cards from the Waite-Smith TarotThis post is the first in a series focusing on specific tarot decks. It makes sense to begin with what is certainly the most widely known and widely used deck in the English-speaking world: The Waite-Smith Tarot.

At the beginning of the 20th century, tarot was almost completely unknown in England and the US. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult lodge of Rosicrucian and Masonic inspiration, devoted considerable attention to the tarot as a key to the Western Mystery Tradition. In 1909, a prominent member of the Golden Dawn, A. E. Waite, produced and promoted a tarot deck that was to become the “standard” in English speaking countries for decades to come.

The deck was published by Rider in the UK, as the Rider Tarot. It was often referred to as the Rider-Waite tarot deck. The artist who illustrated the deck was Pamela Colman Smith, a Jamaican-born theatrical set designer and illustrator of children’s books. In recent decades, it has become clear that Smith’s contributions to the deck, not only as illustrator but as designer, were at least as substantive as those of Waite, if not more so. For this reason, modern tarot enthusiasts usually refer to the deck as the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tarot, or (as I prefer) the Waite-Smith tarot. The current publisher of the deck in the US is US Games Systems, Inc., so it hardly seems relevant to preserve the name of Rider in discussing the deck.

The Waite-Smith Tarot was innovative in several ways. Unlike the classic Tarot de Marseille (which is still the “standard” tarot in continental Europe and Latin America), the Waite-Smith deck features illustrated scenes on the minor arcana cards, rather than simply multiples of the suit symbols. (See this post for an example of a Tarot de Marseille minor arcana card.) It also has card titles in English, and symbolism and card numbering reflecting the interpretive system used by the Golden Dawn.

It can be difficult to imagine, in these days when hundreds of different tarot decks are available in chain bookstores and there are thousands of tarot readers and hobbyists accessible on the internet with a click or two, what it must have felt like to encounter a tarot deck for the first time early in the 20th century. A tarot deck was a very obscure item, likely to passed from hand to hand in secret, because of the fear surrounding its occult reputation (and the very real possibility of falling afoul of the witchcraft laws and other ordinances against fortune-telling and similar activities). I’m sure very few people in England or the US knew anything of tarot decks being used to play card games for centuries in Europe, or had any idea how “ancient” the images on the cards really were.

The Waite-Smith tarot thus became the only tarot for many people who took up the obscure and potentially stigmatizing practice of reading tarot cards. Smith’s original illustrations on the minor arcana became an inextricable component of the meaning and identity of those cards for several generations of tarot readers.

When tarot experienced a sudden revival in the 1970s and 1980s, many new decks were designed and published. Often, those new decks relied on the Waite-Smith deck as a point of reference, changing some images to suit the designer’s own inspirations, but echoing the Waite-Smith more often than not.

When one starts to study tarot seriously, it can be a little unsettling to realize how influential this one deck has been, since it is actually a relative newcomer in the almost 600-year history of the tarot. One comes to view the Waite-Smith as just one option, perhaps even an idiosyncratic one, rather than as the tarot. Some readers even develop a sort of disdain for the Waite-Smith, so as to distance themselves from its ubiquitous familiarity.

Although the Waite-Smith is not my primary deck, I regard it as a monumental achievement in the history of tarot design, and one can make a case that it remains the best reading deck ever produced. Smith’s illustrations for the minor arcana blend the astrological and qabalistic correspondences used by the Golden Dawn with traditional fortune-telling meanings from the European tarot reading tradition. In some cases, her designs are inspired by cards from old decks, such as the 15th century Sola-Busca. The result is a synthesis of tarot tradition that reflects several systems of meaning, but is not a simplistic or slavish rendition of any of them.

Furthermore, her images often display an ambiguity or psychological tension that few other decks achieve. When viewing a Waite-Smith image, there are usually multiple ways of perceiving it. The querent may identify with one figure in the card or with another. Sometimes the nature of the action is ambiguous. Sometimes, even the gender of a key figure is ambiguous. These skillfully placed ambiguities allow the querent and reader to interact with the cards in subtle and personal ways.

Granted, not everyone will be fond of the artistic style employed, or the broad flat colors used in this deck. (There are a small host of re-colored Waite-Smith variants available as alternatives.) Some may not care for the Golden Dawn symbolism and philosophy.

Nevertheless, I think it was chiefly through the vehicle of the Waite-Smith Tarot that tarot found its way out of the secret societies of the 19th century to become a popular tool for psychological insight and spiritual growth in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s hard to imagine a vehicle that could have made that journey better than this one.