Tarot for Dummies Deck/Book Set by Amber Jayanti 
Review by Lee A. Bursten  

If you would like to buy this deck/book set, click here.

If you would like to buy the book Tarot for Dummies, click here.

A few weeks ago I began to see this set appearing in the local Border’s.  It consists of a standard-size Rider-Waite deck packaged with an abridged version of Amber Jayanti’s Tarot for Dummies.  I haven’t read the full Dummies book, but I’ve looked through it in the bookstore, and it seems to me that the abridged version probably contains most of what was in the original.  One thing I did notice that was missing was the list of further resources. 

The Dummies book is part of a series of hundreds of titles which its publishers churn out on all different subjects, from foreign languages to computer programs (another similar series is the Complete Idiot’s Guide), whose goal is to present a well-rounded and easily-digested introduction to the stated subject.  There are many people who wouldn’t touch one of these titles with a ten-foot pole, but I have no particular objection to them.  They’re usually written by authors who are well-respected in their field, and sometimes, if you’re curious about a subject about which you have little previous knowledge, these books are a great resource, so at least you don’t have to waste time and money looking through (and reading) books which may seem like a good introduction to their subject but are not. 

Amber Jayanti wrote Living the Tarot, which is a very popular book, and in Tarot for Dummies she’s written a very interesting beginner’s book.  She’s a graceful and friendly writer, and she sprinkles her prose with personal anecdotes, which makes you feel as if you’re sitting at her kitchen table and chatting with her.  I don’t agree with all her choices, though. 

I must say at the outset that this book contains much more material than your standard beginner’s Tarot book.  Included are discussions of the concept of archetypes, differing approaches to Tarot by Gypsies, psychics, and mystics, using Tarot in health professions, shopping for decks, Tarot history, mystery schools, interpreting the cards, reversals, spreads, getting a professional reading (but, oddly, not giving a professional reading), and, of course, the ubiquitous chapters interpreting all the cards. 

The problem with writing a book like this is that people come to the study of the Tarot from all different walks of life, differing educational and religious backgrounds, differing capacities, and differing expectations.  Some will need a book which is much, much simpler than this; for others, the book will be too simplistic.

For myself, I applaud the inclusion of several chapters which are highly unusual in beginner’s books.  I especially liked the material about archetypes.  Jayanti categorizes archetypes as personal and universal, and explains that by understanding how the archetypes manifest themselves in our daily lives, we can become aware of our own patterns of behavior, and then we can use the archetypes to change those patterns, should we wish to.  I’ve been studying Tarot off and on for 20 years, and I’ve never seen material on this subject presented in quite this way, and it really made an impact on me.  This chapter is a perfect example of what a Tarot for Dummies book should be; material which is invaluable for the beginner to help them place the Tarot in a useful context, while at the same time being interesting and valuable for those who are more experienced.

Unfortunately, there are several other sections which I feel should have been left out of a book for beginners.  Jayanti is firmly ensconced in the mystery school tradition, and has founded her own mystery school (the Santa Cruz School for Tarot & Qabalah Study).  She devotes an entire chapter to Tarot and the mystery school tradition, throwing around such names as Paul Christian, Gerard Papus, John Dee, S.L. “MacGregor” Mathers, and P.D. Ouspensky, and including a few paragraphs about the Qabalah.  However, she doesn’t include any description of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, nor does she show how Qabalists relate the Majors to the paths between the ten spheres on the Tree, and the Minors to the spheres themselves.  Without this basic information to show how Qabalah relates to the Tarot, the chapter is completely useless to people who have no prior knowledge of either Tarot or Qabalah.

For the card interpretation chapters, Jayanti uses an interesting strategy.  Rather than simply listing divinatory meanings, she provides for each card a short paragraph, titled “Universal Archetype,” describing the imagery and interpreting the card from a broad spiritual outlook.  Then she provides a list of 20 or so questions which you can ask yourself upon receiving the card.  The idea is that when you draw the card, you’ll open the book to that card’s page and read down the questions until two or three jump out at you, at which point you will answer those questions for yourself.  Here are some of the questions from the questions listed for the Six of Swords:

And so on.

