Rider Waite Tarot Deck
The Rider Waite tarot deck originally published in 1910, is one of the most popular tarot decks in use for divination in the English-speaking world.
Other names for this deck include the Smith-Waite, Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite-Smith, or simply the Rider tarot deck.
The cards were drawn by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith from the instructions of academic and mystic A. E. Waite and were published by the Rider Company.
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.
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).
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.
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.