Working as a reader in a Pagan store that sells tarot cards and hanging out on the tarot Interwebs, I hear a lot of commentary about the various decks on the market. How to choose a good deck, whether or not you should even be buying your own deck, and all kinds of stuff about “connecting” to decks. But recently what’s interested me most is the language that surrounds the Rider-Waite deck and its closest variants (like my own cherished Universal Waite). It sounds like this:
“Oh, yeah, that’s a great beginners’ deck.”
“That’s fine until you connect with something more personal.”
“You’re still using the Rider-Waite?”
“I’ve got the Rider-Waite, but now I’m looking for something more advanced.”
I hear comments like the above almost every day, and there are a few assumptions at work here that I want to address.
First, there is the assumption that the Rider-Waite is a deck exclusively for beginners. I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between stating that a deck is ideal for new tarot users (and therefore a “great beginners’ deck”) and stating that the deck is somehow remedial (“…until you find something more personal/better/more detailed/whatever”). The Rider-Waite represents a keystone in tarot history to which the majority of tarot decks available today owe their structure and symbolism. Replacing Pamela Coleman Smith’s figure in The Magician with a cat holding a wand does not make this any less true. And because the Rider-Waite is a keystone deck, it absolutely is an ideal choice for beginners. What better way to learn than to go back to the source?
The mistake happens when we then assume that, because the Rider-Waite is both a good and popular choice for beginners, it is only a beginners’ deck and, eventually, we will all find something we “connect” with on a more intimate level.
When tarot readers talk about “connecting” to decks, they often mean locating those that incorporate figures or images that are more personally reflective. The images evoke particular emotions in them or make more sense to them in conveying traditional interpretations (or coming up with new ones altogether). Perhaps the art style is more appealing, or the images include figures that are more relatable (for example, a deck designed for gay men, or cat lovers, or Lord of the Rings fans, or Wiccans). Overwhelmingly, the basics of the Rider-Waite tradition will be preserved, however (illustrated minor arcana, the same set and order of trump cards, four suits with consistent elemental/magical associations, and comparable basic images, i.e. a Fool hovering above a cliff, a 3 of Swords that incorporates heart imagery, mounted Knights, etc.).
I get it. I too have decks that have greater personal appeal than my Universal Waite. As a Pagan, for example, I love the Robin Wood Tarot. Its Rider-Waite-meets-Wicca flavor satisfies my impulse to incorporate my witchcraft into my tarot practice and, frankly, it’s just better art than what I see in my Waite deck.
I could list others. There are plenty of decks that have more visual appeal for me than the Rider-Waite, and I can and do read with these. But underneath it all is the Waite deck, to which I always return. Not because I’m a beginner or because I haven’t properly connected to something more visceral, but because my love for history and tradition pulls me back around.
The second assumption underlying much of the above is that the Rider-Waite is simple, not advanced, or otherwise basic. People who use it are somehow unchallenged, inexperienced, or just haven’t progressed to something with real meat to it.
I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been reading cards for a few years and have described themselves as “masters” or “experts” of the Waite deck, and all I can do is gently smile and try to keep my mouth shut. What they really mean is that they’re comfortable doing readings with this deck. This does not mean that they appreciate (let alone understand) the intricate occult histories and esoteric systems present (alchemy and Qabalah anyone?).
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through studying the Rider-Waite, it’s that I’m never going to master it. There’s too much here, and I’ve only got so much time to devote to any one or two magical systems.
So in studying tarot—of any sort—it’s worthwhile to consider that maybe it isn’t so much progressing from the Rider-Waite but progressing toward it. For me, my use of the Universal Waite has been all about coming back around. With a growing background in the Golden Dawn and other influential magical systems, my appreciation for the tarot is a great deal deeper. Now, many Rider-Waite copies—while more beautiful—feel superficial to me. They often seem to be missing out on a big picture because the artist or writer was unversed in esoteric tradition. I think this is the reason why my favorite decks (aside from my Waite deck) are outside of the Waite system. The traditionalist in me demands that I study primary sources and not reproductions.
It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of great reasons to not use the Rider-Waite (offhand I think about Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, the glaring absence of POC figures, and just not giving a shit about the Golden Dawn), but because it is a “beginner” deck isn’t one of them.