Cartomancy, Continued.

I do not know traditional methods of cartomancy with regular playing cards. What I do know is cartomancy with Tarot cards. This post is essentially an exercise in translation; I’m here today to explain how I read playing cards using my knowledge of the Tarot.

Really, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory for the most part. A pack of playing cards is nearly indistinguishable from the Minor Arcana, so in a sense it is just like reading with an abridged Tarot. But there are a couple snags that prevent smooth translation.

First is the suits.


I match Wands with Diamonds, Cups with Hearts, Swords with Spades, and Coins with Trefoils.

In his book, Paul Huson makes compelling arguments for why this should be the case. It is very common, however, to associate Wands with Trefoils (usually called Clubs in such instances) and Coins with Diamonds. This actually does make sense. Not only do the respective names of these suits seem related, but the colors match up so that the “hard” suit symbols are both black, and the “soft” ones are red. When all is said and done, though, I prefer to use what I believe is the more traditional order.*

What’s important is not which suits you identify with which, but that you keep it straight in your mind when you’re reading.


The next issue is the court. In Tarot, there are four court cards to each suit: King, Queen, Knight, and Page. With standard playing cards, though, there are only three: King, Queen, and Jack.** This means that, even if we took away the Major Arcana, the decks do not match up. A Tarot stripped of its trumps will still have four more cards than the other pack.

Who’s who?

To me, this is the most annoying issue when it comes to translating Tarot to regular cards.

The simplest solution is probably to just consider the Jack an amalgamation of the Knight and the Page. This means that, given the context of the spread, a Jack could signify a child or young person of either sex, a new endeavor, message, or the coming or going of a matter, among other possibilities. Not exactly clear-cut, but the court cards were always among the vaguest cards with their myriad connotations, anyway.

If taken to mean people, then Kings are mature men, Queens mature women, and Jacks would be the youths. This is a good rule of thumb for identifying people in a general sense. But if you know your Golden Dawn astrological correspondences, then you can get more specific. Interestingly, even though there are 16 court cards in a Tarot, only 12 of those could be considered significators according to the Golden Dawn. The King, Queen, and Knight of each suit matches up with one of the 12 signs of the zodiac.*** The Page, then, has a different role altogether, although I’ll refrain from getting into that today. The point is, by a happy coincidence, a standard deck of cards has just the right number of court cards for a complete set of zodiacal signifiers. Just substitute the Jack for the Knight, and you’re good to go (of course, if you use this method, you can no longer assume a Queen signifies a woman or a King a man).


Strictly speaking, the Major Arcana don’t figure into this particular brand of cartomancy. The closest thing is the Joker. The Joker is an interesting character, somewhere between the Fool and the Juggler of the Tarot. For games he usually serves as a wild card.

For cartomancy, I also tend to think of the Joker as a sort of wild card. It doesn’t have a “meaning,” at least not the same way the rest of the cards in the pack do. When the Joker shows up in a reading, I might interpret it a couple different ways. Sometimes I treat him like the Fool, his sly Joker’s smile chiding me for my ignorance. Sometimes I treat him like the Juggler, his dexterous hands signalling to me that there’s trickery afoot. Something can’t be trusted, and it’s beyond the scope of the pips and courts to get that point across.

Perhaps the Joker is there to tell me that my questions simply can’t be answered at the time of the reading. In this sense, he’s almost like the Wyrd of the runes. Blank. Sometimes the oracles cannot – or will not – reveal their secrets to me. Regardless, it’s best to be wary if he turns up. Either something’s not right, or something’s beyond my control or capacity to understand.

Fool, trickster, or something better left in the abyss?

Sometimes I interpret him as a suggestion to consult something a little more serious than playing cards. The lack of a Major suit means this sort of cartomancy is best suited for mundane matters, I believe, and the appearance of the Joker could mean that there’s something beyond my worldly concerns which I ought to consider. In this case, I’ll pull out a set of Majors (probably Wirth’s) and explore the matter further.

