How were the classic tarot decks created?

How do you imagine the process of creating Rider–Waite tarot or Thoth Tarot?

Surely you are imagining a gloomy dark room, lit only by candles. It has a huge table with a bunch of magic items, on which Arthur Waite or Aleister Crowley draw their deck. Over each Arcana, the author of the deck casts a spell or somehow sanctifies it using rituals, and the meaning of each card is entered into a leather grimoire.

I also once imagined everything like that, but in reality it is not at all like that.

Aleister Crowley and Arthur Waite were more ideologues, than artists of their decks. They hired illustrators.

So, Rider–Waite tarot was drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, and Thoth Tarot by Frieda Harris.

Why is Pamela Colman Smith not always referred to as the creator of Rider–Waite tarot? Because she and Arthur Waite had a copyright conflict, as a result of which, in the deck annotation, she was mentioned without a name only as a “young artist.” I want to note, that at the same time, it is her autograph, that we see on each card of the deck.

Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley also had an interesting history. Overall, Frieda Harris created about 80% of the deck, but she was a fan of Aleister Crowley and even paid him to be honored to work with him. The artist herself did not receive money for her work. She thought over the design, concept, sketches and drew all this. Aleister Crowley owns only The Book of Thoth — a book of interpretations for the deck. They also had a conflict over copyright, but since the deck creators were friends, maybe more, the conflict quickly subsided.

Based on the fact, that the decks were not drawn by the occultists themselves Arthur Waite and Aleister Crowley, another conclusion suggests itself:
The decks have a personal artistic vision for the illustrators.
For some reason, we think of tarot images as magical, supreme true, transcendental, and existential.


We forget, that ordinary people drew them. Yes, Frieda Harris and Pamela Colman Smith were associated with the occult and had their mentors in this, but each had their own personal life experience, their own observations, their own personal worldview outside of esotericism — and all this could affect the plots and images of the Tarot.
Therefore, the creation of a deck is not always associated with something mystical. To a large extent, this is a commercial aspect. At the same time, Thoth Tarot and Rider–Waite tarot claim to be works of art. It is this side, that makes you look at Tarot as eternal, always come up with meaning and look for something new.

  • Why are classic decks a work of art?
  • How have the trends of the last century influenced the look of decks?

📚 Read about all this for in the chapter “The Tarot as an Object of Art”. To do this, go to Patreon using the link 👇

© Tailyn Dream



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