Having discussed the Marseilles Tarots in a previous post, I will now move on to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (abbreviated RWS).* My personal collection contains more of these than any other type of Tarot.
Unlike the Marseilles, which in its time saw numerous variations of the same basic template, the Rider was a unique deck of cards for many years. It is considered among the “traditions” alongside the TdM now though, because several decades following its publication (starting roughly in the 1970s), it inspired countless knock-offs, “clones,” and derivatives. Today it is the most recognizable pattern in the world, with hundreds upon hundreds of “original” decks based on it.
Arthur Edward Waite was a one-time member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as a prolific scholar on occultism. The RWS is the result of his efforts to produce a “rectified” pack of cards.**
Pamela Coleman Smith was a talented artist and also a member of the Golden Dawn. She was commissioned by Waite to help realize his vision for the new Tarot.
Once completed, the cards were first published in 1909 by the Rider company in London, hence the “Rider-Waite-Smith” designation. The same company published Waite’s companion text to the cards, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the following year.
There are two main reasons why this deck was so revolutionary for its time. The first was the publication of the Pictorial Key. This was the first time the creator of a Tarot deck published a companion text for his cards. Wild speculations surrounded the Marseille Tarot, and until modern historical research came into play, no one could prove or disprove any of it. In the 1790s, who could deny Court de Gebelin’s claim that the Tarot descended from the Egyptian High Priests? There was no book from the designer to explain what was meant by the cards or what inspired them. Hell, there wasn’t even a single designer who could lay claim to the cards’ creation.
The Marseille Tarot is just a deck of playing cards at the end of the day. The Rider Tarot, by contrast, is not. We know what the creator intended them to represent, because he wrote a book about it.***
The second thing that sets this deck apart from its predecessors is Smith’s illustrated Minor Arcana. Instead of the simple pips that grace the TdM, she designed scenic interpretations of all 40 small cards. This is an artistic feat in itself, and is all the more impressive considering it was virtually unheard of at the time.****
These scenes are supposed to depict the meanings of the cards as they are used in divination, based on sources such as Etteilla and the Golden Dawn’s occult correspondences. There are criticisms about the validity or accuracy of these pictures, but that is a subject for a different post.*****
Today, the Rider Tarot surpasses the TdM as the most widely copied template for Tarot decks. The most obvious indication that a deck is a RWS or one of its derivatives is the illustrated Minor Arcana. Just because a Tarot has an illustrated Minor Arcana does not mean it’s an RWS, although odds are it was at least inspired in part by it. Smith’s drawings are fairly distinctive. Her version of the Ten of Swords, for example, depicts a man dead and facedown on the ground with ten swords plunged into his back. A deck inspired by the Rider will stay more or less consistent with Smith’s work, although the style may reflect a particular artist or theme. The Rider pack shows an idealized medieval world. A Rider derivative with a cat theme (which does exist) would show similar scenery and circumstances, except instead of people in tunics and armor and funny hats, there would be cats (having not seen these Cat Tarots except on the shelf at the store, I can’t attest to whether or not the Ten of Swords is as violent as Smith’s depiction. I’d wager that it probably isn’t). Some RWS derivatives are more clever in their interpretations of Smith’s work than others.
The suits are the same as the traditional Italian with the exception of Coins, which Waite opted to rename “Pentacles” to reflect his occult leanings. The Pentacles are, of course, still coins, except each is inscribed with a pentagram instead of the trefoil or fleur-de-lis designs found on the TdM Coins. The court cards are essentially the same as the TdM, as well, except of course for Smith’s art in place of the woodblock prints.
