The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.

Three trumps from the original Rider pack.

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.*****

Cards from the suit of Swords, from the Radiant Rider-Waite. Easily the most distressing cards in the Minor Arcana.

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

The Universal Waite and the CBD TdM.

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).

The Mystical Tarot by Giuliano Costa is one of my absolute favorite RWS derivatives. Compare the Wheel of Fortune here (far left) with Smith’s Wheel of Fortune at the top of this post. Costa’s art is a stunning tribute to the original.

*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.


The Tarot de Marseille.

Facsimiles of assorted Marseille Tarot trumps by Nicholas Conver, designs circa 1790s.

I mentioned in a recent post that I intend on re-reviewing the Tarot decks in my collection. I would like to do each deck on an individual basis, but before I embark on this undertaking, I think it would be appropriate to first discuss a couple “patterns” of decks. These are considered by most to represent the mainstream traditions of Tarot cards, and my collection contains a few examples of each.

In a nutshell, I want to talk a bit about these traditions before delving into specific versions, which will serve the dual purpose of covering what might otherwise be redundant information in each review, as well as glossing over some basics that I think everyone who has more than a passing interest in the Tarot should know.

To begin, I’ll chat about the Marseille Tarots, but first, I’ll rewind a touch and set the stage for them by briefly mentioning Tarot as it existed previously.

The first decks of cards that can accurately be called “Tarots” first appeared in Italy sometime in the 1400s, ostensibly derived from simpler packs of playing cards with four suits. Historical records suggest that, like their ancestors, these were intended for gaming, although the allegorical images which graced the trumps may certainly have held some kind of deeper significance, educational, commemorative, religious or otherwise.* These cards (at least, those which have survived to the present) are quite lavish and were commissioned by nobles.

A reproduction of some early Tarot cards, showing the Fool, Knight of Coins, and Three of Wands (from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot).


Among these early packs, there appears to have been a general consensus about the structure, although differences abound. For example, the number and order of the trumps, as well as their pictorial content, was not constant, nor even was the number of the court cards. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that a more or less standard pattern emerged.

This standardization was the result of two things: one, the printing press had made mass production possible – and perhaps more importantly, economically preferable – and cards for the laity produced by woodcuts with colored stencils became the norm. Two, for some reason or another, the French city of Marseille became the center of production for Tarot cards (although there were certainly packs being produced elsewhere).

The Marseille Tarot (or TdM, as I like to abbreviate them on this blog, for Tarot de Marseille) thus emerged as the standard pattern which persists even to this day. There are several variations of the basic Marseilles template. Each master card maker had his own particular rendition, but the only real differences between them are in the minute details.


The TdM occupies a vital place in the history of the Tarot. On one hand, it represents the culmination of a couple centuries of artistic evolution; on the other, it represents the point of departure for future development of the Tarot.

It was Marseille cards that, in the mid-to-late 1700s, were in the hands of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla, and which served to inspire them in their occult theorizing and pseudo-historical pontificating about the Tarot’s supposed origins. All of the Tarots subsequently designed are therefore derived from the TdM. It is, in the words of the late Yoav Ben-Dov, “accepted … as the genuine model of the traditional cards.”**


There are several features which are characteristic of Marseille cards. Perhaps most obviously in this post-RWS day and age are the Minor Arcana (that is, the suits of the small cards), which are illustrated only with pips, or symbols of the suits. The Ten of Coins, for example, features ten coins and some decorative foliage, and nothing else. They are rather plain and clearly reminiscent of their precursors in regular playing cards. The suit symbols themselves are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins. These symbols are the Italian versions of the suits, a reminder of their peninsular origins. Other countries have since developed their own suit symbols (the French symbols being most common in playing cards today, especially in America), but the Marseille Tarots have always maintained the Italian.

French, Italian, and German suit signs.

The artistic style of the TdM is also instantly recognizable. As previously mentioned, the cards were produced by woodcuts, with heavy black lines and lots of white space, and the color palate was relatively limited. Red, yellow, blue, green and a fleshy-pink tone are usually all there is. To modern sensibilities, the TdM may appear simplistic, even somewhat crude, but is no less beautiful for it. Even TdM-based cards produced today tend to maintain this aesthetic.

There are four court or face cards in each suit (16 altogether), and these are designated Page, Knight, Queen and King. Pages are pictured standing, Knights on horseback, and Queens and Kings seated on thrones. Each holds the emblem of his or her suit (except the Knight of Coins, which usually depicts the Coin floating over his head, while he holds some sort of cudgel).

Various court cards from the Conver-Ben-Dov TdM and their respective counterparts in modern playing cards.