I’m of two minds about this technique.  I believe Jayanti’s lists of questions are indeed written in such a way as to provide eye-opening viewpoints on the cards, and I do think that reading the questions and answering the ones that jump out would be a valuable exercise for a beginner (or for anyone, really).  I also applaud Jayanti’s reluctance to provide a single set of meanings (i.e. her own), and her emphasis on the reader coming up with their own interpretations and their own answers to the questions raised by the cards.  However, I’m a little uneasy with a methodology which has the beginner constantly consulting the book after laying out the cards.  Obviously, a beginner utilizing any Tarot approach will be doing a great deal of book consulting, at least to start out with.  But I think the ultimate goal should be that the reader will at some point begin to consult the cards themselves without having to pick up a book. 

The Tarot is not, after all, the I Ching, whose standard practice involves obtaining a hexagram and then consulting the commentary.  In my opinion, the symbols of the Tarot work differently, and should (as an ultimate goal) be allowed to work on our minds without the intermediary of the book.  I realize Tarot for Dummies is meant for beginners, but I would have liked to see some encouragement to eventually wean oneself from the book, or some acknowledgement that such weaning will (or should) take place.

The section on spreads is very well written.  Six spreads are given, and they’re all worthwhile, although for “Amber’s All-Purpose Tarot Spread,” I grew impatient with her technique of obtaining the final card by adding up the numbers of the previous cards.  This may just be a personal bias, but I dislike elaborate rigmarole when laying out the cards.  As far as I’m concerned, one can obtain the same results by simply laying out the next card off the pile, without bothering with numerological manipulations, especially since she uses an idiosyncratic method of numbering the Courts which would be very difficult to memorize, thus forcing the reader to consult the chart she provides in the book.

Also included in the set is a glossy color layout sheet for the above spread.  Unfortunately, readers will probably not be moved  to read with it, since it has “Tarot for Dummies” emblazoned across the top, and it’s rather an eyesore, with its colors of yellow, black, red, and blue-green.  This layout sheet could have been truly useful if it had included the aforementioned Court numbering chart, but this was omitted in favor of generic tips such as, “Remember:  After you have allowed your first thoughts and feelings about the card to surface, use the book and the instruction booklet to look up the cards’ meanings for further insight.” 

I especially liked the sections at the end entitled “Top Ten Tarot Misconceptions” and “Ten (Or So) Cards Likely to Cause a Freak-Out.” 

Jayanti has a disturbing habit of making sweeping statements of highly questionable accuracy.  Here is one example:  Gypsies usually adopt the religion of their country of residence, and they’re traditionally sorcerers and necromancers.  Because necromancers conjure up spirits of the dead to help them predict the future, gypsies gravitated to the tarot cards as a means of communicating this information.”  I’ve read a little bit from different sources about the Rom, and I don’t recall reading anything like this.  My suspicions were confirmed two paragraphs later, when she recommends a book called Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.  If you look up this book on Amazon.com, you’ll find several readers’ comments by Rom who take great offense to this book and who disagree vehemently with the conclusions of the author. 

Here’s another example:  Jung based his theory and practice of archetypal psychotherapy on the tarot and the Qabalistic Tree of Life.”  As far as I know this is completely untrue.  Jung dealt with the Tarot very indirectly, if at all.  I’m not sure to what degree Jung dealt with Qabalah, but my impression is that he didn’t (I believe he was more interested in alchemy and the I Ching).  In any event, it’s a wild overstatement to say that he “based his theory and practice of archetypal psychotherapy” on any of the occult arts. 

Most disturbing of all is Jayanti’s discussion of Tarot history.  Here I think she does a terrible disservice to her readers.  I think it’s outrageous for any Tarot book bearing a copyright date of 2002 to contain such misleading and erroneous information.  She starts out by saying that “the tarot’s origins can’t be pinned down to a single place and time.”  Her modus operandi is to present various “theories” of the Tarot, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and then to completely omit any discussion of factual historical evidence, thus leaving the impression that each of these “theories” is just as likely as the other.  Some people claim that the tarot emerge from the hieroglyphs, tablets, and scrolls of ancient Egypt, Greece and Palestine.  Others are certain that tarot is a byproduct of a Fourteenth-Century Italian card game tarok, later called tarocchi.  

