photoWhen I got my first tarot deck, The Unicorn Tarot, it came with a little white book (LWB) that listed vague keywords for each card, the usual bullshit history about the totally ancient art of divination with tarot, and instructions on performing a reading with the ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread.

I tell you what, I poured over that tiny fucking book, pulling it out every two seconds and trying to make sense of lines like, “The spiritual unicorn reminds us of our spiritual selves!” and “He has awakened to his higher self, as we all must learn to do, given time.” (Hint: I couldn’t make sense of these sentences as a teenager because they don’t actually mean anything in real life.) I diligently (not to mention ultra-spiritually) laid out cards in that ten-card pattern, only to be immediately overwhelmed by New Age buzzwords and really terrible unicorn pictures.

Being a no0b, I did what most people who buy tarot decks do: I assumed the problem was with me and I put my cards away, because, clearly, I just wasn’t cut out to work with tarot.

The problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t even really my heinous teenaged taste in art. The problem was that the Celtic Cross is a poor place to start for anyone, and doesn’t even make much sense further down the road.

Near as anyone can tell, the Celtic Cross comes out of the assorted Golden Dawn materials and was propagated (if not totally invented) by A.E. Waite in the early 20th century. Waite was super into the Holy Grail/Celtic religion thing and was, like many of his colleagues, invested in demonstrating how there was a great deal of commonality in the various schools of occult thought, intersecting with ancient religions, etc., etc. Nobody at the time was really above making weak claims as to the antiquity of assorted pieces of occult wisdom, and the Celtic Cross just sort of gently leached into the magical water supply as the tarot’s popularity grew.

Whatever the Celtic Cross is, it is most surely neither ancient nor Celtic.

But even if it were, it would still be a crappy spread for beginners (and maybe anyone). I say this because it’s just a hell of a lot of information. Ten positions, plus ten individual card interpretations, plus whatever connections you make as a reader is just a lot of opportunity for overload. Especially when any one card provides so much detail that it could, essentially, answer any question. Whether you’re an intuitive reader or you rely on an esoteric system, there’s a ton to say about any single card. A beginner, especially one relying on a LWB, does not need ten of them. In fact, most of the professionals I know don’t need ten of them.

I very rarely use spreads that involve more than five or six cards. My favorite spreads involve three or less. I think it’s a mistake to assume that “more complicated question” automatically equates to “more cards.” Just consider how much has been written about any one card (including the minors). Consider the level of detail in each image (at least, the ones that come out of the Golden Dawn tradition, which is most of them). Consider the possible permutations for interpretation available in the combination of any two or three cards.

Less is more. Less often ensures a greater level of clarity. Less is fewer opportunities for confusion or conflict. Less is further safeguard against just reading whatever you want into a spread.

Don’t believe me? Try answering a complicated question with a single card. Pull out every detail and every bit of tradition attached to that card. I think most people would be surprised.

Deck Showcase: Ritual Abuse Tarot

photo 3 photo 2 photo 1The Ritual Abuse Tarot by Ryan Sheffield was on my radar back when it was on Kickstarter, but I didn’t give it much consideration because I was so put off by the name. The horror genre is tricky and laden with all kinds of opportunities for the sort of misogynistic awfulness that I usually can’t process very well (which is not to say that these things don’t lurk elsewhere, only to note that horror communities are just particularly good at it), so my tendency is avoidance. “Ritual abuse” just makes me think of exploited children, when what I really want are werewolves and ghost stories and scary supernatural shit going RAWR I WILL EAT YOU in the night. The title alone was the buzz kill for me.

I finally gave this deck a serious look when I heard that it was inspired by the works of Stephen Gammell, whose art scared the shit out of me when I was a kid and is more than a little responsible for my ending up obsessed with witchcraft. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, allow me to refer you to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a trilogy of books that should absolutely be on your shelves (but not the 30th anniversary edition illustrated by Brett Helquist, which is a fucking atrocity, only because poor Helquist was set up to fail).

This deck is a total treat. The art is both nostalgic (for those of us who grew up with Scary Stories) and delightfully creepy. Even more appealing is Ryan Sheffield’s attitude, which is refreshingly unassuming and charmingly irreverent. In the included LWB we are told: “Be a mystic. Be a Skeptic. Spook your friends. Foretell the future. Trash the Major Arcana and just use the cards to play poker.”

If you love horror, monster and ghost stories, and ever had nightmares courtesy of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, you need this deck. There’s no sexual violence (which has long been a trigger for me in both the genre and in art generally), or any of the stuff that was initially wigging me out with the phrase “ritual abuse.” It’s also a quality printing job, with glossy cards, a neat-o aluminum box, and lots of care put into packaging. I’m so glad I finally added this deck to the collection.  Buy it here.

