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Types of the Tarot

Most modern Tarots differ very little from those fifteenth century sets of cards. They still contain seventy-eight cards divided into the four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins or Pentacles, called collectively the ‘Minor Arcana’, and the twenty-two trumps, known as the ‘Major Arcana’ (the word ‘arcanum’ means ‘secret knowledge’). True, some of the pictures have changed considerably, but each version usually keeps the same basic concept. For example, there are several widely varying versions of the Emperor, but they all represent some idea of an Emperor. In general, the changes have tended towards the more symbolic and the more mystical.

Arthur Edward Waite was criticized for changing some of the trump cards from their accepted version. For instance, the common picture of the Sun shows two children holding hands in a garden. Waite changed it to one child on a horse riding out of a garden. The critics claimed Waite was altering the card’s meaning to his personal vision. This was probably the case, since Waite believed more strongly in his own ideas than those of anyone else. But few people stopped to consider that the earliest version of the Sun, that of Bembo, in no way resembles the supposed ‘traditional' version. Indeed, it seems closer to Waite's; the picture shows a single miraculous child flying through the air, holding up a globe with an image of a city inside it.

The most striking change Waite and his artist, Pamela Colman Smith, made was to include a scene on all the cards, including the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana. Virtually all previous decks, as well as many later ones, have simple geometric patterns for the ‘pip’ cards. For example, the ten of Swords will show ten swords arranged in a pattern, much like its descendant, the ten of spades. The Rider pack is different. Pamela Smith’s ten of Swords shows a man lying under a black cloud with ten swords stuck in his back and legs.

We do not really know who actually designed these cards. Did Waite himself conceive them (as he undoubtedly did the Major Arcana), or did he simply tell Smith the qualities and ideas he wanted and allow her to invent the scenes? Waite’s own book on the Tarot, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot , makes little real use of the pictures. In some cases, such as the six of Swords, the picture suggests far more than Waite’s stated meaning, while in others, particularly the two of Swords, the picture almost contradicts the meaning.

Whether it was Waite or Smith who designed the pictures, they had a powerful effect on later Tarot designers. Almost all decks with scenes on every card rely very heavily on the pictures in the Rider pack.

Waite called his deck the rectified Tarot. He insisted that his pictures restored the true meanings of the cards, and throughout his book he scorns the versions of his predecessors. Now, by rectified many people will think Waite’s membership in secret societies gave him access to the original secret Tarot. More likely, he simply meant that his pictures gave the cards their deepest meanings. When he so drastically altered the card of the Lovers, for instance, he did so because he thought the old picture insignificant and his new one symbolic of a deep truth.