Baby’s First Tarot
Thoth vs. Rider-Waite-Smith
Of all the questions I would get when helping people at the Tarot counter during my occult store days, “Which deck should I start with?” was probably one of the easiest to answer. Unless they were attracted to a particular deck, there were always two decks I would go for: The Rider-Waite-Smith and the Thoth.
Why? Because most divinatory cards considered to be part of the Tarot lineage are based on these two decks, especially the Waite-Smith.
Though not the first cards used for divination nor even the first Tarot deck, the Waite-Smith, created by writer A.E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith, was the first to “standardize its imagery,” according to Jessa Crispin in the Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide To The Inspired Life. The deck, published in 1910 by William Rider & Sons, was the first since the 16th century where “all of the cards, including the Minor Arcana, were fully illustrated with human figures and other symbolic imagery. This is the full separation mark of the tarot from a deck of playing cards to a deck of divination cards.” (Crispin 9)
This makes it a great starting point for getting used to the symbols and imagery used in most decks. Since it is out of copyright, the Waite-Smith (called the Rider-Waite for a long time, effectively erasing Colman Smith, perhaps because she was both a woman and a person of color), is available from many companies and fairly easy to obtain. There is also a Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative deck that has a slight redesign and celebrates the artist more but carries the same imagery.
However, the art is not for everyone. I did not connect with the deck at all. But I really connected with the Thoth deck.
The Thoth deck, created by Aleister Crowley and originally painted by Lady Frieda Harris, was completed in 1943. However, it remained secretive and unpublished until 1969, after both creators’ death, when it was put out by Crowley’s order Ordo Templi Orientis. Though the deck follows the same basic structure as the Waite-Smith (Waite and Crowley were both kabbalists and both members of the Order of the Golden Dawn), it uses princess instead of page, changes some of the major arcana (ie. in the image above where Art has replaced Temperance, which given that Crowley wasn’t much for Temperance, isn’t a huge surprise), and has a totally different artistic style.
The deck is not as widely disseminated as the Waite-Smith, but it still has its descendant decks, including my partner’s favorite, the Haindl. It is also great for symbolism and frankly, I adore the art. It’s dreamy, art deco, and filled with almost fractal imagery.
Choosing a deck, whether it be your first or your twenty-first, is a very personal process. It’s all about whether the art speaks to you, whether it feels good in your hands, and whether you can make sense of the imagery in a meaningful way (and believe me, this changes from deck to deck). For example, I adored the art in the Dali deck (cards from which are pictured above between the Thot and Waite-Smith counterparts), but it was too big for my hands (and I don’t have small hands) and I had trouble making sense of the interpretations in the booklet it came with. I spent months with the Dali before I gave up and moved on to the Thoth, which is the deck I currently work with.