Jayanti declines to inform us that the overwhelming historical evidence makes it a virtual certainty that the Tarot was created in the 15th century (not the 14th) for game-playing purposes, and there is no evidence to the contrary, and thus no reason whatsoever to believe that any of the other “theories” which Jayanti presents so even-handedly are factual.  She also omits mention of the fact that for centuries the Tarot was used only as a game.  By not telling us this, she leaves the highly erroneous impression that the antique decks like the Visconti-Sforza were used for esoteric purposes, which of course they weren’t. 

I was particularly annoyed when I read that “Another theory indicates that the tarot is an invention of the Eleventh-Century medieval European Knights Templar […] [who] supposedly converted their knowledge into ordinary playing cards […].”  Then later she writes, “Aside from the Templar Deck, which disappeared along with the Knights Templar, the early tarot decks seem to have been commissioned by the elite […].”  First she states it as one “theory” among several, then she refers to this “deck” as if it actually existed.  Jayanti seems to be placing more credence in this wildly improbable theory than in the one which is actually true.

Finally, Jayanti states that “The mad and mystical Charles VI of France is thought to have been the owner of one of the first tarot decks.”  This incorrect theory is due to an erroneous identification of the “Gringonneur” deck, which was painted in the late 1400s and not the late 1300s as once thought.  This error was common in Tarot books from 30 years ago, but is not acceptable in a Tarot book written last year.

Books in the Dummies series are usually checked for accuracy by an expert third party, but apparently the publishers didn’t feel that the Tarot was worthy of such consideration.  Beginners who buy this book will be the poorer for this decision.

I must give Jayanti the benefit of the doubt that she is not deliberately trying to mislead her readers.  I can only assume that her library of Tarot sources is seriously out of date.  But I’m sure the editors at U.S. Games know their Tarot history, and when they abridged the original book (published by Hungry Minds), they should have caught it, especially since it is Stuart Kaplan, founder and chairman of U.S. Games, whom we have to thank for much of the current historical understanding of the history of the cards.

I strongly encourage that readers visit and print out the TarotL History Information Sheet.

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here, but I take the issue of historicity very seriously.  I generally don’t like “slippery slope” arguments, but if we are going to simply make up history, or accept as true historical “theories” which have long ago been shown to be false, then we are on a very slippery slope indeed.  One example of this is the recent trend among some crackpots to deny that American astronauts went to the moon.  I’m sure we can all think of more sinister examples of rewriting history.  And on a purely entertainment-oriented level, truth is invariably richer and more interesting than fiction, including the truth of the history of the Tarot.  I think that readers, particularly readers of a book intended to introduce the subject of the Tarot, deserve to be given the facts.

For this reason, I’m uncertain as to whether I would recommend this set for beginners.  On the one hand, there is much here which would be great for beginners, and which is difficult to find elsewhere.  On the other hand, if a beginner buys this book and no others, and doesn’t do any browsing among various Tarot-related Internet sites, then that beginner will come away with a highly inaccurate impression of Tarot history.  I suppose my advice to a beginner would be, buy this set, but don’t stop there.

Packaged with the set is the Rider-Waite deck, which was a good choice, since it is the most widely-written-about and most influential deck.  One small note on the deck: rather than being printed in Belgium, as were past U.S. Games decks, this one is printed in China, and I was able to notice a difference in quality.  On this Chinese-printed deck, the corners are not rounded with the absolute precision of the Belgian decks.  Perhaps manufacturing costs have forced U.S. Games down this path, but I’m a little sad to see it, because U.S. Games’ decks have always set the standard for quality.

I was also a little annoyed that the cover of the set and the book show Rider-Waite cards with typeset titles, as opposed to the traditional hand-drawn titles.  I was actually looking forward to having a deck with typeset titles (something different, to help justify to myself the expense of purchasing a deck of which I already own several versions), but when I opened the deck box, the titles were the traditional hand-drawn ones.

Tarot for Dummies Deck/Book Set
Book by Amber Jayanti
Deck by A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith
Published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
ISBN #: 1-57281-354-7  

If you would like to buy this deck/book set, click here.

If you would like to buy the book Tarot for Dummies, click here.

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © 2002 US Games
Review © 200/2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes