Mind Over Matter: Beating “Deck Acquisition Syndrome”

Around the end of every year there seems to be a flood of new-deck announcements and glossy (albeit online for most of us) catalogs from Lo Scarabeo, U.S. Games Systems and a few smaller publishing houses. These feed the pernicious addiction many of us share: “Deck Acquisition Syndrome (DAS).” Every tarot forum I’ve participated in (I’m presently on hiatus from all of them) has had something similar to “enabling” and “de-enabling” threads aimed at either pointing members toward worthwhile new decks or warning them away from less impressive fare. Because not everyone has the same interests or tastes, I’ve learned not to trust these opinion-mills since I’ve been burned more than once on highly-touted “clinkers.” (By the same token, I may have missed out on some good ones, but I kind of doubt it.)

For DAS sufferers there is nothing quite like cracking open a fresh new deck, but there is also nothing quite like the remorse that follows when we realize: a) the deck didn’t really deliver anything new and exciting; b) we didn’t really need it in the first place; and c) we couldn’t really justify the expense. I got over my art-deck fascination a long time ago and those new tarot decks that are mostly “old wine in new bottles” don’t do much for me either. Except for their often inspiring artwork, new oracle decks have typically been underwhelming in their usefulness, not least because every one of them requires learning the creator’s personal divination system. Consequently, my list of even remotely valid “wants” has shrunken to minuscule proportions.

These days my needs are mostly utilitarian. I have a fairly small reading table in my study, so I’ve been favoring pocket-size decks like the Waite-Smith (I haven’t accepted Kaplan’s “Smith-Waite” inversion) Centennial Pocket Edition; it has been seeing a lot of use. The pocket-size AGMuller version of the Thoth is also on my radar screen. I like the minor trend that serves up “pocket” decks in tins, which travel well; although they aren’t all pocket-sized and I certainly wouldn’t buy any of them that I already have in the standard edition, I found a compilation of such desks:

https://tarotarts.com/collections/decks-in-tins.

Beyond those few essentials, there are one or two Tarot de Marseille decks that may eventually make their way here, and the few Lenormand decks I still seek are traditionally undersized by design. Other than that, there is a small population of standard-sized “niche” decks that continue to interest me for use in multi-deck readings. At this point, unless something truly amazing appears on the horizon or I’m gifted a deck like the remarkable Dali Tarot I received recently, I don’t anticipate ever acquiring more than a half-dozen new decks. It seems there is a cure for DAS!

I was just looking at the tarot-deck “de-enable” thread on one of the forums and realized that I haven’t had to be “de-enabled” on buying a new deck in a very long time. It probably helps that I don’t find most recent decks particularly inspiring from a divination standpoint, even if they happen to be quite beautiful as artwork for occasional browsing. Due to this disinterest, I haven’t bought many in the last couple of years. I’ve now decided that I’m only going to buy those decks that I know with absolute certainty I’m going to use, either in general practice or for a special purpose like multi-deck readings where I want highly compatible companion decks. They also have to be suitable for public readings and therefore not too arcane, so I will probably acquire only one or two tarot or Lenormand decks in the next year, and my wish-list is the smallest it’s ever been. Money isn’t a problem; I could buy a deck almost any time I want. But as George Carlin once said “ya gotta wanna,” and I’ve developed, in his words, a pronounced lackawanna in the last couple of years.

When you come right down to it, I already have everything I need for professional and private use: my Thoth decks; my Albano Waite; my RWS Centennial Edition (standard and pocket); a couple of “client-friendly” RWS clones (Connolly, Morgan-Greer, Aquarian, Robin Wood, etc.) that I bring to reading sessions to offer my sitters some variety; my sarcastic PoMo Tarot for sociopolitical readings; and a handful of TdM decks — the CBD, the Hadar and the two colorful Fourniers. In the Lenormand world, I have two classics — the Piatnik and the Blue Owl — and a few modern interpretations — the Gilded Reverie; the Burning Serpent; the Heloise Lenormand by Lynne Boyle; and the Old Style (my current favorite), among others. I have a single traditional Kipper deck that should suffice for all eventualities. If I buy any decks at all over the next few months, it will probably be a Lenormand or a TdM. I still crave one of Lauren Forestell’s excellent Lenormand restorations, but they’re three times more expensive than my usual purchase. I also have an abiding interest in the Flornoy Noblet TdM, another pricey one that ships from Europe. Maybe someday for both.

