From time to time I teach an introductory course in reading the Tarot. Students often ask which tarot deck they should buy, and this is my answer -- buy the one that speaks to you. There are hundreds of decks to choose from, some traditional, some not, but you will know which one is right for you to start with by how you resonate with the imagery. Some styles of artwork will leave you cold. Other styles will draw you in. Still others might completely turn you off.
Depicted above is the first card in 6 different decks. Only one of of these is considered traditional -- the one on the bottom left which is from the Rider Waite deck, one of the most commonly used Tarot cards.
The classic imagery for the 0 or Fool card includes a young person starting out on a journey with innocence and faith. He -- typically the person is male -- is intended to be seen as naive, or open to all possibilities. There is a hopefulness or optimism conveyed, a willingness to meet whatever comes.
The Fool usually carries a staff and a bundle of some kind, and is accompanied by a small dog or companion animal. He is poised on the edge of a high cliff, often overlooking an expanse of air, or a river, a sign of wondering where the journey will take him. The 5 non-traditional cards above have all reinterpreted this classic imagery, but most give a similar impression -- Merlin as a Fool, not withstanding! And even though some of the cards have re-titled the image -- Hero, Seed, or Beginnings -- they all show the number zero to indicate which card it is in the collection called the Major Arcana.
Shown here are two more Fools from the traditional deck of Morgan Greer, on the left, and the almost traditional Herbal Tarot, on the right. The imagery is nearly identical in terms of the symbology used, but the style is quite different.
From this variety of images you can see how diverse and yet similar different sets of Tarot can be. The meaning of the symbols is relatively consistent from deck to deck, but some companion books that come with the decks may interpret each card in a different context. This can be an important element in selecting a deck as well, as some decks might be great for readings about relationships while others yield better intuitive messages about finances, and so on.
How to Approach Your Purchase
In some circles it is the custom to wait for a deck to be given to you as a gift. Unless you associate with a lot of people who are plugged into the metaphysical world, this may never happen. It has been my experience that the decks that work best for me were not the ones that someone else picked out for me, but rather the ones that delighted my eyes.
If possible, visit a metaphysical store that has a selection of open decks that you can handle prior to buying a new one. Not all cards will immediately speak to you, but when you find a deck where the majority of images do delight you eye, and feel good in your hands, that's likely a good one to start with. If not possible, Google tarot cards and take note of which images appeal to you and try to discover what deck they belong to.
Some people find certain cards "scary" -- particularly the Devil, the Death, and the Tower cards. When possible, it's helpful in the selection process to check out your reactions to these cards in any deck you are considering.
Shown at left are these three cards from the Dark Tarot (top) and the Chrysalis Tarot Decks. The Chrysalis deck, by the way, is the one from which the Merlin card at the top of this blog post is found.
It's important that you not feel repulsed by these cards. So it might help to know a bit about their meanings and purpose in Tarot.
You see, the Major Arcana cards trace the journey of spiritual awakening, and everyone's journey includes the destruction of old belief structures (symbolized by the Tower card), the meeting up with temptations and distractions (symbolized by the Devil card), and the necessity of dying to your illusions so that deeper truths can be born (symbolized by the Death card). Only bogus fortune tellers use these cards to convince you that you are in grave physical danger.
Don't be afraid to select a deck, only to discover later that you don't really like it, or that it doesn't seem to work well for you. You can always give it to Goodwill or perhaps sell it / trade it in at Half Price Books. But do give the cards time to reveal themselves to you, and for you to develop your intuitive skills by contemplating the imagery. It can take time to cultivate a relationship with any spiritual tool, and Tarot cards are no exception.
Oracle or Tarot Cards -- How to Know the Difference
Tarot cards have a specific structure and number. There are four suites, one each corresponding to Earth (Pentacles), Air (Wands or Swords), Fire (Rods), Water (Cups-- which may have more creative labels in the non-traditional decks. And there is the Major Arcana, as has been illustrated above.
Oracle cards do not have this structure. Many oracle decks aren't even numbered. There is no Major Arcana in an Oracle deck, and no suits, although some imagery might suggest one of the 4 elements.
Oracle cards can be used with Tarot layout patterns. You'll just miss out on the deeper connections to the spiritual journey and the elemental energies when you make that substitute.