The Fool’s Journey: Tarot Decks and Books to Get You Started

The Fool is the first card of the tarot’s Major Arcana, and represents someone starting off on a journey of learning about themselves and the world. That could be you! Learn how to read your cards and develop your mystic prowess with Autostraddle’s Tarot School. Or if that sounds like too much work, get a tarot reading right here!


After the first installment of  The Fool’s Journey, a bunch of you wanted recommendations for tarot decks and/or books to get for Tarot School and for, like, life in general. So here’s a quick Tarot School extra with a few suggestions!

There are tarot decks for pretty much anything you might be into. You like medieval cats? Check this out. Japanese Anime? Ooh, lookit! Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom? Oh hey there’s a tarot deck for that! Literally weeks can be lost on the interwebs ogling all kinds of nerdy decks to match your passions. There are tarot decks for different spiritualities, decks for feminists and womanists, decks for animal lovers, decks for lovers of literature. My one piece of advice would be to choose something truly meaningful over a ‘novelty deck’ if this is your first tarot deck. Look for an aesthetic that speaks to you, and something you feel you can connect with on a deeper level.

If you’re already familiar with the cards, one fun way to find a great deck is to compare images of your favourite card. So for me, quite often I’ll look straight to the Queen of Swords, The Magician or the Ten of Cups in a potential new deck, to see how the creator has interpreted it.

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Think also about card size (dainty hands + big-ass cards = embarrassing shuffle situations) and also quality (cards printed on thin or cheap stock don’t last long and don’t feel anywhere near as nice to use).

A wee myth I keep hearing (and there are plenty of daft myths around the shoulds and shouldn’ts of tarot) – is that you should be gifted your first tarot deck. If this was the case then half of us would never have begun. Just get looking for one that speaks to you and treat yo’self.

Here are a few of my favourite decks to get you started, plus a couple of books and blogs. Please know that these reflect my own taste and the things I personally search for in tarot – there are so many more decks and books out there. It’s important you find something that works for you.

Also if you’ve got a favourite tarot deck of your own, please go ahead and share it in the comments!


 

The Rider Waite Smith Tarot

This is the most popular tarot deck in the western world and the one upon which most tarot books and learning resources are based. Created at the turn of the century by weird occultist Arthur Edward Waite, the forgotten hero of this deck is the artist, Pamela Colman Smith (who had a fascinating life.) She was given free rein to interpret Waite’s ideas however she chose, and her vivid paintings are mystical, theatrical and to my eyes utterly beautiful. Wherever I go with my tarot studies, I always end up back here with these old familiar cards.


 

The Wild Unknown Tarot by Kim Krans

Okay, so this is my number one favourite ever tarot deck. It only came out a year ago but as soon as I laid eyes on it, I was smitten. Kim Krans’ artwork is stark and beautiful, with intelligent use of shape and colour which bring layers of meaning to what look like simple, beautiful ink drawings. Also, this deck features no people! Which means that image-wise, you get to steer clear of the heteronormative whitewash that’s a real problem with so many tarot decks. Another plus is that the cards are a pleasure to hold (so many decks are printed on low-quality card stock or use nasty laminates – these are just gorgeous to use.) In the US you can get it direct from the artist, or if you’re in the UK (quick plug) I’ll be stocking it in a week or two!

Wild Unknown Tarot via thenouveauromantics.com

Wild Unknown Tarot via thenouveauromantics.com


The Wildwood Tarot by John Matthews, Mark Ryan and Will Worthington

Pagan and nature-loving types will appreciate this deck, which works with the wheel of the year tradition and relies heavily on the seasons and the four elements, and comes with a detailed and beautifully written book explaining the archetypes and symbols used. One key idea that I love in the Wildwood Tarot is that it seeks to reconnect us with forgotten roots, to reestablish the human relationship with the natural world – with woods, seasons, animals, and our primal instincts.

Wildwood Tarot via littleredtarot.com

Wildwood Tarot via littleredtarot.com


The Anna K Tarot by Anna Klaffinger

Austrian artist Anna Klaffinger created this deck because she wanted something free from heavy symbolism and which instead depicted ordinary people living ordinary lives (albeit in middle ages -type costumes.) This is a very ‘people-focused’ deck, and what I love most about it are the facial expressions, which really convey joy and pain, generosity and jealousy, hope and anger.