The Major Arcana, or the extra suit of trumps, numbers 22. These are numbered and titled as follows:

I – The Juggler
II – The Popess
III – The Empress
IIII – The Emperor
V – The Pope
VI – The Lover
VII – The Chariot
VIII – Justice
VIIII – The Hermit
X – The Wheel of Fortune
XI – Fortitude or Force
XII – The Hanged Man
XIII – (Untitled)
XIIII – Temperance
XV – The Devil
XVI – The Tower
XVII – The Star
XVIII – The Moon
XVIIII – The Sun
XX – The Last Judgement
XXI – The World
(Unnumbered) – The Fool

(This is all certainly common knowledge for most readers of my blog, but I want to be thorough)

Card XIII from the Universal Tarot of Marseille.

Two cards in particular stand out in the Marseille tradition: The Fool, because it is without a numerical designation (in the TdM, the Fool is not labeled “0” as it is in other packs), and card XIII, because it is without a title (it is usually called “Death” in other packs).

All of these figures are clearly derived from earlier models, especially the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (which is the oldest extant deck of cards that can be dated with certainty). There are, however, subtle differences in much of the imagery, and the Visconti cards had neither titles or numbers.*** Though it was antiquated by the 1700s, this imagery was current when the Tarot first appeared, and like the suit signs, is left over from its early days as a courtly pastime during the Italian Renaissance. Though it seemed strange and otherworldly to the occultists who inherited the Tarot tradition (and indeed, still does today), there is really nothing out of the ordinary given its historical context.****

The total number of cards in a Marseille-pattern Tarot is thus 78, and it is a rare pack indeed that was produced afterward with a different number. It is the structure (four small suits and one trump suit) with its characteristic imagery combined with a distinctive artistic style that defines a Marseille-pattern Tarot. As the progenitor of “modern” packs, it should come as no surprise that much which makes a Marseille is also inherent in other, less traditional packs. It is usually the artwork and the order/names of the trumps, therefore, that sets the TdM apart from other packs which are otherwise structured the same.


That, I think, is it for my general overview of the Tarot de Marseille. A lot of the information presented here was already covered in various posts found here, but again, I want to be as thorough as possible. The next mainstream Tarot tradition that I will cover will be the Rider-Waite-Smith.

Stay tuned.



*Such significance, however tempting it may be to suggest otherwise, is entirely speculative.

**Ben-Dov, Tarot: The Open Reading, page 18.

***Not to mention, the Visconti is also missing two of its trumps: the Devil and the Tower. This is almost certainly the result of loss or destruction since the 1400s, rather than a deliberate omission, although who really knows.

****There are a couple of exceptions, however. Particularly perplexing are the Popess (a position which never existed in the church) and the Hanged Man.

Sola-Busca: One for the Collection.

The Tarot’s history is certainly steeped in mystique. Strange as it all sounds today, though, with a little digging it turns out that they really are just a pack of playing cards. Not so strange, after all.

We strive to define our past with neat and tidy narratives. It’s human nature to think this way; it is how we can make sense of a chaotic and nonsensical existence. Whether the history is verifiable (that the cards as we know them evolved from a card game conceived in Italy during the renaissance) or not (that the cards were created by ancient Egyptian mystics and disseminated through the generations by Gypsies), it provides a story, a context, and that is greatly comforting to us.

But of course, reality isn’t quite as simple as the histories would have us believe. There are new discoveries every day, new interpretations of things we thought we knew, and sometimes these really shake things up. And new discoveries or no, we can never truly know how things were experienced by folks of bygone eras. We weren’t there, and even with the benefit of hindsight, there’s always a piece of the picture missing. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s enough to make a researcher want to tear his hair out. It’s more than frustrating; it’s disconcerting to have your neat and tidy narrative splinter at the slightest touch of contrary evidence (and there is always contrary evidence). On the other hand, it’s exhilarating to find something that forces new perspectives. Even if a complete understanding is impossible, we can always inch our way closer, and there is joy in the unending process of learning.

This is a long and rather dramatic preamble, I know. And it’s really only about a new Tarot deck in my collection: the Tarocchi Sola-Busca. These cards threw a wrench in the Tarot narrative as I understood it. I know next to nothing about this Tarot, but I don’t doubt there are sources out there somewhere that examine it. The Sola-Busca is not remotely a new discovery in the world of the Tarot, but it is new to me, and it’s raised a couple questions about my notions of the Tarot’s history.* But before I get into that, I think I’ll talk a bit about the deck itself.

An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – SBT.

I bought this one purely as a collector’s item. This is the first time I’ve spent money on my collection for its own sake. I’d fully intended on using every other deck I obtained at the time of purchase, even if some of them did end up as curiosities for study rather than actual use (I’m looking at you, Etteilla). I don’t know if I’ll ever divine with these.

Actually, I will probably give it a try at some point. But this deck is even marketed as a collector’s item rather than a reading deck. It is very nice. It’s so nice, that one of the extra publisher’s cards in the pack was complete with a disclaimer advising against shuffling the cards, because they’re “untreated” and prone to damage with use. That irks me a bit, because I don’t care if they are the most collectible cards in the world, a deck that’s too delicate to shuffle just defeats the purpose. It almost seems pretentious to me.

