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Crash Course in the History of Tarot & the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Deck

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

A tarot deck consists of 78 cards that reflect the human experience or condition back to us as though we’re looking in a mirror. There are 22 major cycles or archetypes of the human experience represented in the major arcana. As well as, 40 day-to-day affairs and rhythmic steps in these cycles of human experience expressed in the minor arcana (also called pips and numbered 1-10). 16 persona attributes, behavior traits or personalities are represented by the court. Both the major and minor arcana have numerological associations based on the teachings of Pythagoras. Furthermore, the minors and court are divided into 4 suits: the wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Wands represent our lifeforce, motivations and passions. Cups represent our feelings, emotions, intuition and creativity. Swords represent our thoughts, words and actions. Pentacles represents our finances, work and worldly possessions.

Tarot acts as a portal between the conscious and subconscious mind through these literal, symbolic/metaphoric, and esoteric symbols, and is aligned with multiple schools of study through the ages.

The Fool's Journey through The 22 Major Arcana of the Rider Waite Smith tarot deck
The 22 Major Arcana of the Rider Waite Smith tarot deck

The symbolism and archetypes of the tarot are the universal language, they cross all cultures, spiritual paths, and even the non spiritual. There is no prescribed “God” or dogma, just simply a means to understand the human condition and to navigate life’s ups and downs. This is why so many teachers tell you to toss the Little White Book or at least not to look up meanings and just focus on the symbolism in the imagery.

A Brief Crash Course in the History of Tarot

The official history of tarot as accepted by historians is that tarot began in 15th century Italy as a playing cards game. The original decks were commissioned by wealthy families, the images were designed based on the caste system, and they eventually made their way into taverns and in the hands of the common folks. This is also why there are card readers out there that use traditional playing cards one might use for poker.

During the 1650’s the Marseille Tarot spread through Europe and over one hundred years later, French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, AKA Etteilla, wrote "A Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards" in 1770. Then in 1855 another French occultist, Eliphas Levi, connected tarot to the 22 Hebrew letters and the Kabalistic Tree of Life, a schematic of creation and how the Universe came into being, in his work "Dogma and Ritual High Magic". In 1881, Arthur Edward Waite, an American and British occultist and scholar discovered Levi’s work connecting the tarot to the Tree of Life. Closely afterwards, British occultist S.L. MacGregor Mathers publishes “Book T” which aligns tarot with Kabbalah. During that same year, MacGregor Mathers, William Wescott and William Woodman established The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The following year, Papus publishes “Tarot of the Bohemians” that expands on Levi’s tarot-Kabbalah connection and restructures the Tree of Life. Ten years later, the tarot will be forever changed following the initiation of A.E. Waite into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Etteilla, Levi, MacGregor Mathers, Westcott, Woodman & Papus Tarot History
Etteilla, Levi, MacGregor Mathers, Westcott, Woodman & Papus

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn & Tarot

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most famous and revered magical secret society in the world, was composed of scholars who studied, translated and synthesized magical materica for the practice of ritual magic. They required members to study the tarot, to use it to visualize, understand and execute magical workings; a means to navigate the Qabalistic Tree of Life and interpret various spiritual teachings. The Tree is composed of 10 spheres that represent the phases of evolution, and the paths between them that represent phases of subjective consciousness. The 22 Major Arcana cards of the tarot correspond to the branches of the Tree of Life, a Hebrew letter, a Key number, and a fundamental correspondence of either a zodiacal sign, a planet or mother element. The minor arcana are housed in the 10 spheres according to their numerical value.

The Creation of the RWS Tarot Deck

In 1903, Waite decided to split from the Golden Dawn to create his own Order, The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (F.R.C), an Order with a more Christian approach to the magical teachings. During this splintering he took Pamela Colman Smith, a 2 year initiate with him. Included in Waite’s “rectified” Order is a rectified tarot deck, and who better to bring these Divine images to life than the incredibly talented Pamela. These rectifications involved changing some of the major arcana’s placement, correspondences, and imagery as a result of his advanced knowledge in understanding the esoteric symbolism from his elevated status in the Golden Dawn initiation process.

Some, not all, of the illustrations (primarily the major arcana) were at the direction of Waite with Eliphas Levi, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, the 15th century Sola Busca deck, Golden Dawn symbolism, and Christian symbolism as main points of reference. Waite openly states that he had to “spoon feed” Pamela the artwork on the major arcana because of his advanced knowledge in understanding the esoteric symbolism as a product of his elevated status in the Golden Dawn initiation process. Waite believed that the true meaning behind the cards, especially the major arcana, was Universal in the human condition.

The Fool tarot card of the Rider Waite Smith tarot deck

The major “rectifications'' to Waite’s deck are seen in The Fool, Strength, Justice, and a focus on Judea-Christian symbolism. Among his changes were changing the position of the Fool from between Judgement and The World to the beginning of the major arcana, and assigning the value of zero. The Fool came to symbolize the beginning, the undeveloped being or blank slate that navigates the major archetypes of the human condition along the paths of the Qabalistic Tree of Life.

