My Favorite Tarot Art.

The Tarot is pretty cool. Not only is it a great tool for metaphysical tinkerings and all that, but every deck is a work of art. I have always loved art, and I think that, even if the Tarot was good for nothing else, it is worth appreciating for art’s sake.

This post is almost not fair, because in fact I like the artwork in all of my decks, and in so many more that I don’t even have – and, whether I like a particular deck or not, I have nothing but respect and awe for the artist who can accomplish such a feat. I can’t help but look with fondness upon any Tarot I stumble across, no matter how lowly its place on my subjective personal hierarchy.

But while every deck is an incredible work of art, there are certain decks that, to me, are simply exceptional. I’ve selected six of my favorites for this post.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order):

While these cards were not randomly selected for photos, it should be borne in mind that I have many, many more than three favorites in each of these decks.

The Wildwood Tarot (art by Will Worthington). The detail in these images is amazing. They depict creatures and characters in a great, sprawling, mythical forest set in prehistoric Europe. The forest itself feels alive and sentient, and the primitive humans living on its fringes seem to live in harmony with nature, with a healthy respect/fear of it. The art is not photo-realistic by any stretch, and yet it is totally convincing. This Tarot is different from any others – it is completely original.* I don’t really mind when a Tarot breaks from tradition, but if it’s going to, and I’m going to get it, it needs to be very good, and a big part of that for me is the artwork. These cards fit the bill (and then some), and when I use them, I walk through the forest in my imagination, and that’s thanks in no small part to the artist.


My photos do not do anything in this post justice.

The Shadowscapes Tarot (art by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law). If the Wildwood glimpses into an ancient Fanghorn-type forest, the Shadowscapes crosses the divide and depicts the Otherworld, the Realm of Faerie itself. These cards are straight up fantasy, and the artwork is unbelievable. I only wish the cards were larger so I could better lose myself in them for a while. When I first wrote about these cards, I had little to say except that the artwork is stunning, and in the time since, I still can’t seem to come up with words to match it.



The Mary-El Tarot (art by Marie White). I could take just about any one of the cards from this deck and blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall, and it would seem perfectly natural as an art piece, and the normies out there would be none the wiser about its esoteric source. Furthermore, I could put up several, and I doubt anyone would realize at first look that they not only came from a pack of cards, but that all came from the same artist (assuming her signature on each piece was overlooked). The artist, quite simply, displays a mastery of her craft – that is, painting (oils? I’m not sure what exactly she used, or even if she used the same paints for every card, but it’s all hand-painted nonetheless) – showing proficiency in a very broad range of styles. The art is mythic and highly symbolic, with subtle references to Tarot tradition beautifully rendered in stunning colors.



The Mystical Tarot (art by Giuliano Costa). I haven’t yet posted anything else about this deck (although I did sneak in a photograph of the Six of Swords in my post about the suit of Swords). A review is forthcoming, so I’ll save the bulk of my gushing for that, but suffice it to say that the artwork is, well – it’s a lot of things. Beautiful, for sure, but also surreal, even trippy (yet subtly so), and sometimes just plain weird. The crazy thing is, when something weird catches my eye, I can’t help but focus on it, and at first, I’m a little put off (such weirdness includes the creepy seahorse-creature-things that pervade the suit of Cups – I’m not sure how I feel about them). Yet, the longer I gaze at the card, the less weird it becomes. I can’t really explain it. I get the sense that, while strange to me, such things are perfectly natural in the world depicted, and I find myself sucked right in. I can’t help but like it, although it certainly wouldn’t have the same entrancing effect on me if the art was poorly executed.

Now, I never get a Tarot unless the art agrees with my sense of aesthetics. However, the Mystical Tarot is one of only two decks that I bought solely because I just loved the artwork, the second deck being…


The Sun and Moon Tarot (art by Vanessa Decort). Compared to everything else in this post, the Sun and Moon Tarot might appear very simplistic – I’ve even heard it called childish in some reviews and forums. If you think this, I have two things to say: 1) look again, because there is way more to these cards than meets the eye, and 2) since when is simple so wrong? Sometimes less is more, and even though this Tarot lacks the immaculate detailing of all the others on this list, it is easily one of my favorites in the art category. These images are like dreams. All of the things I’ve read complaints about – the small figures against large landscapes, the faceless characters – are things that I am inexplicably drawn to. Of course, we each have our own tastes, which is great, but I certainly wouldn’t write this one off as a childish or low-brow deck. It is playful, for sure, but that’s deceptive, because underneath is a Tarot with serious implications. But that’s all beside the point of this post, isn’t it, so I’ll just leave it at this: the artwork in these cards is sublime.