Another thing I like to do to bring in the Major Arcana (with or without an appearance by the Joker) is calculate the quintessence card. This method is fairly widespread, but I learned about it in a book about Tarot practice. Once the spread is out, you add up the numerical values of all the cards in it. Courts can either be valueless, or they can continue the progression (Jacks are 11, Queens 12, and Kings 13). The Joker is always 0. If the sum surpasses 21, add its constituent digits. The result corresponds to the Major Arcana of the same number, and that card expresses the essence of the spread. I usually use this knowledge to give advice towards approaching whatever situation is spelled out in the layout.


When reading playing cards, I keep the spreads fairly simple. Normally I’ll only lay down a single line, although sometimes I’ll lay down several rows. I usually like my rows to consist of an odd number of cards. The closest thing resembling a Tarot spread that I’ll use is a Celtic Cross, often omitting the column of four cards to the right of the cross.

So that’s it, I think. Again, this is only my personal method of divining with playing cards, and it might show my ignorance of more traditional methods of cartomancy. It’s certainly not perfect, especially knowing there are ways out there that are designed to use these cards instead of the Tarot. If nothing else, though, it’s helped me get more familiar with interpreting pip cards, which is good exercise. And since Tarot is my preferred form of divination, that’s all that really matters to me.

I do like reading playing cards, though. The Tarot is steeped in mysticism, and everybody knows that. The relative plainness of an innocuous pack of playing cards is a stark contrast to the apparent magic of cartomancy, which in my opinion, makes simultaneously for a more compelling and more accessible show when reading for others who most likely do not share my deep fascination with things esoteric.


*The color thing actually did bother me for a little while. But then I realized: the hard and soft suits are not the same colors when Wands are Diamonds and Coins are Clubs, but the elemental dignities of the suits match up so that Fire and Water are red, and Air and Earth are black. Fire and Water are the the elements that come together in the Hermit’s lantern as the hexagram. This is a symbol for Life, and it seems fitting to me that these elements should have the hue of blood, that fiery water of vitality that courses through the veins of us all. Conversely, black seems a suitable color for Earth and Air. These two elements strike me as a bit more conservative (though no less necessary for life) than their counterparts, and a more subdued color is therefore apt.

**Different cultures do things differently. The Tarot has an extra card either way, but which card is the extra? In French-suited decks, there is no Knight (the Jack, also sometimes called the Knave, is akin to the Page), but in German-suited decks, there is no Queen. The Ober and Unter (literally, the “over” and “under”) are equivalent to the Knight and Page, respectively. In this post, it’s a given that I am using the French suits, and I didn’t want to muddy things up by bringing the Germans into it. But I thought the point was relevant enough to merit a footnote, at least.

***This is an oversimplification made for the sake of clarity and brevity. It’s really not as simple as just matching the card with the constellation. Each card begins 20 degrees into one sign and ends 20 degrees into the next. So, for example, the Knight of Cups (or Jack of Hearts, as the case may be) is most likely a Libra, but there’s a possibility he might be a Scorpio instead; and someone else has claim to that slice of Libra left behind by the Knight (that’s the Queen of Swords/Spades). While I’m at it, I should point out that the Golden Dawn doesn’t refer to their court cards by the more traditional titles which I use in this post (the Knight of Cups mentioned a moment ago would actually be called the Prince or King of Cups, depending on who you’re talking to). But that’s a very lengthy and confusing digression better covered elsewhere. Just wanted to point it out.



Technically, all Tarot divination falls under the umbrella term “cartomancy,” which refers to divination or fortune-telling with playing cards. According to wikipedia, Tarot reading is actually the most common form of cartomancy today, at least in the English-speaking world. But throughout history, and in other parts of the world, it was/is as common or even more so to use regular playing cards for these purposes.

When I hear the word “cartomancy,” I picture regular playing cards with French suits (that is, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs/Trefoils, and Spades). It’s kind of odd if you think about it, since Tarot is what I do. But long before I was aware of the existence of the Tarot cards, I was familiar with the concept of cartomancy, and so naturally the word is associated in my mind with the only sort of playing cards I knew about at the time. Not that I could perform any kind of cartomancy in those days. But the possibility of reading playing cards always intrigued me, and even as a youth I would sometimes flip through my deck of Bicycle cards, my imagination running wild while I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me, if only I knew how to decipher them.


