Deck Review: Rider-Waite

The Rider-Waite Decks:

There are so many versions of this hugely popular deck, here are just some: Original Rider Waite, Radiant Rider Waite, Golden Rider Waite and Universal Rider Waite to name but a few, I decided to review them collectively for ease. There are also mini decks available plus jumbo ones but I’ve not included them as there are too many versions and variations, feel free to investigate more on your own.

The Original Rider-Waite as it has become known was the brainchild of A. E. Waite who was American by birth but raised in the UK, he was heavily interested in mysticism, whilst also being an occultist with extensive knowledge of the arcane, Kabbalah & other secret societies. A. E. Waite is said to have been a Mason and a member of the Rosicrucian’s (Rosy Cross). Raised in the Catholic faith but leaving to investigate other religions not to mention Spiritualism due to his issues with the church’s teachings, A.E. Waite had a tremendous amount of knowledge which he was determined to consolidate. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, a secret society with most of the members being very influential in their time; however they parted company after a few difficult years in 1909.

Pamela Colman-Smith was English but born to American parents living in the UK, she lost her mother at an early age and her father was mostly absent with her parenting coming from Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, Gillette and their peers who all frequented the Lyceum theatre which she had connections to. Gillette is said to have been family & was well known in the acting field. Gillette is accredited with the accoutrements we now associate with Sherlock Holmes as he played Holmes in a play.

Her unorthodox upbringing and early adult years are considered the key to her psychic gifts revealing themselves along with her education at the Pratt Institute in the USA. The institute was quite radical for its time with the tutors taught people to draw in the same way that musicians would write music, a much more intuitive process than art students were previously taught & incredibly well suited to an intuitive person such as Pamela Colman-Smith. She ended up in Brooklyn with her father at some point only to return to the UK. In 1903 she reportedly became a member of The Golden Dawn Hermetic Society, leaving in 1909 when it fell apart due to the difference in opinions on its direction & rituals. This is widely believed to be where A. E. Waite & Pamela Colman-Smith met each other.

E. Waite wrote a book called ‘The Pictorial Key to the Tarot’ which was the consolidation of all his mystic knowledge but he needed to have illustrations to go with the book. On leaving the Golden Dawn Society Waite immediately asked Pamela Colman-Smith to illustrate a deck of cards which Waite intended to mass market with his book The Pictorial Key to The Tarot, he was very passionate about the occult & mysticism, wanting it to be in the mainstream & enjoyed by all. If this was his intent it worked as the RW deck allegedly outsells all the other decks that US Games produce by 500:1!!!!!!

Waite paid Pamela Colman-Smith a flat fee to illustrate the cards, having chosen her because she was highly psychic, channeled Spirit & shared his vision. The commission was done under the watchful eye of Waite. Pamela Colman-Smith did such a wonderful job that many view this as the quintessential modern tarot deck that most present decks are based on. The cards are world renowned, with even many lay people being able to recognize them. The deck is beautifully illustrated by Pamela Coleman-Smith who sadly never lived to see how popular her designs would be. It was such a perfect partnership with A. E. Waite being keen to ensure his arcane knowledge was found everywhere on each card plus by giving Pamela Colman-Smith free intuitive rein she channeled much of the artwork so it is highly original with A. E. Waite’s concepts being her muse or inspiration.

Pamela Colman-Smith also never had any of the credit as the publisher put their name on the cards hence the Rider aspect of the name, this is slowly being rectified with some purists in the industry renaming the deck with her name in the title. Unfortunately Colman-Smith died in 1951 penniless with all her belongings sold to pay her debts. The cards actually run out of copyright this year & have made fortunes for the owner of the rights, in fact it is said US Games have built their fortune on the back of this deck.

I love teaching with these cards as they are so pictorial, vibrant and most people can work with the cards even if only until they are comfortable with the tarot. I recently switched from the Original RW to the Radiant RW as I felt the Original is a bit too matte and one dimensional for me now. It was a very radical move to illustrate the tarot as previously only the court cards had illustrations with the pip cards being more like the Marseille Deck

Everyone is different, finding when they compare the decks that although they are largely similar the differences are enough to polarise people to one particular deck. I have picked a card from each deck to illustrate my point of view.

The Universal deck is very different, being on a different quality card to most of the other decks, it is more like vellum or soft card. It is also cruder in its artwork, giving it a harshness not in the other decks.

Once you have mastered the Rider-Waite you will find shades of them in many other decks so you can easily and comfortably pick up any deck and work with it, confidently. For those who have been taught by me, you can pick up any deck and work with it immediately anyway as I have taught you to read intuitively.

The colour content of each deck is very different with the Golden Tarot looking a bit messy, as though the brush was over loaded & I do not feel drawn to it even though its vibrancy is deeper than the Original. The Radiant deck to me is far more attractive & appealing. The Universal is more like ink drawings & whilst still attractive it feels harsher than the Original or Radiant deck. I did have a deck of the Universal cards when I first started reading & I loved them but they just did not feel quite right so I moved to the Original & now the Radiant so you can see how as we evolve we may need to change our tools.

The art work may vary considerably too between the decks but again they are closely related so let the cards talk to you with their colour & artwork as that will determine the deck that you work with.


The symbology is massive across all the decks as this was the core to A. E. Waite’s mandate with the Astrology & Numerology being heavily incorporated across the decks too.

Waite had Pamela Colman-Smith switch Strength & Justice in the Major Arcana order as Strength is traditionally the eleventh card and Justice the eighth, but the influential Rider-Waite-Smith deck switched the position of these two cards in order to make them a better fit with the astrological correspondences worked out by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, under which the eighth card is associated with Leo and the eleventh with Libra. Today many decks use this numbering, particularly in the English-speaking world. Both placements are considered valid.

One of the aspects which captures my interest with these decks is the fact that each and every time you read them you will discover new symbology or new layers to the cards. With any deck there are multiple layers as this is the nature of them but the Rider-Waite deck much more so than others I have found.

During the research I found a Rider-Waite deck which I am so going to have to buy, it’s called the New Vision Rider-Waite. I’ve included a picture of it for you; I think you’ll love it too!

The cards are drawn from the alternative perspective so if we took The Fool you would see that instead of the Fool coming towards us on the card we are now shown what he is heading towards, which gives a totally different slant on the cards. The colouring is great & the artwork is delicate, simple and attractive. I’ve added them to my store so you can go have a look

Verdict: 10/10

I love the artwork, the variety of styles that remain faithful to the Original Rider-Waite, the depth of content and the ease of interpreting them. They don’t suit everyone but no deck can do that, this is probably the deck that comes closest to it though.

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