Anna K Tarot via littleredtarot.com

Anna K Tarot via littleredtarot.com


The Mary-el Tarot by Marie White

Marie White’s labour of love is a deep and complex deck, definitely not one for the tarot dabbler or the faint hearted. I’ve been using it since it was published two years ago and I still don’t feel confident using it to read for others, so much is there to learn here. But it’s so worth the investment. These oversized cards feature White’s oil paintings, which are richly coloured and heavily laden with mythological symbols and references.

Mary-el Tarot via cowriemoon.wordpress.com

Mary-el Tarot via cowriemoon.wordpress.com


The Steampunk Tarot by Barbara Moore and Aly Fell

I bought this as a novelty deck, but it soon hooked me in with it’s ability to provide shockingly precise and clever readings and I often use it with my clients. These cards are filled with elegant Victorian ladies and gentlemen, punky pages (I so have a crush on the Page of Cups), wacky inventions and candlelit liaisons. It also comes with a proper, detailed book which is useful for beginners, but also a great read for more experienced readers.

Steampunk Tarot via via samhainmoon.blogspot.com

Steampunk Tarot via via samhainmoon.blogspot.com


The Collective Tarot

It’s a real tease to include this as The Collective Tarot is no longer available to buy and it looks like it won’t be printed again. Noooo! But here’s a peek into how radical tarot can be. DIY artwork, a community of queer activist types including plenty of characters who are differently-abled, racially mixed, gender nonconforming, queer activist types, and reinvention of the four suits (e.g. cups become bottles) made this a tarot deck that speaks to people who want to politicise their tarot and use cards that reflect their own queer communities.

(BTW I totally missed the boat with this deck, so if any of you readers own a copy and for some reason are ready to part ways, help a sister out and hook me up!)

Collective Tarot via via www.kickstarter.com

Collective Tarot via via www.kickstarter.com


The Tarot of the Silicon Dawn by Egypt Urnash

A bunch of you mentioned this after the first Tarot School column – I don’t have a copy but following up on your recommendations it looks like I’m gonna have to invest! Created by a trans* future-fantasy artist Egypt Urnash, this is a weird and wonderful ‘kinky alien’ deck filled with sci fi references and computer geekery. You can read more about the deck plus an amazing interview with Urnash on Translabyrinth, by Morgan M.


Tarot Books and Blogs

Both of these books are great places to start getting your head around the ‘traditional’ card meanings (although I aim in Tarot School to help you depart from these and develop your own ideas over time.) As are most tarot books, they’re based on the Rider Waite Smith cards.

The ubiquitous guide for tarot beginners is Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. Taking you one by one through each of the 78 cards and introducing you to a couple of common spreads (card reading layouts). You can buy the book (recommended!) or take advantage of Bunning’s generosity, as she has made the entire contents of the book available online for free here.

The book I loved when first learning tarot (and which I still turn to today) is Rachel Pollack’s Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom – another cult classic. I love Pollack’s deep (but not alienating) explorations of the cards, their symbols, their traditions.

There are also thousands of brilliant tarot blogs out there, each of which will give you the author’s personal take on the card meanings and an insight into different ways of reading them. You can find a list of my favourites on my own blog here. And if you already have a tarot blog of your own, link us up in the comments!

 

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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer from Todmorden, UK. She lives on a narrowboat with two cats and when not obsessing over tarot cards spends her time building websites, renovating her boat, cutting friends' hair, climbing hills and trawling the internet for beautiful music. Twitter Website AS member profile

Beth has written 11 articles for us.

65 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    The Rider Waite Smith deck never spoke to me and, for a while, made me think I couldn’t read Tarot because I couldn’t pull any meanings out without going to a reference.
    One day I was looking over the decks my local occult shop Edge of the Circle Books , when the Nigel Jackson deck popped out at me. I bought it on the spot and have been reading with it for the last 10 years, at least.
    I also have the Herbal Tarot, which I haven’t actually read, but I love the artwork.

