How to Make Your Lame Tarot Deck Stand Out From the Crowd

Oh joy, another crowdfunded Tarot deck. Get out that wallet!

Everyone will gather ‘round at brunch and applaud this new deck’s creativity. We’ll all congratulate each other on what indigo empaths we are. Then we’ll go glamping and have a circle in the full moonlight. We’re a coven! Special day. What a magical creation this new Tarot deck is!

Please. Let’s have a fucking reality check here. Etsy and Pinterest and their preening Williamsburg ilk are taking the magic out of magic. Tarot is the new yoga, and yoga is already McDonald’s.

So if you must express your uniqueness and creativity by imposing upon us another unique and creative Tarot deck, please consider these ideas for doing it better than the crowd–the ginormous, fashion-conscious crowd:

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GTFOver Yourself With That Branding Bullshit

The true goal of nearly any homemade Tarot deck is to brand its creator as deep, wild or mystical. Do some serious self reflection. If you cannot say with absolute confidence and objective humility that this does not describe your project, then fuck off. Nobody needs any more of that self-advertising garbage.

Look, branding is bullshit. It’s pretty much the opposite of mysticism. So if you’re spending 75% of your time branding your Tarot deck, at least just admit to yourself that you’re a capitalist, not a mystic.

On the other hand, people will probably buy it. So if you’re a cynical capitalist, by all means: fleece them. But do it with some kind of honesty. Don’t delude yourself that you actually are deep, wild and mystical for selling a Crayola version of the Tarot to the unsuspecting. Take your money, have a good laugh about it, but know that we see you. You’re fooling some, but not everyone.

Balancing Tradition and Novelty

If your efforts at creating a deck are sincere–and only you can know if they really are–then pay attention to the growing mob of handmade decks and the pitfalls they encounter. Creating a Tarot deck is a delicate undertaking. Most decks go too far in one of two directions:

  • They’re too obviously derivative (usually of the Rider Waite) and clumsily lose the nuance of the images without adding anything new of value.
  • Or they try too hard to be flashy and new, which takes away from the deck and loses the preservative tradition of the Tarot.

Very few nail a good balance. The Fountain Tarot is an example of a deck that succeeds at being fresh, modern and cerebral while still maintaining some fidelity to conventional interpretations of the Rider Waite images.

Pause Before Putting Your Psyche on Display

The fact is, though, the Tarot doesn’t need anything new. And what you don’t understand about a card will be lost when you try to translate it. The Tarot is always teaching us. If you stick with Tarot study and continue deepening your understanding, you’ll probably look back on your deck in ten years embarrassed at how little you really knew.

In The Way of Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky points out that nearly every deck except the Marseille inadvertently betrays the psychic illnesses of its creator. And he includes Arthur Edward Waite’s deck! Fair warning: this will more than likely happen for you, too.

It’s sort of like a songwriter having his early twenties angst on public record forever (too bad about that, Conor Oberst). So take your time with the decision to make a deck. Question your motives. We all have psychic flaws. Do you really want yours out there on display for people?

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Jodorowsky, By Lionel Allorge, via Wikimedia Commons

Consider Making an Oracle Deck Instead

If you really want to get unconventional and buck the burden of cumbersome tradition, just make an oracle deck. Any Tarot deck that diverges enough from historical norms becomes an oracle deck anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a different kind of cartomancy, and one that offers a lot more freedom and subjectivity to its creators.

Tarot has a set form. It’s 78 cards with the major and minor arcana, the latter which breaks into four suits of ace through ten plus four court cards. The 22 trumps go in a specific order with numerical meanings, and there’s very little room for improvisation. While learning to interpret the Tarot may be a deeply subjective experience, building the Tarot is not. The carefully crafted 78 cards represent a complete universe. Change one card and the whole universe collapses. The deck is rendered meaningless.

However, an oracle deck can be anything. Any number of cards in any order with any meanings. A rolodex of favorite recipes would qualify. And oracle decks, unlike Tarot, are made exclusively for divination. Making one won’t encroach upon a sacred tradition.

Divination is fun and easy. We’d all like to think that as readers we have some kind of special power, but it’s not true. Anyone can do it. Since your deck is just for divination anyway, making an oracle deck makes more sense.