The strange thing is, I almost never participate in card games. I know the basic rules to games like Blackjack and Poker, and I’m usually fairly quick to pick up on trick-taking games if I play along. I’ll play solitaire on the computer at work if I get bored enough, and I know a few card-based drinking games from my college days.

But when asked to play a card game, with our without alcohol, my initial instinct is to decline. I honestly don’t know why, aside from general social anxiety. I’ve always been fascinated with cards, yet never really cared to play games with them (not that I wouldn’t have fun when I did). Once I started learning to read Tarot, my inexplicable attraction to cards began to make a little more sense. They’re not a game at all, but a book to be read, and that’s what I liked about them.


So I learned to read the Tarot cards. It took me some time, but I think, all things considered, I learned fairly quickly. I learned first with the help of the illustrated pips from the RWS, but eventually I internalized enough of the essence of each card that I could read the simple TdM pips as well. I struck me one day that I could therefore read regular playing cards, too.

This was when I honestly felt like a “cartomancer” for the first time, even though I’d been practicing cartomancy all along. Because of my longtime association of the word with the French suits, I tend to consider “cartomancy” in narrower terms than it’s actually defined (hence my use of the word to designate “traditional” methods of fortune-telling, best suited for TdM-type decks, in this post).

There are many traditional methods of cartomancy with standard cards. I don’t know any of them. When I read playing cards, I’m pulling from the Tarot for my interpretations. Of course, reading from the 52-card deck isn’t exactly the same as reading from the 78-card Tarot. But I’ll discuss that next time.



Sola-Busca: One for the Collection.

The Tarot’s history is certainly steeped in mystique. Strange as it all sounds today, though, with a little digging it turns out that they really are just a pack of playing cards. Not so strange, after all.

We strive to define our past with neat and tidy narratives. It’s human nature to think this way; it is how we can make sense of a chaotic and nonsensical existence. Whether the history is verifiable (that the cards as we know them evolved from a card game conceived in Italy during the renaissance) or not (that the cards were created by ancient Egyptian mystics and disseminated through the generations by Gypsies), it provides a story, a context, and that is greatly comforting to us.

But of course, reality isn’t quite as simple as the histories would have us believe. There are new discoveries every day, new interpretations of things we thought we knew, and sometimes these really shake things up. And new discoveries or no, we can never truly know how things were experienced by folks of bygone eras. We weren’t there, and even with the benefit of hindsight, there’s always a piece of the picture missing. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s enough to make a researcher want to tear his hair out. It’s more than frustrating; it’s disconcerting to have your neat and tidy narrative splinter at the slightest touch of contrary evidence (and there is always contrary evidence). On the other hand, it’s exhilarating to find something that forces new perspectives. Even if a complete understanding is impossible, we can always inch our way closer, and there is joy in the unending process of learning.

This is a long and rather dramatic preamble, I know. And it’s really only about a new Tarot deck in my collection: the Tarocchi Sola-Busca. These cards threw a wrench in the Tarot narrative as I understood it. I know next to nothing about this Tarot, but I don’t doubt there are sources out there somewhere that examine it. The Sola-Busca is not remotely a new discovery in the world of the Tarot, but it is new to me, and it’s raised a couple questions about my notions of the Tarot’s history.* But before I get into that, I think I’ll talk a bit about the deck itself.

An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – SBT.

I bought this one purely as a collector’s item. This is the first time I’ve spent money on my collection for its own sake. I’d fully intended on using every other deck I obtained at the time of purchase, even if some of them did end up as curiosities for study rather than actual use (I’m looking at you, Etteilla). I don’t know if I’ll ever divine with these.

Actually, I will probably give it a try at some point. But this deck is even marketed as a collector’s item rather than a reading deck. It is very nice. It’s so nice, that one of the extra publisher’s cards in the pack was complete with a disclaimer advising against shuffling the cards, because they’re “untreated” and prone to damage with use. That irks me a bit, because I don’t care if they are the most collectible cards in the world, a deck that’s too delicate to shuffle just defeats the purpose. It almost seems pretentious to me.

