I've heard from some friends that tarot cards are evil. I really don't see how this is so, as they are simply dead tree products, the same as a phone book. I side with the explanation that they simply allow a conversation to go on between a person and whatever unseen entities might have something to say. I figure that since the entities may be there whether I can see them or not, believe in them or not, or might be entirely a figment of my imagination, it makes absolutely no difference whether I speak to them or not. Thus it doesn't make sense to me to get worked up about tarot either way. No matter what I say or do, it changes nothing. So by way of introduction, I'm presenting the idea that if you're interested in them, great, if not, that's OK but be advised that I'm going to be blathering on about it for the rest of this post.
In terms of who or what you might end up talking to when using tarot, I think that's entirely dependent on which direction you throw out your question. Several tarot users simply ask "The Universe". Others use "Angel Cards" to ensure they only speak with the Divine. There are also cards with Jesus on them, or Elvis if that's more your thing. Still others make secular use of the cards, setting them up as a focal point for their own thoughts during meditation, thus carrying on a conversation with themselves. The selection of the deck probably has a lot to do with the sort of answers that come to you. For example, if one were to select the "Harmonious" tarot, you'd have equivalent thoughts when sending out the question. Likewise for the "Necronomicon" cards.
The basic idea behind tarot is that the images, colours and symbols on each card are meant to suggest an idea to the reader. These ideas are interpreted to form an answer to a question. That alone makes the practice very loosey-goosey and open to several explanations. May as well pick the one that suits you best.
Tarot in General: A deck of tarot cards consists of 22 cards that make up the Major Arcana, which are supposed to represent the stages in or aspects of a person's life, and four sets of Minor Arcana that have fourteen cards each. These sets are called "Cups" which usually deal with emotions, "Wands" that address creativity, "Swords" which are the challenges in life, and "Pentacles" which are associated with financial matters. Traditional tarot decks are based on the classic "Rider-Waite" deck, and follow the same system of symbols, colours and suits. There are many variations to this classic deck, so if you're new to tarot, I would strongly recommend picking up a set that comes with a book written by the author of the cards to help initially with interpretation of the images, since this can change from deck to deck. Apparently, once familiar with the deck, other meanings may come to you. I find that a bit arbitrary, but to each their own.
To do a reading, the cards are shuffled with the left hand, then spread out face down in a single line on a cloth. I don't know why, but the cards are not supposed to touch bare surfaces. A certain number of cards are selected and placed out on a spread. The selection is done according to which cards the reader feels attracted to. The selection of a spread is as important as the cards themselves, as certain ones don't have sufficient content to answer certain questions. A brief review of spreads can be found here.
Manufacturers: Tarot cards are usually very pretty, and I suspect some decks were made only to promote an artist's skills, and are not very useful for performing readings, as they seem to lack much of the usually symbolic and colour-related imagery. Many people collect different decks as a hobby. The main publishers of tarot decks are Lo Scarabeo, Llewellyn and US Games. In my opinion, the Scarabeo decks are the prettiest, but they have this annoying multilingual white border common to all cards that I think takes away from their mystique, and they are printed on rather narrow and thin cardstock. The Llewellyn decks are also on rather thin card stock, but the decks are a bit larger and the themes seem to be very carefully selected. I'll review one of theirs farther down. US Games produces cards that are wider than most tarot decks, and the cards are nice and heavy. They have many decks to choose from, some more appealing than others.
Buying the first Deck: I was at one of those body and spirit expos that have everything from chiropractors to Australian holisitic practitioners that use diggery-dos to blast negative energy from your body, and got it into my head that I would like to have a deck of tarot cards. One of the booths had a wide selection of cards, and the sales lady told me that you should look at several decks, and pick the one that appealed to you visually the most. She herself could not use tarot cards (they didn't work for her), but had to use angel cards instead. I didn't buy a set then, thinking I'd like to take her advice and look around a bit more. Surprisingly, I found a huge selection at Chapters, which had at least as many as the average new age store, and I found I liked the decks a lot more. The other surprise I got, was that it wasn't the images on the cards that attracted me, but rather how they felt in my hand. Out of about twenty sets, three seemed to be candidates: The Llewellyn Tarot, the Revelations Tarot, and the Sharman-Caselli deck. The Llewellyn and Revelations decks were both visually stunning, but I hesitated because of the card thickness, and the fact that I didn't really feel anything when I picked them up. I went with the Sharman-Caselli deck, because although it was all wrapped up and I couldn't handle the cards or get a good look at them, the package felt really solid and comforting in my hand. After I bought it and opened it up, I was appalled. The cards were set into an awkward sort of holder flap attached to the book cover, the backs of the cards were bright fuchsia, and there was a copyright notice on the backs which I thought detracted from the overall tarotiness of the cards.
