Some Brief Thoughts on the Rider-Waite-Smith

I’ve done a write-up for every other deck in my collection. Only one remains: the classic Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS). The version I use is a Radiant Rider-Waite deck. This was the first deck I’ve ever gotten, and unlike all of my other decks, ordered online, I picked up this one in a small shop. This is the deck that introduced me to the world of the Tarot, and inspired me to embark on my Tarot journey.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card from the RWS.

First of all, let me say that I like this version of the RWS. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s my first, but I think that the colors are brilliant, and while the line work is not the original Smith, but a redrawing, I think it is faithful enough. The lines are not as heavy as Smith’s, allowing for clearer details, which works very well with the new vibrant colors. I’ve read reviews in which people have complained about the faces of the characters, and while I do think that some of them could probably have been better done, it’s never really bothered me. I also really like the starry pattern on the back.

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The Hermit in the rws mini (which uses the original artwork) compared to the Radiant RWS

This deck was created by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith. Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the secret order to which Mr. Crowley also belonged. While the Tarot was around long before the Golden Dawn, they were instrumental in assigning to it the occult correspondences that we are most familiar with today. After their time with the order, both Crowley and Waite created their own Tarot decks inspired by the systems of the Golden Dawn. They shared inspiration, but that’s about it; Waite’s deck is significantly different from Crowley’s.

The RWS was HUGELY influential in making the Tarot what it is today, especially in English-speaking countries. Almost any time a Tarot card is pictured or referenced, it is a card from this deck. The vast majority of modern decks are inspired by the distinctive imagery of the RWS. It is also the first deck to popularize illustrated small cards, a feature many would be amazed to find isn’t typical of historical Tarot decks.

Waite directed Smith’s artwork for the Major Arcana. Almost everything pictured in these cards is a disguised symbol of some sort (Waite had mixed feelings about directly revealing the secret doctrines of the Golden Dawn in his work, even though they had already been published by Crowley). The Minor Arcana, on the other hand, is purely the result of Smith’s creativity. There is significantly less symbolism in the small cards; they mostly consist of scenes inspired by the supposed divinatory meaning of each card.

I am a fan of Smith’s art. Stylistically, I prefer either the CHT or the WWT, but the pictorial content of the RWS is really amazing. When I read with this deck, I feel like I’ve entered another world. Alright, I feel that way about most decks, but I really like this world. It’s got an idealized pre-modern vibe about it that is very pleasing to my sensibilities. If I’m ever using a deck to make up stories for creative writing exercises, it’s usually this one. I can escape into the realms of the RWS.* I suspect it has something to do with the illustrated small cards. Whatever it is, I really like it.

I don’t really know what more to say about this deck. It is a classic, and for good reasons, but as such, it’s not difficult to find resources on it. My thoughts on it are almost entirely positive; it’s one of my favorite decks, I work with it fairly often, and I think the artwork is great. I think it’s a fantastic deck to learn the Tarot with, and it is capable of providing endless hours of fascination. I would suggest that every Tarot enthusiast should learn about the RWS, but I find it unlikely that there are very many out there who aren’t already familiar with it.

*The WWT has this effect, too, but I suspect that was intended by the creators. I mean, the Wildwood is the only deck I have which intentionally puts forth a fantasy world created just for the deck. The RWS also gives me the impression of a new world, but I don’t think it was necessarily on purpose. I don’t know what was going on in Smith’s head when she painted these pictures, but they have a hold on my imagination for sure.

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