The Thoth Tarot (art by Lady Frieda Harris). And so we come to the Thoth. I can’t not include it. I always enjoyed the art of the RWS, and was fascinated by that of the TdM, but the Thoth was the first Tarot with artwork that truly blew me away. You’ll notice that neither the Rider or the Marseilles is on this list. I’ve found a few RWS and TdM derivatives with artwork that transcends the originals. No re-imagining beats the Thoth in this regard. It was unprecedented when it was first published, and it set the bar pretty high for everything that followed. The crazy thing is that these “crowded” pictures are not composed of filler – every line, shape, and color is intentional, with very specific purpose, following a very intricate structure – and the fact that these cards are genuine works of art and not just a muddled hodgepodge of esoteric symbolism is nothing short of amazing.


So those are my favorite examples of Tarot art. The runners up were the Medieval Scapini Tarot and the Aquarian Tarot. The MST was very close, but I had to cut this post off somewhere, or I’d end up just doing all of my cards. The AT, on the other hand, actually contains some of my favorite artwork. Unfortunately, some of my least favorite is in there, too, and I wanted to emphasize both the art of the individual cards and of the deck as a whole, and in my opinion, the AT does not fit the latter criteria; at least, not well enough to make the top tier.

What are your favorites? Feel free to share.


*It’s actually a reboot of the Greenwood Tarot, now out of print and highly sought after by serious collectors. I personally think the Wildwood artwork is the more compelling of the two by a long shot (no disrespect to the Greenwood’s artist).


Birthday Reading.

Here’s a little anecdote about synchronicity, if you’re interested.


Above is a photo of the Sentinel reading I performed on my birthday last week. Notice the Death candle between my rune-bowl and the tree-lantern. I’ve taken to calling it “Candle XIII.”

Candle XIII was a gift from a close friend of mine, received towards the end of the summer. I did not light it; Death is associated with Scorpio, my sign, and I resolved to burn it for the first time on Halloween, my birthday, as I laid down a personal year-end spread. I liked it as a symbol of clearing the old to make way for the new, and as a memento mori on my celebration day – a reminder of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not to mention, it has a certain aesthetic as a Halloween decoration.

When the time came, and the sun had set, and I had a proper birthday-buzz going, I prepared my reading table, selected my significator (the Prince of Cups, again based on zodiacal attribution), and shuffled my cards. I lit the tree-lantern,* Candle XIII, and a third stumpy little candle stub, and turned off all other lights, opting to read only by the eerie glow. I counted out twenty cards and set the rest of the pack to the side. I turned over and placed the cards according to the design of the spread, down to the last one, which was to be the conclusion.

As I was about to turn that card, I was seized by an inexplicable hesitation – something told me this card wasn’t right. I gazed into the flame of Candle XIII, scrying for a pointer.

I don’t normally scry, although I have done it a few times before (usually to natural phenomena rather than a crystal ball or something like that). Scrying is a different class of divination than cartomancy or sortilege, and I tend towards the latter. The same instinct that told me not to turn the card led my eyes to the Death candle’s flame, and I couldn’t have planned or explained it. The air was very still in my darkened room, and the flame was tall and motionless. As I watched, the tip of the flame appeared to fork, like a snake’s tongue, without inducing so much as the slightest flutter. In a motion, I cut the deck and removed a new card for my conclusion.

It was card XIII, Death.

I guess that’s just the Universe’s way of saying,
“Happy Halloween.”


These were some Quintessence cards for the reading, calculated from the total numerical value of various sections of the spread. The first 8 cards (the watchtower) added up to the Hierophant; the next 12 (the horizons) to the Hermit; and the Quintessence of the final card was, of course, Death (which does reduce further to the Emperor). The entire spread subsequently reduces to the Hermit. Cards from the CHT.