That’s just a minor annoyance, though, since I never had plans to make this my workhorse deck; and anyways, it’s not like the cards are actually fragile. The cardstock is decent enough, there’s just no finish of any kind to protect the images. I’m pretty sure my Shadowscapes deck is similarly untreated, and they’re holding up fine so far (and I do use those).

So what makes the Sola-Busca so collectible?

For one thing, they are very old. The actual deck I have is a 19th century reproduction (very faithful, according to the LWB) of the original cards, which date to sometime between 1491 and 1523. Even at its earliest, this is not as old as the Visconti-Sforza Tarots, but it is pretty darn close. Like the Visconti, these cards were commissioned by Italian nobility (remaining in the possession of the Sola-Busca family of Milan until only about a decade ago), presumably for gameplay.

It pleases me that, though the Hermit is absent, Carbone takes up the staff and torch for a moonlit stroll on card 12.

But were they really intended for games? The second reason these cards are so collectible is because they are astonishingly atypical of traditional packs. It should be borne in mind that Tarot “tradition” as we know it was not yet fully formed when these cards were produced, but all the same: why are these cards so divergent from their contemporaries? The Visconti cards were certainly for games; surely these can be used for games as well, but what else is going on here?

Structurally, they are the same. 40 small cards, 16 court cards, 21 trump cards, and one unnumbered Fool card. 78 in total. But aside from the Fool, the Major Arcana of the Sola-Busca are not the classic allegorical images to which we are accustomed. Instead, they depict mostly figures from Roman history, and two from the Bible. These include characters from the history of Christianity, Literature, Numismatics, and Alchemy (again according to the LWB – I must admit the majority of the names on these cards are obscure to me). This suggests a possible educational utility, with some hints of what we would call “occultism” today. Other packs of cards that apparently served this dual purpose of gaming and education do exist, like the Minchiate. Why not the Tarot, too?

Deo Tauro sits in place of the Chariot.

This blows a hole through the argument that Etteilla and Court de Gebelin were the first people to suggest esoteric uses for the Tarot, even if the Tarots they were using were not derived from the Sola-Busca. Now, the occultism attributed by these men to the cards is not the same thing as anything depicted in the Sola-Busca, and they were still wrong about the origins of the Tarot; but it raises an interesting question about the apparently mundane and frivolous uses of the earliest cards. We know they were used for gambling, but was that all? Is it possible that there was an aura of mysticism about them, even at the beginning? This is a valid question to ask of the Visconti as it is of the Sola-Busca. It is more than probable that the artist who rendered the Sola-Busca cards was familiar with packs like the Visconti. They are from the same country and the same approximate time period. Moreover, for all its differences, there are familiar motifs to be found throughout the Sola-Busca. For example, Deo Tauro, who graces card number seven, could be riding a chariot, and card thirteen shows Catone standing over a severed-and-impaled head. There are subtle similarities throughout. Perhaps the Visconti was only created for games, but if decks like the Sola-Busca were floating around, it’s certainly possible that owners of the Visconti also saw a certain educational and mystical potential in their cards. After all, we only think so because the Tarot’s pictures are so suggestive, and they would only have been more so during the renaissance, a time that these images were current. It’s easy to forget that the line between the sacred and the profane – that is, the spiritual and the mundane, or the intuitive and the rational – was not always as clear as it’s often perceived today.

It wouldn’t have been associated with the divination and occultism that we know, not by a long shot, but the very existence of this deck suggests that Etteilla and de Gebelin’s revelations about the esoteric significance of the Tarot may actually have been the fruits of seeds planted long before them.


And that’s just the Major Arcana. If anything, the Minor Arcana are actually more fascinating.** The suits are typical – Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins – but the pip cards are all illustrated. Whoever designed these cards were centuries ahead of their times. Nowadays we take illustrated pips for granted, but it was only in 1910 with the publication of the Rider pack that they really became popular. Smith’s illustrations were revolutionary for the Tarot, but they were not really her innovation. Photos of the Sola-Busca were available for public viewing in a museum in London while Waite and Smith were working on their cards, and it is fairly certain that these photos served as inspiration for Smith’s iconic drawings. A handful of her Minor Arcana even have direct counterparts in the Sola-Busca.

Some of Pamela Smith’s inspiration.

I won’t go so far as to speculate that the Sola-Busca may have been used for intuitive divination, but it is an awfully elaborate pack of cards for game play. It makes the lavish Visconti cards seem almost plebeian by comparison. These are illustrations, not flowery embellishment. Creativity went into this. Is it an extension of the educational element from the Major Arcana? What are these images supposed to convey? Or are these cards a product of people simply reveling in the artistic extravagance of 15th century Italy?

Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we already do, and I’m just uninformed. I want to stress again that I actually know very little about this deck. It is foreign to me, and it makes me re-think the Tarot in interesting ways. If nothing else, these cards provide me with new avenues for study and musing, should I ever feel so inclined. And as a collector’s item, it fills a satisfying niche in my collection, bringing together its hitherto disparate ends. The wildly non-traditional modern decks, such as the Mary-El or the Wildwood, now have a historical precedent in breaking from convention. The Sola-Busca brings it all back to the beginning. It is very different, yes, but its differences are a reminder that the Tarot is living, evolving alongside the people who use it, and it always has been.


*The Sola-Busca has been in my periphery for quite some time now, in fact, but I never gave it much thought until I decided my collection ought to have one.

**There are actually many motifs from the traditional Major Arcana peppered throughout the Sola-Busca’s Minor Arcana. I thought that was very interesting. One example is a Cups card which shows a goofy-looking man holding a cudgel on his shoulder while a small dog tears down his pants. This card looks very much like the Marseille Fool, only without the jester cap.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

The title of this book by Paul Huson is kind of odd. It suggests to me some sort of BS pseudo-historical narrative along the lines of Court de Gebelin’s theory about how the Tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests trying to preserve the secrets of the Universe. This is odd, because the book itself is a work of legitimate historical research – there is nothing “mystical” about the origins of the Tarot, and Huson never tries to make it seem so beyond the title page. I suspect it’s tongue-in-cheek, like his earlier work on the Tarot called The Devil’s Picturebook (I have not read that one, but am assured there is nothing but wry humor behind its provocative title).


The subtitle, “From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage,” is perhaps a better indication of the content. Ancient to modern is quite a chunk of time to cover, but Mystical Origins does it, tracing the evolution of the Tarot as we know it today from its mysterious beginnings (which, while long ago, are not exactly ancient, at least not as ancient as the Egyptian priests).

Books like this one are necessary precisely because the origin of the Tarot is so mysterious. In the 1800s theories like de Gebelin’s could catch on, not only because they seemed to make enough sense on the surface and because occultists wanted to believe them, but because we really didn’t know any better until fairly recently. Many Tarot books perpetuate false or only partially true “histories”. These books are perfectly fine in other respects, but they simply are not good resources for historically-verifiable information.

Now, this is the Tarot we’re talking about here, not recently declassified government documents or freshly-discovered tablets of Linear A or anything like that. Whether they’re used for gambling or fortune-telling, cards are not exactly the sort of thing generally taken seriously by academic types, historians or otherwise.* As such, books about the Tarot are not usually concerned with meeting academic criteria. Shoddy history is to be expected, and anyway, why does it even matter?

Well, it does and it doesn’t matter. The Tarot does not require a history lesson to be used or enjoyed. Furthermore, the aura of mystery surrounding the Tarot is a major attraction for many folks, myself included, and mystical histories only add to that aura. I’ve said it before, these legends add to the flavor of the cards, illustrating their hold on the imagination. The mythic connections are very real, despite not being based in empirical fact.

However, I believe that myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and just as myth enriches our metaphysical experiences with the cards, history enriches the experience on a much more practical level. Context is key in understanding any spread, and history is just a lesson in context on a grand scale. Through historical research, we can better understand the cards themselves, what they were, where they came from, who made them, and how they became what they are now. This information may not be immediately applicable when using the cards, but it strikes me as foolish to invest in the Tarot as I have without understanding what it really is. It pleases me that Huson’s book, and others like it, are available as a counterbalance to all the “woo” out there.

But I digress. Mystical Origins isn’t the only book backed by historical research, and it may not be the best out there, but of what I’ve read, it provides the most thorough history, and on the whole I think his interpretations of it stand on sound reasoning.** He asserts that the historical mystery of the Tarot can be boiled down to three questions:

1. What is the source of the suit symbols?
2. What is the source of the trumps?
3. When and why did people begin to use the Tarot for divination?

The first chapters attempt to answer these questions. The suits are thought to have been derived from the Persian Mamluk cards after they were introduced to Europeans in the 14th century. At the time, these were primarily used for trick-taking games. The playing cards became the Tarot in the following century, when the trump cards were added to the pack. The imagery of the trumps is medieval in origin, drawing from many sources, most notably from religious dramas of the time. The earliest ones were hand-painted for nobles, but they remained devices for gaming. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, in the 18th century, that the Tarot was established as a tool for divination and the occult by Etteilla and his contemporaries. By this time, the Persian and medieval European sources of the cards had been forgotten, and so it was hypothesized that they originated in Egypt.

