Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols by Robert V. O'Neill

The files in this series suggest sources for the detailed imagery in the 22 symbolic cards (Trumps plus Fool) of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The deck was published in December 1909 with images painted by Pamela Colman Smith in consultation with Arthur E. Waite and under his tutelage.

The approach is called Quantitative Iconography* and was developed as a method to estimate the degree of similarity between complex symbolic images. The approach was originally developed to provide a quantitative foundation** for the systematic but qualitative methods used by art historians***.

The basic approach involves analyzing a complex image into a number of individual symbolic features. In the case of the Tarot cards, 10 to 20 details were identified on each card. In the case of symbols as complex as the Waite/Smith cards, it is difficult to be all-inclusive and additional features will be added through time.

The file on each card has two parts. The first part is a table, listing each symbolic feature and examples of occult decks, traditional decks and/or 15th century decks that show this feature. The decks listed are examples and there is no suggestion that this specific deck was used as the model. Nevertheless, the examples are generally available and can be accessed by the user. This access is important since many of the identifications are subjective. For example, one viewer may decide that the Magician’s lemniscus derives from the floppy hat on the Tarot de Marseille deck, while another viewer may decide that the resemblance is only superficial. Therefore, the examples listed permit the user to determine for themselves if the Waite/Smith feature could be derived from this source.

But in general the table serves to identify those individual features which were probably adapted from earlier decks. The division into Occult, Traditional, and 15th century serves to identify the genre of deck that might have served as a source. As expected, many features appear to be modeled on previous occultist decks that were well known to Waite. But, interestingly, some features are not found on the occultists decks but appear to be modeled on the traditional Continental decks. In a few cases, a feature appears on neither occultist or European decks and may have its source in historical 15th century decks and woodblock printed sheets. The table serves, therefore, to suggest the type of deck that might have served as the source of that symbolic feature.

Approaching the analysis in this way involves an important assumption that needs to be made explicit. It is quite probable that Waite depended heavily on written descriptions of the symbols. Waite had published translations of Levi and Papus**** and was familiar with other occult authors, such as Christian. So it is reasonable to maintain that these descriptions are the source of the imagery, rather than the occultist decks. But Smith, who painted the images, was a visual artist rather than an occult scholar. So it is assumed here that she, like most artists, used a visual model rather than a verbal description. This translates into the assumption that if Waite wanted Smith to represent a specific symbolic feature, he provided her with a model from an earlier deck. This assumption seems to validated by the number of cases in which the symbolic feature on the Waite/Smith card matches the visual feature on the earlier deck, even when the written description is general and does not specify such details.

The reader also needs to realize that the effort is toward identifying sources for the imagery, not toward providing divinatory or symbolic meanings. In many cases, of course, the identification of a source immediately suggests a meaning - or at least constrains the possible meanings. But, for the most part, drawing those conclusions is left to the reader.

In addition to the table, each file contains a number of notes and comments. For the most part, these notes refer to symbolic features that do not appear on earlier decks and appear to be original with the Waite/Smith deck. These notes identify other visual imagery that might have served as the source. When no visual model was discovered, an attempt is made to reconstruct reasons why Waite/Smith might have selected this feature for inclusion. Where possible, the reconstruction is based on material in Waite’s other books.

The files in this series are very much a work in progress. They are offered in the spirit of sharing the available information even while research into the sources continues. The user is free to download and make copies for students. The user is also free to use the material, with proper attribution, in their own published work on the Tarot.

Because the research is continuing, the user is encouraged to provide additions and/or corrections to If the comments are suitable, the files will be amended and credit given to the contributor.

Bob O’Neill

* O'Neill, R. V. and R. H. Gardner. 1982. Quantitative iconography. Journal of the International Playing Card Society XI (1): 15-23.

** Robert Sokal. Numerical Taxonomy.

*** see e.g., Gombrich, E. H. 1972. Gombrich on the Renaissance. Volume 2: Symbolic Images. Phaidon Press and Panofsky, E. 1939. Studies in Iconology. Oxford University Press.

**** Gilbert, R. A. 1983. A. E. Waite, A Bibliography. The Aquarian Press.

Based on original research by Robert V. O'Neill. To add to this collection of information, please email Robert V. O'Neill.

Notes on the Individual Cards

The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World

Additional Tarot History Resources Related to
Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

Holly's Rider-Waite Site
The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site
Villa Revak
A. E. Waite

Wallpaper © 1999 John London
Edited by Nina Lee Braden