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The Rider Waite Smith Deck

A. E. Waite, the creator of the world’s most influential Tarot deck, was a spiritual seeker and mystic who supported himself with freelance translation and writing. In 1889, under the pseudonym Grand Orient, he published A Handbook of Cartomancy, Fortune-Telling and Occult Divination, one of the first books in English on how to read tarot. His fascination with the occult scene drew him into membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but his spirituality gradually evolved away from ceremonial magic and toward Christian mysticism. When the Golden Dawn splintered into factions, he created his own order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. In 1909, he created the Rider Waite Tarot in collaboration with Pamela Colman Smith, and wrote the accompanying book, The Pictorial Key to Tarot (PKT).

Pamela Colman Smith was born in London to American parents and spent part of her childhood in Jamaica. She studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York then toured with an English theater company as a costume and set designer. In 1901 she acquired a London studio where she entertained her artistic and literary friends by dressing up in costume and telling Jamaican folk tales with an ethnic accent while using a miniature cardboard theater as a prop. During the high point of her career, from 1890 to 1910, she collaborated with W. B Yeats and his brother on various literary and theatrical projects; illustrated sheet music, advertisements, and children’s books; and published illustrated literary magazines.  She was also known for going into a trance and channeling drawings while listening to music, many years before the surrealists experimented with automatism in art.

In 1909, Waite paid Smith a flat fee for illustrating his Tarot deck. He chose her for the job because of her talent, their common membership in the Golden Dawn, and because he believed her clairvoyant abilities would help her perceive the higher mystical truths he was attempting to convey with his deck. She not only didn’t benefit financially from the deck, but the publisher’s name was put on the deck instead of hers. Recently, the tarot community has been correcting this injustice by referring to the deck as the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) or Waite Smith deck (WS).

 We know that Smith did research in the British Museum, because she lifted some images directly from the 15th century Sola Busca deck in the museum’s collection (notably the 3 of Swords and 10 of Wands).  The deck contains many echoes of Smith’s illustration style, which shows she had a good deal of autonomy in creating the Minor Arcana images.

Although both Waite and Smith had been members of the Golden Dawn, they did not create a Golden Dawn deck. Waite based his Major Arcana imagery on Eliphas Levi’s and Paul Christian’s Egyptianized descriptions of the trumps, as well as Christian symbolism and Golden Dawn astrological attributions. His divinatory meanings draw heavily on Etteilla. The minor Arcana images illustrate a hodge-podge of influences from Etteilla, The Golden Dawn’s Book T, The 15th century Sola Busca deck in the British Museum, and Smith’s own imagination.

The Major Arcana are based on the Tarot de Marseilles with flourishes from Eliphas Levi’s descriptions and Waite’s personal symbolism. The card meanings are drawn partly from the Golden Dawn and partly from Etteilla. Most importantly, Waite does not associate the Hebrew alphabet with the cards, which is the essence of occult Tarot. The lack of overt occult attributions and the Christian symbolism set this deck apart from other occult decks of the time such as the Egyptian decks or Oswald Wirth’s deck.

The deck must have been instantly popular since the book and deck were pirated by American publisher DeLaurence in 1916. U.S. Games, Inc. acquired exclusive rights to the Rider Waite name in 1971. The original plates were destroyed during WWII, and Smith’s original drawings have disappeared, so the U.S. Games 1971 printing is probably the closest to the original that’s available now. Before 1971, University Press was the biggest tarot publisher in the U.S, producing an easily identifiable Rider-Waite deck with an ankh on the card backs. The Albano Waite and Universal Waite are re-colored versions of the 1971 U.S. Games deck. In 2009, to commemorate Smith’s 100th birthday, U.S. Games issued a commemorative book and deck set based on a 1909 deck in a private collection.

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck has inspired hundreds of imaginative spin-offs like the Morgan Greer, Robin Wood, Hanson Roberts, Hudes, and Aquarian decks. It has permeated Anglo-American tarot and become the paradigm and touchstone through which we think about Tarot. Deck creators feel compelled to pay homage to this deck by modeling their designs on it. Most LWBs (little white books that accompany decks) use RWS card meanings, even when they don’t correspond to the accompanying cards. Decks with scenes illustrated on all 78 cards facilitate a psychological, free-association approach to card reading which was Tarot’s next major transformation.

On the next page, Tarot jumps the Atlantic to the United States.

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