Reading with the RWS

I’m going to try using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck for readings. Admittedly that’s not one of the ground-shaking announcements of the 21st century, but hey, despite having worked with the tarot since the late 1980s, I’ve never used the RWS deck. There were several reasons, really, ranging from the trivial to ones I’m not sure I’ll ever get past. At the trivial end of the spectrum, I know I resisted using the RWS deck because so many of my books kept telling me to start with it and I got stubborn. I’d like to think I’ve outgrown that reaction by now. More seriously, though, the art has never appealed to me—a problem when reading the cards involves looking at that art. On top of that, I started seriously studying the tarot only a few years before I became Wiccan, and the Christian symbolism of the RWS deck grated on my freshly-converted nerves.

So, okay, 25 years or so without using the best-known tarot deck in the world—why start now? Well, over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that none of my go-to decks, all of them RWS-style, has felt quite right. In fact, I’ve been relying more on my Crowley Thoth deck and a not-really-either-RWS-or-Thoth deck called the Inner Realms Tarot. I suspect I’m starting to miss the abundance of symbolism on the RWS deck that for whatever reason rarely makes it to its descendants, even the clones. After all, where did I go after the RWS-style decks became dissatisfactory? To the other deck known for copious arcane symbolism.

All the symbolism in the world wouldn’t make up for my aversion to the art and the Christian nature of the symbolism, of course. But in digging around in my tarot collection trying to find a deck that might appeal to me more than the ones I usually use, I found my Universal Waite deck. The drawings are Pamela Colman Smith’s originals, same as the RWS’s, but the cards have been recolored in a modern style by Mary Hanson-Roberts. (I have a soft spot for Hanson-Roberts’ work: the Hanson-Roberts Tarot was my first go-to tarot deck.) Looking through it, I think much of my dislike of the RWS deck comes from its flat, harsh colors. I don’t know whether that was due to the limitations of color printing technology in 1909 or a stylistic decision, but I definitely prefer Hanson-Roberts’ version. The same colors are used in the Universal Waite as in the RWS, but with shading and depth that reveal more details of Smith’s drawings.


The symbolism issue is a bit trickier. I’m no longer freshly-converted to anything, and I’m not feeling nearly as strident about this. Sure, I wish the deck had avoided Christian symbolism. But most decks, even my go-tos, have a few cards I don’t like and I still manage to read with them. So I’m going to treat the Christian cards in the RWS like cards with art I don’t like and see what happens.

Am I giving up my other decks? Not yet. The lovely artwork is still lovely. Plus, I’ve just gotten a Thoth-style deck that might be easier to read. (At least the Sun and Moon Tarot doesn’t have the baggage Aleister Crowley’s name brings to the Thoth deck.) And the Universal Waite might not work out for me any better than the rest. I’m just going to have to try it and find out.