    When I’m stymied by a card I do like to reference the book that comes with the deck to see what the artist was trying to convey to help get my thought process flowing. Another book I’ve found useful is Tarot Made Easy. My friend got if for me a few years back and it’s great for the beginning reader. I don’t always agree with the interpretation in the book for a specific reading, but it’s another good resource to help springboard out of a mental block.

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    A great place to check out decks before you purchase is aeclectic.net
    Lotta good reviews, thousands of published and self-published and unpublished decks to look through, organized alphabetically and by theme

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    I’d never heard before that someone should gift you your first deck. Someone actually did gift me my first, and I had a really strong connection with it. It was the Golden Tarot of Klimt – amazing pictures and so gorgeous – but it was stolen shortly afterwards, along with my purse.

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      A friend of mine gave everyone readings at our New Years party with one of the two Brian Froud fairy oracle decks and I just loved it. She’s the one who inspired me to pick up tarot again, and then this column was the kick in the pants to get going!

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      Awww I love the Magical Forest tarot! I had a major clearout last year and let it go, but I found it to be a really insightful deck – cutesy on the outside, actually really punchy (and at times downright harsh) when you delve into it.

      There are lots of different versions of the Rider Waite Smith deck – they all have the exact same pictures, except stylistically the art has changed… so there’s the ‘Universal Rider Waite’ in which the drawings are softer and have thinner lines, the ‘Radiant’ which has brighter colours, there’s also a Pamela Colman Smith ‘commemorative set’ which has a book about her life plus the cards are produced with the original colours (far more muted than in the standard deck).

      There are others too, but I’ve never really investigated as I personally really like the standard one.

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        I had no idea there were that many versions of the RWS around. Since I’m a giant nerd I immediately Googled to find some images, and now I kind of want to get one of the commemorative sets just because that version doesn’t have the deeply, deeply terrible plaid cardbacks. I would totally pay $20 just so I never have to look at that tragic pattern again. But, on the other hand, I’ve had my RWS deck since I was 14. So I know if I replace it, I’ll always picture it sitting quietly in its tatty yellow box, feeling sad because I don’t love it anymore.

        Does anybody own the Pamela Smith deck, or has anybody seen it in person? The tea-staining effect looks kinda grungy in a lot of the pics, but it’s hard to tell over the interwebs.

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    I just spent the entire evening looking at different Tarot decks. The Silicon Dawn one is amazing! Everytime I read this article, I want to go out and buy a new deck. I’m kind of conflicted though, because I LOVE my mini-deck aside from the fact that’s kind of small, but at the same time, I feel like it reflects a different part of me that I’ve outgrown.

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    So uber scientsist me has always been pretty non-believing (and somewhat uppity and skeptical) in tarot, but this column and that fucking gorgeous The Wild Unknown deck is turning me around. The psychologist in me really likes the idea of using Tarot as a Rorschach test, the poet in me just wants to sit down and write about each card and possibly get them tattooed all over my body, and the partier in me just wants to whip the deck out and do random drunken readings for people.

    This must be what falling in love with someone who’s your opposite feels like.

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    I really feel drawn to the Shadowscapes tarot. The artwork is absolutely gorgeous, and I got really excited when I saw that the Death card is a Phoenix. I am also really drawn to the Wild Unknown tarot, because it is also gorgeous and I love the animals and use of color.

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    OMG the Shadowscapes Tarot…I can’t believe I left it off my list! This was the first deck I came across when I realised there were, like, other tarot decks (ha!) and I didn’t like it at first (fairy/fantasy/pastel colours not my aesthetic)…but the more I looked at the cards (wow that phoenix, Lauren…) the more I realised how deep and intelligent and amazing it is.

    It really helped me to expand my understanding of tarot and realise that I didn’t have to follow one set tradition and learn the cards from a book.

    You can look at all of the cards here!

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    I started with the Rider Waite deck and it helped me a lot in learning the basics and getting used to readings. The deck I find that works best for me is the Tarot of the New Vision. I love the artwork and really find that I am best able to read with this deck than any other I’ve tried.

