Reading with Ancient Decks

The Elements (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air) from the Minchiate Etruria (18th century)

The Elements (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air) from the Minchiate Etruria (18th century)

As many of you are aware, I absolutely love ancient decks. And not just as collectible items (although they are gorgeous works of art in their own right), but as decks I read with in my professional practice and in for myself. I use them almost exclusively now.

Yet many people find the older (pre-Waite-Smith) decks to be intimidating. In just about all ancient decks (save the Sola-Busca), the 56 minor cards are not illustrated with scenes; rather, they resemble our modern playing cards in that they are illustrated with pips, i.e., the six of cups is represented by six cups and so forth. Many a reader who is used to reading with the scenic Rider-Waite and its many clones and variants gets a sense of intuitional lockup when presented with pip cards. “How am I supposed to read with these?” is a comment I have often heard.

My new article for Crixeo discusses the reasons why you should consider reading with ancient decks, which I believe is a powerful means to connecting with deep archetypes and opening up new avenues of intuition.


Why are these decks so powerful? I believe they bypass all the esoteric cruft that French esotericists and their later followers grafted onto them. Although some might disagree, there is no historical evidence that the tarot was created to embody the Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, hermeticism, or any other stream of esoteric or occult tradition. Can the cards work when associated with those philosophies? Absolutely. But tarot began as a game, with images based in the Christian milieu of the 15th century. Its iconography—a Pope, the Wheel of Fortune, Temperance, Death, Judgment, the Magician—would be understood by anyone in the era. All were part and parcel of the everyday symbolism of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

(Of course, these images were also multivalent—to a Rosicrucian, Hermeticist, or an alchemist, the trump’s religious iconography held a deeper resonance than it would for the average illiterate peasant. So it’s important to keep that in mind, too.)

When I teach with the Waite-Smith deck, I find that many of my students get hung up on the Golden Dawn-influenced symbolism in the deck. This often hampers their ability to read in the “open” or “projective” style that I teach. I’ve also seen plenty of tarotists get lost in the rabbit hole of decans, dignities, Sephirothic paths, Hebrew attributions, and other complex esoteric systems. Now don’t get me wrong—if those concepts work for you, or if they intellectually or emotionally resonate with you, that’s perfectly fine. But you absolutely do not need to adopt such ideas for tarot to simply work.

I am currently working on a specialized book about working with ancient decks. This book will explore the decks I find most useful and will show how any reader—even those who have only used modern decks—can incorporate them into their reading practice. I am also giving the kickoff talk at the upcoming TarotCon 2016 at Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on October 8th and going more deeply into this subject. In the meantime, if you are interested in exploring this rewarding aspect of tarot, here are some resources you may find helpful.


  • The Aeclectic Tarot website has a good list of historical reproduction tarots.
  • Tarot de Marseilles Heritage sells some exquisite facsimile reproductions.
  • Israeli tarot scholar and author Yoav Ben-Dov has published a reproduction of the 1760 Tarot de Marseilles of Nicholas Conver.
  • The Mantegna Tarot is a 50-card deck with gorgeous silver-foil embossing.
  • The Ancient Italian tarot, from the 19th century, is one of my favorite decks.


  • The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards by Alejandro Jodorowsky is a must-have if you use the TdM. Deep, philosophical, yet practical.
  • Tarot — The Open Reading by Yoav-Ben Dov is another must-have if you decide to explore the Tarot de Marseille. Also useful for free-form spreads and readings “outside the box” with any deck. Ben Dov’s “open reading” style is very similar to the process I teach.
  • Reading the Marseille Tarot by Jean-Michel David is a self-paced course utilizing the Jean Noblet (1650) deck. Heavy on the history with some very interesting insights and speculation.


  • The Facebook group Tarosophy de Marseilles includes many of the world’s experts on this style of tarot.
  • Sherryl E. Smith’s Tarot Heritage website is dedicated to the appreciation of tarot decks created between the 15th and early 19th centuries and is an excellent resource.
  • “Peeking through the Bars of Tarot’s Occult Prison” is an excellent article about freeing tarot from all of its occult trappings.

And if you have questions or comments, please do so below.


  1. Paul HR

    I so love this blog. It is tragic the rich and amazing tradition and heritage that we have “forgotten” and thus sacrificed in our ever-obsessive quest to create and market yet another “new” tarot deck: wizard academies, circuses, kitties, horror comics, garish “illuminations,” fanciful elves (which no self-respecting Irishman would ever recognize. 😉 LOL), the market is flooded. Of course most of these are watered-down clones of the Waite-Smith deck…keeping the basic image and changing the creature/costume.

    I am very much looking forward to your upcoming book on these invaluable decks. I want it so as to enrich my own understanding and practice first and foremost – but also I want to recommend your book to all my students and clients – in order to “spread the word” of what so many folks have been missing — both in these ancient decks, AND in the powerful reading style you advocate and teach.

    WELL DONE Michael! And a thousand best wishes for the success of your upcoming talk at the conference>>>Paul

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