Review by Christopher Butler
It's very difficult to review a deck such as this one for several reasons. Firstly the images are so well known as to almost be wallpaper. This is after all the most widely circulated tarot deck in the world so much the case that its vast sales have more or less formed the foundation stone of its modern day publisher, U.S. Games Inc.
The images go well beyond the consciousness of tarot enthusiasts. Mention tarot to many a layperson and chances are that these are the cards they will see in their minds eye, even if they dont know where they came from. Over the last year alone Ive seen the Rider Waite featured in two major advertising campaigns in the UK. Madonna even used giant projections of them as backdrops to her last tour.
As is well known, the decks author, A.E. Waite gave detailed indications as to the content of the Major Arcana to artist Pamela Coleman Smith. The Minor Arcana however are thought to be Smiths own creation and it is her unique illustrations that have ensured the decks posterity. She was the first to consistently apply pictorial scenes to the pip cards, reflecting their divinatory meaning. She unwittingly created a new tradition so that even today, the majority of divinatory style tarot decks follow her system.
It is a credit to Pamela Coleman Smith's insight that her seemingly simple illustrations have such a hold on the imagination to this day. Its difficult to look at many of these scenes and conceive of a better way to encapsulate the meaning of the card itself. On another level, the drawings are timeless Its very easy to forget that they are nearly a hundred years old. They are a fabulous example of the Arts and Crafts style of illustration so popular at that time but they looked equally at home in the sixties, dressed in psychedelic colours by Frankie Albano and gracing posters for musicals such as Hair. There may be modern tarot decks with more spectacular illustrations but these enigmatic, flatly coloured line drawings feel as contemporary in the present as they did in the sixties or indeed in the 1900s when they were created.
The decks popularity shows no sign of waning and quite justifiably so. Such is its sales potential that U.S. Games can afford to make it available in four different formats: miniature (similar in size to old time cigarette cards), pocket (European poker size), standard and giant. I love this deck dearly and I have to admit to owning all four editions. The standard size is one of my staple decks for reading. The miniature I treasure more for its aesthetic value although I know of many people who use it for travel purposes (They also look fabulous framed after the manner of cigarette cards). The pocket-sized deck is the one that I use for travel. The size reduction makes the images crisper yet they are still easy to view and a wonderful size for shuffling. Best of all however is the Giant Rider Waite. These are nearly twice the size of the standard deck. I reserve these for really important readings; their size dictates that I spread a giant reading cloth on the floor for such rituals and I find that the oversized cards have a really lasting impact both for myself and for others.
The cards themselves were originally published by Rider and Sons, London, hence the decks name. This publication came to an end during the Second World War when the printing plates were destroyed in the London Blitz. US Games began publishing the deck in 1971. They now have the copyrights and patents on all the various permutations of the decks name. Rider and Sons are once again publishing their own edition by arrangement with U.S. Games. This is a facsimile reproduction of one of their early editions. This edition, entitled The Original Rider Waite Tarot Deck is dealt with separately on this site.
The current U.S. Games edition is a very accurate reconstruction. The original black and white line drawings have been re-coloured to closely resemble the first edition of the deck. The colours are accurate but modern printing allows for smoother and more refined textures (Compare these with the Original where blocks of colour are comprised of dots, grains or lines). Latterly, newer copies have replaced the Artists own calligraphic titles with a printed font. This may not please purists, myself included, but the end result is still very smart all the same. The back design remains the same, rather unimaginative blue and grey tartan a shame when there is a genuine Coleman Smith back design in existence. At least this is used for the Original edition from Rider and Son.
Cardstock as always is high quality in line with the traditions of the publisher. Previously, all U.S. Games decks tended to be printed in Belgium by Carta Mundi. More recently, production has shifted to Italy where Modiano are now producing many of the key decks. These newer editions are still high quality but tend to be printed on very high gloss stock. The Giant Rider Waite has now appeared in this fashion and no doubt the other editions may soon follow. The earlier Carta Mundi printings are on their standard silk finish stock.
I am a firm believer that every collection should at the very least contain a copy of this deck and an edition of the Tarot de Marseille. Both have shaped the Tarot tradition in their own time. The Rider remains the best deck to learn with the majority of novice books use the Rider for illustrative purposes. Many will find that as they advance their appreciation of the deck will only increase with knowledge and experience. Amongst other modern decks I can only think of the Sharman Caselli as a serious contender for the beginner. Even this owes the majority of its symbolism to the Rider deck.
If you are like me, you will find that this deck will be a permanent cornerstone of your reading activities. None of my other favourites would it exist if it were not for Pamela Coleman Smith. Even if you cannot muster my level of enthusiasm, add a copy to your collection anyway, remembering that if it werent for this deck, we wouldnt have the modern day Tarot phenomenon. This deck started it all.
Chris Butler discovered the Tarot in his teens
whilst watching a James Bond movie. Now, almost thirty
years later, he has illustrated three oracle decks and
five Tarot decks. He is the illustrator for the Quantum Tarot, published by Kunati Books.
See card images from the Rider-Waite Tarot
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