Collecting Tarot Decks

photo-4I really couldn’t tell you at what point I crossed the line from “practical tarot-loving person with reasonably-sized stack of different decks on a shelf” and stumbled into the craziness that is tarot collecting. Probably about the same time that I discovered my old Röhrig Tarot (one of my first decks) was going for stupid amounts of money on Ebay (think upwards of $300), or else when I decided I simply HAD TO HAVE the then out-of-print Chinese Tarot and was infuriated to find that it couldn’t be obtained (used, even) for less than $80 (BLARG).

I’ve always been a little bit of a packrat (well, maybe more like a food-aggressive dog that isn’t convinced there’s a next meal coming). I have several collections of various and sundry magical items: periodicals, wands, skulls, My Little Pony™ blind bag figures. A tarot deck collection was part of a natural progression, especially after I started reading professionally and writing a lot about tarot.

Aside from just loving tarot and wanting lots of it around all the time, I wanted to have lots of examples to show off as needed in the tarot classes that I teach. I wanted to be able to quickly take original photos for articles. I wanted to be able to produce decks that demonstrate a progression in tarot history, much in the same way that any scholar can reference published works over a span of time. Having immediate access to these materials facilitates writing, research, the synthesis of original ideas, and teaching.

Collectors usually have the specific m.o. of choosing and hoarding decks according to projections about future value. The point is preservation, resale, or some further strategy that doesn’t include regular use (which devalues the cards in the same way that writing margin notes devalues a book). Making projections about future value is part of what’s fun about collecting (it’s basically gambling, except you can’t lose out entirely). There’s also the thrill of hunting down and then acquiring something scarce.

Because there are so many available decks at any one time and limited funding for building a collection, it helps to have parameters. These will vary from collector to collector according to taste. Some of mine are as follows:

1) I prefer self-published or otherwise unique decks. First of all, after years of reading cards, mass-produced decks start to look the same (especially from companies like Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo). Self-produced decks are just more interesting. Second, they almost always appear in limited runs, which means that they’re more likely to accrue monetary value over time. As examples, consider the Collective Tarot and the Light Visions Tarot (PS, if any of my readers has either and would care to part with it, shoot me a message). Small batch decks have a tendency to appear and disappear before earning massive online interesting, so it helps to continually monitor sites like Kickstarter and Etsy for upcoming projects. Where possible, preorder.

2) I prefer decks that are just fucking weird. These may never be valuable (though sometimes are), but they often elicit cult-type followings and always make personal collections more interesting. Weirdness might include odd structures that deviate from usual tarot models, unusual themes (consider the Insane Clown Posse-themed Dark Carnival deck, which, hilariously, includes “juggalos” in its list of production materials), or particularly terrible (sometime great, but usually terrible) art. The weirder, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

3) I love historical reproductions. I’m a major nerd for tarot history, so any time I can get my hands on a quality reproduction (or the real deal) of a historically significant deck, I’m there. For me, these are perfect teaching tools, and just uniquely gratifying to own. Consider this limited release in the Marseille tradition.

Your own collection could be based on any individual standard or interest. Some people really love animal-themed decks, or collect decks from specific publishing houses.

Additional tips for building or maintaining a collection include the following:

1) Buy two copies. One to open and play with, the other to keep sealed and then sell when the value appreciates. If you wait until the deck has doubled in value, you essentially break even and, if you’re smart and careful, you can collect for profit. As a rule, when a deck reaches twice its original sale value, it’s time to sell.

2) Avoid handling, humidity, and basically anything that can damage paper. Decks are most valuable the closer they are to mint condition. Just letting paper products sit around unattended can cause them to devalue (ever smelled a musty book?). It’s important to control climate and handling wherever possible. Shuffling cards, oils from fingers and hands, and surface scratches from sliding a card on a hard surface can all cause depreciation and make a deck harder to sell.

3) Keep abreast of upcoming reprints. When a deck is rereleased (which just happened with that Chinese Tarot I mentioned earlier, and is typical of companies like Lo Scarabeo and U.S. Games), its value usually drops significantly. Deck values fluctuate, often in relation to how prominent a deck is in popular conversation.

4) Keep the box in good shape. If it’s a deck you’re going to use regularly, it can still pay to keep the box separately and in clean condition. The packaging is part of the deck, as far as a collector is concerned.

5) Maintain a network of fellow readers and collectors. Sometimes you’ll have good trading opportunities or else people who can keep an eye out for decks you’re looking for.

Tarot Contemplations: The Magician

IMG_6143Here’s an oldie pulled from the massive Archive of Things Written by Thorn.  The following essay was written in September of 2013 and specifically for my own tarot teacher, Wald Amberstone, as part of the Tarot School’s correspondence course.  I make a couple of references to course material, but I think it’s clear enough for a general readership. Enjoy!

The following section on The Magician was written after a long evening spent reading and considering social theorist Pierre Bourdieu.

