Rider-Waite Tarot

Created by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith
Illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith
Published by US Games, 1971

78 Cards: 22 Major Arcana, 56 Minor Arcana
Card Size: 120 x 70mm
Tradition: Rider-Waite-Smith
Suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, Pentacles
Court Cards: Page, Knight, Queen, King
Strength 8, Justice 11

The Rider-Waite Tarot deck would have to be the most recognisable and popular Tarot deck of our times and its popularity shows no sign of waning. The deck deviated from the tradition of Tarot decks that had been used for centuries and set the standard for nearly every Tarot deck published thereafter. It feels appropriate to have this deck as the subject of my first review. Even though there is not much I could add here that would not already be known by the majority of the Tarot community, I feel it is appropriate to acknowledge the influence this deck has made on Tarot today.

The Rider-Waite Tarot deck was created by artist Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951), under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942). Both Waite and Smith were members of the occult group The Order of the Golden Dawn (1888–1903). Waite placed a great deal of importance on communicating esoteric principles through symbolism and he provided Smith with detailed instructions for the content of the Major Arcana. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot was published to provide extensive descriptions of the symbols. He also was the first to switch the Strength and Justice cards so that Strength became card 8 and Justice card 11.

The revolutionary pictorial scenes running throughout the entire minor arcana are believed to be Smith’s own creation. Her innovative and timeless illustrations have stood the test of time and have been extremely influencial as the majority of Tarot decks now follow her system. Considering her huge contribution to the deck, and to the world of Tarot, it is hard to imagine how she could not have been credited in the name of the deck. Pamela Coleman Smith received a very token payment for the 78 illustrations. In her lifetime she felt there was a lack of recognition of her work and that she was not appreciated. Her poem Alone really conveys these feelings. In 1951 she died penniless and obscure. If only she had known how appreciated and influential she would become. Her work has become such a huge part of many peoples lives.

The Rider Waite deck was originally published in December 1909 by London publisher Rider & Company, hence the inclusion of Rider in the deck’s name. Unfortunately the printing plates were destroyed in the London Blitz during the Second World War. Stuart Kaplan, founder and CEO of US Games, took the black and white line art and had them recoloured, following Waite’s own personal copy of the first edition of the deck. Waite’s daughter gave US Games the permission to claim the copyrights to the deck. In 1971 US Games published their first edition. US Games now have the copyrights and patents on all the various permutations of the decks name. The exception is Rider Books, who by arrangement with US Games, have published their own edition, The Original Rider Waite Tarot Deck.

The Rider-Waite deck has formed the foundation stone of US Games, with it available in an amazing variety of formats: miniature (75 x 44mm), pocket (89 x 57mm), standard (120 x 70mm) and giant (170 x 100mm). I have at least one copy of each. The standard deck is the first I ever owned and I often use it for readings. The giant cards have great impact and are excellent for important readings or for meditation. I find the miniature deck too small to work with yet love the look of it and one day may frame them. The pocket-sized deck is easy to use and excellent for travelling, though I do tend to take standard decks away with me. The pocket-sized is also handy to keep in your bag. The Rider-Waite has several other variants available and is available in a number of languages. There has even been a braille edition.

Recent editions of the Rider-Waite deck have replaced Pamela’s hand-written titles with a printed font. It doesn’t have the same character, but works fine. The design on the reverse of the cards is a simple tartan. I personally prefer Smith’s original design as seen on the reverse of the Original Rider-Waite, however that said, I am used to the tartan design now and to me it is synonymous with this deck. The high gloss card stock is of high quality and the card size is very manageable.

The Rider-Waite Tarot deck is the cornerstone for modern Tarot. It has been extremely influential in the development of many modern Tarot decks. It is the basis of many Tarot courses and a large number of books on Tarot utilise the Rider-Waite images and so is an excellent choice of deck for learning the Tarot.

Even if you do not use the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, I feel every Tarot lover should own at least one copy. If it wasn’t for this deck, and the extraordinary work of Pamela Coleman Smith, many of the modern day decks would not exist.


Stella Luna © 2009.  All rights reserved.


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