Many decks published today are identified, in part, as being based on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (RWS) or as not being based on it. That identification only means something if you know what the RWS Tarot is. For seasoned tarot enthusiasts, it is ingrained, but for people new to tarot, it might be helpful to understand the importance of the RWS Tarot and its characteristics.
Arthur E. Waite was the creator of the deck, although some question to what extent he was involved with the design of the cards, particularly the Minor Arcana. He was mystic and occultist and member of the Golden Dawn. He invented (although he claims it is ancient) the Celtic Cross Spread, one of the most well-known and popular spreads.
Rider is the name of the publishing company that produced the deck in December 1909.
Hence, itâ€™s original name, The Rider Waite Tarot, after the creator and publisher.
It is more common now to include Smith, for Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist who painted the cards and who, some say, was the creative force behind the Minor Arcana cards.
The Minor cards are part of what really set this deck apart from others that came before it. Until Smith, the Minor cards of the tarot were illustrated only with pips (suit designators, like we find on playing cards). She wasnâ€™t the very first, however. The Sola Busca Tarot, 1491, had scenic illustrations on the Minor cards. It is safe to assume that Smith saw that deck as we can see its influence in some of her images.
When someone says that a deck is in the RWS tradition, that can mean a few different things.
1. Some use it in the loosest possible way, meaning a 78-card deck with 22 Major cards plus 4 suits each with Ace â€“ 10 and four court cards. Strength is numbered VIII and Justice is numbered XI (the reverse was true in older decks). Swords are associated with Air and Wands with Fire (this is reversed in some deck).
2. Some use it to mean the deck follows that structure and has scenic illustrations on the Minor cards.
3. Some use it to mean the deck follows the structure and has scenic illustrations on the Minors that follow the same composition and imagery as the RWS Tarot (decks that follow the RWS this closely are often called RWS Clones).
4. Some use it to mean the deck follows the structure and has scenic illustrations on the Minors that somehow reflect the images on the RWS but are not close replicas.
5. Some use it to mean the deck follows the structure and has scenic illustrations that do not necessarily resemble the RWS images at all but if you think about them, they are conveying the same meaning, just in a different way.
For me, personally, when I use it I mean 3 and 4 mostly. Usually if I’m talking to someone with a basic understanding of the cards, I will include 5 as RWS, but not usually for someone very new to tarot.