At the moment I’m leaning toward buying tarot books I may have passed over before, but they have to be Kindle editions so I can read them while on my exercise bike. (It’s the only thing that gets me on it with any regularity.) However, I need something more advanced, and I’ve already read the Book of Thoth four times over the years. Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot is massive enough to provide me a couple of months of pedaling bliss, so that may be next (although I understand she has some rather unconventional ideas). Susie Chang’s Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers also looks good, but I’m not yet convinced it isn’t comprised mainly of tables with limited explanatory text. I tend to glaze over when contemplating tables unless I’m looking up something specific for reference purposes, and I already have Crowley’s 777. I’ve read all the TdM books in English that I can get my hands on and don’t have much hope of seeing more any time soon since the market is so small. Maybe Andy Boroveshengra will eventually publish his (not holding my breath, though, since he’s said he has no plans at this time).

I haven’t counted lately, but last I knew I had just over 70 decks distributed unequally among tarot, oracle and Lenormand cards. It would be dishonest of me to say that I use all — or even most — of them. From 2011 through 2018, I went through a serious episode of DAS from which I finally recovered early last year. The pendulum has now swung back in the other direction (although it feels more like the old woman [probably Terry Jones] flinging the cat in Monty Python and the Holy Grail); I’ve bought only a handful of decks since then and probably spent less than $100 overall, which I easily made back through my sporadic professional reading activities. This is more in character for me since I used the Thoth deck exclusively for almost 40 years.

I’m amazed by the number of deck purchases that have been blamed on the coronavirus lock-down. Some people have bought a dozen decks and counting since the middle of March, which probably set them back upwards of $300 (before shipping) at today’s inflated prices even if they didn’t acquire any expensive limited-edition or “art” decks that would have pushed them over $500. Considering the number of decks I presently own and almost never use, this would amount to a wasteful extravagance for me. On the other side of the coin, there are people who insist that they only need one deck with which they can closely bond, and that those who feel they must have more are misled by marketing and peer pressure. They have little or no vulnerability to the siren-call of especially well-done deck art, which lures the unwary enthusiast with its charms. I have to admit that I admire and want to emulate their single-minded frugality. But I’m afraid that, like a cartomantic Jimmy Carter, I’ve committed “lust in my heart” many times with my craving for each new stimulus and have only recently learned to curb it.

These are the same people who often ask “What’s your all-time favorite deck?” I can only assume that their goal is to buy as few as possible, so they’re looking to pick a few experienced brains before deciding whether and what to pursue next. While it’s certainly true that any standard tarot deck can be used for any inquiry no matter how singular its artwork, there are a few decks that work best as “niche” products.

For me, one of those is the Post-Modern Tarot by Brian Williams. I find its somewhat smirking attitude to be perfect for sociopolitical readings on world and national affairs. Another is the Anna K Tarot, a rustic deck I consider well-suited for a pagan Wheel of the Year reading or a lunar month look-ahead, and also peculiarly effective for weather forecasting. The engaging Chrysalis Tarot is one I use for more mystical subjects in a shamanistic vein since it reads like an intercultural oracle deck despite its name, and the Night Sun Tarot is competent to handle “darker” matters. For psychological probing (to the limited extent I do it) the Psycards — although not strictly a tarot deck — perform quite well. Although I don’t own either one yet, I think the Deviant Moon and the Tarot of the Magical Forest (both resembling a “Tim-Burton-meets-Hieronymus Bosch” mash-up) will pair well in two-deck readings on situations involving unsettled states of mind (one has disturbed-looking lunar creatures and the other paranoid-schizophrenic woodland animals) .

But for face-to-face readings with paying clients, I only use the RWS or nearly identical clones: Centennial Edition, Albano-Waite, Radiant, Golden Universal. Morgan Greer, Robin Wood or Aquarian, since they tick all the boxes for public recognition as legitimate “tarot decks.” For personal readings it will always be the Thoth for me.

