Another year has passed and with each turn of the seasons, each wheel of each year, I find the list of favourite decks consolidated. The molten gush of enthusiasm from a few years back has now solidified into a tighter list of dependable favourites. We have to constantly reaffirm that we are open, that nothing is set in stone, that there is always something round the corner to surprise us. It’s true of course, and things do surprise me, and each year there are more decks that I like, but nothing seems to topple the favourites long term. I rotate them, a deck for each state of mind, a deck for each facet of my interests; sometimes it’s historic, sometimes pagan, sometimes high art, sometimes heavy esotericism but I feel each one of these favourite decks scrapes away at one aspect of myself. I find that it is cyclical and that each time I am passionate about one of these decks I wonder how on earth I could possibly find anything else this interesting, then there is a lull (it’s usually quite sudden) and I crave something else. Each time I come back to a deck I feel that I have a firmer grasp of it, and can see things I hadn’t seen before. I buy new decks, I look at imminent releases but invariably come back to the old favourites and so thought I’d spend a few posts – in a few installments – going through my favourites and reminding myself what it is that I love so much.
Firstly, the Victorian Romantic (whether Gold or Regular or Russian). This is the deck that brought me back into tarot after a lapse of quite a few years. I shall never forget walking into a bookshop in 2006 – not having thought about tarot for years – and seeing the kit on display. Something tugged (“didn’t I used to be fascinated by tarot?”) I looked up images online later that evening and instantly fell in love with the deck and raced back into town next morning to buy it. This was the deck that, together with the excellent companion book by Karen Mahony, taught me how to truly get a grip on the Minor Arcana. Until then, there had been much memorising involved. This whole deck taught me how to use the cards as a springboard and leap high. The evocative Bohemian/Germanic engravings, seamless collaging, the atmosphere of languid Victoriana mixed with force and elegance make this deck highly readable for me. When reading now I prefer the Russian version (published by Pryahi in 2011) as I know the images on the cards so well – thus don’t need to understand the titles – and I love being able to take my time without querents leaning over and reading the card titles and pushing me in a certain direction when interpreting. Plus I love having two Emperor cards; the sensual, lascivious pharoah and the butch, moustacheoed, logical autocrat. Two aspects of masculinity which enhance a reading when they come up (I leave them both in the deck).
There is very little difference in the production of the deck, either in the colours of the Russian edition or the backs (the Russian edition has a marginally thicker burgundy border than the standard English language one). But these are technicalities and details which have little place here. What matters is that readings with this deck (Russian, regular or Gold) simply flow for me. It is one of only a handful of decks I use reversals with; I feel as though I “get” the mood of the cards so well that thinking of the other side of the coin comes easily to me. Plus my favourite ever card is in this deck; the ecstatic 8 of Wands; Alpine landscape, antlers, racing nude. Nothing quite captures dizzying speed and force like this card, and it’s always a thrill when it comes up in a reading.
Next on my list would be the Crowley Thoth Tarot. What else is there to say about this deck? It casts such a long shadow and its meticulous detail and symbolism is second to none. I had to work at this in the same way I had to work at reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is the Ulysses of the tarot world; daunting, modernistic and bottomless. You have to work at it a lot and it gives a great deal in return; it stretches us so much, yet you never feel that you can say “now I fully understand it all”. And that quote by T.S Eliot – that James Joyce’s Ulysses is the book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape – always makes me think of the Thoth. It is the deck to which we are all indebted, like it or not.
This is the deck that smashes all accusations that tarot is lightweight, silly, something to be skeptical of. Crowley’s Thoth deck on the reading table – even before being shuffled, even before being laid out – has tremendous authority and presence. It is the only deck for which I have an ongoing tarot journal. Two in fact. I have a notebook into which I write details about the cards, elemental dignities, astrology (the bane of my life) and anything else which seems vaguely connected, plus I also have my copy of Crowley’s / “The Master Therion’s” Book of Thoth which has been annotated and scribbled in with pencil. This is definitely the tarot deck I have studied the most in a gratifyingly academic way and yet I find that when I lay it out, it’s not the theory I remember but the intution which is prodded into action by Lady Frieda Harris’ undulating rays and art deco angularity.
This is the deck which I study until it exasperates me and I feel defeated. I then put it aside and reach for something lighter. When I come back to it, I immediately recognise that another layer has been peeled away and that something in me has shifted slightly. What I love about the Thoth deck is that I know it will go on fascinating me for the rest of my life and that there will always be another layer to peel away. I like the mid-sized edition with the 3 Magus cards best. I use the version which reminds me of an 8-armed Shiva, with the ominously looming baboon in the background. I suspect this image wasn’t used because the Magus here (or “Juggler” in The Book of Thoth) is firmly behind his caduceus, thus beyond the Tree of Life attributions, whereas in the more commonly used Magus, the caduceus is behind him so he is still within its realm. However, for aesthetic reasons, this is the Magus which most speaks to me of “energy sent forth.”