Some of you may remember the fiasco of my lost iPhone a couple of months or so ago. An eventide adventure which resulted in me losing it after having had it for less than a month. At the time I hadn’t even begun to explore app possibilities and it all seemed a long way off. I hadn’t installed any newspaper, journal and iTunes apps and certainly none of the tarot ones. I was merely using my device like a good old-fashioned mobile phone, much to the amazement of friends and work colleages. I sometimes think that if my phone hadn’t been found and handed in to the kind policeman that night I would never have ventured into the labyrinthine realm of tarot apps with its exciting possibilities, and what a great loss (I have subsequently realised) that would have been. Now that I have begun, I know that there is no turning back and I feel that card-reading and card study have suddenly developed a new, extended horizon. I was never one of those who scorned the idea of tarot on a mobile phone (what about the shuffling? The riffling? The satisfying fanning out on the table? The mere feel of the cards in the palm of the hand?). I knew that the traditional tactile pleasure to be had from a deck of cards would always be waiting for me back home – with favourite spreadcloth poised ready to be unfurled like a magic carpet – and that something like a tarot app would be more of an “on the go” tool for wiling away half an hour in the dentist’s waiting room, or an entertaining, supplementary toy for a friend in a dilemma who asks for advice and for whom you can do a one-card on the spot draw with no fuss. In a sense I saw them from the beginning more as an alternative to the mini decks which have never really grabbed me. The concept or idea of mini decks was always quite attractive; you can have a deck to hand in your bag that doesn’t take up a great deal of space (and doesn’t weigh much) and cards can be drawn and spread within limited confines. Personally, I have never really used mini decks. I always felt that the sacrifice in size and ease of viewing outweighed the advantages of practicality; far better to have an extra bit of weight and take a dignified full size deck occupying only a couple of extra inches. Moreover, I have never really been one for leaving the house and going nowhere in particular whilst carrying a deck for any eventuality. And then I started exploring iPhone tarot apps which have really made a difference to how I see tarot fitting into my life beyond the threshold of the front door and out in the big wide world.
After playing around a bit, a couple of uninformed purchases from the iTunes store and the deleting of certain free mistakes, I feel I have found a repertoire of tarot apps that work for me. I have discovered what features I want in them and what features have me gnashing my teeth. Some can be customised, others cannot. I was horrified when, after my first purchase from the iTunes store – the Buckland Romani tarot app – there was a voice dictating to me which card I had selected each time I did a draw. I pretty soon discovered how to switch it off. Rule number one; a tarot app has to be discreet. No surprise flashing lights and Hollywood trailer voices booming “The Devil!” while you sit surrounded by strangers. I currently have a selection of 12 tarot apps and, while not all perfect, I have kept the ones I feel have something which may be useful for frequent (or occasional) spreads or pondering. There is a free one called The Tarot by Jean Roussier which was one of the first ones I downloaded. It is very limited and does a basic five card spread with a parchment-background Conver deck (Majors only). Any more than that and you have to upgrade to the one called Tarot Reader, priced at just under 2 euros. But it’s easy to use and the cards have all the (very) basic meanings underneath. Pleasing colours, contrast and a sharp image make this app one of the best of the free ones. And there is some real trash out there. One “free” Lenormand app that I downloaded wanted to charge me every time I set about doing a spread for myself so I zapped that one into oblivion pronto. In general, the free ones are not worth it. They’re either too clunky and ugly to get any pleasure from or they’re doing the hard sell for an upgrade (or game) as soon as they’re installed. Perhaps my favourite almost-free tarot app (it costs less than 1 euro) is “¿ Si o No ?” and I have no idea why the title comes up in Spanish on the app as the version on my phone is in English. You are taken to a black screen and using only the Majors of the Fournier Tarot de Marseilles, you ask a question, (“Do a yes/no question and press the Play button”) and the five cards are all simultaneously and elegantly turned over. Answers are “yes” or “no” or “the cards don’t know the answer”. I thought it was related to the number of reversed cards (i.e three or more cards out of five reversed would be a “no”) but I’m not sure it is as there would be no need for a “don’t know” option. It’s a sort of glorified tossing of the coin with tarot card illustrations but my friends found it amusing when we were comparing apps over dinner last week because it’s fun to consult and the app itself is nicely done. Of the well known deck apps, I have the Tarot of Dreams, the Gilded Royale, the Gilded Reverie Lenormand, the Buckland Romani, the ISIS Marseilles, Tarot of the Holy Light, The Alchemical Tarot, Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and a (Dusserre?) Dodal facsimilie which has very high resolution images and which I rather like though I wish it had the browse function. I use it for a daily draw sometimes and to remind myself of how truly beautiful this deck is, even moreso with its patina of age. One of the lesser known ones is Paul O´Brien’s amusing Visionary I-Ching deck, where you shake the phone six times to cast the coins and build up the hexagram and it takes you to a card format illustration with watercolour artwork which you can either simply contemplate or (doubtlessly curiosity will get the better of you) flip it over and read a couple of paragraphs about the meaning. Quite superficial of course and not to be compared with a serious translation but still fun to use. The shaking of the phone to cast the coins is particularly satisfying and the free version is entertaining enough. Like so many of these apps, I find myself using it when I am bored in a café, waiting for someone, or waiting for the train, spare moments which welcome a distraction. There are of course none of the treasured tarot rituals to get us in the zone and I think it is highly unlikely I would use these at home when I have my decks nearby. I still like to find somewhere comfortable, lay down the reading cloth, unbag the deck, shuffle and think. With these apps I am invariably in a public place with a degree of noise and not much opportunity to centre myself .