That’s just a minor annoyance, though, since I never had plans to make this my workhorse deck; and anyways, it’s not like the cards are actually fragile. The cardstock is decent enough, there’s just no finish of any kind to protect the images. I’m pretty sure my Shadowscapes deck is similarly untreated, and they’re holding up fine so far (and I do use those).

So what makes the Sola-Busca so collectible?

For one thing, they are very old. The actual deck I have is a 19th century reproduction (very faithful, according to the LWB) of the original cards, which date to sometime between 1491 and 1523. Even at its earliest, this is not as old as the Visconti-Sforza Tarots, but it is pretty darn close. Like the Visconti, these cards were commissioned by Italian nobility (remaining in the possession of the Sola-Busca family of Milan until only about a decade ago), presumably for gameplay.

It pleases me that, though the Hermit is absent, Carbone takes up the staff and torch for a moonlit stroll on card 12.

But were they really intended for games? The second reason these cards are so collectible is because they are astonishingly atypical of traditional packs. It should be borne in mind that Tarot “tradition” as we know it was not yet fully formed when these cards were produced, but all the same: why are these cards so divergent from their contemporaries? The Visconti cards were certainly for games; surely these can be used for games as well, but what else is going on here?

Structurally, they are the same. 40 small cards, 16 court cards, 21 trump cards, and one unnumbered Fool card. 78 in total. But aside from the Fool, the Major Arcana of the Sola-Busca are not the classic allegorical images to which we are accustomed. Instead, they depict mostly figures from Roman history, and two from the Bible. These include characters from the history of Christianity, Literature, Numismatics, and Alchemy (again according to the LWB – I must admit the majority of the names on these cards are obscure to me). This suggests a possible educational utility, with some hints of what we would call “occultism” today. Other packs of cards that apparently served this dual purpose of gaming and education do exist, like the Minchiate. Why not the Tarot, too?

Deo Tauro sits in place of the Chariot.

This blows a hole through the argument that Etteilla and Court de Gebelin were the first people to suggest esoteric uses for the Tarot, even if the Tarots they were using were not derived from the Sola-Busca. Now, the occultism attributed by these men to the cards is not the same thing as anything depicted in the Sola-Busca, and they were still wrong about the origins of the Tarot; but it raises an interesting question about the apparently mundane and frivolous uses of the earliest cards. We know they were used for gambling, but was that all? Is it possible that there was an aura of mysticism about them, even at the beginning? This is a valid question to ask of the Visconti as it is of the Sola-Busca. It is more than probable that the artist who rendered the Sola-Busca cards was familiar with packs like the Visconti. They are from the same country and the same approximate time period. Moreover, for all its differences, there are familiar motifs to be found throughout the Sola-Busca. For example, Deo Tauro, who graces card number seven, could be riding a chariot, and card thirteen shows Catone standing over a severed-and-impaled head. There are subtle similarities throughout. Perhaps the Visconti was only created for games, but if decks like the Sola-Busca were floating around, it’s certainly possible that owners of the Visconti also saw a certain educational and mystical potential in their cards. After all, we only think so because the Tarot’s pictures are so suggestive, and they would only have been more so during the renaissance, a time that these images were current. It’s easy to forget that the line between the sacred and the profane – that is, the spiritual and the mundane, or the intuitive and the rational – was not always as clear as it’s often perceived today.

It wouldn’t have been associated with the divination and occultism that we know, not by a long shot, but the very existence of this deck suggests that Etteilla and de Gebelin’s revelations about the esoteric significance of the Tarot may actually have been the fruits of seeds planted long before them.


And that’s just the Major Arcana. If anything, the Minor Arcana are actually more fascinating.** The suits are typical – Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins – but the pip cards are all illustrated. Whoever designed these cards were centuries ahead of their times. Nowadays we take illustrated pips for granted, but it was only in 1910 with the publication of the Rider pack that they really became popular. Smith’s illustrations were revolutionary for the Tarot, but they were not really her innovation. Photos of the Sola-Busca were available for public viewing in a museum in London while Waite and Smith were working on their cards, and it is fairly certain that these photos served as inspiration for Smith’s iconic drawings. A handful of her Minor Arcana even have direct counterparts in the Sola-Busca.

Some of Pamela Smith’s inspiration.