The secondary major change was the swapping of Key 8 and Key 11. Key 8, Strength, was originally Key 11, Justice, and vice-versa. When one looks at the Zodiacal correspondences of these cards, it’s not difficult to see why the change was made. Key 8 represents Leo, and falls between The Chariot (Cancer) and The Hermit (Virgo). Key 11, Justice, is flanked by The Wheel of Fortune (WOF) representing Jupiter, and The Hanged Man representing the Mother Element of water; following after is Scorpio represented by the Death card. Chronologically speaking, it makes sense to swap these two Keys.

Strength (Leo) and Justice (Libra) in their new positions in A.E. Waite's rectified tarot deck
Leo and Libra take their rightful zodiacal positions in Waite's "rectified" deck
Pamela Colman Smith, seated right, with Ellen Terry, seated left, Edy Craig and Chris St. John
Pamela Colman Smith, E.Terry, E. Craig & C. St. John

To understand Pamela, is to better understand the RWS deck. If you have a good grasp on who she was, her life experiences, who she surrounded herself with, what she preoccupied herself doing, how she created the imagery, it’s rather easy to break the deck down and see that it’s 78 Degrees of Pamela. Pamela grew up in London, New York and Jamaica where she had a wide variety of cultural experiences, as well as access to the finer things in life including formal fine arts schooling (theater, music, dance and art), and insider theater immersement. Her mother was well known in theater when she was a child and Pamela would later go on to be a storyteller, costume designer and makeup artist in the theater world. She was also an active member of the women’s suffrage movement.

Pamela Coleman Smith with character figures giving a story telling performance
Pamela with theater figures

It was these experiences that taught Pamela how to tell a story through a face, dress, action, gesture, colors, and the set (environment). She also stated that she channeled the images while listening to music, a rare ability known as Synesthesia. Irish/Gaelic artwork and folklore had a special place in her heart and shaped a lot of the scenes seen in the RWS, along with actual physical places she frequented. Her love and in-depth formal studies of Shakespeare, and Victorian/Edwardian theater shaped the clothing depicted in the RWS.

The faces depicted in the deck are often her theater and suffragette friends, primarily Ellen Terry, daughter Edith “Edy” Craig, Cicely Hamilton, and Maude Adams. Adams in her role as Peter Pan may have served as the model inspiration of The Fool. I can imagine this was much to Waite’s ignorance.

Despite her female companions being the primary source of her inspiration, particularly a young Edy and Hamilton, the vast majority of figures in the cards are androgynous so that they can be colored by anyone’s experience and identified with better by the viewer.

Edith "Edy" Craig in Pamela Colman Smith's Rider Waite tarot deck
Repetition of an androgynous character in the deck

Amazingly, the RWS deck was created in less than one year and showcased to the public at a local fair in December 1909. This original prototype deck is referred to as the “Roses and Lilies” deck in reference to the blue roses and lilies on the card backs, the deck came with a small blue hardbound "Key to the Tarot" written by Waite. This deck was very limited and only meant to determine the level of interest before production. In March of 1910 William Rider & Son, Ltd. of London officially published the RWS with minor revisions for quality control; this initial deck is referred to as Pam A. The following year, Waite's "Pictorial Key to the Tarot" is published. Rider reprinted the RWS several times with various changes including minor artwork and color as a result of ink availability. The early Rider edition decks are referred to as Pam B-D though the letter assignment does not denote the chronological order of publication. It should be noted that Rider was not the only publisher of Waite’s deck, American publisher de Laurence pirated the deck in 1916. Unfortunately Pamela’s original artwork was lost to history, and the original print plates were destroyed during WWII.

In 1968, Stuart Kaplan formed US Game Systems Inc and shortly thereafter discovered Swiss 1JJ Tarot as a German toy fair. Between 1970-1971, Kaplan wrote and published “Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling”, acquired exclusive rights to the Rider Waite deck and began publishing the RWS, subsequently pushing out the current American publisher, University Press. It was actually de Laurence that brought Waite’s tarot to the US decades before, and University Books Inc that formally credited Pamela with the artwork in the 1960s.

To date, the RWS is the best selling tarot deck in the world and continues to serve as the standard for many. Pamela’s artwork has made a permanent mark on the hearts of tarotist around the world, no matter if they know her name or not. Her artwork brought the Divine into everyday life. Despite its brief existence at the turn of the 20th century, the Golden Dawn played a significant role in bringing tarot into the limelight, shaped the tarot as we know it, and has served as one of the greatest influences of Western Magical Tradition and the subsequent new age thought that followed. Every time a tarot deck is touched, crafted or even visualized, the Golden Dawn, Waite and Pamela's impact can still be felt.

This is in no way comprehensive, just a snapshot and means to get you started down the rabbit hole.


Dummet, Decker & DePaulis (1996). A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot

Jensen, K. Frank (2005). The Early Waite-Smith Tarot Editions, The Playing-Card vol.34 no.1, IPCS, London.

Jensen, K. Frank (2006). The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot, published by the Association for Tarot Studies.

Kaplan, Greer, O'Connor & Parsons (2018). The Untold Story of Pamela Colman Smith, published by U.S. Game Systems.

© Brandy Rachelle

Uncredited images from my personal collection or within the public domain

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