Mystical Origins is often touted as a Tarot history book, and it certainly is. The first few chapters make up the historical overview beginning with the Mamluk and concluding with the occult developments of the late 1800s – early 1900s. This isn’t the whole book, though; in fact, it’s barely a third of it. The remainder of the book focuses on the actual cards of both the Major and Minor Arcana and on reading techniques, all of which builds upon the previous material.

From the DFW Tarot.

Each card is briefly discussed in terms of its historical symbolism, followed by its divinatory interpretations by Tarot masters throughout the ages, with a final suggested interpretation from the author. The chapter on reading is especially interesting. We get Huson’s personal advice on card reading, and although he expresses some opinions that I’m sure are disagreeable to some, I thought much of it was quite wise. Then he provides several spreads and methods, from very simple to very advanced, all taken from historical sources. The entire book is illustrated with line drawings by the author, and in them one can recognize the roots of much of Huson’s own Tarot, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, which was published a few years after Mystical Origins.

In conclusion, this book is not only a fascinating history of the Tarot, but it is a thorough and excellent handbook for cartomancy with the Tarot, and a good divinatory reference for historical and occult packs, from the Visconti to the RWS and virtually everything in between.


*Occult Tarot may be a different story, but the first rule of Occult Club is don’t talk about Occult Club.

**Huson does occasionally posit theories which are pure speculation – they are simply not provable based on available information – but he always acknowledges when this is the case.

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

I’d considered buying these cards a while back, but ultimately decided upon the Medieval Scapini, instead. While the aesthetic of the Scapini Tarot is certainly derived from the Visconti cards, the more familiar with it I became, the more I wanted an actual Visconti deck for comparison. The Scapini pack is nothing short of amazing, one of my favorites that I never expected to be a favorite, but it is not a historic replica by any means.

An example of the Major Arcana, court card, and small card – VST

Of course, this Lo Scarabeo deck isn’t an actual Visconti deck, either, but a reproduction. I did consider a facsimile pack, which would have been the closest I could possibly get to the original short of traveling around the world and robbing a few high-profile art museums, but decided against it. The original cards, to be honest, just look like crap. Not the art, but the condition, which of course is to be expected of cards dating from the 1450s (I mean, there aren’t even buildings that old on this part of the globe); but why on earth would I want to pay more money for cards that just don’t look all that nice? I compared pictures online of the facsimile editions alongside pictures of the Lo Scarabeo edition, and went for the latter. I think it was a good choice.

These cards are classy. The most noticeable thing about them is the gold foil overlays on the Major Arcana and court cards. The metallic sheen of the Medieval Scapini literally pales in comparison.

Visconti and Scapini

The colors are bright and Alexander Atanassov, the artist commissioned to paint these reproductions, did a really good job. I have no problem believing that this is supposed to be a renaissance Tarot. Some of the people do look kind of ugly, but if anything that’s just a testament to the artist’s skill in mimicking the renaissance style (what is it about renaissance artists that compelled them to paint effeminate men and masculine women? Surely people didn’t really look that way back then).

At its core, the Visconti is just a glorified Marseille-pattern Tarot (which is probably an incredibly historically inaccurate statement to make, but in the Tarot world, the TdM is generally the stylistic point of reference). The Minors are fancy embellished pips, the Magician is a street juggler, and the Hierophant and High Priestess are dressed in ecclesiastical garb. There are some fascinating differences in some of the Major Arcana, however, particularly in the Moon, World and Strength cards.

Strength (I think that’s supposed to be Heracles, but if so, that is one pitiful Nemean Lion), the Moon, and the World from the VST.

I’m going to wrap this post up with the obligatory history lesson about these cards. For those who don’t know, the Visconti-Sforza Tarrocchi are the oldest datable Tarot cards,* and it is for this reason more than any other that makes these cards so popular to collectors today. It was commissioned around 1450 by a lord of Milan named Francesco Sforza, to commemorate the marriage of his family to the politically influential Visconti family – in fact, the Lovers card supposedly depicts the wedding. All of the court cards are [supposed to be] members of either the Visconti or Sforza families (well, aside from the Knight of Coins, as we shall see). The paintings on the cards are traditionally attributed to artist Bonifacio Bembo, although it’s impossible to be sure.

The Visconti deck is not complete; the Devil, the Tower, the Knight of Coins, and the Three of Swords are all missing, and so any Visconti deck sold today needs to replace these four cards to be usable.** Being a simple pip card, the Three of Swords surely posed no problem to the artist, and the Knight of Coins appears to be right at home among the Coins court. The Devil and the Tower are pretty generic (though not at all poorly executed), looking much like they do in any TdM or other traditional Tarot, although a Tarot history blog I read a while back has led me to believe that these versions of the cards use motifs that may be anachronistic.*** Be that as it may, I think the more interesting point I took away from that blog was the possibility that these two cards were purposely excluded from the pack because of their connotations. Of course, this doesn’t explain why the Three or the Knight are missing; and why would the Milanese lord wish for the Tower and the Devil to be removed, but leave the sinister card Thirteen in the progression? I think the more likely explanation is that 550-odd years is a long time for a deck of cards to survive, and we’re lucky to have as much of it as we do. Still, food for thought. It’s not unheard of, after all, for Tarot cards in the middle ages to have been edited for tastefulness (or banned completely, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born into nobility).


