By Jonathan Timar 2 Comments

How to Choose a Tarot Deck: The Limelight Way

There are hundreds of articles on how to choose a tarot deck. Every book on tarot has a chapter dedicated to this topic, every website has a section about it, and every person has an opinion about it.

So why another article on this done to death topic?

Because I think that most of the deck choosing guides out there make too many assumptions about their readers, and take a one size fits all approach, which can lead to some confusion, as each approach seems to incompatible with the others.

It doesn’t help that there is an astounding amount of “information” on tarot that has been written by the mentally retarded, so in an effort to provide some straight forward clarity and advice, I have elected to write my own guide.

Why are you interested in tarot in the first place?

I believe that the best way to choose a tarot deck depends greatly on what your intended use of tarot is. Do you plan to give readings? Are you interested in using tarot as a tool for personal reflection? For meditation? Do you simply appreciate the artwork? Are you interested in studying the history of tarot, particularly as an occult ritual tool?

The criteria for your choice will vary greatly with every one of these scenarios.

The symbology of tarot

Tarot at it’s core is about symbols. Symbols are common to every tarot deck however what those symbols are, and their depth of meaning can vary greatly.

Tarot deck fall into three major categories:

  • Occult decks
  • Modern decks (sometimes called post-modern, or PoMo)
  • Pre-occult decks

Pre-occult decks are those that were created previous to any occult influence on the tarot. Most of are of Italian or French origin, and were used for playing games, much like modern playing cards are used today. Though these decks themselves have no occult significance, they most certainly do contain symbols, many of which were retained when the esoteric aspects of tarot were developed.

Some examples of pre-occult tarot decks include Tarot de Marseilles and the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Deck that fit in this category would be of greatest interest to those who have an interest in tarot history or renaissance art, as well as collectors.

Modern tarot decks are by far the largest and most varied group. For that reason it is very difficult to sum them up. Some stick very closely to the occult tarot symbolism that inspired them, while others have dramatically different interpretations that have little to do with anything that came before. The most significant sub group in this category are the decks based on the Rider-Waite tarot, sometimes known as Waite-Smith clones (after the designer, Arthur Edward Waite, and the deck’s artist, Pamela Coleman Smith). These decks retain much of it’s symbolism, those something is usually lost in translation as the creators are rarely adequately versed in the meanings behind the symbols in the Waite-Smith deck. The level of quality among modern tarot decks varies considerably, from the truly excellent and Golden Dawn inspired Hermetic Tarot (Godfrey Dawson), to utter crap put out by lesbian feminazis like the Motherpeace and Daughters of the Moon decks.

Some popular modern tarot decks are the Hanson-Roberts tarot, the Robin Wood tarot, the Morgan-Greer tarot, and the Aquarian tarot. Keep in mind that just because they are popular does not mean they are good.

The audience for these decks, like the decks themselves is wide and varied, but would primarily be those interested in divination and art. Those interested in tarot history and occult traditions generally find these decks less appealing for the most part.

Finally we have occult tarot. This is a much smaller group that finds it’s origins in deck created by occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known by his pseudonym, Etteilla. The most significant occult tarot decks however were the aforementioned Waite-Smith deck, and the Thoth tarot, created by Aleister Crowley, both members of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn was a secret society in Britain in which tarot was featured prominently in its teachings and rituals. Occult decks feature rich symbols with great depth and layered meanings, and draw inspiration from the Qabalah, astrology, alchemy, the Hebrew alphabet and various other teachings of the occult and mysticism.

This is by far the most interesting and most in-depth type of tarot deck, and should hold appeal to anyone interested in tarot history, symbolism, divination, meditation and art.

So how do you choose?

In reality, it is highly likely to will eventually end up with more than one tarot deck. But even so, the choice of your first deck may have a significant impact on your journey with tarot cards.

If you are at all interested in the historical and occult aspects of tarot, you should definitely choose your deck accordingly, and you can safely eliminate most modern decks from your consideration.

If you are primarily interested in using tarot for divination and meditation, but less concerned with tarot history and in-depth symbols, then you will also find many modern decks of interest.

Pre-occult decks are rather light on symbols and are not as well suited for those looking for divination or mediation tools, but would certainly be worth considering for collectors or those interested in history and artwork.

Don’t believe any silly nonsense about letting your deck “speak to you”. Do a little research and choose a deck based on what you intend to do with it, and what your interests are. If you do choose to purchase a deck that is “off the beaten path”, keep in mind that most books on tarot are written with more traditional, occult decks in mind. If your deck deviates to greatly from convention, you will likely find yourself a bit lost.


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  • I was told you shouldn’t buy one for yourself.

    And I was given a Hansen Roberts deck.

    At one point I had the whole thing systematized, but I lost all those notes. It was pretty cool though.

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