A Rider-Waite Relic

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I couldn’t resist this one, though I know I really have no need of yet another Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. I have so many versions and so many editions, multiple copies, different printings, but this one attracted me like no other. Simply because I don’t think I have ever seen a deck so well-used, so violently thumbed, so tatty, so frayed; shuffled- you might say – within an inch of its life and riffled to high heaven. The item description said “quite worn and well used” which is something of an understatement. It came without a box, with no other information, no history, no bag, no silk scarf or provenance. Just dropped into my loving, appreciative lap on the eve of what would have been Pamela Colman Smith’s 135th birthday.??????????????????????

What is this fascination for heavily used, dog-eared old decks? Do decks gain a certain gravitas and status through sheer overuse? It is as if this deck (and only this deck) gave good answers, so it was forced to go on giving good answers, forced to earn its keep as a repository of ancient wisdom. Or rather, as I suspect, this is a relic from a time when there weren’t new, shiny self-published decks coming out every other week. You acquired a deck and then you used it. Who knows, maybe other decks were tried but gave garbled or erroneous messages? Maybe the owner did try other decks and then gave up, returning to the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

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It is something of a fantasy among certain tarotists to want to use ancient, wizened decks, something which drives them to extreme measures, artifically ageing their decks, scraping them along the edges of tables, scuffing them, sanding them, subjecting them to merciless batterings, maybe (who knows) burying them in the garden for a few weeks before exhuming them. All perhaps to give their decks authority, to give them  – as readers –  authority (“now here’s someone who has been reading for years”). Even U.S Games went for the antique deck look with their tea-stained Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Edition deck. But the deck which arrived this week is the real deal. I can now look at the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative deck and see that the Rider-Waite Smith deck simply does not age like that, the cards doesn’t go that colour. I defy anyone to customise their glossy, mass-produced newly published tarot deck into something like this. It has aged so authentically – by use alone – that it is now a fragile shadow of its former self. It is the standard Rider & Co so-called “British Blue Box” copyright free Rider-Waite Smith deck – the one that presumably had The World dancer on the cover of the now lost two part box. It could be late 1960s, but for someone who knew nothing about tarot, they could be forgiven for thinking it was over 100 years old. If I hadn’t seen the plaid backs, I think I would have reached the same conclusion.

L-R; used Rider & Co RWS, unused Rider & Co RWS, U.S Games Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative deck

L-R; used Rider & Co RWS, unused Rider & Co RWS, U.S Games Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative deck

It has been shuffled and dealt to within an inch of its life. In fact it has been so brutally shuffled that many –  if not most – of the cards have a vaguely hourglass shape to them. Decades and decades of pressure has been applied to the sides of the cards during shuffling (or firm grasping while the question is formulated) that they have worn away. The narrow white border that acts as a sort of buffer has eroded away and the edge sometimes encroaches on the actual image. Decades of dirt and artful stains cover each card, some card corners are bent and may soon break off. There are blots of varying colour, some cards (such as The Lovers) have what look like red wine splashed across them. The overall effect gives this deck a deeply endearing character. There is a fine line between a compelling, ancient, heavily used deck and one that provokes disgust, as I discovered myself only this morning at the flea market when I came across (and didn’t buy) a second hand copy of the Balbi Tarot encrusted with grime and which I could hardly bring myself to touch.

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I feel that this is a deck which was treasured, used and kept safe. Considering the state of the deck, it is a miracle that it is complete. But it is. And a miracle that it hasn’t been taped or glued with the best intentions. Seventy eight stained and scuffed cards and no disastrous attempts at repair. I wonder just how many times each card has been read. Must surely run into the hundreds. I feel an urge to handle it carefully, as if one more shuffle would see the whole pack crumble like seventy eight clay tablets lifted from an archeological dig. I purchased it from a charitable organisation that helps neglected animals with money from sales (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), a cause dear to my heart. Not wanting to demean the plight of what animals suffer at the hands of human beings, this deck made me think of those racehorses put out to grass. It has reached the end of its useful life, has given all it can and is now retired, past glories evaporated . But who is to say it doesn’t have much more still to give (if shuffled very gently, of course)? And I think of those who abandon pets when they get old, when the vet bills start getting expensive, and it breaks my heart. This is only an inanimate object and not in the same league at all. It deserves to be absorbed into a loving collection, kept complete, handled with a little reverence for all the answers and consolation it has given over the years. But it has, in effect, been abandoned (unless, I suppose, the owner died). We must hope that there is always someone ready to take these rejected things with open arms (and me with my love of the old and the grubby and overlooked couldn’t resist this one), as I wish that every time an animal is abandoned, the right next owner will find it and love it and carry it onwards. Sadly this is so often not the case. I applaud the work this charity does, yet humbly feel my purchase is a meagre drop in the ocean. This deck feels magic to me, with decades of compressed stories and secrets layered between its seventy eight parts. I look at it and I cannot help feeling the profound sadness of abandonment. But at least this is only a deck.??????????????????????

