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…
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.