RWS Picture Book: Where did those images and meanings come from?


RWS Picture Book: Where did those images come from?

Hi guys,

I've read Rachel Pollack's book, Seventy-Eight Degrees, .... but I'm still puzzled about one big thing. Where did those images and card meanings come from? They must have come from some tradition. Or did Waite and Smith make up all those meanings and the pictures to go along with them? Is there any book or internet site that explains it?



Here's two links

Holly Volly introduces the Rider Waite and different versions published.

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot written by Arthur Waite and lots of Rider Waite information. Takes awhile to go through, may help you enjoy the deck more. Holly Volly also provided the cards to illustrate the site above...

Best wishes.

Mari H.


In 1888, an esoteric/occult group was founded in England called the Order of the Golden Dawn. There were several well-known members, including poet W.B. Yeats, and Aleister Crowley and A.E. Waite, who both went on to found their own orders. Crowley and Waite also created their own Tarot decks; Crowley created the Thoth deck with artist Lady Freida Harris, and Waite created the RWS deck with artist Pamela Colman Smith, who was also a Golden Dawn member. The GD only lasted a few decades but was very influential group which basically set the tone and established the pattern for esoteric groups and theories which came afterwards, and its effect is still felt to this very day.

The GD founders were innovative in that they created an entire complex system composed of several mystical systems such as Tarot, astrology, Qabala, Enochian, etc., and wove them together into one vast system. One of the founders, MacGregor Mathers, created a deck which his wife Moina painted, and this single hand-made deck was used as a prototype for the members, who were supposed to create their own hand-made decks by copying the Mathers one. Two modern decks, the Golden Dawn Tarot by Robert Wang and the New Golden Dawn Tarot by the Ciceros, are meant to reflect what the original Mathers deck might have looked like.

Waite was a Tarot scholar who had already published books on the Tarot, and he decided to create a new deck for publication. He contracted the services of GD member Colman Smith, and he designed the Major Arcana according to his own views, including ideas from the GD system, as well as symbols from Christian mysticism and Masonic symbols. We know that for the Major Arcana, he dictated to Smith what the pictures should show (although in Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot vol. 3, there is a reproduction of a picture she did before the RWS which shows an angel with flaming hair, so it seems that at least for the Lovers card, she provided that element). However, for the Minor Arcana, we don't know what the process was and to what degree Waite or Smith contributed to deciding what would be on the cards. In other words, we don't know if Waite said to Smith, "draw a person standing and looking down at three spilled cups while two remain unspilled," or if he simply gave her the divinatory meanings for the card and let her decide how to illustrate them.

It was decided to illustrate the Minor pip cards with scenes. There had been an earlier deck, the 15th century Italian deck called the Sola Busca (currently available under the title Ancient Illuminated Tarots), which used scenes for the pip cards, and we know that Smith must have consulted this previous deck because several of her pip cards echo designs from the Sola Busca. For the divinatory meanings, Waite used a combination of influences from the GD system and common playing-card meanings from the time, specifically those created by Etteilla, which you can read about in the Villa Revak link which Mari provided above.

Colman Smith was paid very little for her work on the deck. Although the deck has, I believe, been in print continously since it was first published, I don't think she received royalties, and she was poor when she died. Soon after her work on the RWS deck, she renounced her esoteric interests, left the GD, and became a devout Catholic, which she remained for the rest of her life.

There are Aeclectic members who know lots more about the history than I do, and I'm probably wrong in a few details, but that's the general idea.

-- Lee



I'm not into History & you tied up a lot of loose ends for me!


Thanks Lee! Like for Ros, your post tied up a lot of loose ends for me and as well it gives me a good background for further exploration.

Moderators: Could you please re-name this thread "RWS Picture Book: Where did those images and meanings come from?"


Rusty Neon

When I was starting out with tarot, I found the introductory books on the RWS deck to be frustrating. They accept the images in the RWS as a given, like they were dropped from the sky (without explaining how the images and the creators' intended imeanings were derived) and they proceed to make their own stories from the images, based on intuition. Sometimes the tone in the books is such that one is led to believe that the story is in fact the creators' intended meaning of the card. I'm not one of those people who is content with such an approach by the books.

The revelation came later on, with my acquisition of Wang's _The Qabalistic Tarot_ (which helped to explain the GD linkage to the RWS images and meanings) and with the acquisition of an Etteilla deck (whose keywords and/or Etteilla synonyms I discovered were similar to some of the meanings inherent in the RWS imagery). The Etteilla connection was confirmed to me when I later discovered Jim Revak's website's compilation of Mathers (pre-GD), Waite and Etteilla meanings for the pips. I also read the GD tarot curriculum in the various GD manuscripts.

For me, the two single most useful resources for studying the meanings of the pips of the RWS are, and remain, the GD's manuscript _Book T_ and Waite's _Pictorial Key to the Tarot_.

A still missing piece of information as far as I'm concerned is what non-Etteilla School, pre-GD, "traditional" sources were influential on the GD and Waite to the formulation of their respective card meanings. Did Mathers (GD) and Waite have some other particular cartomancy/taromancy manual(s) on hand besides Etteilla and Etteilla School materials that were influential on them?


Thank you! I found your post fascinating. I do not know much about Tarot history, and I found that very helpful.
I did find it very sad about Pamela Coleman Smith however.


musclegirl said:
Moderators: Could you please re-name this thread "RWS Picture Book: Where did those images and meanings come from?"
done :)


Excellent thread

Excellent thread. My thanks all contributors for their time and sober insight.

Wondering if anyone can recommend a book that offers a comprehensive overview of the Golden Dawn society.

Also wondering if anyone has a favorite book by A.E. White.



For a good in-depth discussion of the Golden Dawn, their Tarot theories, and their influence on future decks and authors, I would recommend "A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-1970" by Ron Decker and Michael Dummett.

For a good, fun-to-read history of the Golden Dawn (although it doesn't deal much with Tarot), I would recommend "The Golden Dawn Scrapbook" by R.A. Gilbert. The Golden Dawn members were quite a lively bunch, and the story of all their myriad scandals and intrigues and rivalries is quite entertaining.

-- Lee