Challenging the Rider-Waite(-Smith) Tarot

Arguably, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck is one of the most famous and influential decks that still exist today.  I respect the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck because of it’s huge influence, but I have some issues with the deck as well.  My first thing is that I’m not a huge fan of the art style, classic and traditional though it is.  I need a deck that draws me into the visual style.  But that’s not the biggest challenge around this deck.

RWS_Tarot_00_Fool

What bothers me the most, and I do admit that I didn’t even learn about this until recently, is that for much of the deck’s history it was called the Rider-Waite deck.  The deck was designed by Arthur Edward Waite (also known as A.E. Waite) and then published by the Rider company.  So where is the problem?  The problem lies in the fact that all of the art for the cards was done by Pamela Colman Smith.

“Waite is often cited as the designer of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but it would be more accurate to consider him as half of a design team, with responsibility for the major concept, the structure of individual cards, and the overall symbolic system. Because Waite was not an artist himself, he commissioned the talented and intuitive Smith to create the actual deck … The Minor Arcana are indeed one of the notable achievements of this deck, as most earlier tarot decks (especially those of the Marseilles type) have extremely simple pip cards. One reason for the enduring success of the Waite-Smith deck may be the richness of symbolic signification that Smith brought to the Minor Arcana.” 01

Her name was left off the published work and she was largely uncredited for her revolutionary illustrations.  She was paid a flat fee for the design and illustration of the cards and didn’t receive any further compensation from the deck.  This further illustrates how she was not viewed as a true collaborator in the project, merely relegated to a role as hired help. 02

Swords13Had it not been for her work and creativity we might not have the wealth of beautiful and varied decks that we’re lucky enough to have today.  And it might be at least partly thanks to her interpretations that the women in the tarot decks are powerful in their own right. 03

You might be inclined to say, okay, so yes, that wasn’t cool of A.E. White, but is it really such a big deal now?  Many tarot readers today now refer to this deck as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which is the name I use as well.  I want to celebrate this progress.  Adding her name back onto the deck that she was so instrumental in creating is fantastic and long overdue.  Why this is still important is that it was just another slight in a long tradition of ignoring, overlooking, or just outright dismissing the work of women.  It is important to recognize the role of women in history and especially in influential works such as this one.  Calling the the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot is a great first step.

Do yourself a favor and go and learn more about Pamela Colman Smith.  While you’re at it, maybe take a gander at some other contributions of women in Tarot.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia
Footnote 01 – Wikipedia
Footnote 02 – Tarot Heritage – The Rider-Waite-Smith Deck
Footnote 03 – The Tarot Lady – Powerful Women in Tarot
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