The Rider Waite Smith Tarot deck is probably the most popular and well known of all the many Tarot decks available today. The name comes from William RIDER & Son – the original publishers, Arthur Edward WAITE – the academic and mystic who commissioned the creation of this deck, and Pamela Colman SMITH – the talented but often ignored artist who drew the images of the Rider-Waite (as it is often referred to) Tarot deck. Waite and Smith were both members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a famous but short-lived occult group of the 19th Century.
The RWS Tarot deck was published in 1909 and was the first widely available deck with illustrated Minor Arcana cards. The 56 cards of the Minor Arcana, also known as “pips” now had a wealth of symbolism depicted in the illustrations – as did the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Up until then the numbered Minor Arcana cards of a Tarot deck would show just 4 cups, or 6 Wands or 8 Swords. The RWS Tarot with its illustrated “pips”, together with the evocative images of the Major Arcana ultimately revolutionised the Tarot world. When Waite designed his Tarot deck he kept the basic sequence of the cards although he switched the numbering of the Strength and Justice cards in the Major Arcana. There is some discussion about who actually designed the Minor Arcana cards – did Waite conceive them and give Smith full instructions or did he just tell her his ideas and allow her some free rein with her artistic talents to create the images? Each card carries Pamela Colman Smith’s monogram, usually in one of the bottom corners.
Tragically, the original printing plates were destroyed in the London blitz and publication came to an end. In 1971, US Games inc. began publishing a copyrighted facsimile version of the deck.
These days there are many, many decks which follow the basic template of the RWS Tarot deck. There are RWS versions that have been re-coloured but which retain the original line drawings. Versions that have been redrawn generally have the same basic figures and settings on the cards with similar symbolism. A RWS type of deck is usually recommended for beginners as the basic visual scenes can be more easily associated with keywords for easier recollection and understandings of the meanings for each card. However, there are also many experienced readers whose favourite reading deck is a RWS or variant. The majority of beginner and novice books use illustrations of the RWS deck for learning purposes.
One thing is for sure, if Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith had not collaborated and created the RWS Tarot deck – Tarot decks would be quite different to what we are used to today.
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