It’s relatively easy to assert that the central meaning of The Magician is will.  Anyone who has been involved in any kind of magical practice or community for any length of time has heard that magic is change occurring in conformity to will, that one must possess will to work magic, that magic is only as strong as the magician’s will, etcetera ad nauseum.  These sometimes come to sound like platitudes.  They are true, of course, but I don’t think that many of the people making such statements (often casually and in the format of New Age self-help) are aware of just how profound a thing Will is.  In contemplating The Magician, I think about the role that Will plays (or doesn’t) in my own life.

When I was an undergraduate music major, I was involved in countless conversations about talent.  Brilliant musicians are often described by laymen as “talented” or “gifted,” and treated as though they possess something supernatural.  And, indeed, some people seem to possess inborn aptitudes that feel almost magical.  But in music school, we saw things very differently than the people sitting in our audiences or listening to our recordings.  Behind practically every “talented” musician are thousands of hours spent practicing, listening, and analyzing.  Students who were more “gifted” than others—prodigies—almost always came from musical families, where their training began sooner or was carried out in greater depth.  If not, they simply spent more hours sealed away in practice rooms than the rest of us.  Those who would chock things up to “talent” were often excusing themselves from working as hard (in the case of jealous classmates), creating theologies that justified their innate specialness (in the case of the prodigies themselves), or simply mystified and engaging in magical thinking (in the case of nonmusicians).  Usually, none of this is conscious—most of us believe in talent, even if intellectually we can explain it away.

I tell this anecdote because for me The Magician is that Will that creates the prodigy.  The prodigy makes it look effortless and mystifies his audience, even though intellectually we understand that, obviously, he practices a lot.  We would describe him as talented or gifted, but that’s never the whole story (and maybe not part of the story at all).  In the Transcendent Interpretation, you describe him as “the embodiment of surrender,” and this to me is most apt.  Keeping with my musician analogy, the prodigy is a prodigy at the expense of a great many other things.  I was no prodigy, but there were days when even I didn’t see sunlight because I was buried in a basement practice room all day.   Our Will drives us to be great at whatever our Craft is, but at great personal sacrifice.  We surrender much of what we would call “ourselves” in order to be great.

And most people, of course, are not prodigies.  Very few of us—an almost insignificant few—were graced with the social locations, time, and resources to pursue greatness.  But I believe (and a number of scholars in the fields of education, psychology, and cognitive science would agree with me) that we all possess that potential.  We are not all The Magician, but we all could be or could have been given the proper circumstances.

The Magician for me is the unshakable impulse to keep pushing myself to achieve.  Every time I lose the day, forget to eat, and finish whatever academic project I’m working on, and do so with joy, I am The Magician.  My work is not effortless, but it feels effortless and often looks effortless to outsiders.  My best friend thinks that I’m smarter than her, but the reality is just that I spend more time practicing the sorts of things that we associate with smart people: reading, writing, making connections, retaining information, etc.  I had to be taught how to do those things, and I had to practice them for countless hours.  And it is Will that drives me to continue doing them.  It no longer even feels like a decision that I make every day—it’s just what I do now.

So the central meaning of The Magician is Will, but for me it’s more profound than just the decision to do something.  It’s heavier than the simple act of setting a goal and deciding to work towards it.  The Will of The Magician occurs at the point where what was initially a simple decision (“I’m going to play the violin.”) becomes so much a part of what you are that you almost forget ever having made that decision (“I am a musician.”).

These Oracle Cards are Ruining My Snobbery

photo-4So oracle decks fuck with me on a couple of levels.

I’d never had any interest in them. In the realm of cartomancy, tarot is my reigning mistress, with a bit of Lenormand on the side just for variety. The history, the blending together of fascinating magical systems, the provocative artwork…

Oracle cards seem to be mostly devoid of all of the things that make me love tarot. Aside from all of the pastel airbrushing and sparkly foil borders, oracle decks seem to necessarily rely on intuition, impulse, and feelings. “I feel that this card is saying…” as opposed to “this card traditionally means…” With oracle cards, there’s usually not a lot outside of the deck itself to turn to for information. We’re left with our guts (and not in a fun, haruspicy sort of way).

This works for plenty of readers, and it’s certainly an effective way to divine. But it’s never been my preferred style. If I want to practice divination that relies primarily on my woo (a term I use with reverence and which encompasses my witchcraft, my relationships with my gods, and anything we might call “psychic” abilities), I have other preferred methods. Oracle cards have always struck me as super New-Agey, with their cutesy artwork (or Sports-Illustrated-swimsuit-issue portrayals of goddesses), feel-good messages, and plethora of writers with fake PhDs.

But! But! I’m having to throw out my previously established negativity when confronted with Stacey Demarco’s Halloween Oracle. Which I can’t stop handling. The artwork is gorgeous, the book is full of fun Halloween factoids, and even the print job is solid. So what the hell do I do with myself now?

