Tarot cards have captivated people’s imaginations for centuries, providing insights and guidance through their rich symbolism and mystical allure. Arguably, the two most iconic tarot decks available today are the Rider-Waite Tarot (aka the Waite Smith Tarot) with art by Pamela Colman Smith and the Marseille Tarot deck. While both decks serve as powerful tools for divination and self-reflection, they differ in various aspects that make each unique. Let’s explore the differences between the Rider-Waite and Marseille Tarot decks in more detail.
1. Visual Style and Aesthetic
The most apparent difference between the Rider-Waite Tarot deck and the Marseille Tarot deck lies in their visual styles. The Rider-Waite Tarot, designed by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, features intricate, colourful imagery with a strong emphasis on symbolism. This deck was first published in England in 1909 by William Rider & Son. The illustrations are rich in detail, with vivid colours and a blend of esoteric and everyday symbols.
In the image above, you can see the Marseille Tarot cards in the top row and the Rider-Waite Tarot cards in the bottom row.
On the other hand, the Marseille Tarot, first printed in 1709 by Pierre Madenie, showcases a simpler, more minimalist art style. Its illustrations are often limited to line drawings with minimal colour on white backgrounds, focusing more on the essence of the cards’ meanings rather than elaborate visual details. On the plus side, there are very clear directional clues thanks to the prominence of the gaze in the persons depicted in the Major Arcana as well as in the Court Cards.
2. Card Interpretation
The Rider-Waite Tarot deck introduced a new approach to tarot interpretation, featuring innovative images and subtle symbols that carry deep meanings. These symbols are deeply connected to the astrological correspondences used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The imagery of the Waite Smith deck provides more explicit visual cues to help users grasp the cards’ interpretations intuitively.
Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork plays a significant role in making the Rider-Waite Tarot deck accessible to beginners and seasoned practitioners alike.
On the contrary, the Marseille Tarot deck relies on traditional interpretations without relying as heavily on visual cues, especially for the Minor Arcana. Users of the Marseille Tarot often rely on their intuitive understanding of how the suit Element and card number relate, as well as their interpretation of card placement within a spread.
Historically, we don’t know anything about how people interpreted the precursors to the first printed Marseille Tarot for divinatory purposes. But we do know that the French occultists who created correspondences for this deck based on Astrology and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life did use the Marseille Tarot until Etteilla came out with his own deck.
3. Card Images and Numbering
Another noteworthy distinction between the two decks is the card images and numbering. The Rider-Waite Tarot deck introduced descriptive images for all the number cards in the Minor Arcana. This addition enables users to understand the cards’ meanings more readily and is particularly helpful to beginners. On the other hand, the Marseille Tarot retains the traditional pips system instead of descriptive images on the number cards. This requires a deeper knowledge of tarot symbolism and associations to interpret the cards accurately.
As for the Major Arcana, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, came up with their own system of Astrological Correspondences, differing from that of the French occultists. This, in turn, led to Justice and Strength swapping places. That way, the Zodiac signs fall neatly in order in the Major Arcana in the Rider-Waite Tarot. Strength (Leo) precedes The Hermit (Virgo).
A later Tarot deck that is neither a Rider-Waite clone nor a Marseille-style deck that still uses the old order of the Major Aracana is the Thoth Tarot deck. Now you often see decks that are a fusion between different styles. So it could be worth finding out beforehand if the deck you are thinking about buying uses the Marseille or Rider-Waite order of the Majors.
4. Cultural Influence
The Rider-Waite Tarot deck with art by Pamela Colman Smith has had a significant impact on the modern understanding and popularity of tarot. Its imagery and symbolism have influenced countless subsequent tarot decks and interpretations. These decks are often referred to as RWS clones.
The Marseille Tarot, on the other hand, holds a historical significance as one of the earliest known tarot decks. Its traditional design has influenced and shaped the understanding of tarot for generations. And Marseille-style decks are still hugely popular, often the preferred style by continental cartomants.
There has been a bit of revival of the Marseille-style decks in the 2010-2020s, with many modern quirky Marseille-inspired decks, such as the Squid Cake Marseille Tarot. However, many readers are drawn to the Marseille Tarot decks for the feeling of being connected with a pre-occultist past in Tarot history and opt for more traditional decks such as the Marseille Vintage Tarot.
Still, the Marseille Tarot has a long way to go before it reaches the proliferation of RWS clones. The reason for the popularity of RWS-style decks is no doubt that they provide intuitive readings, straight out of the box, without any need for in-depth studies.
5. Availability and Popularity
Due to its immense popularity and influence, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is widely available and recognised globally. Most books that teach the Tarot use Rider-Waite-style images and refer to the symbolism of this deck. This widespread availability makes it an ideal choice for beginners and experienced tarot practitioners seeking a well-rounded deck.
While the Marseille Tarot deck may not be as readily available as the Rider-Waite, it still holds a special place in the hearts of tarot enthusiasts, with its historical significance and traditional charm. Those who choose to read with only the Major Arcana, the way many French cartomantes traditionally read, often like to work with Marseille Tarot Majors.
In conclusion, both the Rider-Waite Tarot deck with art by Pamela Colman Smith and the Marseille Tarot deck offer unique interpretations and insights into the world of tarot. Whether you resonate with the vibrant symbolism and intuitive approach of the Rider-Waite Tarot or prefer the traditional simplicity and historical nod to the pre-occultist past of the Marseille Tarot, both decks hold immense value and have shaped the tarot landscape in different ways.
Which style is your favourite of the two? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this article, check out Unlock the Power of the Tarot – A Comprehensive Introduction and Guide and the FREE Tarot Resources page!
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