Rider-Waite Tarot Deck Review
The Rider Tarot Deck
Conceived by Arthur Edward Waite
Designed by Pamela Coleman Smith
In 1909 a Tarot deck was published in London that had such an impact on modern Tarot that it continues to shape and define how we think about, and work with the cards in North America today. That deck, the Rider Tarot deck (known also as the Waite Tarot and the Rider-Waite Tarot), was the brainchild of Arthur Edward Waite; a Christian mystic and member of an occult group called the Order of the Golden Dawn. For a token sum, Waite commissioned Miss Pamela (Pixie) Coleman Smith, a young American Set Designer and Golden Dawn member, to create the deck’s artwork under his close supervision.
In many ways, the Waite-Smith deck broke new ground. Most notably, the Rider Tarot popularized scenic pip cards. Illustrated pip cards appeared in a Tarot deck as early as the 15th century, but it was with the Rider Tarot that the idea really took hold. In a marked departure from the decks commonly available at the time, all of the Rider Tarot’s cards, not simply the Major Arcana and Court cards, contained pictorial scenes.
Changing the existing standard format further, Waite transposed the order of two of the Major Arcana cards: Strength and Justice. Thus, in the Rider deck, he moved Strength (formerly number XI) to the VIII position between the Chariot and Hermit cards and repositioned Justice (formerly number VIII) to the very center of the Major Arcana, (number XI) between the Hanged Man and Death cards. Rather than placing the Fool card (formerly unnumbered) at the end of the Major Arcana as was commonplace at the time, Waite numbered the Fool “0” and placed it before the Magician card. While the correctness of these modifications still sparks lively debates amongst Tarot enthusiasts, I must confess, Waite’s modifications to the Major Arcana make a great deal of sense to me. It is the order I prefer.
Thanks to the very competent handling of the material by Coleman Smith, the Rider Tarot deck’s artwork is clean, uncluttered, and cleverly appears to be far less complex than it actually is. The deck’s images, punctuated by clear, bold colors, are a rich treasure-trove of symbolism masterfully designed to evoke emotional responses. It is a wonderfully intuitive deck to work with.
While there are countless versions of the Waite-Smith deck available on the marketplace today, The Rider Tarot, published by U.S. Games and reissued in collaboration with Miss Sybil Waite and Rider & Company in London, is the only authorized edition. The deck’s cards, printed on quality cardstock in Italy, have a high gloss finish and measure 2 3/4” X 4 3/4”. The card backs feature a blue, black and white checkered pattern that is reversible. The accompanying little white booklet, printed in English, provides a brief history of Tarot, card interpretations, the Celtic Cross Card Spread and a short section on the art of Tarot divination. Additionally, and a particularly nice touch, an extra card containing Pamela Coleman Smith’s picture and biography is included with the deck.
In all respects, this is a top-notch edition of a deservedly famous deck: one that has served as a source of inspiration for a generation of Tarot deck designers. Considered the Standard in North America, The Rider Tarot Deck deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with even a passing interest in Tarot.
There is much debate over the true effect that this particular deck had on the Tarot world. The purists would state that it was based upon old decks such as the Marseilles and there for has no real purpose on its own. But, neither the Marseilles nor any other deck made before was made in the same fashion as the Ryder Waite Smith deck. This deck was painted by Pamela Cole Smith. She like Lady Harris died in abject poverty. But, unlike Lady Harris she did not maintain copy write of her work and was just denied more than a meager wage for her work. This was one of the great travesties of the Tarot.
It is not the men whose names grace the boxes and books belonging to the Thoth deck or the Ryder Waite deck that truly brought symbolism and theory into a visionary system that opened the eyes of so many. But, the vision and talent of the creative women they found to paint the decks. We know very little of Pamela Cole Smith and her struggle through the development of this deck. But, I would be more than willing to say it had to be just as profound as the effect the creation of the Thoth deck had on Lady Harris.
But, what is important is the effect that it now has on the reader. This deck is the most popular on the market for a reason. It is the deck most often cloned and is the deck that will help lead us into another century of divination. Why? Because this deck gives us something no other deck ever did before. A Minor Arcana that actually speaks to you. No hidden meanings covered up by looking similar to a poker deck. No instead there are vibrant images of actual situations that leave no doubt in the readers mind of what the cards are trying to say. I would highly recommend this deck to anyone who would want to buy it. It is and always will remain one of my favorites.