*This means that there are possibly earlier examples of Tarot cards, but that we cannot date them with any degree of certainty. It’s safe to assume, however, that the oldest are not older than the mid-to-late-1300s. Ronald Decker’s Art and Arcana, page 8.

**There are actually at least three extant versions of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, all attributed to Bembo, and it’s between all of them that we are only missing four cards.

***I can’t find the blog anymore, otherwise I’d link it. Sorry.

The Basics: History of the Tarot.

Contrary to popular belief,* a regular pack of 52 playing cards is not a simplified form of the Tarot; rather, the Tarot is a more complex form of the 52 card pack. The Tarot did not come first, and it really isn’t all that ancient, at least, not as ancient as is often claimed.

Playing cards with four suits have been around for ages, since at least 1000 AD, although it is true that they didn’t show up in Europe until a bit closer to the time of the first Tarots.** These (the Tarot, that is) inexplicably popped up in Italy midway through the 1400s. The oldest surviving cards from this period were specially commissioned by noble families and hand painted by skilled artists, and no two of them are the same. It wasn’t until the Tarot had spread to other parts of Europe over the course of a couple centuries that a more or less standard pattern began to emerge.

Today, this pattern is referred to as the Tarot de Marseille, after the French city in which they were originally made. Instead of unique hand painted cards, these packs were mass-produced with woodblock prints, making them accessible to the masses (we don’t know that the Tarot wasn’t available to common folk at the same time the nobles were commissioning their packs, but if they were, they didn’t survive).

There is no single version of the Marseille Tarot; it is a pattern, with several variations, and no one can say with even remote certainty who (if any sole individual) invented it. But, ever since this pattern emerged in France, there has been relatively little alteration in the basic structure of the pack. Even the most outrageously avant-garde decks published today can be traced back to these cards.

In other words, the Tarot de Marseille is the closest we can get to the original modern Tarot. For this reason, there are many, many folks out there who prefer this version of the cards over the multitudes of others currently available (especially in Europe – we’ll get to the preferred deck in America shortly).

The biggest difference between the Marseille Tarot and a typical 52 card pack is, not surprisingly, the 22 Major Arcana. These picture cards are an addition to the Minor Arcana, functioning as trumps for gaming purposes, although it’s difficult to believe these suggestive pictures aren’t meant to hold some deeper significance (even if we do know they aren’t “occult”). In Marseille packs, the Minor Arcana are nothing more than pip cards – cards that are illustrated only by the suit symbols – and while the suits are somewhat different than regular playing cards depending on the country of origin (for example, Wands are the Italian version of the suit, and the version which remained with the Tarot, as opposed to the French Diamonds or the German Acorns), they are still the same in essence. For example, the 10 of Wands shows only ten wands arranged on the card, and nothing else, except perhaps some decorative foliage.

French, Italian, and German suit symbols. I’ve chosen Diamonds as equivalent to Wands based on Huson’s book, but the argument can be made that Clubs work here as well.


The next big step in the evolution of the Tarot didn’t come until the late 1700s,with a French chap known to posterity as Etteilla. His actual name was Alliette (what a clever pseudonym, I know), and, believe it or not, he was the first person recorded to have used the Tarot exclusively for divination and the occult. He even designed his own pack of Tarot cards specifically for this purpose, with all new Major Arcana (which did not catch on), and a system of divinatory meanings for the Minor Arcana (which did catch on). Prior to him, the cards were only documented in the annals of history as devices for gaming and gambling (although fortune-telling with regular playing cards was not uncommon in his day, so it’s not unthinkable that the Tarot may also have been casually used for this as well, even before Etteilla). Regardless of what future Tarot masters would eventually say about him,*** his work represents a pivotal moment in the history of Tarot.

Within the next century after Etteilla, there emerged a whirlwind of occult theories attempting to connect the Tarot to various esoteric doctrines such as Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology (it was during this time that the erroneous “history” which remains popular to Tarot users today was first established by another Frenchman and contemporary of Etteilla named Court de Gebelin – there are some who claim he actually beat Etteilla to the punch with the idea of occult Tarot). Despite the fact that everyone seemed, all of the sudden, to agree that the Tarot must be the direct descendant of a great and secret magical tradition, no one could seem to agree on the correct way to associate the cards with this secret tradition.****

And so there was de Gebelin, there was Papus, there was Levi, and there was Wirth, among others; but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn‘s occult system of Tarot correspondences – which remains to this day the most widely accepted system – was established. Founded by S.L.M. MacGregor Mathers (another pseudonym, by the way – and his isn’t the only in this paragraph), this secret order was home to both of the next two integral characters in our drama of the history of Tarot.

