When you’re seeking out a new tarot deck, which cards are the deal-breakers for you?
Most of us have one or two (or more) specific cards that affect our feelings about each deck, and possibly our decision whether or not it’s one for us.
It might be that you have a special relationship with a particular card, so if that one isn’t illustrated in a way that works for you, you’re going to struggle to really bond with the deck as a whole. Or it may be more political, so you need to see particular concepts or archetypes illustrated in a certain way in order to feel that a deck represents your world view (e.g. feminism).
There are a number of cards I focus on when I’m looking at new decks, which I’ve listed below. This isn’t quite the same as listing my ‘favourite cards’ — many of these aren’t necessarily favourites, it’s just that the way they’re illustrated tells me a lot about the vision behind the deck. I’ve used the term ‘deal-breaker’ above, but that’s not really an accurate description. Like many folks, I’m on a continual search for the perfect tarot deck, and I don’t have it yet (though I feel like Noel Arthur Hiempel might possibly help out with that). This means with each deck I own, I’m making some kind of compromise.
Here are my ‘key cards’, the ones I make sure to check out before treating myself to a new deck:
Ten of Cups
This one is so important. I read this card as a depiction of what true fulfilment looks like, what it feels like to ‘come home’, spiritually, emotionally. What it’s like to be happy with yourself, to give and receive love, to be happy in your heart and soul.
Sadly, so many artists place a picture of a (straight-looking) couple on this card, often with children and a house to complete the image of heteronormative perfection. Even Thea’s Tarot, which I adore, shows a (lesbian) couple with a baby. Yes, that’s emotional fulfilment to many, but by no means all people, and I feel like the over-use of couplehood on this card actually damages its message.
My favourite Ten of Cups, hands down, is from the Wild Unknown Tarot (above left). Here Kim Krans uses the rainbow motif that characterises the deck beautifully. Five cups at the top, each beaming out light of a different colour. Below, five more cups receive the light, a rainbow arriving in each. It suggests a movement from the compartmentalised to the integrated. A fearlessness of being completely myself. A love for all that I am. I also adore the Tarot of the Cat People version (above right), which is basically just a guy and his many cats. Home, indeed.
Here’s a card that carries a heavy weight. As the penultimate card in the major arcana, this is about that last step before completion, the final challenge that you’re facing on your journey. It’s a big moment, in which you’re being encouraged to be accountable to yourself, to face up to all that you are, the good and the ‘bad’ together. The Christian overtones in some images are strong, which I find off-putting, not to mention the name of the card itself, which carries obviously negative overtones.
In some decks, this card is renamed. In the Collective Tarot it’s ‘Liberation’, which feels perfect to me. In Thea’s Tarot, it’s ‘Rebirth’. Both of these place the focus on the person receiving the reading, rather than some external force. ‘Judgement’ to me sounds like standing in front of some terrible pulpit being told who and what I am, hardly the kind of experience I fancy going through. Liberation and Rebirth on the other hand? I’m up for the hard work it takes to experience those things. I feel like I’m being put in charge of my own destiny.
I struggled with the Hierophant for years, largely because of the Pope-type figure that so often adorns this card. It felt like a card of doctrines, of strictures, of conforming to certain rules and beliefs (qualities I might better have attributed to the Emperor.)
This changed when I saw Stephanie Piu-Mun Law’s version. In the Shadowscapes Tarot (above centre), the Hierophant is a tree (it feels a lot like one of the ents in Lord of the Rings) and I began to have a sense of the ancestral qualities of this card. There’s something here about receiving time-honoured knowledge from those who have been before (that can be spiritual leaders, sure, but also community heroes, activists, members of your own family, ancestors of identity or blood…) and I love to see decks that take that kind of knowledge out of church-y environments and revision teachers in different ways, like the raven in the Wild Unknown (above right), or the awesome Instructor in the Collective Tarot.
Queen of Swords
Like about half the folks reading this, I’m a big fan of the Queen of Swords, and I pay close attention to the way they’re depicted. For me, this is a person who’s been through some stuff, who knows what heartbreak is, who understands boundaries and has a touch of cynicism about them. At the same time, they’re strong and humorous and someone you’d trust with your most difficult truths.
It’s hard to say exactly what I’m looking for in this card, but it’s a glimpse in the face or posture of these qualities. I want to see a Queen of Swords who embodies that ‘just you try it’ kind of composure, but who still has a glint in their eye. Someone strong and hard…but with just a hint of of the compassion that lies beneath. I think for me, Karen Kuykendall’s version, in the Tarot of the Cat People (above right), does it best.
If I see one more pregnant earth-mama…! Show me Empresses that are connecting with nature, who know the meaning of self-care, who know how to listen to their bodies, who can see a version of ‘receptiveness’ beyond the womb-based kind, who grow stuff and feed people and who make beautiful spaces for themselves and others to come home to. When I think of the Empress figures in my life, I rarely imagine pregnant mothers. I think of folks whose groundedness and solid self-love have made me feel comfortable and safe, nurtured and loved. It’s not that a pregnant woman can’t embody this, it’s just that I love to see artists who have thought beyond this cliche.
I always check out the Empress card in a new deck to see how this important archetype is expressed. A favourite, again, is the Wild Unknown Tarot — no person, just a glowing tree beneath the moon. It’s a tree I want to hug, a place I’d like to make my home. And I love Casey Zabala’s interpretation in the newly-released Wanderer’s Tarot — the cow-headed person chilling out in the sunset references this card’s link with beauty-loving Taurus.
How about you? Any specific cards that make or break a deck for you? Have you found a deck that ticks all of your key-card boxes? What’s the one card that never seems quite right?
Cards shown are from the Wild Unknown Tarot by Kim Krans, the Wanderer’s Tarot by Casey Zabala, The Collective Tarot, the Tarot of the Cat People by Karen Kuykendall, the Circo Tarot by Marisa de la Pena and Thea’s Tarot by Ruth West.
I’m a 30-something writer, artist, tarot reader, and perpetual explorer of the space between thought, feeling, and action.
I believe that spirituality and ritual are for everybody. I’m about the journey, in all of its messy, non-linear, chaotic iterations. I am excited by anticapitalist business and living with my whole entire self present. I use tarot cards to bring forth hidden truth, and ritual to affirm my commitment, over and over, to my ever-shifting path.