A Long Shadow

The Waite-Smith (aka “RWS”) tarot deck, which modern revisionist thinking has insisted on renaming the Smith-Waite Tarot (nearly as much of a misnomer as calling the Thoth deck the “Harris-Crowley Tarot”), does indeed cast a long shadow (or pall, depending upon your opinion) over the world of exoteric tarot, and specifically over the art of divination. Any deck creator who seeks acceptance of his or her work as a legitimate example of the genre must pay homage to one of the historical models or risk having it damned with faint praise as an “oracle,” and the RWS is the reigning king among fortune-telling tarot decks (as distinct from those used mainly for psychological self-actualization or esoteric exploration). I neither love nor hate the RWS or its numerous faithful clones, and find it useful for public reading where I want to instantly tap into the store of  knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years; it works quite well as a “trigger” for the memory, and it isn’t too shabby for free-association either (with a few notable lapses in credibility).

I’m not entirely sure what I want to say here beyond what I’ve already posted on the subject. But I worked exclusively with the Thoth cards between 1972 and 2011, only belatedly acquiring an RWS deck, so by not having grown up with it I’m probably in a unique position to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. With the Major Arcana, if we recognize and appropriately isolate the Christian symbolism from our general understanding of the meaning of the cards, what is left is something that approaches the directness of the Tarot de Marseille and its arguably less “in-your-face” religious iconography. The same is true with the court cards, although there is much less (approximately zero) theological bias to overcome. It’s with the iconic Minor Arcana cards and their prosaic scenes that we arrive at both its chief blessing and its fundamental curse.

The “narrative vignettes” in the small cards have become an indispensable touchstone in the modern tarot reader’s toolbox, almost entirely because they are inescapable and they do work – crudely – after a fashion. Having our story-lines handed to us on a platter gives us someplace to start, but it also risks straying far afield from what the querent really has in mind and making us scramble to recover. By way of contrast, if we are beginning with the raw material of the Thoth Minor Arcana (and even more so with the Tarot de Marseille and its largely mute “pip” cards), we have to build from the ground up since there is much less of a ready-made conceptual framework on which to hang our observations. The RWS minor cards have come to represent a reader’s “comfort zone” but there is always a danger of being lulled into complacency by that very familiarity. I’ve found that I can reliably disregard the “canned” scripts and instead substitute a more “energy-based” mode of interpretation that relies largely on suit and number theory. The pictures may be compelling in the reader’s estimation but they can impart a distorted impression of the facts in a situation that doesn’t square well with the querent’s own understanding of personal reality. On the other hand, working with baseline energies such as suit meanings and the significance of numbers requires the facts to be teased out through interaction with the querent, a much more sure-footed way to proceed. I don’t know about you, but I really dislike having to backtrack and start over; it doesn’t do much for one’s professional reputation.


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