I was just reading a fascinating wiki article about Canadian cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” while analyzing the impact of media sources like television on society, and who concluded that the delivery system is more revealing of modern collective values than the contents. In commenting on his rejection of the assumptions of Teilhard de Chardin (with whom he had been favorably compared), he observed:

“The idea that anything is better because it comes later is surely borrowed from pre-electronic technologies.” (This seems to be an off-hand jab at planned obsolescence — like the annual update of automobile models — in marketing.)

C.S. Lewis said something very similar in The Discarded Image: philosophers in the Middle Ages revered what was handed down from their predecessors and sought to preserve it intact with little or no embellishment, but when the Renaissance came along there was a forceful reaction to recidivist thinking in which the ideas of the present were thought to be superior to those of the past. (Tarot deck creators, take note.)

All of which leads up to my main point here: the explosion of new tarot decks in the last few years has produced works that are markedly “different” in style but hasn’t really provided many that are “better” in any but a cosmetic sense. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful recent decks that I lust for like any normal consumer of tarot artifacts. But it’s not because I hope they will yield any kind of startling cartomantic epiphany; in fact the closer they adhere to the traditional model, whether it be Waite-Smith, Thoth or Tarot de Marseille, the more useful I find them for divination. Everything more fanciful (faeries, animals, zombies and such) is just so much window-dressing that reflects popular culture more than metaphysical antecedents; call them “TINOs” (“Tarot in Name Only”). Ditto for the various attempts to “rectify” (to use Richard Cavendish’s phrase) the symbolism of the older decks; Aleister Crowley and Freida Harris did so with consummate skill, creating a new standard in the process, but others have merely sullied their source material. I’m sure there is a place for them among the casual seekers who have little interest in the cultural or esoteric roots of the art, but not on my bookshelf or, more importantly, in my practice.

Beyond the fact that it is currently unrealistic to acquire every deck I think I might like (as if it ever was), I seem to have gotten over “latest-and-greatest” syndrome as the driver of my tarot consumerism. Utility is now king in my world; before any purchase, I ask myself “Will I ever use this or will it just sit in its box alongside most of its predecessors?” I’m not at the point where I couldn’t buy any deck I want as long as I’m rational about it (unfortunately, no Victorian Romantic for me), but why bother? Right now I’m convinced I need another pocket-sized deck for my small reading table since I’m tired of using the Waite-Smith Centennial Edition. There are a handful of tempting choices, most of them new takes on old designs (specifically, Thoth and Tarot de Marseille) but it looks like it’s going to be the Swiss Thoth Pocket Edition (now if it only came in a tin); that I’m sure I will use.

To be fair, there have been inspired reinterpretations of the classics, some of which I own. I’m convinced, though, that one must be much more than a proficient artist to do adequate justice to the underlying principles of the tarot and avoid creating yet another vacant approximation. A handful of talented and innovative deck creators mining this particular vein have brought a unique voice to the table. Robert Place is one; regardless of what you think of his rather formal neoclassical style, his decks are both stunning and functional. The gorgeous and esoterically correct Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus by M. M. Meleen, a faithful Thoth retooling, is one of the best examples. The radical recoloring of the older Albano-Waite RWS reboot furnishes another workhorse. In Tarot de Marseille space, any modern release that isn’t a painstaking historical facsimile is by definition a derivative product (which is not to say they aren’t remarkable); I especially like the Conver Ben-Dov and the two colorful Fournier TdM decks. Lynyrd-Jym Narciso has created the Tarot de Maria Celia that looks fresh and promising; he has also done some compelling Lenormand decks, as has Lynn Boyle. And I even like the non-traditional inventiveness of the Chrysalis Tarot which — despite its title — reads more like an oracle deck (very successfully, I might add). But, by and large, most of the contemporary decks I’ve purchased on a whim or an errant recommendation don’t really deliver for me. Although I certainly appreciate high-quality artwork and impeccable production values, I try not to become dazzled by the medium when all I’m really after is the message.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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