Think About Appropriation

Divination is only a secondary use of the Tarot. The Tarot’s main purpose is as an initiatory tool, a mirror to reflect the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. It both veils and reveals mystic knowledge preserved from generations of magical practice, guiding the student on her path to full realization. You could get the full benefits of a Tarot deck without ever doing a single card reading. In fact, study the cards long enough and you won’t need to do readings–because you will become the oracle. Or at least, that’s the idea.

Are you qualified to pass that on? Do you have such knowledge and experience of transcendent oneness that you can describe the universal principles in 78 images? Your handmade Tarot deck almost by definition cannot serve this purpose. The Marseille Tarot can because it has no single author. It was a group effort, perfected over time.

A deck made by one person cannot carry the same authority. Instead of ancient wisdom, it’s loaded with the antithesis: personal tastes. So in the end it becomes simply a tool for divination, and might as well be an oracle deck. Tarot is an ancient and sacred book. Most single author Tarot decks carry the unsavory flavor of cultural and spiritual ignorance for the sake of fashion, like a Native American war bonnet worn at Coachella.

On the other hand, by making a Tarot deck maybe you are claiming to pass down historic mystical wisdom. Maybe you are claiming to be in a position to initiate others. If that’s the case, well, you’ll just have to forgive people for having their doubts. Any reasonable person will.

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UGH GOD.

Bring Something New to the Conversation

Why do we need another Tarot deck? We don’t. No matter how good a deck you produce, the odds are that legit Tarologists will still be studying the Marseille Tarot, not yours. But magic and divination are changing as the world changes. Making a deck gives you the opportunity to explore the frontier of contemporary magic.

The Golden Thread Tarot, for example, comes with the world’s first thoughtfully designed Tarot app. How does divination change in a digital format? Can you contact the oracle through your mobile device? What does it mean to “pull a card” when you’re really just tapping the screen? How does programmed randomness compare to physical shuffling? Does it negate the idea that the correct card finds you by energetically drawing you toward it?

Digital Tarot and the Golden Thread app raise interesting questions, and this advances the public conversation around magic. What is your project doing to contribute something innovative or thought provoking?

Hire a Goddamned Illustrator

Or be an illustrator. If you didn’t go to art school, you’re not a professional designer, or your not otherwise qualified to make meaningful images, assume that your drawings suck. Hard. Like really, really bad. I’m so sorry to be the one to have to break this to you. But everyone sees it except you. So get a professional.

If you did go to art school, you should get over that streak of pretension first. Grow out your undercut and come back when you can dress like a basic normie unselfconsciously. The Tarot is an encapsulation of universal wisdom, of tremendous value to the human race. It’s not an appropriate platform for you to wank your self expression all over. If that upsets you, paint it out. Write it out. Whatever. Come back to the Tarot when you’re serious about study and ready to relinquish the self.

And for god’s sake, treat your illustrator right. Don’t expect her to design your images for free. Or for profit share, or–dare I even utter it–for exposure. Pay her well, take her advice, let her work with you on your vision, but respect your illustrator as an expert.

Do What Thou Wilt, Dude

The point here isn’t to discourage creative productivity. But as Tarot gets trendier and enters the mainstream, we need to dialogue about how we will care for this precious treasure and make sure that it still exists in its undiluted form for future generations. Spiritual trends come and go: kung fu and the yin yang in the 80s, zen in the 90s, yoga in the aughts, and now Tarot and witchcraft. But wisdom doesn’t change. Oneness transcends time. When pop culture latches onto a god form, the divine disappears into a quieter alleyway.

If you must participate in this trend and make your own Tarot deck, have some self respect. Take a good long look in the mirror and think about to what end you wish to use this powerful spiritual tool. You wouldn’t rewrite the Bible. Why would you redraw a Hermeticist’s sacred text? If you just want to paint something cool and esoteric looking, then paint something cool and esoteric looking. Hang it on the goddamned wall. Have a gallery opening; it’ll be great. But don’t diminish hundreds of years of spiritual striving just to fulfill a fashionista’s impulse.

If your goal is to learn from the Tarot, and to heal people–because in the end, we are only healers, nothing more or less–then make something that advances the noble cause of magic. Make a deck that contributes to the evolution of the human race. It may sound like a tall order, but then, the Tarot is no small thing.

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