*The tree-lantern is my usual card-reading lamp, which I always burn during my ritual weekly readings to help set the mood. I consider it a symbol of my patron, the Hermit, and the tree represents the World Tree at the heart of the cosmos.


The Sentinel’s Spread, Revisited.

A little while ago, I shared my revised version of the Sentinel’s Spread. What I’d wanted to do with that post was to begin a series, in which I’d examine the constituent parts of the spread through a sample reading. I ran out of steam after a few installments, for a couple reasons. For one, life simply got in the way, and for a time I just didn’t write very often, and so I lost the drive to finish what I’d started.

I realized that my purely hypothetical sample had no relevance, and the further I progressed with it, the farther I had to stretch to reach any sort of meaning or coherence, and I gave up on it, feeling as though I was only succeeding in beating a horse that was already dead.

But when I lay down the Sentinel’s Spread, I always walk away with such profound insights from the cards; and even if I can’t adequately express these sorts of things with sample readings, I don’t want to leave an incomplete, forced and lifeless example as the last word on my blog.


I think the Sentinel’s Spread works because of its combination of shapes, allowing for multiple significant patterns to emerge from the reading.

This is a photo of my most recent Sentinel reading, performed with the pocket Thoth. This setup is pretty typical of my readings lately, except for the Death Candle, which is not normally there.

While the final layout is meant to be read as a unit, there are five distinct components, each of which is made of a significant number and shape itself. If the process of laying the cards is reduced to an equation, it would be this:


with 21 being the total number of cards in the layout. In terms of shapes, it begins with a single point, followed by the line, then the cross or square, then the circle or dodecagon, and brought to completion with a return to the point. The five parts are summarized as follows:

1. The Sentinel (significator): The first card is selected to represent the reader at the time of the reading (or querent, if reading for someone else). I normally select the sentinel and set it aside prior to shuffling and laying out the rest of the cards.

2. The Watchtower (cards 2 – 4): The next three cards are positioned from bottom to top to create a vertical line, meant to evoke a tower. I think of them as three parts of a watchtower: the foundation, in which everything else is grounded; the body of the tower, built upon the foundation and which comprises most of the tower’s actual height; and the top, upon which the Sentinel is posted, which provides the point of perspective. These are metaphors for various inward aspects of the reader at the time of the reading (think body, mind, spirit or subconscious, conscious, super-conscious). The significator is then placed on top, putting the reader in the frame of mind to continue.

3. The Cardinal Directions (cards 5 – 8): These four cards are placed around the watchtower after the pattern of the compass, beginning with the East and the rising sun and concluding with the North. They are also associated with the four elements and the suits of the Tarot: East is Fire and Wands (passion or drive); South is Air and Swords (intellect); West is Water and Cups (emotion); and North is Earth and Coins (the material realm).  The elements are arranged so that Air is opposite Earth, and Fire is opposite Water, and they descend from energy (Fire) into solid matter (Earth) when read clockwise. I view these cards as immediately relevant to the reader, connecting the inward-being of the watchtower with the external world of the following cards. For this reason, I often consider these cards to be akin to walls or gates of a fortification built around the watchtower, or roads leading out from the center.

4. The Horizons (cards 9- 20): The twelve cards of the horizons encircle the eight cards already laid down, equaling the watchtower (3 cards) multiplied by the compass points (4 cards). Once placed, they can be read in any number of ways. This is the point when I start to really see patterns, both among the horizon cards themselves, or in relation to any of the cards already out. The significator represents the center, the point of origin or perspective – the “You Are Here” on the map, and the rest of the reading is the map, if you will, sprawling outward from the center, with the horizon cards showing the farthest reaches visible from the watchtower.

There is no singular way to read all of these cards, and I often find multiple layers of meaning as I approach the spread from different angles. Usually, though, I do like to look at each horizon card in relation to the cards on either side of it. The 12 cards divide nicely into four groups of three cards each, with each of the four cards from the previous section allotted a group. I look at each trio as a beginning-middle-end or past-present-future (or any other of the numerous three-card patterns out there) related to its respective element card, and this helps me process the cards in digestible segments while I wait for any larger patterns to coalesce in my mind.

