There are countless variations of tarot decks out there, and choosing the right one can be a daunting task. Whether you’re only looking to own one deck, or you’re thinking of starting a collection, there’s one deck of tarot cards that stands about the rest.
If you’re only going to own one deck, it should probably be a Rider-Waite tarot deck. Either that, or just a random deck where you love the art style. If you already collect decks, or you plan on it, then the Rider tarot deck is an absolute must. Let’s take a look at the deck itself, and how Waite tarot cards came to be such a standard.
- 1 The Various Names of This Deck
- 2 The William Rider & Son Company
- 3 A Brief Biography of A.E. Waite
- 4 The Artist: Pamela Colman Smith
- 5 Current Versions of the Deck
- 6 Why Is This Deck So Popular?
- 7 Clones and Variations
- 8 Here Are 5 Reasons Why Everyone Recommends The RWS Deck
- 9 Decks Influenced By The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck
- 10 In Conclusion…
There are three main entities who contributed to this deck, and it can be called any combination of their names, depending on who you’re talking to.
First of all, the “Rider” in the name comes from the William Rider & Son company who originally produced it.
A mystic by the name of A. E. Waite wrote a guide book that was distributed along with the deck. This accounts for the “Waite” part of the name of the Rider Waite tarot deck, but there’s one more important person in this story.
Sometimes, you’ll see this deck referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, or even the Waite-Smith deck, have a look at the video
That’s because of Pamela Colman Smith, who created the imagery for this deck. When it’s called the Waite-Smith deck (Or the Waite-Colman Smith deck), that’s when you give more credit to the illustrator than to the company that published the deck.
These are all the same decks, just going by slightly different names depending on where you want to give credit.
In the next few paragraphs, we’ll provide more information about each of these three pillars that helped create the most popular tarot deck. Without each of them doing their part, this deck wouldn’t have achieved such success over the decades.
It’s easy to say that without the publisher, these cards wouldn’t have reached such a huge audience. However, with such a great style of art, perhaps not as many people would have been interested?
Furthermore, without the booklet that explained everything, they would have been inaccessible for much of the population. See how that works? Everyone played their role masterfully to create this legendary deck.
The year is 1908. It’s the golden era of publishing. The Rider company is founded by William Rider, where he works with his son to bring a variety of interesting titles to the public. Along with their famous tarot deck, they also published the classic Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The Rider imprint is still around to this day, but now it’s owned by Penguin Random House under their brand Ebury Publishing. The world of publishing has changed, as you can tell by the consolidation of the above brands.
Today, their motto is “New Ideas for New Ways of Living.” They stay true to this motto with books about the paranormal, books about astral projection, books about spirituality, and books about current international affairs. They have some of the top authors in each field contributing, such as the Dalai Lama.
The copyright on the Rider tarot cards expired in the United States in 1966, which means that anybody who wanted to could print up their own version of this deck. In the United Kingdom, the cards are still protected and are not a part of the public domain, yet. The cards will enter into the public domain in 2022, which is 70 years after the passing of Pamela Colman Smith.
Arthur Edward Waite is a poet who was deeply interested in the occult. He is a scholarly mystic, who devoted his career to studying things like divination, freemasonry, and magic. He was very well regarded in his field, and is best known for putting the Waite in the Waite tarot deck.
A.E. Waite was born in Brooklyn in 1857, and passed away at the age of 84. During his life, he had many publications, including The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, The Pictorial Key to The Tarot, The Mysteries of Magic: A Digest of the Writings of Eliphas Levi, and many more. His contributions to the study and explanation of magic and the occult will live on forever.
Smith’s name isn’t always included when someone brings up the Rider Waite deck, but it should be. In modern days, she’s often included in the naming of the deck, which is abbreviated to RWS (Rider-Waite-Smith.) It’s good to see this, because she contributed a lot to the success of this deck through her art.
Smith’s style really set the tone for many, many decks that followed. When the deck was first published, it was originally just called “Tarot Cards”.
The foregrounds were generally very simple illustrations, however the backgrounds were jam-packed with all sorts of symbolism. You could spend days thinking about everything that was hiding in plain sight. It’s often said that Waite was the designer, and Smith brought his designs to life. It would be more accurate to say that they were both a part of the design team.
Pamela Colman Smith’s nickname is Pixie, and she is best known for her illustrations on the famous tarot deck. She was born in London, and passed away at the page of 73 in 1951.
If you’re in the market for your own Smith Waite Rider tarot cards, they’re not hard to find at all. US Game Systems is a company that was founded in the ‘60s who publish a variety of RWS decks, and have done so for decades.
