Atanas Alexandrov Atanassov, The Visconti
Tarots (Lo Scarabeo/Llewellyn, 2002)
The Sola-Busca Tarot Illuminating Ancient Tarots (Lo Scarabeo, 1995)
Atanas Alexandrov Atanassov, The Mantegna Tarot (Lo Scarabeo/Llewellyn, 2000)
Ancient Minchiate Etruria (Lo Scarabeo, 1996)
Le Grand Etteilla (Grimaud, 1996)
Book of Thoth (Lo Scarabeo, 2003)
Koji Furuta, Ukiyoe Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, 1988)
Jui Guoliang, Chinese Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, 1997)
Robin Wood, Robin Wood Tarot (Llewellyn Publications, 1991)
Sarah Ovenall, The Victoria Regina Tarot (Llewellyn Publications, 2002)
MY TOP TEN TAROT DECKS
Now that we've discussed the history of tarot, and I've suggested some reading material to start with, here are my favorite decks.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, a huge number of new decks were produced. The fashion for new decks continues to this day. There are decks based on gemstones, cats, witches, The Lord Of The Rings and several Celtic and Arthurian themes. In fact, the tarot has been adapted for just about all tastes. Some of these decks are, it has to be said, merely frivolous. Some are fairly damn awful. Far too many are little more than slavish copies of older designs. To review all the decks currently available would be a gargantuan and ultimately pointless task. What I can do, however, is to guide you to a selection of my personal top ten historically significant and aesthetically pleasing decks. If you can't find a deck that you like in the following list, it's probably safe to say that tarot is not for you. If you are already familiar with one of the standard decks such as the Marseille, Rider-Waite or Crowley Thoth tarots, this may give you some ideas to broaden your horizons...
The Visconti Tarots
This is a recreation of one of the oldest and most beautiful tarot decks still in existence. These cards were painted some time after 1450 for the Duke of Milan, Franceso Sforza and his wife, the former Bianca Maria Visconti. The originals of the so-called Visconti-Sforza tarot are now housed in several different collections and this modern deck is an exquisite recreation of these ancient cards by the Bulgarian painter, Atanas Atanassov. The cards are beautifully and carefully painted and (as an added touch of luxury for those of us who can't muster the king's ransom that would be required to buy the originals) they also feature shiny golden backgrounds.
The Sola-Busca Tarot
This is a very odd deck indeed. Dating from around the same period as the Visconti decks (late 15th Century) its 22 trump cards are quite unlike those of any other tarot. True, they do begin in the traditional manner, with The Fool. But instead of progressing through the customary Magician, Papess, Empress, Emperor and so on, it features often obscure figures with Latinate names such as Panfilio, Postumio, Lenpio and Mario. An unusual feature of the Sola-Busca deck is that its pip cars are fully illustrated -- something that is most unusual in pre-20th Century decks and which almost certainly influenced Pamela Colman-Smith when she painted the Rider-Waite deck. Lo Scarabeo's colourful reproduction of the Sola-Busca is, for reasons which escape me, sold under the name The Illuminating Ancient Tarots.
The Mantegna Tarot
The Mantegna Tarot is, arguably, an even more peculiar deck than the Sola-Busca. In fact, it is by no means certain that it was ever intended to be used as a deck of cards at all. Dating from about 1470, these cards were attributed to the artist Andrea Mantegna though this attribution is now thought to be incorrect. The deck comprises 50 cards which are arranged in groups representing The Estates of Man, Apollo and the Muses, the Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Christian Virtues and the Planets and Spheres. Although it differs significantly from an normal 78 card tarot deck, it shares much of the traditional tarot iconography a such as the Fool (or 'Misero'), Temperance and Strength. Lo Scarabeo's modern reproduction (by the same artist responsible for the Visconti Tarot, Atanas Atanassov) is rather fancifully coloured with the addition of much silver in the background, which may not be historically correct but is attractive in its own right.
Ancient Minchiate Etruria
The Minchiate deck is like a kind of super-tarot. It has everything an ordinary tarot deck has and then some. This Lo Scarabeo edition is a reproduction of a Florentine deck published in 1725. Although it has all the usual trump cards, the scenes they portray frequently differ from those of the more familiar tarot decks. The Fool, for example, is not the Marseille-type beggar pursued by a dog but a young man playing with (or being tormented by?) two children. The Tower shows not a building being struck by lightening but a flame-filled doorway from which a semi-naked woman runs. In addition to the 21 tarot trumps, the Minchiate also has the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the four elements and additional Virtues, making 41 trumps in total. While not the prettiest of decks, the Ancient Minchiate Etruria is a wonderful set of cards for anyone interested in the history of tarot and tarot-like decks.