I won’t go so far as to speculate that the Sola-Busca may have been used for intuitive divination, but it is an awfully elaborate pack of cards for game play. It makes the lavish Visconti cards seem almost plebeian by comparison. These are illustrations, not flowery embellishment. Creativity went into this. Is it an extension of the educational element from the Major Arcana? What are these images supposed to convey? Or are these cards a product of people simply reveling in the artistic extravagance of 15th century Italy?

Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we already do, and I’m just uninformed. I want to stress again that I actually know very little about this deck. It is foreign to me, and it makes me re-think the Tarot in interesting ways. If nothing else, these cards provide me with new avenues for study and musing, should I ever feel so inclined. And as a collector’s item, it fills a satisfying niche in my collection, bringing together its hitherto disparate ends. The wildly non-traditional modern decks, such as the Mary-El or the Wildwood, now have a historical precedent in breaking from convention. The Sola-Busca brings it all back to the beginning. It is very different, yes, but its differences are a reminder that the Tarot is living, evolving alongside the people who use it, and it always has been.


*The Sola-Busca has been in my periphery for quite some time now, in fact, but I never gave it much thought until I decided my collection ought to have one.

**There are actually many motifs from the traditional Major Arcana peppered throughout the Sola-Busca’s Minor Arcana. I thought that was very interesting. One example is a Cups card which shows a goofy-looking man holding a cudgel on his shoulder while a small dog tears down his pants. This card looks very much like the Marseille Fool, only without the jester cap.

Wheel of the Year: Yule.

More widely known as the Midwinter Solstice, today is the shortest day of the year (that is, the day with the least amount of sunlight and the longest night time*). Tomorrow, the days will start getting longer again, slowly but surely. Before we know it, springtime will be here again.

But it’s not here yet. Oh no. In fact, today we find ourselves in the deepest depths of winter. It is a dark time, quite literally. Sure, we are assured that warmth and light is on its way, but we still have to bear a couple more months of dismal winter skies. The midwinter solstice festival therefore symbolizes peace and comfort in times of darkness, as well as hope for the light to come. Peace, comfort, and hope are certainly needed by many during this time.


On the Wheel of the Year, as presented by the Wildwood Tarot, we find ourselves halfway through the time of Stones. The Wanderer continues to guide us. And on this day, it is none other than the Hooded Man, the Hermit, who greets us. He holds his lantern and his staff, lighting the way and offering support. He invites us to stay a while in his abode, to rest and warm our bones for a spell before venturing back out into the cold. He tells us that now is a time for reflection and recuperation. It is time for rest. We can do nothing else until the sun rises again.

In a grander sense, the Great Bear has a similar lesson for us. This large beast crouches atop a burial mound, guarding it. We are facing North, the quadrant associated with winter, as is evident by the constellation Ursa Major and the aurora borealis shining bright in the sky.


The Great Bear is the 20th card of the Major Arcana, which means in more traditional decks this card would be called Judgement. Certainly the open entrance to the tomb here is reminiscent of the open graves on the Judgement card. Past this, though, it’s difficult to see how these cards are connected.

At this time, the time of rest, we can do nothing. The year is over; our seeds have been sown; our harvest has been reaped. Perhaps this is not what many think of when they hear the word “judgement”, but that is indeed what’s going on here. It is time to own up to who you are, to face the terrible polar bear with an honest heart, for good or for ill. It is time to learn from the year behind, and prepare for the year ahead. There is no turning back.

The Hooded Man offers comfort and rest, but the Great Bear reminds us that we can’t sleep forever. It’ll soon be time to wake up from winter’s reprieve.


*Assuming, of course, that you and I share a hemisphere.

Another Thoth Book.

My Tarot library includes three books about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (CHT). One of these is Crowley’s own Book of Thoth. The second, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, the subject of this recent review, is a phenomenal study of the cards and their occult workings, and makes a wonderful companion to the intimidating Book of Thoth. It aids significantly in the understanding of both the cards and the book as their creator intended them to be understood. The third is called Tarot: Mirror of the Soul, by Gerd Ziegler, and it is a different sort of book than both the BoT and the considerably more approachable UACTT.

