The Popularity of the Rider-Waite Deck

It’s an open secret that, despite its fame and despite the fact that it was my only reading deck for the first few years, I have no love of the Rider-Waite deck at all. I honour it: not because it is brilliantly clever (in fact I think it has significant holes in it that say a lot about Waite), but because singlehandedly it took Tarot out of a hidden hobby that only a small minority knew about and a very tiny minority practiced, into the mainstream where everybody knows about it and a much larger-than-previous minority practice.

That is the biggest contribution of the RWS deck, I think. I own several RWS clones, and stacks of RWS-based decks, and I think they all function very well, as does the deck itself. But could I just be arrogantly praising my own abilities? Because I find that Thoth and other GD-based decks (and I own quite a few now), function equally well. And … er … I’m not fond of Marseilles decks, but I can certainly get a very good reading out of them for clients who are drawn to them – and that seems to be more and more, lately. And Visconti decks give you a killer-reading, also!

What I think *may* have something to do with it is this: illustrated minors. As far as I know,, the RW was the first deck that came along with fully-illustrated minors, so people learning to read didn’t have to use their intuition to scry into blank pips, and didn’t have to think to hard to memorise codified meanings if they found scrying difficult (I find it ridiculously easy). Instead, they could just look at the pretty pictures, and talk about what the artist had put into the images, with hardly any effort at all.

At the risk of earning enemies everywhere, I think the RWS deck in particular, and illustrated pips in general, are a shortcut, a lazy option. And I use decks with illustrated pips most of the time, so I’m not actually being contemptuous, just honest.

They lock you into one artist’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of a particular archetype or energy, and keep you there. In the majority of decks since the Twentieth Century, minors have been illustrated, but you get famous ones like the Golden Dawn decks, the Thoth deck, and less famous but extremely worthy decks like the Courtney Davis Celtic, the Scapini Tarocchi della Vetrate, and the Klimpton Tarot of the Dead which again, revert away from that tradition back to decorated – sometimes highly and moodily decorated – pips but without any actual illustrations.

The older and more experienced I get, they more preferable I find decks that fall into the latter category. I find images, especially cluttered images with loads of detail, increasingly limiting. They force me to focus on someone else’s ideas of what the card is about, whilst with unillustrated pips I can just quieten my mind, let my intuition wander, set my mouth on “automatic” and listen to the reading flow out fluidly without having to translate from some stranger’s symbolic system into mine.

I love each and every deck I have, regardless of whether the Minor Arcana are illustrated or not. And I use them all. But just sometimes you come across another reader who’s all arrogant about never using decks with unillustrated pips “because I like to read intuitively” (usually tossing their head at this point), and I just have to shake my own head sadly. Intuition doesn’t need images – stream-of-thought and visually suggested meanings do. Intuition is what happens when those visual structures are taken away, and you scry into the Mystery of an unillustrated card to arrive at an immediate and relevant meaning.

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2 Responses to The Popularity of the Rider-Waite Deck

  1. Quiet says:

    I am not going to become a ‘regular’ poster (!) but could not refrain from saying that the RWS was not the first tarot deck to have illustrated pips. The Sola Busca preceded RWS by considerable time and has illustrated pips. If you look at the Sola Busca images, you can see how some of them definitely influenced Pamela Colman Smith.

    Lo Scarabeo Tarot has a Facebook page and this was a recent topic there but it has been discussed several times at Aeclectic.

    I have a copy of the Sola Busca and enjoy looking at it. Years ago I actually did a few readings with it. Every collector should have a copy and I think it is still available through Lo Scarabeo.

  2. nisaba000 says:

    Thanks for that, Quiet, I completely forgot about it, to my shame, It’s one of those important decks that I always thought I should own, and haven’t gotten around to yet. I’m sure when I do get a copy, I’ll find it fascinating.

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