Is It . . . RWS, or RSW, or WS or SW (or How About KSW)?

As far as I can tell, the publishing house of Rider & Son hasn’t been involved with the tarot deck of Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith in over a century (except perhaps as the seller of reproduction rights until US Games bought them); it is now published in something approaching its original form by Stuart Kaplan’s US Games Systems (which owns the copyright to its updated 1971 version of the artwork and jealously guards its intellectual property). That fact notwithstanding and beyond all reason, the deck still gets tagged with the prefix “Rider.” It seems that “Rider-Waite-Smith” (aka “RWS”)  is indelibly burned into our brains. Among others who have awakened to this rather obvious anachronism, I now use “Waite-Smith” when spelling it out to clearly acknowledge Smith’s role and exclude Rider’s, but I’m still stuck on “RWS” as the acronym.

When the Centennial Edition first came out, apparently under the direct auspices Kaplan, I noticed that he had changed the title to “Smith-Waite.” My original thought was that he was bowing to not-so-subtle pressure which asserted (rather illogically) that Smith was the real driving force behind the deck and the erudite Waite, as author of the accompanying book, was just along for the ride (I’ve since been informed that it is a matter of copyright law and not feminist sympathies). An equally subversive perception is the growing belief that Frieda Harris was the mastermind behind the Thoth deck and that Crowley was merely her verbose, odd-ball associate. In both cases, nothing could be farther from the truth: neither deck would exist without the guiding genius of the two titans of 20th-Century tarot. Smith and Harris were what is called “artists executant;” they brought their vision and skill to the occasion but not the same formidable degree of esoteric prowess that the decks’ chief creators contributed.

There seems to be some evidence (beyond that in the paintings themselves when compared to Wait’s text) that Smith had a good deal of creative leeway with the designs of the Minor Arcana, as corroborated by this rather fawning Wikipedia essay:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pamela_Colman_Smith#Waite-Smith_Tarot.

Waite had no use for divination and may not have paid much attention to Smith’s artistic departures in that regard. The prosaic scenes of about one-quarter of the forty minor cards diverge considerably from the keywords in Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and/or their Liber T antecedents, and another 25% are only “in the ballpark.” My own preference is to use Thoth and Golden Dawn meanings when I work with the Waite-Smith deck to avoid this conundrum, and to employ free-association from the artwork only sparingly and only then with those visual presentations that adhere closely to their documented roots. For example, I never could figure out what the themes of generosity and charity in the 6 of Pentacles have to do with the esoteric title “Lord of Material Success,” unless the wealthy benefactor had more money than he knew what to do with and decided to give it away. (Maybe he got a tax break?) It has been acknowledged that Waite intentionally avoided exposing any of the Golden Dawn’s sworn secrets in the deck, but this instance seems more than a little extreme. I can only attribute it to Smith hijacking the image to meet her own (metaphysical? social? theatrical?) agenda.

I’m waiting for Kaplan to commit a breathtaking breach of decorum and reissue the deck at some point in the future as the “Kaplan-Smith-Waite Tarot.” But I should probably think better of him than that, eh? (I’m half-Canadian, so I can use that expression. Eh?)

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