What Makes a Tarot Deck?

You often hear the word ‘traditional’ when it comes to tarot. Traditional meanings. Traditional imagery. Traditional names. Traditional associations. Tradition, tradition, tradition — and maybe that’s part of why the hierophant has been jumping out to me lately.

Now, I’m a big fan of not confining my tarot readings to the traditional meanings. RWS imagery rarely does the job for me. Renamed major cards, minor suites, and court cards? Hell yeah, give me those.

But. And here is the big ‘but’: The tradition of tarot is still important to us in our deviations. The old tarots, our traditional (there it is again!) favorite decks like the Tarot de Marseilles, the Rider-Waite Smith, and the Thoth Tarots are our originals, the pieces of information that we work from to get our new ideas, the foundation of the structure we build. What you do in academics is you learn the ideas and themes of those who came before you, read their papers, and then you expand. You add. You correct things you think are wrong, or were done just a little bit off-center. You give your own additions to the growing tradition of your field. Tarot is like academics. We build our ideas up from the structures and themes we have seen come before us. Some things are carried over, because we think they are useful — some things we change, because we think they may be done better.

Tarot is, ultimately, a compilation of traditions and themes and templates which are replicated and slowly, subtly changed over time. It’s a sort of evolution. The mere fact that you can find common threads in imagery and intended meaning between vastly different decks attests to this fact. A tarot deck will, if it is a ‘proper’ tarot deck, show that continuity while expanding or shifting some aspect of it. Clones, I suppose, also occur — but they will find themselves generally unwelcome in my collection.

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