Why I don’t like the RWS tarot deck…

So the Rider Waite Smith tarot deck tends to be the one most people have, it’s very common, there’s been different editions of it and it’s the “standard” deck.

I have never been especially drawn to it but it was one of the suggested decks in 78 Mirrors.  And that’s a very sensible recommendation because it’s the commonly used deck and because many decks are versions of it (clone decks) or use the imagery as a starting point for their own interpretation of the cards.

Also, the deck is supposedly the first to add relevant images to all the cards.  Prior to this, the minor cards would display five cups instead of the more detailed imagery we are now used to.  This was groundbreaking and would make tarot much more accessible and much more useful as a tool for reflection – prior to this, you would learn by rote the meanings of the cards.

However, we have not clicked.  At all.

And I started to wonder why and as I learnt more about tarot, and hence about RWS, I found a few answers.

Firstly, it’s normally referred to as the Rider Waite deck which completely erases the artist.  Rider was the publisher, Arthur Edward Waite was the mystic who co-created the deck and Pamela Colman Smith was the illustrator.  Without her, the cards would not have been what they are today.  And yet, she received no acknowledgement in the naming of the deck which would go on to be the first mass marketed tarot deck.  She would die penniless in 1951 having received little payment for the deck and no royalties…

According to Rachel Pollack (in 78 degrees of tarot wisdom), Waite was accused of altering the cards meanings to fit his personal vision.  For example the Fool used to be portrayed more like a court jester and the Sun, depicted in the RWS deck by a child on a horse leaving a garden, used to be two children holding hands in a garden.  She also says, which I’d noted through my own use of the deck, that the pictures can completely contradict the meaning of the card.  The example she gives is the two of swords but I’ve come across it a few times as well. In addition to that the  meanings themselves can include contradictions…

Taken from 78 Degrees of Tarot Wisdom


Taken from 78 Degrees of Tarot Wisdom

From what Pollack writes, he was also had a very high opinion of himself… “He believed his Tarot to be right and the others wrong… throughout his book he scorns the versions of his predecessors”.

As the deck itself was created at the beginning of the 20th century, there is inevitably potential for it to feel dated.  Some people find the images still work for them and the story in the card is relatable for them.  However, there are religious and patriarchal aspects to them which I have found off putting.  I also dislike the male-centric nature of the cards.  These were a by product of the time and culture they were created in and so it’s very understandable, I just find that this blocks the meanings for me.  On a related note, Girl Boss Woo discusses reclaiming the Hierophant from the patriarchy over on her blog.  Her post about religion, trauma and tarot is also well worth a read whilst you’re over there.

In terms of the cards themselves, I find the images and the meanings to be disempowering and I strongly dislike the air of entitlement that I get from them.  Where in the wild unknown, the cards focus on self empowerment, the strengths within us and our hard work, the RWS deck has images of giant hands (god like), giving the reader their success or money or whatever.  The world card comes with the meaning “assured success” in my RWS deck thus invalidating all the hard work I may have done to get to that point.  If my success was “assured” then I needed have bothered!

Consider the ace of pentacles pictured below. The top row is the wild unknown tarot, middle is RWS and the bottom is Pagan Cat Tarot. The wild unknown card talks to me of the potential within, the seed of greatness in you which you can nurture into success. But the RWS card seems to be the hand of God giving you what you need for success. This feels like patriarchy patting me on the head and saying here are your ingredients, go away and bake a cake but don’t doubt, we won’t let you forget you couldn’t have done it without our help…

The Pagan Cats seem to be more of a middle ground, that cat is putting in some hard work pushing the coin up that hill.

Making use of the picture above, I also don’t like the focus on war and conquering and the traditional interpretations of the court cards. The son of cups from the Wild Unknown is a swan which is awesome and he’s artistic and introspective and romantic and I love that the creators have stepped away from the page, knight, queen and king. The cup beside him is filled with love and emotions which he has found around him. The knight of cups from the RWS deck however is riding in on his horse, presumably to woo the Princess and whisk her away. Indeed he’s holding out his cup in a very expectant way – he feels entitled to have that cup filled with love.

Obviously these are my perceptions of the card and everyone will see the images in different ways but for me, this all adds to the lack of interest in working with this deck. Except for as an educational tool to help me see where other cards have derived from and to help deepen my understanding of other decks. They also work well as a compare and contrast exercise which brings out things you might have missed or taken for granted in other decks.