5. “Sound the Alarm!” (conclusion): One final card is pulled to tie the entire reading together. I usually spend a few minutes with the spread before I pull this card, allowing for a dramatic moment of complete surprise at the end as a counterpoint to the moment of complete control that comes with the conscious selection of the sentinel at the start; but I always pull it before I put the cards away and extinguish any “reading time” candles. I call it the bell or horn or alarm, there for the sentinel to sound if anything urgent is revealed during his watch. It serves as a sort of fail-safe, a general conclusion, or something to ponder, an important detail not to be overlooked, or a final piece of closing advice.


So that’s it. I think I did a pretty good job of summing up the essence of the spread this time, and I’ll probably leave it alone now, except for the occasional possible reading or anecdote in the future. I welcome the questions or input of anyone who decides to give it a try.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

The title of this book by Paul Huson is kind of odd. It suggests to me some sort of BS pseudo-historical narrative along the lines of Court de Gebelin’s theory about how the Tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests trying to preserve the secrets of the Universe. This is odd, because the book itself is a work of legitimate historical research – there is nothing “mystical” about the origins of the Tarot, and Huson never tries to make it seem so beyond the title page. I suspect it’s tongue-in-cheek, like his earlier work on the Tarot called The Devil’s Picturebook (I have not read that one, but am assured there is nothing but wry humor behind its provocative title).


The subtitle, “From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage,” is perhaps a better indication of the content. Ancient to modern is quite a chunk of time to cover, but Mystical Origins does it, tracing the evolution of the Tarot as we know it today from its mysterious beginnings (which, while long ago, are not exactly ancient, at least not as ancient as the Egyptian priests).

Books like this one are necessary precisely because the origin of the Tarot is so mysterious. In the 1800s theories like de Gebelin’s could catch on, not only because they seemed to make enough sense on the surface and because occultists wanted to believe them, but because we really didn’t know any better until fairly recently. Many Tarot books perpetuate false or only partially true “histories”. These books are perfectly fine in other respects, but they simply are not good resources for historically-verifiable information.

Now, this is the Tarot we’re talking about here, not recently declassified government documents or freshly-discovered tablets of Linear A or anything like that. Whether they’re used for gambling or fortune-telling, cards are not exactly the sort of thing generally taken seriously by academic types, historians or otherwise.* As such, books about the Tarot are not usually concerned with meeting academic criteria. Shoddy history is to be expected, and anyway, why does it even matter?

Well, it does and it doesn’t matter. The Tarot does not require a history lesson to be used or enjoyed. Furthermore, the aura of mystery surrounding the Tarot is a major attraction for many folks, myself included, and mystical histories only add to that aura. I’ve said it before, these legends add to the flavor of the cards, illustrating their hold on the imagination. The mythic connections are very real, despite not being based in empirical fact.

However, I believe that myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and just as myth enriches our metaphysical experiences with the cards, history enriches the experience on a much more practical level. Context is key in understanding any spread, and history is just a lesson in context on a grand scale. Through historical research, we can better understand the cards themselves, what they were, where they came from, who made them, and how they became what they are now. This information may not be immediately applicable when using the cards, but it strikes me as foolish to invest in the Tarot as I have without understanding what it really is. It pleases me that Huson’s book, and others like it, are available as a counterbalance to all the “woo” out there.

But I digress. Mystical Origins isn’t the only book backed by historical research, and it may not be the best out there, but of what I’ve read, it provides the most thorough history, and on the whole I think his interpretations of it stand on sound reasoning. He asserts that the historical mystery of the Tarot can be boiled down to three questions:

1. What is the source of the suit symbols?
2. What is the source of the trumps?
3. When and why did people begin to use the Tarot for divination?

The first chapters attempt to answer these questions. The suits are thought to have been derived from the Persian Mamluk cards after they were introduced to Europeans in the 14th century. At the time, these were primarily used for trick-taking games. The playing cards became the Tarot in the following century, when the trump cards were added to the pack. The imagery of the trumps is medieval in origin, drawing from many sources, most notably from religious dramas of the time. The earliest ones were hand-painted for nobles, but they remained devices for gaming. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, in the 18th century, that the Tarot was established as a tool for divination and the occult by Etteilla and his contemporaries. By this time, the Persian and medieval European sources of the cards had been forgotten, and so it was hypothesized that they originated in Egypt.

