Rider-Waite-Smith tarot. Rider, United Kingdom. Full divinatory tarot deck, Mediterranean suited, 78 single-headed cards. Size: 70mm x 120mm approx.
Pentacles (i.e. coins), wands (i.e. clubs), cups, swords: A, 2-10, foot jack ("page"), mounted jack ("knight"), queen, king.
The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck has become the best-selling – and most emulated – tarot deck in the world since its launch by the William Rider & Son company in 1909. The cards were masterminded and overseen by mystic writer Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), and drawn ("a big job for very little cash") by struggling London-based illustrator Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951).
London-based Waite considered previous attempts at divinatory tarot decks to be botched, and so set about overseeing the design of what he called an "updated and rectified" tarot. The Christian imagery of previous decks' cards was toned down following a proposal by occultist SL MacGregor Mathers in the late 1800s: the pope card became the hierophant, and the papess became the high priestess. The pip cards were illustrated with bespoke images by Colman Smith; earlier decks almost always had simpler designs for these cards, amounting to little more than a montage of the number of pips in question. Waite's main interest was the symbolism of the trumps and it seems that he gave Colman Smith much more leeway regarding the design of the pip cards. The designs on several of the cards are clearly drawn from the earlier Sola-Busca deck (see links at end of page) which either Waite or Colman Smith (or both) had almost certainly seen when the cards were exhibited at the British Museum a couple of years earlier. The suits of the new deck were the standard Mediterranean ones but Waite revised both the suit of clubs to be wands, and coins to be pentacles. Again, this idea stemmed from Mathers and was an unashamed attempt to graft on extra mysticism to the deck.
A small book by Waite entitled The (Pictorial) Key to the Tarot was (optionally) bundled with the pack. In this, Waite purported to divulge the history behind his new cards, give guidance about their interpretation, and descriptions of their symbology. However, any true insight supposedly contained in the book was mostly obscured by Waite's pretentious, wordy and immodest writing. Fellow Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn member, Aleister Crowley, reviewing the book, said, "As to Mr Waite's constant pomposities, he seems to think that the obscurer his style and the vaguer his phrases, the greater initiate he will appear. Nobody but Mr Waite knows 'all' about the tarot, it appears; and he won't tell. ... If he would only go out of the swelled-head business he might be of some use." At one point, Crowley even put a mock obituary of the still very-much-alive Waite, titled Dead Weight, in his magazine The Equinox, complete with heavy black borders on every page. But Crowley was right: a lot of Waite's book is a difficult and unrewarding read.* Nevertheless, the basic "divinatory meanings" associated with each card continue to be extracted from the book for use in the "little white booklets" almost always included with modern versions/interpretations of the deck.
Numerous variants of the original deck followed. Some kept the original outlines of the artwork but added new, usually more vibrant, colour fills. Some publishers have tried to thin down the, admittedly rather thick and clumsy, original outlines. Yet others have chosen to completely retrace the pictures from scratch. However, despite all these attempts, there has yet to be published a satisfactory facsimile of the original – even the best efforts at this have been spoiled by misguided attempts to give the cards an added sepia tone to make them look "old".
The cards shown here are from the first widespread version of the deck, known to scholars as "Pam-A" (there are also other versions called Pam-B, Pam-C and Pam-D). Pam-A and Pam-D seem to be derived from the same artwork, but Pam-B and Pam-C both feature a second, slightly different, alternate artwork. The Pam-A deck is usually regarded as the original and "truest" of the variants of the original deck. Opinion is divided over whether the final cards used a direct photographic reproduction of Colman Smith's originals, a photographic reproduction of redrawn artwork based on Colman Smith's originals, or plates engraved by a professional engraver (and therefore intrinsically a copy or, at best, a tracing of the originals). Some of the features of the cards suggest photolithography; some, engraving.
The images shown below are from a high-quality third-party set of scans of a, rather dirty, original Pam-A deck. I have – I hope sympathetically – cleaned up most of the dirt, and these reproductions are probably as good as a Pam-A deck ever looked.
Click on any card to explore the design.
(*Later, in the early 1940s, Crowley (in conjunction with artist Lady Frieda Harris) came up with his own set of cards, The Thoth Deck and, likewise, an accompanying book. In a textbook case of the pot calling the kettle black, his book proved to be no more accessible or straightforward than Waite's! See links at end of page.)
(Comments, corrections or can-I-use requests, please e-mail: Click to see e-mail address.)
The deck on this page is one masterminded by a Golden Dawn (or its offshoots) member, or designed to adhere to their concepts of tarot. A list of other major such decks is given below:
|Artist/s (if diff.)
|"Official" guide book
|Marseilles tarot / Tarot de Marseille
|The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use In Fortune-Telling, And Method Of Play, Etc.
|The booklet cited (written in 1888 by Samuel L MacGregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn) gives "official" Golden Dawn divinatory meanings when using the Marseilles tarot (referred to at that time as the Italian tarot).
|The Rider-Waite[-Smith] Tarot
|Arthur Edward Waite
|Pamela Colman Smith
|The [Pictorial] Key To The Tarot
|Builders Of The Adytum (BOTA) Tarot
|Paul Foster Case
|Jessie Burns Parke
|Highlights Of Tarot or The Tarot: A Key To The Wisdom Of The Ages [NB covers trumps only]
|Revised version of Rider-Waite with some "corrected" trumps, and simple pip cards. Trumps also issued in colour form; full deck is b&w.
|Thoth Tarot Deck
|Lady Frieda Harris
|1972 (painted 1938-43)
|The Book Of Thoth (Egyptian Tarot): A Short Essay On The Tarot Of The Egyptians
|The Golden Dawn Tarot (aka The Whare Ra deck)
|An Introduction To The Golden Dawn Tarot
|The Hermetic Tarot
|Black & white.
|Golden Dawn Magical Tarot (aka The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot)
|Chic Cicero & Sandra Tabatha Cicero (with Israel Regardie)
|Golden Dawn Magical Tarot / The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot
|"Ritual" was the earlier name. Do not confuse this deck with the one below – they are different!
|The Magical Tarot Of The Golden Dawn
|Pat Zalewski & Chris Zalewski
|Skip Dudchous & David Sledzinski
|The Magical Tarot Of The Golden Dawn: Revised Ed.
|Earlier editions had art by Jonathon A Pierce instead. This deck is not to be confused with the similarly named deck above!
Computer Tarot Reading A smartphone-friendly (I hope) animated Tarot-reading program. With Waite and Mathers divinatory meanings.
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Divinatory Meanings (desktop version) App which gives meanings of RWS cards – saves messing with booklets! Also in mobile version or hardcopy/pdf version. See which you like.
Ancient Italian Tarot / Tarocchino Milanese (Lo Scarabeo)
Tarot: Spécial Cercle / Tarot Nouveau / Tarot A Jouer / Jeu De Tarot / Bourgeois Tarot (Grimaud)
The Golden Dawn Tarot (U.S. Games Systems)
Grand Jeu De Mlle Lenormand (Grimaud)
(Petit) Lenormand / "Blue Owl" Lenormand (AGM-Urania)
Grand Etteilla (Tarots Egyptiens / Egyptian gypsies tarot) (Grimaud)
Tarot De Marseilles (Conver-Camoin)
Sola-Busca Tarot (privately commissioned deck)
Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck (AGM-Urania)
The Urban Tarot (U.S. Games Systems)
Minchiate Fiorentine (Baragioli)
Le Tarot Astrologique / The Astrological Tarot (Grimaud)