Tarot Decks – The difference between tarot Decks

First, there are many kinds of cartomantic decks in existence now, and many of them are only loosely based on any sort of structure (i.e., 78 cards organized according to a particular structure) that matches tarot. There are also a lot of decks that DO match the structure, superficially, but which have questionable links to anything one might describe as a tradition of tarot symbolism.

Therefore, I’m going to use a rather arbitrary method to answer this, but it is one that will at least make manageable the task of dealing with this question. As you learn more about tarot you will learn how to make up your own arbitrary answers.

There are approximately five historical periods of tarot evolution, obviously there can be more or less depending on how you want to slice it, but I’m basing this arbitrary division on the nature of the symbolism on the cards, and the ideologies, if any, they represented:

1. Early or Classical (c.1440-1550) Tarot was ‘born’ in
northern Italy c. 1440 AD and was probably created to play card games, NOT to read fortunes, and it was NOT brought to Europe by gypsies. The early development of tarot was characterized by many different decks and symbologies, many alterations to those decks considered the ‘first’ the designs of the Visconti-Sforza tarocchi decks but a pretty consistent 22-card foundation is maintained in the major arcana with a 56-card minor addition (no one knows with certainty whether the minors originated with the trumps or were added later). However, it does seem as though, contrary to what many people believe, playing cards developed BEFORE tarot cards and not the other way around. Also, the question of whether tarot was derived and developed from an already existing deck or was developed independently has not been satisfactorily answered.

2. Middle or ‘transitional’ (1550-1781) One sees a fairly stable but still evolutionary development of tarot symbolism
culminating in the many examples of what has come to be known as the ‘Marseilles’ design. A couple of years ago, when this text was first written, I noted that “There is little evidence that tarot symbolism, during this period, meant much of anything to anyone beyond their surface function as playing-card illustrations.” The evidence has increased a bit, with the discovery of some new documents which suggest speculation about the meaning of tarot symbolism began quite early (though whether it continued in any consistent, publicly-discussed arena, we still don’t know). Also, it appear that decades BEFORE Court de Gebelin wrote his ground-breaking occult essay on tarot (‘Du Jeu des Tarots’ in 1781), people WERE using tarot cards for divination (in Italy), so, contrary to what had been the ‘scholarly’ view (which was that the French occultists began the tradition of tarot divination), it now appears that fortune-telling with tarot and with playing-cards in general may have been more wide-spread and going on for much longer than was previously believed (again, ‘believed’ by scholars, MANY ‘enthusiasts’ will tell you that tarot was created by Atlanteans, and so has a quite ‘ancient’ history).

3. Traditional or Occult period (1781-1909) I call this ‘traditional’ tarot simply because, while we see the creation here of an entirely new kind of tarot, it nevertheless rests upon a core of the old traditions and symbolism, and its symbology is that which, in direct or indirect fashion, is the tarot everyone knows today. In traditional tarot we see, (though very gradually), the evolution of the occult decks that, while still based in Marseilles-type designs, add Egyptian and Hermetic symbolism to the traditional iconographies. The evolution is not really as bold and dramatic as some people have made it out to be – and we don’t see any really radical changes (in real decks at any rate – Eliphas Levi might have made an interesting deck but he never got around to it – publishing drawings of only a couple of cards that were nevertheless, very influential) until the circulation of ‘Book T’ in the Golden Dawn and the incorporation and further development of those symbols into:

4. Modern Period (1910-1983)— with the publication of the Waite deck in 1910 we enter the modern period, where tarot symbolism has become, in any ‘traditional’ sense, almost entirely the province of Golden Dawn symbolism, and that symbolism’s most copied derivation has been the Waite deck (more properly, the Waite-Smith deck, it was designed by A. E. Waite and painted by Pamela Colman Smith), the most popular tarot deck in the world today (especially when one counts the myriad thefts of its designs into other decks). I’m not sure whether one can call Waite the most influential design in history (certainly one might be able to make that claim for the Marseilles design as well) but its symbolism, and the other Golden Dawn derivatives (most notably the BOTA and the Thoth decks) have become what most people know (at least superficially) as tarot AND tarot is NOW spreading around the world, so sales of the decks are undoubtedly at a peak previously unknown since the creation of tarot, 550 years ago.

However, the story does not happily end there for then we move into our last period.

5. Post-modern (1983-Apocalypse) This date assignment is purely arbitrary, since many of the motivations that have led to pomotarot (itself, an amalgamation of diverse but often overlapping movements and ideologies) started back in the 1960s, when multi-cultural, gender-conscious, and anti-traditional (the assumption was that IF it was traditional it HAD to be bad) attitudes were infiltrating all modes of pop and academic culture. I pick 1983 because this is when that bane of traditional tarot was published – Motherpeace!! Printed on round cards, treating men like they were a humanoid avatar of the ebola virus, and generally promoting a post-intellectual symbology that
has nothing to do with traditional tarot, Motherpeace has become the guiding light for the cartofeminist revisionists. The point was made – one could promote any nonsense he or she wanted on the back of poor defenseless tarot because few people knew what the older symbolism was about and there has been no public forum (until the advent of Internet) where these pomo decks, or any of the decks, could be easily and widely discussed and critiqued.

Basically there are three kinds of pomo decks;

1. Cartofeminist – my own neologism, describing feminist decks in general but particularly those promoting the concept of the ‘Goddess’, and which find identity basically in the rejection of what are described as traditional icons of the evil patriarchy (including obviously any traditional tarot symbology and interpretation).

2. True Postmodern – decks that seek to maintain some link to traditional symbols but which nevertheless ignore traditional interpretations of the symbolism often for the remarkable and seemingly absurd reasoning that occult symbolism is ‘anti-egalitarian’ by nature and so the meanings of the symbols should be thrown open to what are often called ‘intuitive’ methods of interpretation – in other words: make up anything that suits your fancy and, if you are a tarot book writer, make it ‘bite-sized’ if it all possible.Obviously, it’s a lot easier to design a deck based on this kind of ‘thinking’ and many of the decks we get here present mere shades of their traditional roots – as if, knowing that what those old (dead?) symbols meant is irrelevant and beyond a pomo’s multi-absurd consciousness, we can therefore add mere hints of what we don’t care to know anyway and then speculate about them to our mind’s end.

There are many decks which fall into this category – Morgan-Greer and Aquarian being ‘good’ examples of the lot along with (obviously) the PoMo Tarot deck itself.

3. Igno-aesthetic – as the word suggests – that which promotes the aesthetic qualities of the tradition in complete ignorance of its meaning this is something like #2 except here there is no attempt whatsoever to claim the artist or designer knew anything about the meaning of the symbols they depict. One rather imagines, if Rachel Pollack had not invested her ‘talents’ to his project, Herman Haindl’s deck could have gotten away with residing here – amongst some admittedly interesting-looking decks – instead of in the dumpheap of cartofeminism. Generally, igno-aesthetic decks are done by real artists and, if nothing else, do look good (not in any way a trivial attribute – especially when you’ve suffered through some of the ‘art’ that continues to claim tarot as its ‘templat-ive’ victim). Lots of Italian and German decks of the last ten years fall into this category.

Authors Details: Jess Karlin from Tarot FAQ

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