Designed by Arthur Edward Waite, executed by Pamela Colman Smith
Ideologies: Golden Dawn (minus pip cards), pips replaced by scenes, alchemical partnership, readings using reversals, switching the traditional key8 with key11
Released in 1909 by Rider, this deck became popularly known as the Rider-Waite, despite the fact that the cards were actually created by Pamela Colman-Smith. Back in the day, it was not commonplace for a commissioned artist to be credited for their work. Modern readers commonly refer to this deck as the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot today, in honor of the deck’s artist.
The RWS Tarot is unquestionably the most popular and influential deck in history. In fact, most people consider this one not to be merely a Tarot, but the Tarot. The reason for this is simple. The vast majority of readers begin by learning this deck, which naturally creates a strong sense of sentimentality.
A.E. Waite apparently designed this deck to sell out occult secrets of the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn, which he headed for a time, and to make tarot accessible to any lay person. Before the RWS, occult initiates were privileged to know the Tarot’s secret esoteric role as a tool of divination. Waite decided to revolutionize the Tarot by removing the pip cards — in favor of picture cards showing easily interpreted scenes, like comic strips telling a story. Pip cards containing occult symbolism require far too much study for beginners who can’t wait to get started. Waite made it as easy as possible for anyone to pick up and learn quickly without the need for anything more than a thin handbook.
Waite also removed the Golden Dawn method of interpreting the cards with regards to elemental dignities, another thing that required much too much practice for beginners to learn quickly. A.E. Waite chose to make things as easy as possible, adopting the old Etteilla method of reversals in place of elemental dignities, effectively switching the dignity-interpretation of cards from manual to automatic. Like Miss Cleo, Waite apparently did everything he could to make Tarot accessible to the masses.
The vast majority of modern Tarot decks have been made in the vein of the RWS style, including the Diary of a Broken Soul by Ash Abdullah. In fact, 3 out of the 4 modern decks on this site pay tribute to Waite’s deck, and even most opinionated purist has to admit that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Waite in one way or another. If no deck had done what the RWS did, the Tarot might still be relegated to occult obscurity today.