    What is really awesome about Tarot of the New Vision is that each card shows what the original Rider Waite card image is just rotated by 180 degrees. So it adds familiars and new figures and landscapes. Any figure that is seated (Queens and Kings, High Priestess etc) the image is adjusted slightly or the Rider Waite image is carved into the back of the throne.

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    For some reason my post was all mashed up. Here again without the links.

    My first tarot decks:
    Haindle tarot – not really into this one anymore.
    Rider Waite Smith
    Tarot of the Master – intuitive possibilities of interpretation now seem limited to me. But it remains rather cheerful.

    Arriving today:
    Dreaming Way tarot
    Tarot of the Magical Forest – Beth, I’m glad to have read your thoughts on this deck. What you said about it was the impression I got from photos online. It does seem like it has some depth, not just cutesy pie animals.

    When the Haindl tarot spoke to me so many years ago I was in a very dark, stagnant place and I now feel that energy very much in the artwork. I wanted something that was lighter and these two new decks really jumped out at me.

    I’m the type of person who loves hard, cold, scientific facts. I’ve always been slightly amused at my interest in Tarot. I actually never felt skeptical but took a “in a world where nothing is real anything is possible” stance (can’t remember who said that, sorry author whoever you are). What intrigues me about it is that it’s a space that allows the intuition free reign. It helps you to connect the truths you know in your heart with the practical logic of your mind. I think we need both those things present in life to feel fulfilled. I’ve certainly regretted making decisions totally based on cold practicallity and suppressing what my heart told me was right for me!

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    I’ve never been able to decide on the perfect deck, so I just have my difficult X/1999 cards. In the first photo, is that the Shadowscapes tarot on the far right? I’ve been thinking about that one, and I really like the look of it. (If I’ve guessed wrong, what deck is that from?)

    So many choices… I think I get why people think you should be gifted your first deck! If you’re anything like me, you’ll just dither endlessly and never make a decision unless someone chooses for you!

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      Yeah, that’s The Magician from the Shadowscapes. A real stunner. In traditional decks this card tends to show a full-on chap wearing robes and with his sword, pentacle, cup and wand in front of him, I love how this one is so much more subtle and mysterious, with symbols of the four elements hanging from his wings – earth, air, fire and water.

      You honestly want someone to choose for you? Okay…go get the Shadowscapes! It comes with a really good, thick book too, so great for learning.

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    I was so excited when this series started! In fact, I was so excited I went into my dresser drawer where I keep my favorite tarot deck that I bought when I was 16, which was like… a long-ass time ago. And then I discovered that it wasn’t there. Where did it go???

    I have a Rider-Waite deck, but I hate it. The cartoony illustrations bother me. They’re not even good illustrations like in a comic book. They’re totally just weird old cartoony illustrations.

    I decided to buy a new deck since I hate the one I have (which… does anyone want it? It should go to someone who would love it.) and I realized I have no idea what my old deck was called. It was dark and had photography-based cards. It was like a hybrid photography/illustration combo that’s hard to describe. I can’t find it anywhere online, and have never seen a deck like it in any store that sells tarot cards since I bought it in 1999.

    Tl;dr: I bought the Steampunk deck. And I want my old deck of unknown name back.

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      Could it be the Vision Tarot, by Tim Thompson, published by Carta Mundi in 1995? Your description immediately reminded me of it – maroon and black, photographs that look like drawings. The Star is on the front of the box. I’ve used it for eons, never seen one like it. I even got an extra for fear of losing it.

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          Ah, great! I knew that would have to be the one! Oh, I love this deck. The images are super clear, probably because they had to be imagined in a way that was photographable. Normally, lots of people in a deck might put me off, but here it works for me, it has a kind of timeless, mysterious, carnivalesque atmosphere. I also like the subtle way the elements have been worked into the deck.The booklet that comes with it isn’t useful, but I use other books and transpose ‘pentacles’ for ‘coins’ and ‘wands’ for ‘staves’ where necessary. I found it really easy to familiarise myself with the cards with this deck, being able to do intuitive readings quite quickly, and though I like other decks, this is the one I go for when reading for someone else.

