© James Ricklef
For some lengthy reviews, see the dropdown menu under the “Deck Reviews” tab above.
What follows are some short reviews of Tarot decks
Table of Contents
** Introductory Notes
Before I launch into these brief reviews, let me lay bare some of my prejudices about Tarot decks. First of all, I have a decided preference for decks with illustrated pip cards, so you won’t find any reviews here of decks with numbered cards adorned with mere geometric patterns (like, for example, the Tarot de Marseilles). This is just my preference, not a judgment of such decks.
Next, as a purely aesthetic bias, I don’t care much for photographic art on Tarot cards, so although I respect and appreciate the Cosmic Tribe Tarot, for example, I don’t read with it, so I am not qualified to review it.
Finally, there are two main traditions among modern Tarot decks. There are decks in the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) tradition and there are those in the tradition of Crowley’s Thoth deck. The decks I used when I first learned to read the cards were all RWS-style decks, and I still feel much more comfortable with decks of that type. So you won’t see a review of the Thoth deck here either. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t plan to post a review of the RWS deck either, but that’s because it is so ubiquitous, and so much has already been said about it elsewhere, that it needs neither introduction nor recommendation. Suffice it to say that the RWS deck I use is the Universal Waite because I find its subtle coloring to be more pleasing than that of the other RWS variants.
And there you have it. These are, of course, just my preferences — a mere matter of taste — presented here as a caveat before you read the following reviews of recommended decks.
** Aquarian Tarot
Artist: David Palladini
Published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
The Aquarian Tarot was the first deck I bought, and as a result, I still have a fondness for it. The illustrations are done in a striking art deco style, the backgrounds are stylized and rather minimalistic, and the scenes on the cards generally are zoomed in to provide a closer view of the person depicted than is the case in the Rider Waite Smith deck. This style of using close ups focuses your attention on the person in the card, but if you like to use the scenery in the card or the symbols in the background as an aid in your reading process, you may find this deck to be a little harder to use than the RWS. In compensation, however, I have found the simple, bleached out faces to be quite evocative, serving as a blank canvas upon which my intuition can project its message. Unfortunately, the cards that suffer the most from Palladini’s minimalism and stylization are those in the Major Arcana. Nevertheless, I have not found this to be an insurmountable problem, and I have done very effective readings using this beautiful deck.
** The Hanson-Roberts Tarot
Artist: Mary Hanson-Roberts
Published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
This deck follows the Rider Waite Smith tradition quite faithfully, but not slavishly. The art is detailed, fluid, and rich in color and texture, and I find the scenes on the cards to have more movement and energy than those on the RWS deck. Thus, for example, while I find the Page of Wands to be one of the weakest links in the RWS deck, the H-R Page of Rods (which depicts a child calling out excitedly) is one of my favorites.
I know that some people criticize this deck for being too “cutesy,” but I would not give it such a criticism. Certainly, Hanson-Roberts has a way of making many of the children in this deck look so cherubic that you just want to pinch their chubby little cheeks, but the “cutesy” epithet seems to imply that the “difficult” cards in this deck are whitewashed, which is not the case. For example, the Five of Cups feels sad and mournful, the Ten of Swords seems bleakly ruinous, and the Tower looks pretty disastrous.
So if you want to use a deck that seems relatively non-threatening to people who may not be comfortable with Tarot readings, this is a good choice. If, on the other hand, you have a querent who won’t take a reading seriously unless you scare the you-know-what out of them, there are other decks better suited for that.
In short, then, I would describe this deck as being effective, but mild. It tells the truth, but it does so in a gentle, tactful way. Just be aware of its subtlety in case you plan to use it to read for yourself, because most of us need to be smacked upside the head with the insights in a self-reading.
** The Robin Wood Tarot
Artist: Robin Wood
Published by Llewellyn Publishing, Inc.
This deck has about the most beautiful artwork around. The cards have the air of being illustrations for a fantasy story (not surprisingly, since Wood does such work too), but it achieves this effect without the use of fantastical beings like dragons, unicorns, and fairies. Instead, it attains this ambiance by the use of pastoral and mythic scenes, imaginative costuming, and an ineffable, dreamlike quality to the art. Consequently, the cards seem both magical and down-to-earth — both at the same time — which makes this deck quite effective. And it is that effectiveness, along with its lovely art, that makes this one of my favorite decks.
A more specific point about this deck concerns its symbolism. Wood eliminated as many of the Judaic-Christian symbols from this deck as she could, substituting Pagan / Wiccan symbols in their stead. For the most part, this is done subtly, so that you have to pay attention to notice it, and despite these changes, the Robin Wood deck is similar enough to the Rider Waite Smith deck that it should be easy for anyone already familiar with the RWS to pick it up and use it. In any case, there is a wealth of symbolism in these cards, which is explained in great detail in Wood’s book, The Robin Wood Tarot: The Book.
My only criticism of this deck is a rather nit-picky “politically correct” one. All of the characters in it are Caucasians who are handsome and beautiful, untouched by the imperfections (such as weight problems, homeliness, or old age) that the rest of us live with. On the other hand, these cards are so visually pleasing that the flaw of flawless people is easy to overlook. It is up to you to decide if its ethnic homogeneity is a problem, but this is an almost ubiquitous characteristic of Tarot decks (although this is slowly changing). It is just that the realism of the art in the Robin Wood Tarot deck shines a spotlight on this feature.
** The Sacred Rose Tarot
Artist: Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman
Published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
I noted in my review of the Hanson-Roberts deck that if you want to use a deck for querents who need a bit of a shock now and then in order to take a reading seriously, there are other decks better suited to that purpose. The Sacred Rose Tarot (SRT) is one of those decks. Seriously, no one would ever accuse this deck of being “cutesy.”
This is not to say it’s a dreary, scary, or gratuitously negative deck. It is certainly vivid, beautiful, and energetic. However, the beauty of some of the cards is dark and foreboding, more like Van Gogh’s disturbing “Starry Night” than da Vinci’s placid “Mona Lisa.” Also, no punches are pulled on the “negative” cards in this deck. As a couple of examples, the SRT’s Knight of Swords has a menacing scowl, and the predominant colors on the card are somber grays, purples, and blues, and its Five of Swords is especially chilling in its depiction of a man bleeding copiously where he has been run through by several swords.
One of the more famous features of this deck is the way that the figures on the cards have vacant eyes, devoid of pupils or irises. This gives many of the cards a rather eerie feel, but once you get used to this feature (which Gargiulo-Sherman says makes the faces represent “a mask of archetypal energy”), it ceases to be disturbing.
Although some of the cards may seem unsettling or sinister, others, like the Four of Wands are exuberant, and the Sun card is positively giddy with joy, so there is a good balance between the “positive” cards and the “negative” ones. What is consistent among the images in this deck is the fact that they are all quite powerful.
Although many of the SRT cards follow the Rider Waite Smith tradition, many others depart significantly from it, charting a new course of their own. As a result, this deck is not an easy one to jump into. It requires some exploration up front to get the hang of it, but it is well worth the effort since this is such a forceful and insightful deck. Fortunately, the Little White Book that comes with it is one of the few that I have found to be worthwhile. And if you still need more explanation, Gargiulo-Sherman’s book about her deck is quite helpful.
Here are some longer Tarot deck reviews:
See the drop down menu (under “Deck Reviews” at the top of the page) to find more.
You may also be interested in my interviews with many Tarot deck creators, which I call my “Deck Creator Forum.”