My conclusion from explorations in this field is that the best tarot apps by far are those created by The Fool’s Dog, such as the Tarot of the Holy Light, the Buckland-Romani and the ISIS Marseilles. They (he?) also do many others – which I haven’t bought – including the International Icon, Rosetta, the Wizard’s Tarot, the Prairie Tarot, Wildwood and Ator Tarot among others. You can also get the Druid Plant and Animal Oracles as a single app and mix them together for readings. These are the best apps by far (priced at under 4 euros) and any apps not done by them will always be found wanting in some area. You feel you are working with someone who knows what tarot fans really want, with details and a sleekness that really make a difference. And tarot fans don’t always want readings. Sometime they just want to contemplate the cards and the Fool’s Dog apps have this feature to allow you to get familiar with the deck at your own pace. Excellent, high resolution images which are the full size of the phone screen, rich colours, extremely user-friendly in all aspects. Everything feels like it is exactly where it should be. If all tarot apps did exactly what these ones do, I would be happy because they are virtually as enjoyable to use as real cards, but there are always niggling impracticalities. The Tarot of Dreams app for example, although it has the feature where you can browse the cards, has a frustrating blue border on the screen and if you want to magnify the card, the border doesn’t move so you lose the extremities of the image behind the border. The only way you can see the full card is within the border – i.e not zooming the image – and it is considerably smaller than The Fool’s Dog reproductions. This was amended in the Gilded Royale and the Gilded Reverie Lenormand; as soon as you enlarge the card, the border disappears. Much better. However, the interface, the shuffling, cutting and drawing aren’t as elegant as the Fool’s Dogs apps. The shuffling is a bit stilted whereas in the Fool’s Dog apps you can swoosh the cards on a customised spreadcloth, riffle shuffle, cut (“choose a pile”) as many times as you want, then deal. All very elegantly. The Fool’s Dog know the satisfaction to be had from shuffling, and shuffling that the reader feels they have control over. Other apps either don’t shuffle or it’s an automatic shuffle. The reading is simply for whoever happens to be holding the phone or iPad at the time. Friends on whom I have tested these Fool’s Dog apps out have been very impressed; they really are the best apps out there without a doubt. You just have to hope that the decks you like (and I would love a Tarot Illuminati app) get picked up by The Fool’s Dog. I am currently testing out the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and seen it go through a number of changes but it just never seems to feel comfortable. There are too many icons (and I keep forgetting what they mean) does it take me to the book? A reading? Facebook? There’s an egg timer icon which represents past readings. Not the most obvious choice of symbols and each time I go into the app it’s an effort to remember which icons refer to what. There is no fluidity and I just get constantly lost in this app, lose patience, come out and go to a Fool’s Dog one. There is no shuffling, the app just throws a card up on your screen, no background, no spreadcloth, no charm. Yet I love the actual deck.
I have to say, of all the apps I have, the one I love the most is the Tarot of the Holy Light deck app. I already loved the actual deck but its density often prevented me from using it for more impromptu readings, a fear that I just wouldn’t get remotely near understanding even a fraction of the symbolism. The colours are so rich and vibrant and this really comes across in the app. Something I have noticed is how collaged decks lose some of their collaged seams when seen on a screen. Not that this ever bothered me with the Tarot of the Holy Light but it certainly feels more seamless as an app and I find just zooming into this app while in the street, on the subway, or idle moments here and there in the city, is like a sudden injection of magic into my day. That’s what makes the potential of these tarot apps so exciting. You can’t really pull out a tarot card whilst waiting for the trafic lights to change or whilst waiting to cross the road, but I sometimes glance at my iPhone, go into a tarot app and get a thunderbolt flash of mystery and wonder and my day is a tiny bit richer because of it. I am reminded of the things I love and who I am at inopportune moments. Plus what is also special about the Tarot of the Holy Light app is that it comes with the bare bones of the creator’s book, a magnificent work currently in progress. You draw a card (and there are a variety of spreadcloths to choose from), scroll down and the author elucidates the card’s meaning in her very distinct prose and I feel like I understand this deck so much more via the app than I ever did when it was just the deck alone. There is so much in each card and the text contains so much fascinating analysis that ever so slowly – via these random moments out and about – I am chiselling away at a deck I love, and I feel that the deck is always with me in a manageable size and format. It also has the option of shorter, more succinct divinatory meanings if you don’t want to lose yourself in the book. Using these apps is a new way to think about tarot and always have it nearby (like your house keys), to be able to look at these images without drawing attention or arousing suspicion in public as getting a real deck out might (depending on where you live). There will of course soon be many more apps, there already are a large number, and I have only mentioned a tiny selection, just the ones that work for me. There are also the oracles – all those Hay House ones and Madame Endora and Psycards – but I personally feel that I already have representative apps of different card-reading styles, a RWS, a Marseilles, something esoteric and alchemical, I-Ching, a Lenormand. It’s a shame there is no high resolution Thoth app because that is probably the deck I most like to peruse and think about. But it’s all new territory and what I now think of as the smooth interface will no doubt soon look dated as more advances are made, and as more and more of our lives become compressed – perhaps concentrated is a better word – into our mobile phones and iPads, and more and more tarot artists will want to see their decks out there. Also, they are so cheap, it’s a good way to see if you like working with a deck without having to pay the full price and have it take up space on the bookshelf. I had never given much attention to the Prairie Tarot, for example, but at less than 4 euros (the price of a magazine), I’m quite tempted to see just how it reads. If nothing else it opens up your monthly tarot budget (with apps priced between zero and 9 euros for the most expensive, The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus) and for that reason alone you cannot but celebrate.