I have a fairly modest Tarot collection by some standards; the current count is about 35. Nonetheless, when I talk to non-Tarot people, that figure makes jaws drop and heads spin, and I’m inevitably faced with the question, “But why do you need so many?”
The honest answer? I don’t. I don’t need to amass Tarot decks the way a magpie amasses lost keys and discarded Coke cans. But I do love collecting Tarot decks, so today we’re going to look at the main reasons why.
1. Different decks read differently
I’m an über-traditional reader, as anyone who has given this blog even a cursory glance will know. I learned Tarot with a completely unillustrated deck, which meant that as a baby reader I was never able to fall back on card imagery to aid in my interpretation of a spread. I had to do the whole thing blind, working from book-learned meanings and a whole host of correspondences and non-imagistic reading techniques. Color me biased, but to this day I still think that’s the best way to learn Tarot.
However, even I find that the artwork on a deck can (and should) affect the way I read. If I do the same spread and pull the same exact cards with two different decks, I’m likely to get two similar but non-identical readings. The reason for this is simple: Different artists have their own interpretation of the cards, and each artist will pull different themes to the fore in illustrating a deck. For one artist, the Three of Pentacles may clearly be about teamwork, while for another, it may be about skillfulness and mastery of a craft. Both interpretations are legitimate, but they’ll show up to different degrees depending on how a deck has been illustrated.
For me, a Tarot reading begins not when I lay out the cards, nor even when I start shuffling, but when I decide which deck I’m going to use. Regardless of how we choose to think Tarot works (and how much credibility we lend to the more hoobedy-hoobedy explanations of Tarot), cartomancy is fundamentally about finding meaning in randomly selected cards. The choice of deck affects the cards that turn up and the way I’m likely to interpret them, so for me, it’s an essential part of any divination.
2. They look nice
I’ll admit it, I like pretty things. I like to have pretty things. And, well, Tarot decks are pretty. Not all of them, to be sure. Some are ugly as sin, either intentionally or due to an unfortunate lack of taste on the part of the decks’ creators. But most are not. There are literally hundreds of beautiful decks in existence, the sight of which makes me extend my hands and make a grabby motion like a pre-linguistic child demanding a cookie. Collecting is, simply enough, an opportunity to have nice things.
Although I try to cycle through all of the decks in my collection, there are certainly some I use less than others. Even those decks are important and valuable additions to my collection, though, because I love the artwork. Sometimes, I’ll just take a deck out of its box and thumb through the cards—especially if I haven’t read with it in a while. Tarot decks are things of beauty, and there’s nothing I value more than beauty. Sometimes, a deck will be practically unusable (either because it’s printed on poor cardstock, or because the imagery is arcane enough that I could never feasibly use it with a client), but will still take my breath away. Those are the sorts of decks that I’ll add to my collection simply for the joy of having them.
3. Grounding in Tarot tradition
My decks connect me to the spirit of Tarot, and to the Tarot community more broadly. Tarot isn’t static; it’s a living, growing, changing tradition. New decks are produced every year, and those decks reflect new insights and inspired takes on the classic 78-card structure. I collect Tarot decks in part to link myself to the egregore of the Tarot world.
I feel quite strongly that a serious reader (i.e. someone who would consider herself experienced, rather than intermediate or a novice) should own and be comfortable reading the RWS, the Thoth, and some version of the Tarot de Marseille.* These are the three great streams of Tarot tradition, and I think it’s valuable to develop competency with all three. These three decks comprise the simplest, sturdiest Tarot collection. These are the essentials, in my less-than-humble opinion; everything else is gravy.
That said, I also look to collect contemporary decks that make a big splash in the Tarot community. You know what I mean—decks that move people, decks that alter our collective consciousness as Tarot readers. Decks like the Mary-El Tarot or the Wild Unknown Tarot. Even decks that I end up disliking personally, like the Wildwood or Druid Craft. I feel like these decks become essential features of the Tarot landscape, and for that, I want to own them and connect with them. Doing so grounds me in Tarot tradition and in the Tarot community. I’m still kicking myself for not having acquired the Slow Holler Tarot when it was available, and I’m hoping it’ll go back on sale sometime in the future.
There are a couple of other reasons for collecting decks—for one thing, every now and then an artist connects so acutely to the energy of one specific card, in such a way that I’ve never seen before, that I have to have the deck, even if the rest of the cards are underwhelming—but these are the big ones. I know deck collecting isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of people who own only one Tarot deck. That’s totally fine, despite my imperious proclamation a couple of paragraphs above. For anyone who doesn’t collect, but who wants to understand why a reader would do such a silly thing, hopefully this post has given you a bit of an explanation.
What are your thoughts on collecting? Are you a deck monogamist, or are you one of those hardcore collectors with 200+ packs lining your shelves? (If the latter, and if you’re looking to trim the fat, let’s talk…) As always, I’d be interested to hear folks’ thoughts on the matter.
*An astute reader will recall from my Decks I Have & Want page that I don’t actually own the classic Tarot de Marseille. This is an oversight on my part, and one I keep intending to correct, but every time I’m willing to spend money on a new deck I end up buying something newer and sexier. I have a couple of TdM-style decks, including the Tarot de Jacques Viéville and the Visconti-Sforza deck, but I would like to get a proper TdM at some point, as well as the Swiss 1JJ Tarot. These are, I feel, essential acquisitions.