(Photo credit: Aquarian Insight)
The Rider-Waite-Smith is the most universally recognised of tarot decks. Also sometimes known as the Rider-Waite or the Waite-Smith deck, you've probably heard a version of this name before. If you're just getting started in the world of tarot, you'll likely begin with a Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Even if you're a seasoned tarot reader, you probably have one in your collection. So, what's the history behind this deck? Where did it come from and what does the symbolism mean?
The known history of tarot reading stretches back to the 15th century. However, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck was first published as recently as 1910. Illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith as a collaboration with the mystic A.E. Waite, it was published by the Rider Company, a publishing company that had its origins in occult works. To understand more about this popular deck, it makes sense to begin with its creators.
(Image: Pamela Colman Smith, public domain)
Pamela Colman Smith - nickname Pixie - was an artist, author and occultist who lived during the turn of the 20th century. Smith spent much of her childhood between Jamaica and Britain, and went on to study art in New York as a young adult. Much of her early creative work, including illustrated books, was centered on Jamaican folklore. She would also go on to work in theatrical design and become involved in the suffragette movement.
Smith originally met A.E. Waite through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn occult organisation, which they were both members of. Together, they would create one of the world's most popular tarot decks. But if you hadn’t previously heard of Pamela Colman Smith, you’re not alone. Smith’s story sometimes gets missed out of tarot histories, and her name was left off of most editions of her tarot deck until recently. But she certainly was a fascinating figure – if you’re interested in learning more about her, see here.
Arthur Edward Waite was an accomplished American-British scholar and mystic who wrote academically about esoteric and occult topics. Subjects he covered in his works include: divination, Freemasonry, Kabbalah, alchemy and ceremonial magic. Interestingly, Waite was actually 'enemies' with another notorious mystic of the time, Aleister Crowley, who we wrote about in a previous blog post here.
Upon meeting Colman Smith, A.E. Waite was drawn to her artistic talent and psychic abilities. When he decided he wanted to create a new illustrated version of the tarot, it only made sense to collaborate with Pixie.
While the Rider-Waite-Smith deck was one of the first illustrated tarot decks to obtain worldwide popularity, it wasn't the first illustrated tarot deck. It's been said that Waite was likely influenced by the Sola Busca Tarot deck, a mysterious deck created by an unknown artist with origins stretching back to the late 15th century. The Sola Busca deck was donated to the British Museum by the Sola Busca family of Milan in 1907. If the stories are true, then Waite and Smith saw the Sola Busca deck in the Museum and used it as reference and inspiration for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Upon observing the similarities between the two decks, the connection is undeniable. More information about this can be found here.
Graphic designer and artist Bill Wolf accurately described what makes the Rider tarot deck so special and different to those that had come before.
“The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery. People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are ‘illustrated,’ meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures. This strong narrative element gives readers something to latch onto, in that it is relatively intuitive to look at a combination of cards and derive your own story from them.”
The structure of the deck - with 56 Minor Arcana/suit cards and 22 Major Arcana/trump cards - comes from the traditional Tarot of Marseilles tarot structure. However, Colman Smith's artwork is truly what sets this deck apart. Smith's artwork is quite traditional in nature, yet is rich with symbolism. While at first glance, many of the Rider-Waite-Smith cards depict a singular figure in a clear setting, symbolism is contained in every detail of the scene. The figure's clothing, accessories, facial expressions, background landscapes and more all tell a story. One could study a single card in the deck for days, and still be finding further details to unpack.
While previous tarot decks relied on Christian symbolism and imagery, this was watered down in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. For example, the 'Hierophant' card replaced the traditional 'Pope', and the 'High Priestess' replaced the traditional 'Papess'. The suit symbols of wands, cups, swords and pentacles are said to be influenced by the work of 19th century occultist and magician Éliphas Lévi. Other symbols appear influenced by nature, the elements and the cosmos.
As an example of the richness of symbolism in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, take the Magician card (pictured) as an example. First impressions show a man, presumably the magician, in a strong triumphant stance at a table. He appears powerful and is in possession of a number of 'tools' (all four of the suit card symbols are on his table).
But why is he wearing a white robe with a red cloak? What does the infinity symbol above his head mean? Why is one hand pointing up to the heavens and the other to the ground? What do the flowers and foliage symbolise? And is that a snake around his waist?
None of these details are incidental. They all have meaning, based on Smith and Waite's psychic and academic understanding of the tarot. This is why studying the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot is so fascinating and has long been considered the standard for tarot readers around the world. If you can intimately understand the symbolism and storytelling of these cards, you're well on your path to understanding the vast world of tarot.
Though well over a hundred years old now, the popularity of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck endures. It’s consistently our highest-selling tarot deck here at Dragonspace, and is the one that’s used most commonly in tarot education and training. There are also now revised variations on the traditional deck, such as the Radiant Rider-Waite (re-coloured by Virginijus Poshkus), the Universal Waite (re-coloured by Mary Hanson-Roberts) and the Albano-Waite (re-coloured by Frankie Albano).
The fact that the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot continues to resonate with tarot readers and modern audiences is surely a testament to the artistic and psychic skill of Pamela Colman Smith and mystic knowledge of A.E. Waite. While the duo conceived the deck, it now belongs to thousands of people all around the globe, and will likely continue to inform and inspire generations to come.
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