I suspect Mr. Crowley would be very displeased with this book; I, however, really like it, and I’ve found it to be a welcome alternative to the theory-laden books above.


The way I see it, there are probably two sorts of folks who would benefit from this book. The first are the people who would like to work with the CHT, but who are neither interested in the complex occult mambo-jumbo underlying it or the devious man who created it. This book shows that the CHT can work as well as any other Tarot for divination, meditation, or otherwise. Tarot is Tarot is Tarot, and its tough to deny the power of the artwork of this particular one. I can totally understand wanting to use this deck without getting bogged down in the esoteric jargon. At the end of the day, none of that stuff really matters.

The second is the category into which I fall: the occult is fascinating, Crowley’s brand of it is intriguing, and the cards really do mean so much more when you get that stuff, regardless of what I say above. But this is dense subject matter, and sometimes, I just want a break. Sometimes, I’m in the mood to use the CHT, but not in the mood to decipher the Secrets Of The Universe According To Aleister.

This book is perfect for those days.

The main focus of this book is the use of Tarot for introspective guidance (hence the subtitle, Mirror of the Soul). As a general approach to the cards and why they work, this is one of my favorites. It is vaguely mystical in its explanations, but it didn’t strike me as bullshit (a fine line, for sure). There is no history, and no attempt to explain anything about Mr. Crowley or his theories. Just the cards and your self.

The bulk of the book is, not surprisingly, an examination of each card and its symbolism. After a description of the card, there are questions, suggestions, and affirmations, all of which (I think) are helpful when using the cards. The author may or may not know about Crowley’s intentions for these cards – in any case, there are details in some of the cards which he interprets differently than Crowley meant them to be interpreted. Nothing extreme or blasphemous, and the core meanings of each card remain as they should be. It is something I noticed, though, and I figured it warrants mentioning. This book is certainly not intended for a Thoth purist. Another thing I noticed was that every card is given a positive spin, which is not always the case in Crowley’s and DuQuette’s writings. Some cards are nothing but gloom and doom to Crowley, which is incredibly unhelpful for a person in times of spiritual or emotional crisis. The bleak cards are still bleak to Ziegler, but at least he made the effort to line those clouds with silver.

This book also contains a section of Tarot spreads, some of which I use fairly often. There are several layouts in this section, of various designs and degrees of complexity (although there are no crazy-complex spreads here). I don’t know if they are of the author’s invention or if he got them from elsewhere, but I really like most of them either way. Good stuff.


The Mystical Tarot.

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, playing with it in secret. It is the most recent addition to my Tarot collection, and I’ve been savoring getting to know it. It’s name, the Mystical Tarot (MT), is certainly a bit generic, and yet I think it’s an apt enough title for this deck of cards.

An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – MT

These cards are basically an artistically-enhanced RWS Tarot.

I like PC Smith’s artwork, which graces the original RWS. I don’t know. It’s nothing fancy, but it works. Tarot wouldn’t be what it is today without this classic rendition to set the tone. The Mystical Tarot, in its turn, pays homage to this landmark. When I look at Smith’s cards, I am looking at drawings of an idealized medieval-Renaissance-esque world. They could serve as illustrations for a quintessential fantasy story, with hints of magic and the divine seeping through.

When I look at the Mystical Tarot, I feel like I’m actually  looking into the world that Smith was trying to capture with her cards. Well, I don’t know what was in her mind’s eye when she produced her iconic drawings. But I like to imagine.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the Mystical Tarot strikes me as an especially imaginative RWS Tarot. It’s detailed and embellished in a way that goes beyond the original, and it transcends time and place. Sure, it evokes a romanticized past, as does its predecessor, but simultaneously, it exudes an aura of futurism. It’s a stark contrast that is expertly blended, and the result is a surreal, otherworldly vibe. It’s familiar and totally new all at once. I like it.

These cards are strange, sometimes, but I found that the quirks grew on me as I continued to use them. All in all, I really enjoy this Tarot. It works as a utilitarian Tarot, easy to read with its RWS symbolism and structure, but it’s also incredibly beautiful as an art piece. Each card is a world unto itself. It’s a good one for the collection.



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).