Le Grand Etteilla
This is one of two fairly easily obtainable decks based on the Egyptian-influenced cards of the 18th Century cartomancer, Etteilla. Le Grand Etteilla is quite a colourful deck bearing an odd mixture of pictures (presumably old engravings which have been newly coloured) and esoteric symbols. The cards of the Major Arcana differ significantly from those found in most other tarot decks so anyone familiar with the Rider-Waite or Marseille cards may have problems making heads or tails of them at first. Some assistance is provided by the brief divinatory meanings printed on the cards themselves. This is a nice deck which would have been nicer still if the card publisher, Grimaud, had provided more information on the provenance of the designs used.
Book of Thoth
This is Lo Scarabeo's version of an Etteilla deck. It is claimed to be "a faithful reproduction" an 1870 Parisian deck called the Grand Jeu de l'Oracles des Dames. While the symbols on the cards often resemble those on Grimaud's Grand Etteilla, they are not identical. For example, in this deck, Trump I is labelled 'Le Chaos' whereas in the Grand Etteilla it is 'Wisdom'. The suit cards are fairly traditional, simply showing the appropriate numbers of cups, batons, swords and coins. In the Grand Etteilla some suit cards also show other symbols and icons whose significance is far from being obvious. The colours on the Book of Thoth cards are much darker than in the Grand Etteilla and the illustrations are frequently more elaborately decorated. Some people might find the appearance too sombre for their tastes. Personally, I like my tarot decks to look old and strange and this one fits the bill nicely.
The Ukiyoe deck is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of all modern tarots. These cards were painted by Koji Furuta in the traditional style of Japanese Ukiyo-e ('pictures of a floating world') paintings and prints. The images are probably more inspired by the Marseille deck than the Rider-Waite (so the fool is wretched rather than carefree and the magician is a conjurer rather than a magus, while the pip cards lack fully realised scenes altogether). In spite of that, you could never mistake this for a Western deck. The pictures on the trump and court cards are exquisitely illustrated in an unmistakably Japanese style. A real stunner!
This is another exquisite deck which blends the Western and Eastern traditions. Painted by Jui Guoliang, the deck takes a number of liberties with the traditional tarot trumps, often substituting figures from Chinese mythology. So the Pope is replaced by The Heavenly Master (according to the enclosed booklet this is Chang Tao Ling, the first great teacher of Taoism), the Hanged Man becomes The Hanging Ghost (in Chinese tradition, the soul of a person who has been wronged) while the Judgement card is transformed into Confucius. Some experienced tarot readers object to these changes. Personally, I have no such reservations. I really cannot see why you would not want a Chinese tarot to depict Chinese figures. Unlike the Ukiyoe tarot, this deck has fully illustrated pip cards too, most of them once again taking their inspiration from Chinese legend and history. Whatever the objections of some tarot purists, this has to be one of the most beautiful of modern decks. If you don't want to tell fortunes with it, you should buy a pack just to look at!
Robin Wood Tarot
This is a modern Pagan deck in which the artist, Robin Wood, blends images from nature with the symbolism of the Rider-Waite deck. Thus we find the Empress now sits beneath the greenwood tree, spinning at her wheel, the Six of Swords shows somebody being transported by a shade punting a swan barge, and so on. For anyone who already knows the Rider-Waite cards, this deck provides an accessible alternative. The cards are very nicely illustrated and have bright, vibrant colours. They are perhaps a little lacking in the darker, threatening imagery that typifies the cards in some tarot decks. I leave it to you to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing!
The Victoria Regina Tarot
From the bright colours of the Robin Wood deck we now go to the opposite extreme. The Victoria Regina tarot is one of that rare breed of decks which is illustrated entirely in black and white. If you think that sounds dull, think again. This is one of the most eye-catching and intriguing tarot decks that has been released in recent times. Each oversize card is made up from a collage of Victorian illustrations. Victoria herself is the Queen of each of the suits. Some other recognisable characters appear on other cards (Oscar Wilde, for example, is the Prince of Wands) but most of the cards feature unknown individuals. The traditional tarot suits have been updated to the Victorian period so guns appear on the 'sword' cards, clocks or pocket watches appear on 'coin' cards, Mason jars appear on 'cups' and fountain pens appear on wands. This is a fascinating deck which comes with an informative 260 page paperback book and even has a nice drawstring velvet pouch for storing the cards. My final pick, this is a lovely and gloriously eccentric deck!