I don’t really know yet. I’m screwing around with a totally different way of reading cards, trying to come up with spreads that make sense to me, and challenging my tendency to rely on external sources for information. It’s fucking with me. But in a good way.

I’ll write more about all this as things progress, and maybe persuade some of my regular clients to allow me to experiment on them.

I will say that, in my cursory reappraisal of oracle decks as a thing, I’ve continued to be disappointed (so many decks are just…gross), but the Halloween Oracle gives me some hope.

Coming back to the Rider-Waite

Working as a reader in a Pagan store that sells tarot cards and hanging out on the tarot Interwebs, I hear a lot of commentary about the various decks on the market. How to choose a good deck, whether or not you should even be buying your own deck, and all kinds of stuff about “connecting” to decks. But recently what’s interested me most is the language that surrounds the Rider-Waite deck and its closest variants (like my own cherished Universal Waite). It sounds like this:

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great beginners’ deck.”

“That’s fine until you connect with something more personal.”

“You’re still using the Rider-Waite?”

“I’ve got the Rider-Waite, but now I’m looking for something more advanced.”

I hear comments lIMG_6142ike the above almost every day, and there are a few assumptions at work here that I want to address.

First, there is the assumption that the Rider-Waite is a deck exclusively for beginners. I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between stating that a deck is ideal for new tarot users (and therefore a “great beginners’ deck”) and stating that the deck is somehow remedial (“…until you find something more personal/better/more detailed/whatever”). The Rider-Waite represents a keystone in tarot history to which the majority of tarot decks available today owe their structure and symbolism. Replacing Pamela Coleman Smith’s figure in The Magician with a cat holding a wand does not make this any less true. And because the Rider-Waite is a keystone deck, it absolutely is an ideal choice for beginners. What better way to learn than to go back to the source?

The mistake happens when we then assume that, because the Rider-Waite is both a good and popular choice for beginners, it is only a beginners’ deck and, eventually, we will all find something we “connect” with on a more intimate level.

When tarot readers talk about “connecting” to decks, they often mean locating those that incorporate figures or images that are more personally reflective. The images evoke particular emotions in them or make more sense to them in conveying traditional interpretations (or coming up with new ones altogether). Perhaps the art style is more appealing, or the images include figures that are more relatable (for example, a deck designed for gay men, or cat lovers, or Lord of the Rings fans, or Wiccans). Overwhelmingly, the basics of the Rider-Waite tradition will be preserved, however (illustrated minor arcana, the same set and order of trump cards, four suits with consistent elemental/magical associations, and comparable basic images, i.e. a Fool hovering above a cliff, a 3 of Swords that incorporates heart imagery, mounted Knights, etc.).

I get it. I too have decks that have greater personal appeal than my Universal Waite. As a Pagan, for example, I love the Robin Wood Tarot. Its Rider-Waite-meets-Wicca flavor satisfies my impulse to incorporate my witchcraft into my tarot practice and, frankly, it’s just better art than what I see in my Waite deck.

I could list others. There are plenty of decks that have more visual appeal for me than the Rider-Waite, and I can and do read with these. But underneath it all is the Waite deck, to which I always return. Not because I’m a beginner or because I haven’t properly connected to something more visceral, but because my love for history and tradition pulls me back around.

The second assumption underlying much of the above is that the Rider-Waite is simple, not advanced, or otherwise basic. People who use it are somehow unchallenged, inexperienced, or just haven’t progressed to something with real meat to it.

I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been reading cards for a few years and have described themselves as “masters” or “experts” of the Waite deck, and all I can do is gently smile and try to keep my mouth shut. What they really mean is that they’re comfortable doing readings with this deck. This does not mean that they appreciate (let alone understand) the intricate occult histories and esoteric systems present (alchemy and Qabalah anyone?).

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through studying the Rider-Waite, it’s that I’m never going to master it. There’s too much here, and I’ve only got so much time to devote to any one or two magical systems.

So in studying tarot—of any sort—it’s worthwhile to consider that maybe it isn’t so much progressing from the Rider-Waite but progressing toward it. For me, my use of the Universal Waite has been all about coming back around. With a growing background in the Golden Dawn and other influential magical systems, my appreciation for the tarot is a great deal deeper. Now, many Rider-Waite copies—while more beautiful—feel superficial to me. They often seem to be missing out on a big picture because the artist or writer was unversed in esoIMG_6143teric tradition. I think this is the reason why my favorite decks (aside from my Waite deck) are outside of the Waite system. The traditionalist in me demands that I study primary sources and not reproductions.

It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of great reasons to not use the Rider-Waite (offhand I think about Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, the glaring absence of POC figures, and just not giving a shit about the Golden Dawn), but because it is a “beginner” deck isn’t one of them.