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    Alas no Thoth? Thoth is also a great deck and nearly contemporaneous with the Rider/Waite/Smith, but a bit more dark and headf*cky, and some might say better (not I, necessarily) as it was developed by one Mr Aleister Crowley, also a member of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as were the originators of the classic R/W/S deck.

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    This list of decks, blogs, and books is so helpful, thank you!

    I got started with the RWS. The images are so strange and esoteric to me. Especially the Moon. I can stare at that card with so many questions, and I’ll feel like I’m right on the verge of understanding something.

    I’m a little nervous to try a new deck, but that’s what tarot is all about so I’m going to get out of my comfort zone. Since I usually like the ancient/medieval aesthetic, I think I’m going to work with the Wild Unknown or the Wildwood.

    Do you have advice on what to do if you are missing a card from your deck? I lost the King of Swords probably a year ago. I told myself this had meaning, that the King of Swords represented my ex-partner and I was letting that part of my life go, but now I’m like…I need that card back. Do people trade cards if they end up with extra or something?

    My RWS is also missing the Lovers card because I gave it to my current partner to keep while we are apart (we are in a long distance relationship). So I guess getting a new deck is a good idea anyway.

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    I have… a lot of decks. Not as many as some readers in the tarot facebook group I’m a part of, but enough to qualify me for said “Tarotholics Anonymous” group.

    One of my favorite books is “Tarot for Your Self: A workbook for Personal Transformation” by Mary K Greer. Great if you want some guided self reflection, you’re a writer/journal-er, or if you want to get deep into how your readings are influenced by your own experiences.

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    Was gifted a Golden Dawn deck by my ladyfriend and woo, boy, that deck pulls NO punches. It’s a truth hammer kind of deck–tells you what you need, not what you want to hear.

    I’m quickly falling in love with the Wild Unknown deck! I’m having a hard time finding precisely the kind of deck I want (lady-centric but not second-wavey), and might just have to make my own…

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    I’m desperately in love with the Wild Unknown deck. However, it’s too costly for me at the moment. Aspirations!

    I did, however, get the Anna K deck after much looking and reading around. I’m excited…a bit nervous…but excited!

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        My first reading was just a general reading to get a feel for how the cards work. I used the spread in the back of the book called Panoramic Photograph. I don’t have a pic, but here’s what the card positions are supposed to correspond to, and which cards I got for each position:

        1 – You (10 Pentacles – reversed)
        2 – Your current challenge/issue/etc. (Chariot)
        3 – Your fears or weaknesses (8 Pentacles)
        4 – Your hopes and strengths (8 Cups – reversed)
        5 – The past influences on the situation (7 Cups)
        6 – The outcome (Ace of Swords)

        It should be noted that the creator of this deck doesn’t do reversals, which I didn’t know when I did this reading. I was a little confused by it until I found that out–the reading makes sense without reversals, but doesn’t really make sense with reversals. I put in the reversals anyway here because I’d love to see how others handle that.

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          Wow… this looks like right now you’re really not quite sure what to focus on or what your ‘life goals’ should be…but you’re ready to make wise choices (even if they make you a bit sad) and then to reward you for being brave and amazing Steampunk is gonna help you get this whole new perspective on life and *everything*?!

          Powerful reading!

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        Not really. I still have to look a lot up. I suck at memorization, but I think the book that comes with this deck is really helpful for making sense of the different groups of cards. The illustrations are also really intuitive.

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    I wanna throw out a recommendation for the Universal Waite deck to start with, if, like me, you find the Rider-Waite color scheme garish (I can’t deal with that much bright yellow). The Universal Waite has the exact same images, but with much softer coloring.

    I am friggin pumped for Tarot School.

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    I have the Inner Child deck. It’s fairy tale themed, and the illustrations are just beautiful. I haven’t used it much, though, and I’m looking to get a more “traditional” deck to really get started with because Inner Child re-imagines the Major Arcana as fairy tales (The Fool is Little Red Cap, The Moon is Cinderella, etc) and renames the suits to Wands, Swords, Winged Hearts, and Crystals. I think that’s awesome and might make it easier to read intuitively, given the familiarity of the stories, but I think I need to learn the traditional interpretations too.

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