While the Minor Arcana is more wildly different than that of the Marseille with its pips, Waite did dictate some significant changes to the Major Arcana, as well. Many of these changes actually had their basis in the Golden Dawn’s Tarot. What almost certainly started as a Tarot based on the TdM was redesigned to accommodate their occult correspondences, but it was the RWS that brought these changes to the mainstream:
I – the Juggler was renamed and redesigned as the Magician
II – the Popess was renamed the High Priestess
V – the Pope was renamed the Hierophant
VI – the Lover became the Lovers and was drastically redesigned
VIII – Fortitude was renamed Strength
XI – Justice swapped places with Strength
Above are the most noticeable changes Waite made, although each card of the Major Arcana was adjusted from the TdM (some more than others). Furthermore, they were designed with specific occult doctrines in mind, and this informed much of the artistic liberties taken with the Rider Tarot. In the TdM, the Chariot is just that – a chariot drawn by a pair of horses and driven by a crowned warrior wielding a scepter. In the RWS, the Chariot is drawn by a pair of sphinxes, one black and one white, and the charioteer is adorned with all manner of symbolic accoutrements, from his head to his waist.
It is important to understand that the Rider Tarot didn’t just appear from the ether. It, like the TdM before it, was the culmination of many, many years of artistic tradition. And, unlike the TdM, it was also the culmination of many, many years of occult tradition, as well. Once de Gebelin and Etteilla opened their can of worms, the Tarot and the occult would forever be intertwined, like the snakes around the caduceus. Integral to the design of the RWS is the (often veiled) Kabbalistic, astrological, and alchemical symbolism of the Golden Dawn, as well as motifs culled from Waite’s personal fascination with Christian mysticism and the Grail Legends. Much of this goes unnoticed by the modern novice fortune-teller, but it’s all there.
To the trained eye, the French and Italian roots are still discernible in the RWS, but by 1910 the Tarot had taken on a life of its own. After 1910, the Tarot would branch out even more. Just do a google search on the Tarot, and you’ll see what I mean. No longer confined to the stuffy lodges of occult secret societies or the gambling tables of smoky taverns, the Tarot is now a worldwide popular phenomenon, and this is largely thanks to Waite, Smith, and the Rider company of London (although as a stuffy member of some of those stuffy lodges, it’s unlikely that Waite ever foresaw his esoteric Tarot exploding into popular culture like it did).
In conclusion, a Tarot is of the RWS pattern if it meets all or most of these criteria: illustrated small cards (especially if the illustrations are directly inspired by Smith’s work), Pentacles instead of Coins, Strength as 8 and Justice as 11, and the Magician instead of the Juggler (as well as the other trumps having less of a Renaissance morality drama vibe and more of a secret Hermetic society vibe).
*Besides Rider-Waite-Smith, these cards are also often called Smith-Waite, Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite, or simply Rider (or, less often, simply Waite or Smith). I prefer either the full RWS or just Rider.
**Waite was not even remotely the first to rectify the symbolism of the Tarot, although he was probably the most successful in creating a lasting change in the popular imagination.
***The Pictorial Key is anything but clear – in many instances, Waite deliberately obscured the truth behind his designs. This is somewhat understandable, however, when one considers the oaths of secrecy required by organizations such as the Golden Dawn. His book nonetheless exists, which was a novelty for its time, and can still be pointed to as evidence for Waite’s intentions.
****There does exist a very early Tarot called the Sola Busca, which also has illustrated small cards. In fact, a handful of them appear to have been a direct inspiration for Smith, a connection which seems all the more plausible when one considers that the Sola Busca was on display at a museum in London while Smith and Waite were working on the cards. The Sola Busca remains, however, an anomaly and a curiosity relegated to the fringes of the Tarot world. While Smith almost certainly drew inspiration from these very strange cards, she still revolutionized the Tarot with her illustrations. It is, after all, the RWS, and not the Sola Busca, that is ingrained in the popular imagination.
*****The Rider deserves at least an entire post of its own detailing its actual occult background – and perhaps some more in-depth biographical info about its creators – but as this is meant to be a post about the pattern which is the basis of many other decks having little or nothing to do with said background, I figured I’d better wait (no pun intended) for such a lengthy digression. Footnotes abound as it is.