Mystical Origins is often touted as a Tarot history book, and it certainly is. The first few chapters make up the historical overview beginning with the Mamluk and concluding with the occult developments of the late 1800s – early 1900s. This isn’t the whole book, though; in fact, it’s barely a third of it. The remainder of the book focuses on the actual cards of both the Major and Minor Arcana and on reading techniques, all of which builds upon the previous material.

From the DFW Tarot.

Each card is briefly discussed in terms of its historical symbolism, followed by its divinatory interpretations by Tarot masters throughout the ages, with a final suggested interpretation from the author. The chapter on reading is especially interesting. We get Huson’s personal advice on card reading, and although he expresses some opinions that I’m sure are disagreeable to some, I thought much of it was quite wise. Then he provides several spreads and methods, from very simple to very advanced, all taken from historical sources. The entire book is illustrated with line drawings by the author, and in them one can recognize the roots of much of Huson’s own Tarot, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, which was published a few years after Mystical Origins.

In conclusion, this book is not only a fascinating history of the Tarot, but it is a thorough and excellent handbook for cartomancy with the Tarot, and a good divinatory reference for historical and occult packs, from the Visconti to the RWS and virtually everything in between.


*Occult Tarot may be a different story, but the first rule of Occult Club is don’t talk about Occult Club.


From the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot.

The Swords are the most ominous of the suit symbols. They are associated with the element of Air and the realm of the Mind or intellect. They can also indicate communication issues and conflict. And sorrow.

Certainly a Tarot must incorporate some un-happy cards. Each suit has them. But the Swords seem particularly heavy with them. It’s unsettling to see a spread dominated by their cold steel.

The dour reputation of the Swords largely stems from these images from the RWS. The CHT’s not much better, though, with the same three cards having the respective titles of “Interference,” “Cruelty,” and “Ruin.” Pretty brutal.

You’d think the element Air would be a bit lighter than this. What’s going on, here?

Air is associated with the mind, because it is clear and tall, as opposed to the murky wellspring from which our emotions flow. Our thoughts are not constrained by the gravity of earthly reality.

The mind is the realm of thought, lofty and ever-moving, but capable of great precision. Our capacity for abstract thought seems to be a large part of what sets humans apart from animals. Without it, civilization and all that we take for granted simply could not be.

The Double-Edged Sword – MST

A sword is a good symbol for the intellect. It’s either used to stab or to slice. A good thought is a good point, and to analyze something is to dissect it, metaphorically or otherwise. We understand things better by taking them apart. We even call a very smart person “sharp”.

Furthermore, a sword takes training and practice to use. It’s not a weapon for the everyman. It is a symbol of status. A man with a sword is a learned man, not to be trifled with. It is wielded by heroes, as so many fantasy stories illustrate.

But make no mistake: the sword is a weapon. It has one purpose.

The mind truly is a double-edged sword. Certainly, we wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of civilization without it. Math, science, philosophy, and literature, art and music, architecture and technology, our societies and cultures – all of that and countless more can only exist through the workings of the mind. But civilization has its pitfalls, as well. Everything good comes at a cost, and even if the end goal is supposed to be good, attaining it involves risk. When mishandled, whether from poor practice or for a nefarious purpose, a sword can cause serious, irreparable harm. If we can honestly, truly enjoy the benefits of civilization, we do it at the expense of unimaginable suffering that it’s caused.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the option to lay down these arms; to live is to suffer, such is the tragic human condition. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, not really. We cannot deal the Swords out of the deck.

My favorite – MT

If life’s suffering is inescapable, life’s meaning comes from what you do with it. The Swords teach responsibility. Put your mind to it, and you can accomplish anything. Just strive to accomplish something worth the risk, because there will always be risk. And of course there have been mistakes – there will always be mistakes, too. Don’t make mistakes in vain. Always learn, and work for improvement. The Swords represent wisdom through sorrow. When a reading turns up fraught with Swords, it’s a good idea to take a step back and consider the consequences of your thoughts or actions, lest your lessons be learned the hard way.

“Draw me not without reason; sheathe me not without honor.” I read that once in a reference volume on American-made swords through the Civil War. Apparently it’s an inscription on a sword blade, although I can’t remember anything more specific than that. I really like it, and I bring it up because I think it perfectly encapsulates the responsibilities of this suit.



A Thoth Study Guide.

