Storytelling Decks

Storytelling images were added to the basic symbolism of the Minor Arcana cards in the first part of the twentieth century. Many of the most popular decks today, including the Waite deck and the Thoth Tarot, developed during this period. Instead of merely showing the appropriate number of symbols (Cups, Swords, Wands, or Pentacles) on the numbered cards, these decks portrayed activities or scenarios that described, through the language of pictures, the cards’ meanings. People were depicted in relationship to the number of objects representing the suit.

These images made it easier to understand the meanings of the individual cards. For example, the vivid illustration on the Three of Swords—three swords stuck through a large red heart—certainly does convey a strong sense of heartache and suffering. However, some experts say the pip cards were illustrated as a memory aid rather than as an attempt to interpret the cards in a specific way.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he see all things thro’ narrow chinks in his cavern.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

One problem with specific illustrations, though, is that they may cause confusion. In some cases, an illustration may seem contradictory both to the meaning of the suit involved and to the number being represented. The graphic portrayals may also limit individual interpretation and free association. Not everyone interprets the cards in exactly the same way, of course, and the meanings can vary depending on the question asked. It's usually best to trust your own intuitive responses and to use the images on the cards as guides or prompts rather than as rigid definitions.

The Rider-Waite Deck

Since its introduction in 1909, the Rider-Waite deck (which is also sometimes called the Waite deck) has been one of the most influential and popular Tarot decks. The deck was illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, a theatrical designer, artist, writer, and member of the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. The deck expresses Smith's knowledge of magick (spelled with a k to distinguish it from stage illusion and magic tricks) and mysticism. Guided by Arthur Edward Waite, she produced a series of seventy-eight allegorical paintings that included storytelling images on the Minor Arcana as well as the Major Arcana cards. Unfortunately, the innovative deck, which broke away from the standard Tarot designs that had been used for centuries, bears the names of Waite and sometimes that of its publisher, William Rider and Son, instead of Smith's.

More than six million Waite Tarot decks are now in print. Smith's original images have spawned numerous variations over the years, including the popular Universal Waite deck, brightly recolored by Mary Hanson-Roberts. Today you can buy miniature versions, oversized versions, and even glow-in-the-dark versions of the Waite deck. This classic deck is widely used to illustrate books about the Tarot, including this one, and as a teaching tool for beginning diviners.

The Crowley Thoth Deck

Another innovative and influential Tarot deck emerged during the early part of the twentieth century, birthed by a collaboration between the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. Known as the Crowley Thoth deck, it features dramatic artwork, vivid colors, and striking imagery. The deck contains many Kabbalistic, magickal, and astrological symbols, as described in The Book of Thoth, which Crowley authored—hence the name of the deck. Like the Waite deck, the Thoth deck has been reproduced in different variations and translated into numerous languages.

The Encyclopedias of Tarot

For more than a quarter century, Stuart Kaplan, head of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., has been compiling encyclopedias of Tarot. A long-time enthusiast and collector, Kaplan has cataloged more than 1,500 different decks, dating back to the fifteenth century. The beautiful four-volume set contains more than 25,000 card illustrations, along with extensive information about the development of the oracle since the Renaissance. Hundreds of as yet unpublished decks as well as rare and unique cards, including many from Kaplan's own collection, are featured in these encyclopedias. Exhaustive bibliographies, methods for dating antique cards, examinations of styles and techniques, artists’ biographies, and other information make these volumes essential reference texts for collectors, dealers, and fans of the Tarot.

U.S. Games Systems, Inc., is the largest publisher and distributor of Tarot decks. In addition to card packs, the company carries an extensive selection of Tarot books and divination decks based on systems other than the Tarot.

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