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What is a Rider-Waite tarot deck and where does it come from?

Posted by Esra Dagtekin on

Tarot is one of the most popular divination practices, and though occultists have been drawing allegorical cards for centuries, illustrated decks are now popping up all over. But what exactly tarot is and where does it come from?

What is Tarot?

Tarot is a symbolic map of consciousness that encompasses our journey through life, both spiritually and practically. Tarot reading is the practice of divining wisdom and guidance through a specific spread (or layout) of Tarot cards. However, contrary to popular belief, the cards do not simply tell your fortune, and one does not have to be a psychic to give Tarot readings. The cards are meant to provide insight into the innermost truths of your higher self. In other words, the cards provide an evolved awareness of what you already know deep within. The origin of the Tarot is unknown, but we do have documented references of Tarot card use back to fourteenth century Europe. The Tarot has been used as an oracle, in the basic form we know today, since the beginning of the seventeenth century. We can say that tarot is a relatively modern craft. Though tarot decks date back to the 1400s, pictorial cards were originally used for games rather than prediction.

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What is a Rider-Waite tarot deck and where does it come from?

Let's talk about one of the famous Tarot Deck which is especially popular with beginners - the Rider Waite Tarot deck. In 1909, Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith designed and published a tarot deck. This timeless deck is commonly known as the Rider-Waite deck and is still the most popular tarot variant for both beginner and professional card readers. Other names for this deck include the Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite-Smith, or Rider tarot deck. The deck has been published in numerous editions and inspired a wide array of variants and imitations.

While the images are simple, the details and backgrounds feature abundant symbolism. Some imagery remains similar to that found in earlier decks, but overall the Waite-Smith card designs represent a substantial departure from their predecessors. Each of Smith’s drawings conjures enough of Waite’s key phrases - the divinatory meanings of the cards - that the pure novice is likely to guess at them on a cursory peek at the image itself.

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck has inspired hundreds of imaginative spin-offs like the Morgan Greer, Robin Wood, Hanson Roberts, Hudes, and Aquarian decks. It has permeated Anglo-American tarot and become the paradigm and touchstone through which we think about Tarot. Decks with scenes illustrated on all 78 cards facilitate a psychological, free-association approach to card reading which was Tarot’s next major transformation.

Is Rider-Waite tarot deck copyrighted?

Some controversy exists around the copyright status of the deck. Under UK copyright law, works fall into the public domain 70 years after the death of the author, which may refer to either Waite (1942) or Smith (1951). Australian copyright law currently has the same term under a 2004 amendment; however, unlike in the UK's 1995 amendment, this law was not retroactive, and the deck therefore passed into the public domain 50 years after the author's death. In the United States, the deck fell into the public domain in 1966, and thus has been available for use by American artists in numerous different media projects. That said, what is certain, though, is that it will definitively be released into the public domain everywhere in 2021 as it will make 70 years from Smith's death.


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