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Selecting an Historic Deck for Readings

Do you want to start reading with the Tarot de Marseilles (TdM) or some other historic deck, but you aren’t sure how to pick the right one for you? In the Cartomancy section I gave a run-down of decks by category and style, but I didn’t talk much about the actual selection process. Here’s how I go about evaluating a deck as a possible reading companion.

First and foremost, you need to be able to relate to the court cards as living personalities. Interpreting the court cards is hard enough without having to deal with stiff, archaic figures that don’t resemble anyone in your universe. Can you make up stories about the court cards in your deck? Can you picture them interacting with each other in various situations? In my opinion, most traditional TdMs are too flat and stylized (see the 1761 TdM in the upper right of the photo). Most of the court cards in the Visconti-Sforza deck are generic International Gothic types with round white faces, vacant eyes, and tight yellow curls. Some of the most expressive court cards are in the 1835 Soprafino deck by Carlo Della Rocca (lower right) and the Tarot 1JJ (lower left). French and Spanish publishers like Fournier and France Jeux have been coming out with updated cards that have a casual, contemporary feel (upper left).

 I have a few “touchstone” trump cards that have a special, personal significance. If these cards don’t work for me, it ruins the entire deck, no matter how wonderful the rest of the cards are. The Visconti-Sforza deck is a no-go because of the guy on the Strength card who appears to be whacking a lion with his club. But I love the Strength figure in the Soprafino deck with that crazed, maniacal look in her eyes. She’s in mortal combat with the lion, who’s fighting back, not standing like a passive pussycat as in so many other decks.

Is there a trump card you especially identify with? You’ll want to look at that card in numerous decks to see what works for you. Some cards, like the Sun, Moon and Tower have radically different imagery, depending on the deck; while some like the Empress and Hanged Man changed very little from the 15th to 19th centuries.

Unless you’re going to rely on numerology or geometry to interpret the pip cards, you probably want something with a little more personality than just the bare-naked suit symbols, like the Neoclassical card at the far left. You’d be amazed how far a few leaves and flowers can go in helping to interpret the pips. My vote for the pips with the most personality: The Universal Tarot de Marseille (a re-colored 1751 Burdel Tarot de Marseilles), the Soprafino, and the Tarot 1JJ, shown above in that order.

Have you purchased a historic deck recently? Why were you were attracted to it? What are your favorite trumps or court cards?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. The 1JJ is one of the few historical decks I have kept in my collection after a cleaning, because it’s one of the few that seem expressive to me. As interesting as the TdMs are, they don’t really speak to me. 😦 Or maybe I haven’t managed to “crack” their code.

    I’ll give it a try with the 1JJ, as you suggested! I like this deck, and the copy is old and wonderful to handle!

    Thank you for this nice post!

    January 4, 2012
    • Hi Marina. Thanks for the feedback. Even though I discuss the TdM a lot, I agree with you that there are more expressive decks. The 1JJ is one of the best, and my favorite deck for reading is the version of the Soprafino the Avondo Brothers published in 1880. If you try some of the techniques on this website with the 1JJ I’d love to hear how it goes.

      January 4, 2012
  2. nice post!
    i cant share this link : https://tarot-heritage.com/2011/08/11/selecting-an-historic-deck-for-readings
    am i doing it wrong ?

    January 9, 2012
    • Hello Hundertwasser. Thank you so much for your kind comment. What are you trying to do share my link? I’m such a social media dinosaur, I may not have whatever is needed activated. Let me know what’s not working and I’ll try to fix it, or find someone who can help me with it.
      Thanks
      Sherryl

      January 9, 2012
  3. Lund #

    Hi! I love your site and im learning a lot…im a tarot newbie, but as odd as it migth seem, im not fond of the RWS tarot decks, looooove the “historical” ones… I have a mini visconti, a mini marseilles and a soprafino deck…love the 3 of them, but the easiest for my (at the moment) for decoding is the marseilles…but soprafino is growing on me (such a beautifull deck!) Im using your tarot techniques and Im getting very accurate readings! Keep on the good work!

    January 23, 2012
    • Hello Lund. Thank you for your kind comments. I’m so glad you’re finding the material on my website useful. It’s kind of ironic that we who read with the oldest and most traditional decks are a small minority in the tarot community. But that seems to be changing, especially in the U.S. where the Tarot de Marseilles is evolving from being virtually unknown to becoming the wave of the future.

      January 24, 2012
  4. FG #

    Could you please expand a little about the decks belonging in the category of: “French and Spanish publishers like Fournier and France Jeux have been coming out with updated cards that have a casual, contemporary feel (upper left)”.

    Thanks

    February 14, 2013
    • I’m so sorry it took me this long to post your question. I’m just getting back to blogging after spending several months dealing with some personal diasters. To expand on my statement: The large European publishers of mass-market tarot decks have versions of the Tarot de Marseilles with slightly modified designs and brighter colors that make them more contemporary and easier to relate to. Here in the United States, decks by Fournier are the easiest to find. I put them in a separate category of Tarot de Marseilles since they do not strictly follow the Conver/Chosson pattern.

      March 7, 2013
  5. FG #

    Could you please point me to some specifick deck in this category?
    I already browsed the web sites of Fournier and France Jeux editions and the Fornier section on the aeclectic.net website.
    In particular: I’d like to find tarot decks that are strictly faithful to the TdM iconography but in a contemporary interpretation: drawings of human bodies and faces easier to relate to.
    Are there other decks of this kind besides France Jeux’s “Le Nouveau Tarot de Marseilles” ?
    (I write from Piedmont, Italy)

    Thanks

    March 7, 2013
    • I checked my shelves to see if I had any decks I could recommend to you, but I read mostly with Italian decks so I couldn’t find anything. It seems that the newly printed Tarot de Marseilles decks are either faithful reproductions or take a lot of liberties. Have you seen Major Tom’s Tarot de Marseilles? It’s reviewed on aeclectic. Here’s a link to an online store in Paris that has a huge variety of decks, so you might find something there. I’ve ordered from them in past years and received my decks promptly.
      I hope this helps.
      http://www.librairie-inconnu.com/

      March 11, 2013

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