The first of these two characters is Arthur Edward Waite. In 1910, he, with the help of artist and fellow Golden Dawn-er Pamela Coleman Smith, published a new and revolutionary Tarot deck, called the Rider deck, after the British company which first published it. The Rider-Waite pack was revolutionary primarily because Smith did not use typical pips for her Minor Arcana, but rather illustrated every single one of these 56 cards with a scene depicting either her or Waite’s (it’s not clear which) interpretation of the divinatory meaning of each card. The Major Arcana were re-designed, as well, although for the most part, these are still reminiscent of their Marseille counterparts. This pack of cards is easily the most prevalent in North America today, if not the world, and I would go so far as to say that maybe seven or eight out of ten decks now available are nothing more than elaborately themed Rider packs.

The second of these two Golden Dawn characters is Aleister Crowley (his first name wasn’t really Aleister – something about the Tarot seems to inspire its students to take on false monikers…). Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous occultist of the 20th century, dubbed “the wickedest man alive” by the media of his time.***** There are certainly reasons for this, but that should not get in the way of an honest appreciation for his version of the Tarot.

Mr. Crowley designed his cards with the help of painter Lady Frieda Harris during the 1940s, but they were not published until 1969, after both of their deaths. The artwork is stunning, and Crowley incorporated a dizzying amount of esoteric knowledge into his Tarot. Unlike Waite, who did his best to disguise the Golden Dawn’s secret symbolism in his cards, Crowley had no reservations about creating a blatantly occult pack. What is perhaps most notable about it, though, is that it deviated somewhat from the Golden Dawn’s theories to match Crowley’s own, and was designed with this in mind to be the harbinger of a new age of spiritual enlightenment for humanity. The Thoth Tarot, as Crowley called his deck, has since become one of the most popular Tarot decks ever created – truly a new deck for a new era.


Sometime during the 1970s, the Tarot began to experience a popular revival that continues strong to this day. A simple google search will reveal that there are now many, many variations of the cards out there. Virtually anybody can find a pack with a theme that suits his or her tastes, and the amount of sources now available on the Tarot is unprecedented. While there are some new original packs (and old ones, too – Waite certainly wasn’t the first to publish his own cards, only the most popular), the vast majority of these new decks are essentially just re-drawn Rider packs. A few variations of the Marseille and Thoth decks are also out there, but the Rider is definitely the most popular version of the Tarot to be re-fitted with new themes (almost undoubtedly because of the illustrated pips, which so many people take for granted without realizing that, historically speaking, are an anomaly). And, thanks to modern research, we no longer have to rely entirely on the speculations of 18th and 19th century occultists about the history of these cards.

In some ways, the actual story is less interesting than the fabricated one. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Tarot really was handed down through the generations by ancient Egyptian mystics? Personally, I enjoy the flavor this false history adds to the aura of the Tarot, because it illustrates the power these cards have over the imagination, but I am a firm believer in the importance of real, researched history. After all, the fact that we now know that the cards were originally created for gaming rather than magic or fortune-telling has done absolutely nothing to diminish its allure. Nor should it.


So there you have it: my brief overview of the history of the Tarot. I have tried to keep my digressions to a minimum, which is difficult for me with a post like this one. Obviously, I’ve been less than thorough (this is just the basics, after all), and have resorted to some broad generalizations to get the main points across; and I admit to focusing more on certain things rather than some other, equally interesting things, namely the three versions of the cards that represent the cornerstones of my personal collection. I have consciously chosen these three patterns – the Marseille, Rider, and Thoth – as the cornerstones for my collection, however, precisely because they represent what are generally considered to be the “classics” among the Tarot community, and so I think the extra attention is justified.

For those of you interested in professional and detailed treatments of Tarot history, you can find the books which influenced this post here.

History is all well and good, but what does it mean if you can’t use the cards?


*Actually, there are several misconceptions that I want to address in this post that I don’t think are as prevalent now as they seemed to have been 50 years or so ago, but a Tarot novice can still find these misconceptions presented more or less as fact in an astonishing number of sources. Many of these sources are still valuable for their interpretations of the cards, which is why I believe they are still circulating, but what passes for “history” in them is sometimes laughable.

**Which, by the way, were not called “Tarot” at the time. The word Tarot was first used in France as a name for the game played with the cards. Before then, the name depended on where the cards were – for example, Tarocchi in Italy. Now of course, at least in the English-speaking world, Tarot is the universal term used regardless of where or when the specific cards originated. The etymology of words like Tarot and Tarocchi remains obscure, although theories abound.