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo Duquette sets out to help the reader do exactly as the title says, and it does it well. Certainly, I continue to learn more about the Thoth every time I take it out to use, but prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing, and can’t imagine how else I might have progressed. I could see from the outset that this was an especially complex pack of cards, but beyond that my eyes were closed. This book opened them to a whole new world.

That’s the Princess of Disks on the cover.

My first introduction to the Golden Dawn brand of the occult was in a book called Portable Magic, which I’ll write about in more depth at some other time. It was an excellent introduction, looking back, providing me with a base familiarization of Kabbalah and astrology. These are vital subjects to know if you plan on delving seriously into the world of the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based Tarot. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (henceforth abbreviated UACTT) examines these things and more, in far greater detail, while still remaining perfectly accessible to a novice. While Portable Magic made a fine primer, it wasn’t until I read UACTT that I could honestly say I began to comprehend the occult Tarot.

Of course, Mr. Crowley’s Tarot isn’t precisely the same as the Golden Dawn’s, but as a one-time member, he certainly derived much of his Tarot from their template. To understand his version of the occult, you must first understand theirs. DuQuette’s book addresses this, and is split into two parts: an introduction aptly titled “Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning to Study Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot”, which takes up about a third of the book, followed by “The Cards”, which is, obviously enough, about the actual deck.

In the first part, we learn about Mr. Crowley the person, the Golden Dawn, Lady Frieda Harris and the nature of her work on the cards, Crowley’s notions about the “Aeon”, the Rose Cross on the card backs and all its secrets, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, color symbolism, and the “Holy Guardian Angel” that each of us has according to the teachings of Mathers and the Golden Dawn. All of this is essential background information, required if one hopes to really understand the Thoth Tarot as its creator intended it (don’t try to take it all in at once and hope to internalize it, though. Multiple readings are recommended). I was exposed to so much occult stuff at once while reading these pages for the first time that I thought my face might melt off. It is well written, conversational, entertaining, and incredibly informative. Interspersed throughout are quotes from Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris, some of which are quite entertaining themselves. The author, who is clearly very knowledgeable, makes light of a rather heavy and confusing subject, and he attempts to dispel common misgivings about Crowley, the occult, and the Thoth Tarot as he goes, although whether or not he did a good job there I couldn’t say, as I really had no misgivings myself when I approached the deck.

Before dealing with the cards proper, DuQuette starts the second part with a discussion of general Tarot structure, followed by the astrological and Kabbalistic attributions of the Major Arcana, highlighting the differences between the Thoth and the Golden Dawn model. Each Major Arcana card is then examined in fair detail (about two or three pages per card).

Then we are introduced to the Minor Arcana, and the four Aces are explained, followed by the Court Cards, and then the small cards, complete with convenient charts for astrological correspondences. Every single card, Major and Minor, is prefaced with its Golden Dawn title, any relevant astrology, a brief description of the original Golden Dawn card, any relevant Kabbalah, colors used, and a quote, all laid out for quick reference.

After the chapters about the cards, we get a run-through of Mr. Crowley’s method of divination, and a list of all the cards in the pack alongside their intended divinatory meanings. The final chapter is a glossary of Thelemic and Tarot terms.

Not only did I learn (a lot) from UACTT, it was fun to read. DuQuette writes with a sense of humor, and that’s very refreshing, particularly when reading about a subject as dense as this. Another thing about this book that I appreciate is, despite its thickness, it has very convenient lists and charts of anything you might need in a pinch. UACTT combines the joy of reading a good long book with the ease of use of a simple guide (well, you’ll still have to flip through many pages to find the “convenient” stuff, as they are not all in one place, but I think it’s worth the trade-off).

Now, if one really wants the authentic Thoth Tarot experience, he or she needs to acquire a copy of the Book of Thoth, which is the official companion to the cards, penned by Mr. Crowley himself. This book, however, is anything but accessible to the average reader. UACTT works as a middle man, if you will, between the student of the Thoth Tarot and its infamous creator. I would very strongly recommend this book as a prerequisite to Crowley’s own, unless you’ve got very big intellectual britches.


