Tarot Cards are one sub-set of ‘Oracle Decks‘- which encompasses Tarot, Le Normand and Kipper decks. Modern Bridge or Poker decks are Oracle decks if used for divination- it’s the intention rather than the product name. And then there are thousands of totally individual oracle decks; based on everything from historical, mythic, or literary paradigms such as First Nations (indigenous peoples of the Americas) traditions to various gods & goddesses around the globe to beloved fictional universes.
Everything from the number of cards to the style of art (or typography if not illustrated) to meanings and suggested uses for non-Tarot decks is up to the individual deck creator (and/or publisher). While there is no official definition of a Tarot Deck- nothing like the Académie française to issue approvals- most popular decks consist of 78 cards in 5 suits; a Major Suit of 22 cards and 4 Minor Suits; Swords, Cups, Wands and Pentacles. Each Minor Suit having 10 numbered cards and 4 Court or Face cards.
Decks prior to the 1910 Rider, Waite, Smith deck (R/W/S) generally had illustrations on the Majors and the Court Cards, but only ‘pips’ (such as seen on modern poker or bridge decks) for each numbered Minor. Other common sources or systems of deck design include the 1969 Thoth Deck of Aleister Crowley and the earlier Marseilles Decks. This isn’t the place for detailed discussions on the history or creation stories of each tradition; suffice it to say that the bulk of Tarot decks in the last 100 years have consciously followed or intentionally varied from the R/W/S deck’s imagery, suit & card names, and general meaning or symbolism. Yes, this is painting with an incredibly broad brush. There are other places to pick nits over details; here I’m focused on decks that seem to fit, more or less comfortably, within the R/W/S tradition.
But how far afield can a designer go from that tradition before potential buyers consider a deck something other than Tarot?
Below I’ll look at some of the currently available Tarot decks to see how much they stray from the above basic definition. With the intention of having other Card Readers comment on how far is, for them, too far.
Common Minor Changes:
There are a variety of changes that most people agree are minor, and certainly don’t preclude the decks from being called ‘Tarot’.
Differences in suit names that can easily be read or interpreted as one of the traditional names are common:
- In the Everyday Enchantment Tarot the Minors are Wands, Cups, Coins and Blades;
- In the Tarot of Sister Who##, the 4 Minor Suits are Candles, Chalices, Thuribles and Paraments;
- In the Muse Tarot, the 4 Minor Suits are Inspiration, Emotions, Voices and Materials.
Alternate names for selected Majors names are common- often for gender diversity or spiritual/religious reasons:
- Major 5 is usually Hierophant, but also may be Pope or High Priest, and is Faith in the Tarot of Dreams;
- Majors 2 and 5 are Papess and Pope in the Medieval Scapini Tarot;
- Major 10 is The Wheel of Fortune, or just The Wheel in some decks;
- Major 12 is the Hanged Man or Hanging Man (interesting the difference that change in tense could mean)- and is the Hanged Muse in the Muse Tarot;
- Major 16 is The Falling Tower, or just The Tower in some decks;
- The last two Majors in the Muse Tarot are Awakening and The World Cosmos.
While the numbering and order of the Majors are pretty well fixed to that used by Waite, designers may chose to reverse Strength (Waite’s #8) and Justice (#11) to match the older Marseilles structure.
With 40 of the Minor cards being numbered, the only names to be changed (other than One for the Ace of each suit) would be the Court Cards:
- The Sheridan Douglas Tarot (which I don’t have; but would like to) uses Knave instead of Page. In The Tarot (1972, Taplinger Pub, NY) Alfred Douglas claims The Golden Dawn used Princess, Prince, Queen, Knight (page 126 of Penguin Books’ 1973 paperback ed);
- The Queens are, I’m told, called Visionaries in the Slow Holler Tarot;
- The Kings become the Muse of each suit in the Muse Tarot;
- The St. Jinx Arcana Gold Tarot Deck includes 6 feminine-presenting cards, but offers a ‘Divine Masculine’ version that replaces the Queens with a Crown Prince of each suit, The High Priestess replaced with The Mystic, and the Empress with The Consort.
More impactful differences:
Designers remove and replace the traditional Face or Court Cards:
- In the Tarot of Sister Who the Court Cards are replaced by the Confessor, Celebrant, Angel and Saint of each Minor Suit;
Decks where cards are missing all (or nearly all) R/W/S imagery/symbols:
- The Tarot of Sister Who renames the cards in the Major Suit to reflect a more earthly progression of one’s life than the traditional Major Arcana’s ‘quest for enlightenment’ – while touching on many philosophical questions or concerns. Between the new names and the use of photography, the symbols and details often don’t directly match R/W/S tradition;
- The Ark consists of 78 Tarot-card labeled animal images (plus 22+ non-Tarot named animals) without any R/W/S symbols or objects.
Some decks include additional Cards:
- The Tarot of Dreams (Ciro Marchetti) includes 4 additional cards- the Palace of each suit;
- The designer of the St. Jinx Arcana Gold Deck offers an Expansion Pack with 12 cards representing the Western astrological signs;
From time to time I see decks advertised as being Tarot with fewer cards than 78- since I’ve ignored them in the past I can’t name any here. Have any of my readers seen (perhaps even purchased) any such deck? And I’m not thinking of 22 card decks being marketed as ‘Majors Only’. Interestingly most of the Imperial Dragon Oracle‘s 22 cards map very easily to the R/W/S Major Arcana.
Please feel free to add a relevant comment below.
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