After a couple of recent conversations with what I can only think of as “traditional tarot snobs” (which is not necessarily a bad thing, it was just painfully obvious that I was talking to a wall), I decided to revisit my opinion of the Waite-Smith deck (if only because the traditionalists damn it so vehemently). The more adamant among them reject both the practice of divination and the psychological revisionism that arose with Jung, after which there really isn’t much to do with the old decks except admire them for their beauty and historical significance. That may satisfy the scholars but the rest of us seek more pragmatic uses for them; thus we either gravitate toward modern decks or dedicate ourselves to the daunting task of carving out a personal relationship with the earlier versions, for which there is almost no supporting literature from the era of their origin.

Although I’ve made my peace with the RWS tarot for the purpose of public divination, most of my previous reservations about its flaws still stand: as an esoteric deck, it’s a poor second to the Crowley/Harris Thoth deck and some of its better clones; its Minor Arcana (i.e. scenic “pip”) images include a few “false leads” that don’t square well with Waite’s published text; there is a theatrical quality to the prosaic scenes that owes nothing to what went before except perhaps, in a few cases, the 15th-Century Sola-Busca Tarot; Waite “rectifies” a handful of the Major Arcana (aka “trumps”) and alters their numerical order for his own purposes; he also injects some Christian symbolism that, while not out of sync with early tarot iconography, is irrelevant and a bit jarring for those who don’t subscribe to it. In view of these observations, it seems a bit like “tarot lite,” more suitable for beginners and dabblers. (To be fair, Waite never intended the deck for divination, so he can’t be blamed for its more pedestrian shortcomings; those I lay at Smith’s feet.) But none of that alters the fact that it can be an excellent reading deck as long as we don’t take its “canned” narrative vignettes too seriously.

Undoubtedly, the “seed” ideas captured in the scenic artwork can be too readily steered toward psychological navel-gazing or character “profiling” (aka “mind-reading”), but they are also wonderful fodder for inspired storytelling of a situational nature. This holds true despite the fact that they may not be historically aligned with anything tarot-wise and instead default to Pixie’s own fertile imagination and her metaphysical preferences that sometimes seem bereft of Waite’s guiding hand. It’s the popular folklore that has grown up around her unconventional vision that needs to be navigated with caution. While it is possible (and often advisable) to free-associate in a personal way from the visual content and gain a more thoughtful and nuanced interpretation rather than taking it at face value, it’s all too easy to just swallow it whole and regurgitate it in readings. As I see it, there’s the rub.

I’ve already posted my dim view of the cultural hijacking of the RWS 6 of Pentacles, and the 3 of Swords is another whose customary misinterpretation makes me cringe; most people blow right by the fact that it’s a mental card, not an emotional one, and automatically see devastating heartbreak in it. The heart in the image turns out to be a “red herring” leading the viewer astray. Smith’s inspiration for it was obviously the Italian Sola-Busca Tarot, but the cognitive purview of Swords suggests that the Sola-Busca 3 of Wands image is a more accurate portrayal of the idea; it shows a pierced head instead of a heart and suggests having a toothache and a migraine headache at the same time. The impression of a sharp but short-lived headache or argument seems more legitimate to me than utterly demoralizing emotional angst; the trauma is there but it may not be what the casual observer thinks. In fact, all of the Threes invite an interpretation of a “triangle” of some kind, but too often that is read as the intrusion of a third person into a relationship when in fact the reality of the situation involves nothing of the kind. These are just a few examples among many of the Minor Arcana that don’t stand up to careful scrutiny.

As a storyteller I find that the RWS deck serves my purposes quite well in reading for other people since its images support a diverse range of metaphor, analogy and allegory that often represents the only way for sitters to make sense of what they’re seeing. How else can we reasonably interpret a young actor standing on a stage holding a fish in a cup except as Hamlet contemplating the skull (or maybe the “scrod?”) of Yorick? For private use, my go-to deck will always be the Thoth followed by my growing fascination with the Tarot de Marseille, but I now see the utility of investing more time and effort into rendering the Waite-Smith “storyboard” into terms that I can work with confidently; “storyboarding” with the RWS is a subject I have written about extensively and will present here in the future. However, for the “RWS haters” out there, a countervailing opinion that challenges these assumptions of divinatory suitability will appear in a subsequent essay. Stay tuned!

Originally published at on January 28, 2020.

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