78 Degrees of Wisdom.

It seems like every day I find more and more opinions that disagree with mine, but I still maintain that the Rider-Waite-Smith is the best deck with which to learn Tarot. Of course, if someone has a specific deck in mind that he or she connects with, by all means, my opinion (or anyone else’s) doesn’t matter a bit – always go with your own gut. But if a person wants to get into the Tarot, and they have no prior knowledge, and they have no opinion about which deck they’d like to start with, then I think the Rider is the way to go.

I feel this way for many reasons, not least of which is that there are more books published about the RWS than probably any other version of the Tarot. Someone who wants to learn with a Marseille or a Thoth has far fewer resources at their disposal than one who studies with the RWS or one of its derivatives, and fewer still if they want to go in a different direction.

Which brings me to my next recommendation: Assuming the RWS was selected as the learning deck, which is the book to study alongside it? There are countless options out there, and I’ve admittedly read only a very small number of them. However, without a doubt, the best book I have read on the RWS (one of the best Tarot books in general, really), and one that I’ve referenced many times on this blog, is Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom.


This book was originally published in two volumes, one for the Major Arcana, and one for the Minor, but now you can purchase them as a single book. At 354 pages, 78 Degrees is sizable for Tarot literature, although not remotely the heftiest on the market. Even so, the first thing I should clarify is that this is a book, not a cheat-sheet. I heartily recommend it, but it’s certainly better suited for my fellow readers than it would be for someone looking for a quick RWS reference.

78 Degrees is generally considered a classic in the world of Tarot literature these days, and I’d have to agree. Along with two or three other Tarot books in my library, this one forms part of the bedrock of my understanding of the cards.* It is well-written, fun to read and educational, showing a broad understanding of psychology, mythology, the occult and symbolism as they relate to the Tarot.

The book is split into three parts, the first of which is about the Major Arcana. It begins with an introduction, in which we are introduced to the Tarot, its origins, some occult elements, and the theory of archetypes, and then Waite’s version of the cards, which constitute the focus of the remainder of the book, all rounded up with a discussion about divination and what it means in relation to the Tarot. We are then given an overview of the basic patterns underlying the Major Arcana, before diving into the cards themselves. Each card is allocated several pages, in which its meaning is thoroughly discussed according to the themes set out in the intro.

The section on the Major Arcana is divided into three parts of seven cards each (the three septenaries). Pollack puts a lot of emphasis on these groupings, suggesting that each represents a stage of personal development. Cards I through VII are under the heading The Worldly Sequence, the following seven under Turning Inwards, and the final cards under The Great Journey. These titles are indicative of the sorts of trials and triumphs to be found within each septenary.

Next is the Minor Arcana. As with Part One, we are started off with an introduction expounding upon the themes and patterns to be covered in the following pages. These are by and large very similar to what is covered in the first part, with a little more emphasis given to things like Kabbalah and the elements, as well as a discussion on the nature of Smith’s renditions of the Minor Arcana versus those of historical or (overtly) occult packs. We then move along to the cards themselves, this time divided into four sections according to suit: Wands, Cups, Swords, and then Pentacles. Each section begins with the King and descends to the Ace. Substantially less space is given to each card in this section compared to the Major Arcana (usually about a page or two), but everything is still adequately covered. At the very least, it surpasses anything else I’ve read on the Minor Arcana.**

The final part is about reading with the cards. We are once again given an introduction, this time about the psychology of divination and Tarot, with a lengthy discussion about “common sense” and the value of lessons learned with the cards.

The bulk of Part Three is in the section about types of readings. In particular, Pollack presents us with the Celtic Cross spread, which is the best explanation of the spread that I’ve yet read; the “Work Cycle” spread, which is Pollack’s own invention and riffs on some of the patterns learned in the Cross; and a Kabbalistic Tree of Life spread. The entire book is wrapped up with a chapter on how to use readings and a chapter on what we learn from readings, both of which are fascinating and insightful.


*78 Degrees is the best RWS book. Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot is my go-to CHT reference, and Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot is an excellent resource on historical Tarots. Hajo Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero is another phenomenal book, and I think the title says it all. Of course, I have read many other very fine books on the Tarot, but if I had to name what I consider to be my “essential reading” list, it would probably be these four.

**Such a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the Major Arcana, and this blog absolutely has more material by far about it; but the Majors cast quite a shadow, and the Minors are certainly worth an entire book in their own right.