If you’ve just started looking into tarot, you’ve got yourself a deck and you were excited until you started using it and then went meh… get yourself a different deck.  There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds out there, you won’t click with all of them.  Find the one you do.  My first deck was the wild unknown and I was very lucky in that I loved it, I clicked with it and it’s still my go to deck.

23 thoughts on “Why I don’t like the RWS tarot deck…”

  1. Wow, this was a really fascinating read. I love hearing how other people interpret tarot cards. I don’t see anything you mentioned about any of these decks. I mean I see some of them now that you’ve pointed them out, but I don’t interpret them the same way. Does that make sense?

    I learned some cool things in this post though.

    1. One of the things I love about tarot is that what we see depends so much on the eyes we look through 🙂 our own knowledge, history, current situation etc all influence the reading of the cards

  2. Please avoid using this deck Arthur Edward Waite is an evil man. Try the La Marseilles deck instead Waite and smith basically magically imprinted their basest desires in to the deck using goetic magic. Their are people today still suffering from magical operations they engaged in.

    1. can you tell me more about this goetic magic that Waite and Smith imprinted into the deck? I want to understand what is going on here. I’ve been suspicious of RWS deck ever since I learned that it copied some images from the Sola Busca deck…

    2. I don’t know where you got your Tarot history from, but you’re wrong. Your comment here is the only link that Google can find between Waite and so-called “base desires” and “goetic magic”. A.E. Waite was a mystic and occultist who is definitely guilty of profiting off of Pamela Coleman-Smith’s work despite her dying penniless, but there are no ties between “evil” or so-called “base desires” and the Tarot. Waite did write a book about goetic magic, but there are no records – or even opinionated dissertations – regarding a link between the two. If anything, the traditional RWS draws too heavily on patriarchal traditions as pertains to Abrahamic religions.
      Waite and Coleman-Smith designed the RWS Tarot to be used as a tool for divination and introspection. If your opinion is that divination is itself evil, then firstly, I’m not really sure why you’re here, commenting on this essay about Tarot, and second, there’s not much to be done to cure your ignorance if you’re unwilling to open your own mind.

  3. Hey, unfortunately Girl Boss Woo now redirects so your links are now broken. I couldn’t find the ‘religion, trauma, and tarot’ article on her new page here: https://jeannakadlec.com/writing Do you have any idea where it might have ended up? A secret blog or something?
    Also, thanks for this post. You talked a lot about what is off-putting about the standard RWS for me, too.

  4. I dont want to shade you. But Its his own business how he made these cards. There are many other different decks and this one is just one of them. You would then dislike all of decks. Every person made these cards by their mind. I have also different ideas of some cards and i wish to make totally differnt deck. Wish you good, Mike.)

    1. Obviously it was entirely up to him how he made them and, as we all are, he was a product of his time and culture. However, I found it every helpful to unpick why this particular deck didn’t chime with me and based on the feedback I’ve had about this post, so have other people.

      Different decks work for, and appeal to, different people but the RWS deck has had a huge influence on how many other decks have been created. Unpicking my feelings and thinking about the RWS deck has helped me to find other decks that are more suited for me.

  5. where did you find the pagan cat deck? I’m obsessed! also- loved this article. i was trying to look up why the RWS deck had such harsh meanings compared to other widely accepted meanings (the lovers reversed having an RWS meaning of failure/foolishness whereas other decks may say misalignment/imbalance…) and i always felt so detached from this deck that so many people recommended for beginners like myself… this was so insightful and honestly explains so much for me. thank you!

    1. I’m pleased the blog helped you figure things out 🙂 I do think the RWS has a very traditional, fixed interpretation whereas other decks are more nuanced which for me means you can see yourself better in them. The pagan cat deck is one I purchased for a course I was doing that wanted people to consider different decks. It is based on the RWS deck but has a bit more fluidity in it.

      Depending where in the world you are, you can get it from a variety of places, these are some UK sellers:

  6. Great post! Personally, I’m kind of okay with all the violence and patriarchy in the RWS deck because I’m not entirely a nonviolent person myself and because I don’t think of all the symbols as having some positive meaning, there are also plenty of warnings and negative influences. It helps that I’ve never read Arthur Waite’s preferred interpretations; I’m sure that many of the things I think of as negative influences, he’d be hunky-dory with.

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