I love Tarot decks. The art is beautiful, the imagery is often emotionally evocative. I believe strongly that creating a new tarot deck can at times lead to high levels of meditation and creativity – and other times gives us a fresh perspective.
As a reader, I get asked often: Which deck do you read with? With the hundreds (Thousands?) of decks to pick from, people seem expectant: As someone with experience, they believe I will choose some specialized or highly esoteric deck. But I don’t. I always answer that for readings and study both, above all others, I greatly prefer the classic and oft maligned Rider Waite deck of cards. I like to call it the Rider Waite Smith/RWS, or Waite Smith deck, to honor the artist who made possible this unique, first-of-its-kind deck.
To help me respond to those who really hate the RWS cards (Of whom I’ve met many), I’ve developed a spiel. I understand how much some people dislike the art or simply never got into it when there are so many ‘cooler’ decks out there, so I promise that this is in the positive for my deck of choice rather than a degradation of the many many decks out there – I myself have a modest collection, particularly for study. That said, and to celebrate the deck’s 100th year, I present my own reasons that the Waite-Smith cards are my all time favorite.
1. Illustrated Minor Arcana
I love geometric designs as much as the next tarot lover, but frankly during a reading my clients respond much more emotionally to an easily digested visual scene – Bright colors, human beings, and recognizable, nearly cartoonish objects. The pictures in the RWS are colorful and emotive, and always give a stumped reader food for thought during a difficult reading – Just the facial response a Querent has to some of the striking images are usually clear indicators and helpful clues. Some readers dislike the negativity connected to some of the images, and may even totally disagree with them – but with practice, those differences can turn into a stronger, fuller reading.
A.E. Waite’s cards are the first to my knowledge with fully illustrated minor arcana. Some decks, such as the BotA or Crowley decks, have well articulated and gorgeous major arcana – but to me, they lack illustrated minor cards which would help in rapid and clear divination. For study and meditation, yes – the geometric arrangements make sense. For a tarot reading where I’m looking for response and engagement? Not a chance.
2. Clarity and Strengh of Images
Pamela Colman Smith grew up around the world and alongside the stage, ultimately to become an artist and writer. Her images are informed by her exposure to theatre and showmanship, and so there is a sense of presentation inherent in the design of the cards. Colors are bright, costumes are dramatic, and body language is very clear – just like a stage performance. When I look at these cards, they speak directly to my heart – I can put a story to each card, multiple stories. The colors are primary and bright, and the simplicity lets the underlying messages pop out with ease. I found a pretty neat post about Smith’s artwork which includes some links, check it out here.
Decks which have come since often are beautiful, but lack clarity. Aleister Crowley’s decks is a good example; the paintings are gorgeous, but are often arcane and dark as a result of the more abstract and geometric style of Harris’ painting. For a reading, I will always choose a deck where the visual messages are clear for both myself and my client.
3. No Minor Keywords
Looking through newer decks, I get many inspirations. The Four of Pentacles may be Greed, Power, or Ownership – fascinating differentiation of the concept. Unfortunately, they can pigeonhole the meaning of a card for a querent to the point of no return – No matter how many times I explain to an impovershed client that they aren’t ‘Greedy’ and instead need to focus on rallying and gathering what resources they have, monetary and otherwise for a tough time ahead – they will glance at that keyword and it will negatively impact them. What became a helpful hint for the reader here had turned into a much larger obstacle.
‘Death’ and ‘Judgement’ tend to evoke similar responses, but with such major cards it is worth the time to explain them in some depth – the concepts are useful in general to explain during a reading, since they can tie in so elegantly with the theme of a reading. But keep my minor arcana blessedly blank.
4. Strong Esoteric Foundation
I concede that the last 100 years has offered infinitely differentiated and fascinating takes on occult sciences, probably producing more new work and ideas than all of previous mankind combined. That said, Arthur Waite’s involvement with the Golden Dawn give me a sense of security that the images were carefully chosen to both be evocative and meaningful within a hermetic context. I’ve read that Waite claims the minor cards have no special meaning, but it is clearly false given Crowleys declared use of the Golden Dawn symbolism and the similar meaning and tone throughout the two decks.
Though I don’t believe it is crucial that a deck be connected with the symbolism of any particular secret society or even any religious or occult ideology, the weight of many years of collective intelligence and wisdom have informed the RWS cards. Being able to look deeper, and tell meaningful stories about the origins of the cards, is an indispensable tool within a reading.
5. Familiarity with the Public
So this might not seem fair to all the other decks out there. Clients know the RWS deck, the image of the fool is practically burned into the public’s collective consciousness. While I love the mystery and intrigue involved with tarot reading, I don’t like the general confusion many new clients display if they see a deck of cards they’ve never even heard of. In fact, I find that the more familiar my clients are with tarot, the richer and funner the readings become – And the RWS is the standard. If they know anything about Tarot, I can count on the RWS cards to be memorable.
Even with the growing popularity of other decks, the RWS is the most well known, though in my experience far from the most liked. Maybe it would win a popularity contest solely because few other decks have consistent fan bases. Whatever the reason, this deck is the universal language of Tarot – and when I read, I will speak it.