***Wirth, Waite, and Crowley would all come to deride Etteilla as a misguided goof (at best), and not one of them would admit the undeniable influence he had on the evolution of the Tarot. Etteilla’s presumptions about the Major Arcana notwithstanding, not a single one of these “Tarot masters” could be remembered as such without his preliminary contributions.

****Despite remarkable (and I mean remarkable) coincidences, there is no actual evidence whatsoever that the Tarot is the result of anything other than the natural evolution of a Renaissance-era card game that just happened to catch on. But it can be argued that “coincidence” is only another term for what Jung dubbed “synchronicity”, a concept that is essential to the current understanding of the Tarot as a tool for divination and spiritual development. All’s well that ends well, right?

*****Yes, Mr. Crowley was in many ways an appalling character. However, it should be noted that for all his “wickedness”, he did put his occult energies to use during WWII antagonizing Hitler (who also reportedly believed in the occult). Whether his efforts were actually effective or not is irrelevant. The dude rooted against the Nazis, and that’s gotta count for something.

Dame Fortune and Her Wheel.

This isn’t a post about the Wheel of Fortune card. Dame Fortune’s Wheel (DFW) is the name given by Paul Huson to the pack of Tarot cards that he designed (the most recent addition to my collection), and it is that which I will discuss today (someday I’ll get around to a post about Key X of the Major Arcana; it’s been mentioned many times before on this blog).

An example of the Major Arcana, Court, and Small cards – DFW

Before I delve into the cards, though, I’d like to take a moment or two to talk about Huson’s book, called Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

If you’re into history (like me), this book is an incredibly valuable resource. I have other books that do a great job treating Tarot history in my library (such as Tyson’s book on Tarot magic or Decker’s book on the Medieval Scapini Tarot), but none can match this one. It is both a history of Tarot cards as objects, as well as of the various symbols used in the cards. Some of the information is surprising, but it all makes sense in Huson’s presentation of it.

It seems to me that this book is primarily marketed as a history of the Tarot, and a history of Tarot it is. But that’s not all it does. There are in-depth explanations of every card in the deck, discussing meanings as well as history, and complete with lists of interpretations from all the major names in Tarot (like Etteilla, Levi, Mathers, the Golden Dawn, and Waite, to name a few of the more familiar ones). These sections are followed by a manual for divination with the cards by several methods, ranging from simple to very complex. The entire thing is wrapped up with multiple useful appendices for further research and an extensive bibliography. Overall, this book is an excellent general-purpose Tarot book, aimed at understanding the cards in their historical context, from their inception to the present.

The book is also illustrated by the author, who happens to be something of an artist, as well. That skill proved useful when he tried his hand at creating a deck. Mystical Origins of the Tarot is not a companion to the DFW, at least, not really. But Huson definitely designed the cards with his research for the book in mind (the book predates the cards by a couple of years), and as such, the book goes well with the cards.

The cards are striking in their appearance, with bold lines and colors that evoke stained-glass windows (I heard that analogy somewhere and really liked it). The imagery of the Major Arcana can be understood and traced back to its historical origins with the aid of the book, although I do not think the book is completely necessary to enjoy the cards (I do strongly recommend it, however). Some of these cards are easily recognizable in their Marseille counterparts; some of them are very different. Mostly, though, it is subtle differences that make this deck unique. It is familiar and new all at once.

The Minor Arcana are illustrated with original artwork by Huson. Again, he made use of his research when designing these cards, synthesizing a meaning for each from multiple historic sources (none of which are as old as those of the Major Arcana, though). The images are lighthearted and playful overall, set in an idealized medieval world, not unlike Smith’s renderings for Waite’s famous Tarot. It should be noted that the style and specific content of the Minor Arcana do not mirror Smith’s at all; just the pseudo-medieval setting and playful tone. These cards are not rip-offs of the RWS in the slightest. Any overlap in design is a result of the source material (Etteilla’s minor arcana designations influenced both decks significantly, for example).

The Significator, adorned with the signs of the Zodiac.

In addition to the Major and Minor Arcana, Huson includes in his deck a 79th card, labelled “Significator.” This is a practice first introduced by Etteilla, and while most deck designers abstain from including such a card, and while I generally choose my own significators from the court cards without any trepidation, I really like that Huson did this.

I like Dame Fortune’s Wheel very much. It is refreshingly original, and yet remains true to historical Tarots (assuming you put stock in Huson’s book, which I do). I could easily imagine these cards existing during the time that Tarot was a new phenomenon. Not only that, but the artwork truly is compelling. However, I do have one gripe about these cards.

I’ve read many Tarot reviews of cards I own that complain about the quality of the cardstock, but have never had any issues myself with any of them. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the DFW. The cards feel thin and flimsy, and they are so slippery that shuffling them requires great attention and care lest half the pack goes flying. For this reason, I don’t use these cards nearly as much as I suspect I would otherwise, which is a darn shame considering how awesome they are in every other way.