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Modern Decks

The decks I classify as "modern" are a diverse lot indeed. What they have in common is that they are designed for the modern community of tarot readers, people who are interested in the cards for gaining insight into life situations, or for personal or spiritual development. There is no really sharp line between the modern decks and the occult decks; it is more a matter of the changing culture. For the occultists, tarot cards were a "secret code" preserved through centuries from our distant ancestors. Modern readers are more comfortable seeing the cards as depictions of many facets of life, as expressed through the visions of different artists. Modern decks are mostly designed to facilitate intuitive interpretation of the cards. One should be able to appreciate the cards fully through examination and meditation; it is not necessary to receive the "secrets" from an "initiate".

The modern tarot has become a vehicle for artists and designers to express their own personal vision of the human condition and their own philosophies and religions. It is a tribute to the potency of the original tarot images that they can become vehicles for so many diverse projects of artistic expression.

Our own time is probably the most expansive, creative era that the tarot medium has yet experienced, rivaled only by the flurry of artistic and intellectual activity surrounding its birth in the Italian renaissance. Seeing what is being done with tarot today, one is tempted to regard it as self-contained genre of artistic expression, analogous to poetry, drama, or scupture. Whether one's vision is optimistic, frightening, erudite, Pagan, Christian, whimsical, or somber, it can find expression through the tarot.

Some decks push the limits of "tarot" and attract controversy. The Motherpeace Tarot was the first deck of circular cards, and the first commercial deck to unabashedly promote a feminist spirituality drawing on the designers' understanding of shamanism and tribal culture. It seems to inspire "love it or hate it" reactions. The Osho Zen tarot, although it contains 78 cards that can be put in correspondence with those of a traditional tarot pack, has totally obliterated the distinction between major and minor arcana. Each card is a stand-alone image, beautiful, psychological, and intended to be deeply transformative. The PoMo Tarot is an erudite and witty send-up of the eclectic and centerless society in which we live. There are tarots drawing on elements of Native American, Asian, African, and pre-Christian European cultures. Then there are tarots that depict cats, crystals, and even different styles of shoes.

The modern tarot culture has its shortcomings and disappointments, though. The foremost of these (in my opinion) is a tendency to look no further than the Order of the Golden Dawn (see Occult Decks), or even more specifically the Waite-Smith deck, for defining the themes of the tarot. Many, many modern decks borrow Pamela Colman Smith's illustrations for the cards, simply changing the artistic style or tacking on one or two of the designer's favorite symbols. It seems odd that the impulse to create a new deck embodying an exotic personal philosophy is so often accompanied by such a paucity of research that all the basic designs are picked up verbatim from a single deck produced 90 years ago for purposes quite different from those of modern tarot users.

Another shortcoming with the modern tarot tradition (as with much of the new age movement) is rootlessness. It seems that for many, we need look at the history of the tarot only just long enough to be able to claim that it is "ancient wisdom" before we turn to run with it in some random direction. There seems to be a sentiment that knowledge is antagonistic to creativity, that the past must be ignored in order to create the future. Yet if the tarot is a mirror of the human condition, it is so because our ancestors were also human and were able to express their human experience in a way that still speaks to us, 500 years hence. Perhaps there is something to be learned from lingering awhile in their world.

There are signs, though, that the modern tarot is outgrowing its innocence in both these areas. Many designers are looking beyond Waite-Smith for inspiration, and some of them are even looking back to the 80% of tarot history that transpired before the Order of the Golden Dawn was formed. Inspiration, indeed, is anywhere and everywhere. One thing is certain: the tarot is alive and well. There is no lack of talented people ready to bring the tarot into its next incarnation. Where will it go next?

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters