The Rider Waite Tarot Deck


This is probably the most well-known and widespread tarot deck throughout the reading world. Designed by Pamela Colman-Smith with instructions and guidance from A. E Waite, it has often been described as the first of the 'modern' style of deck, with all suits bearing evocative images. This is a great deck for those starting their tarot journey, and one that is also often used by more experienced readers. 

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This is probably the best-known and most emulated deck in the entire world. Even if a person didn’t know anything else about Tarot the chances are they will have seen some of its images somewhere. It was drawn by Pamela Coleman-Smith under the direction of A E Waite. Arthur Edward Waite joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1891, and rode out most of the turbulent factional wars that waged through the early 1900’s with that Order. He was a prolific occult writer, publishing books on subjects as diverse as ceremonial magick, freemasonry and tarot.

Pamela Colman-Smith joined the Golden Dawn in 1903. When she met A. E. Waite he was fascinated to learn that she had already illustrated several books. She was to make it possible for him to fulfil a long held aspiration – a unique Tarot deck which would break the mould in which all decks had been cast before.

Prior to Waite’s innovative publication, in 1910, of the original Rider Waite Deck all available Tarot decks had detailed illustrations only on the Major Arcana. All the pip cards with simple variants indicating the correct number of the card within the suit. Waite had long believed that the concept of the classical tarot could be vastly extended by applying imagery to all of the Minor Arcana, as well as breaking away from the traditional stylised imagery apparent in - for examples – the Marseilles deck. He guided Colman-Smith to create an entire deck using relatively simplistic coloured line drawings. To the modern, experienced eye the Rider Waite imagery looks…to say the least…somewhat rustic these days. But in its time it was a revolutionary step forward in tarot design.

Waite had Colman-Smith (or ‘Pixie’ as she was known to her friends) incorporate an enormous amount of significant esoteric and occult symbol into the cards – a thing that, perhaps, enormously influenced the later extensive explorations into Tarot design that we have seen over the last century. The first edition was called “The Key to the Tarot”. That edition was picked up by the publishers Rider and Sons, who published several print runs through to 1931 – that’s how the Rider bit got into the name. The Rider-Waite deck, with its iconic if slightly rough-sketch like imagery, has spawned an entire tradition of decks which use its concepts as a starting point. It has traditional Courts (Page, Knight, Queen, King) and uses the old style of Major Arcana cards i.e. Temperance, Justice and Strength. It is a deck of choice for many beginners.

One of the truly great advantages of working with this deck – in any of its incarnations – is the wealth of literature associated with these cards. In addition to Waite’s own commentaries “The Pictorial Guide to the Tarot” being foremost, there are many other books based on this particular deck. I would personally recommend Rachel Pollack’s “78 Degrees of Wisdom” as my reference of choice, but I have also heard good noises about a book by Juliet Sharman-Burke called “Tarot: A Step by Step Guide to Reading the Cards” In recent years the original drawing by Colman-Smith have been recoloured, giving rise to variants on the original like the Radiant Rider, the Universal Rider, the Golden Rider Waite…you get the idea.

Then there are many many ‘clone’ decks which use the original imagery, given new slants to create yet more variants on a theme. You know…love it or hate it…and opinions truly are that polarised, we all have to be very grateful for the wisdom and vision of the man who dreamed this deck and the woman who created it. Without both of them, who knows what tarot would look like today, eh?

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