There are versions of this deck that contain the traditional art by Pixie for purists who want that traditional style. There are also versions where the art has been touched up after the fact. There are other versions where the art is completely re-done, and finally there are versions where just small edits have been made.
Since the deck is in the public domain in America now, it’s kind of a free-for-all. There are thousands of tarot card decks out there that people can choose from, but many keep coming back to this classic none the less.
This is basically two questions in one. The reason it’s so popular is because so many people recommend it, so let’s look at why so many people recommend this deck. That’s the best way to get to the bottom of why it is so popular in the first place. If nobody recommended it, it wouldn’t be so popular. Since this deck is the most widely recommended to everyone who is starting their tarot journeys, it’s no wonder that it’s such a classic choice.
Since this deck is so popular, it’s inevitable that clones would come along. There’s a difference between a clone and a variation, but it’s subtle. A clone is, by definition, an exact replica of the deck. A variation, on the other hand, may have some very small adjustments made. The art won’t be identical line-for-line, but for all intents and purposes it will be the same.
There are also variations that are drastically different, yet still very clearly influenced by the original.
To be fair, not everyone recommends this deck, but most people are happy to suggest it for beginners or collectors alike.
There reasoning to recommend it could be for any number of reasons, so let’s look at some of the most common ones. You can decide for yourself how important any of these reasons actually are. This distinction is especially notable since this deck is hundreds of years away from being the first. It’s also not the first deck with a purposes other than playing a game. It’s not the first deck to feature landscapes and scenic images in the background, and it’s not even the first occult deck. None the less, it’s the most popular, at least in North America, if not the world.
This deck has become the standard choice, and when people talk about Tarot cards in North America, this is almost always what they’re referring to. Here are a few reasons why:
- The Symbolism: A.E. Waite included a lot of symbolism in this deck, which Pamela Colman Smith id a great job of capturing in her illustrations. Trying to understand all of the symbolism will keep you very busy.
- The Art: The style of art has a lot going on, but it doesn’t look too “busy” or intimidating. Most aspects of the illustrations are there for a reason, nothing is just a co-incidence.
- The Timing: It may have just been a matter of good timing. This deck was established before the popularity of tarot decks exploded, so many decks that came after were hugely influenced.
- The Documentation: As previously noted, this deck included a great booklet that helped beginners (and more experienced tarot readers alike) to understand the meanings of all of the cards.
- The Minor Arcana: A great feature of this deck is that even all of the cards in the Minor Arcana feature fully illustrates scenes. It’s not the first deck to do this, but it’s the most prominent and enduring throughout the years.
If the RWS deck just isn’t gelling with you, or you’re looking for something in the same ballpark but not quite the same, here’s a list of some great choices. These decks are very similar, but have some small edits or adaptations.
But first, if you’re looking for a different style of deck, you may enjoy a Marseille Deck from France.
This is a standard Marseille deck, notice the difference in art style?
- The Tarot by Adam Fronteras: This is a recolored version of the RWS deck. It uses the original line drawings as a starting point, but the colors themselves have been re-done.
- Tarot of the Cloisters: This deck uses Smith’s art as an inspiration, but isn’t derived from the same lines. It’s very close, but the lines aren’t the same, as you would find in the aforementioned recolored deck.
- Dali Universal Tarot: This deck was illustrated by Salvador Dali, what else really needs to be said? It’s a must-have for art collectors, and tarot fans alike. This surreal deck is quite pricey these days, but as a collector’s item it holds many hours of enchantment.
- Diamond Tarot: This one is also based on Smith’s original lines, but all of the borders have a psychedelic style to them.
- Fey Tarot: This deck is made by Mara Aghem and Riccardo Minetto and has an anime/fey style to it. These are unique and interesting takes on the original theme, and perfect for anyone who loves anime or just wants something a little different.
- Hello Tarot: This is a self-published deck by Joe Rosales, which has a Hello Kitty theme, for all the diehard Hello Kitty fans out there.
The purpose of this list is to demonstrate that your options are all over the map, even when it comes to one particular deck. How do you choose the right one? Just follow your personality and go with whatever sticks out to you the most. Either that, or stay with a traditional version. The choice is yours and there’s no wrong answer.
It’s hard to imagine somebody getting into tarot who shouldn’t consider getting a Rider-Waite-Smith deck. It’s a great jumping-off point and an excellent introduction into the world of tarot.
We’re interested in hearing which deck is your favorite overall, of all time. Is it one that’s centuries old, or a more modern take on the tarot? Let us know! Everyone has a favorite, and it’s always interesting to see who chooses what. Like the tarot itself, sometimes the answers will surprise you.