RWS in the Cross-Hairs: A Critique
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m not enamored of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tarot deck. I think it comes in a distant second to the Thoth Tarot’s “masterful/magical/mystical/mythical/ metaphorical mojo;” after all, how could it compete with Aleister Crowley’s enormous erudition and Frieda Harris’s brilliant rendering. Don’t hate me, but I’m afraid it’s true. I do use it in public reading and it serves well enough, but I don’t have to like it. So call me a hypocrite!
Someone recently asked me to explain myself when I objected to the “canned narrative vignettes” in the RWS. I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with that deck. On one hand it is, bar none, the preferred deck for public sessions (regardless of which “flavor” you choose), since it plainly says “This is tarot” to anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with the subject, creating an instant rapport that lets us jump right into the reading. On the other hand, it is weak in its metaphysical mythos, primarily in the numbered minor or “suit” cards. Where the Thoth deck is robust in this regard, the RWS is more like spent dishwater, rather gray and lukewarm. Even the vibrant colors of the Albano-Waite deck don’t entirely redeem this shortcoming (although they certainly help). The problem lies with the prosaic (and sometimes inane) images.
There are many targets of my displeasure, but I especially dislike the RWS 6 of Pentacles and the 6 of Cups. In the Golden Dawn system, the 6 of Pentacles simply means “Material Success,” it has nothing to do with charity or generosity as shown in the RWS card; those are Smith’s unnecessary extrapolations, as if conspicuous wealth must automatically incur shouldering of some moral obligation. The Golden Dawn, and certainly Crowley, did not envision such munificence. The 6 of Cups is titled “Pleasure;” Crowley calls it “one of the best in the pack.” I don’t see any connection to “nostalgia” as Waite avers in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, since that interpretation has a whiff of regret about it that is entirely foreign to the Golden Dawn’s assumptions (even the less-positive ones). Crowley’s idea of “sexual pleasure” has even less congruity with the image of two children in a garden (unless one of the “children” is really an adult dwarf as some have asserted due to his disproportionate size, and he is proposing a dalliance with the little one — but pretend I didn’t go there even if it does align with Crowley’s rather indelicate reading of the Sun in Scorpio as “fulfillment of the sexual Will.”
I find many of Smith’s images to be theatrical and banal, a combination that is not particularly conducive to refined philosophical insights; that means dedicated RWS users must fashion their own rough-and-ready folklore from the cards, and that often has little to do with the original intent of the Golden Dawn source material. It may work in divination, but not in the way envisioned by the skilled occultists who created or inspired the seminal esoteric decks. This is the main reason that I often bring Thoth definitions to bear in my readings with the RWS. Not only was Waite bound by oaths of secrecy to withhold much of his occult knowledge from the deck, Smith clearly didn’t have the esoteric horsepower to render what remained into the visual language of the adepts, so she relied on her own limited understanding of the symbolism instead ( I don’t believe she was more than a Neophyte in the Golden Dawn — at the time of its imminent collapse, no less — or in Waite’s subsequent Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn). More knowledgeable writers than I am have said much the same thing.
I believe the RWS minors were influenced in large measure by the late-15th-Century Sola Busca Tarot (and some cards are obviously direct copies), which — as with all of the Italian decks of that era — most likely wasn’t used for divination; that didn’t truly emerge until Alliette/Etteilla rose to prominence in 18th-Century France, on the heels of Court de Gebelin’s Egyptian pseudo-revelations (although Etteilla claimed he came first). It strikes me that Waite left a significant vacuum in declining to seriously consider the Minor Arcana as legitimate vessels for the “Universal Truth” that he seemed hell-bent on reserving strictly for the initiated. He apparently gave Smith her head and didn’t pay enough attention to what she was about. He was also dismissive of divination so it’s doubtful he cared all that much. Thus we get an anemic representation that reaps no benefit from the rich system of correspondences formulated by Waite’s Golden Dawn masters. It could have been so much more, and perhaps would have rivaled the Thoth for excellence.
Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.wordpress.com on January 19, 2022.