However -- once I started playing around with them, I concluded that this was a fantastic deck for the following reasons:
1) The artwork is very neutral and straightforward. They denote an idea or message without any sort of bias. There is nothing threatening or creepy about it. The symbols are clear, relatively consistent from card to card and easy to read.
2) The card stock is nice and thick, adding to the durability of the deck.
3) The pink for the backs of the cards was probably deliberately selected, as it seems to infuse the cards with strong positive energy.
4) When holding the deck directly in my hand, the energy feels spherical, heavy, and safe.
5) So far, they seem to read consistently and accurately.
6) Once I cut off the weird card holder flap, it quit hitting me in the hand when flipping through the book, and I ceased being annoyed by it.
The companion book is also very good. The author takes you through one suit at a time and gives sample readings at the end of each chapter. You immediately get a feel for the strengths, limitations and flavour of each type of card before moving on. It also starts to become obvious that in order to get a complete answer, you need the complete deck, and the appropriate spread for the type of question being asked. The author also makes very few judgments on how the deck is to be handled, although I've read elsewhere that rose quartz is supposed to diffuse negative energy, and the cards have to be stored in a certain order, etc, etc, so I suppose all of that is up to the individual user. I did however, once feel a sharp mental poke to say thank you after I had finished and was putting the cards away, so presumably manners are important.
Buying the second Deck: The Sharman-Caselli deck does not deal with reversals, which is when a card is drawn upside down, changing its meaning. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous cards, the Revelations Tarot is drawn so that the meaning of the upside down card is obvious. My curiosity built after using the SC deck for awhile, but feeling something was missing, so I caved in to temptation and also bought the RT deck. Using these cards is an absolute pleasure. Although I felt nothing when I held the cards in the store, once they were unwrapped and held directly in my hand, the energy felt masculine, electric and somewhat spiky. The cards also had a funny herbal smell to them, and on reading the package insert, I assumed this was sage, since it's recommended to rub the cards with it to "cleanse" them. I don't have any sage, but I do have a few bits of rose quartz, so I figured I'd just put one of those in the little storage baggie the cards come with, and call it good.
The cards have a very unique surface texture to them. They feel oily, but when you take your hand away, there is nothing on your fingers. They are quite slick when you shuffle them, and they spread out almost like they are frictionless. Despite being so different, I get pretty much the same answers to similar questions as I got with the SC deck, frequently drawing the equivalent cards. The companion book is also very good. It doesn't inundate you with tonnes of information, it just tells you what you need to know to interpret each card, and I like some of the shifts in meaning that come with this deck, as it seems to make the interpretations more flexible, depending on the question asked. You also get a lot more "information" as the content in terms of colours and symbols is pretty much doubled in comparison to every other deck out there. One thing I really liked is that the Major Arcana are numbered, so that you can easily put them in order if that's how you choose to store the deck, and it makes it really easy to find the corresponding interpretation in the book if you can't remember the order of the cards. There are also two extra reference cards included to help you lay out common spreads and determine which card is supposed to convey meaning related to which subject.
Other decks of visual interest: I think these cards are extremely pretty, but would be inclined to buy them more for art collecting rather than for doing readings, as these decks seem to be lacking in symbolic meaning:
1) The Favole Deck
2) The Lunatic Deck
3) The Fenestra Deck
4) The Palladini Deck.
Conclusions: I think it's fun, but regardless of whether or not I get my "answers", what happens to me in life would probably just go ahead and happen anyway with out my knowing what those answers would have been. And since I am a fantasy novelist, for me this counts as research. So there.