About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
This entry was posted in Random Reflections, Tarot Cards and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A Rider-Waite Relic

  1. edmundzebrowski says:

    I love this post. In an age where we are so very careful not to damage our decks here is what a real used deck can look like

    • Le Fanu says:

      And you know, Edmund, what’s interesting is how unlaminated decks are bemoaned and yet these older, unlaminated decks last for a long, long time!

    • Chiriku says:

      But don’t you think the card stock of past years “wore” better? I’m thinking of recent cardboardy decks like the Druid Craft, Wildwood, Sun and Moon. Druidcraft was the first deck I ever got a replacement for because one of the cards got a dreadful dent in it–and not from a querent, whom I usually don’t let do more than cut or choose from a fan. I handle cards very carefully; this card stock is simply not made for normal use.

      Then I think of excellent card stocks from not even too long ago, like the AG Mullers of the 80s and 90s, and I can imagine them holding up to intensive wear with dignity. They would look “worn,” not decimated.

      As to this Rider-Waite, I may have developed a high appreciation for well-worn decks in the past few years (in fact, I aspire to putting some visible wear-but-not-tear on certain of my own decks) but this one goes a bit further than what I’d comfortably want to handle, especially from an unknown source. It looks good, though.

      I who hate shuffling and more often than not “wash” my cards will likely never break in a deck to half this degree, more’s the pity. The pity’s not because of how it would look to others but because to get to that point of wear, it means I must have spent a huge amount of quality time with a deck of import to me, internalized it in a way deck-hoppers like me never approach with our decks.

      I do tend to apply firm pressure to the “waist” of my decks, but I just don’t see myself making a similar hourglass dent in something thick and blunt like the 2007 reprint of the Matthews’ Arthurian, or, God forbid, the implacable Robert Place Vampire.

      • What I find interesting is that there are some cards that have worn down the sides more than others and at different points, why? If they were held in the hand or even had an elastic around them shouldn’t the wear be pretty much the same for all the cards? Look at the Ace of Pentacles and Two of Pentacles. It doesn’t make sense to me why they would be worn like that. Perhaps they were purposely worn down or trimmed individually?

      • Stella aka "fennario" says:

        The first thing that came to mind when I saw the waists was someone habitually knocking them on a (probably rounded) table edge, or, alternately, using a tight hair elastic or similar to keep them together once the box disintegrated. I’m inclined to go with the hair elastic explanation, since people weren’t into “cleansing” cards in the 70’s and therefore wouldn’t feel the need to knock the psychic sludge out of them between readings, and there certainly weren’t Tarot accessories (bags, etc.) readily available, you used what was handy.

        And another possibility besides the “abandoned” and “deceased owner” theories is that it was simply lost at some point, as my first deck was. If anyone happens to come across one with the pink ankh backs like the one Lance Loud used on “An American Family”, and the ends are thickened, almost furry-feeling in the middle from riffling, that’s probably it.😉

  2. vee says:

    Oh, lovely! I have an old beaten up copy of this edition too, and it’s my favorite RWS, bar none. My second favorite is an incomplete version of the pirated RWS I bought off ebay with scrawlings on all the cards. There is something to be treasured about an old, loved deck.

    I love this post. It’s not the same as animals, no, but there is something sad about anything being discarded, even if it is not precious or unique like this deck. I don’t want to be too RAGE OUR DISPOSABLE SOCIETY, but yeah. It’s always wonderful to see someone finding new joys in something that you might believe to be past its days.

    • Le Fanu says:

      Yes, this is the stock standard, ubiquitous RWS but somehow the dirt and the scuffs make it feel so precious. Weirdly, just by dint of its heavy use, it feels that it has more history when I hold it in my hand than my Pam B does!

  3. Carla says:

    I love these card images! I think a battered old tarot deck is very, very attractive…but you’re right, there’s a thin line between beautifully well-loved and too-nasty-to-touch.🙂

    • Le Fanu says:

      Isn’t there! It’s odd how unidentifiably dirty things disturb me, LOL but this deck just feels worn and naturally used. It’s the difference between wear & tear and then filth.

  4. 1. My ears were burning and now I know why… scuffing, sanding, staining, burying in the garden… guilty on all counts.
    2. So jealous!😉 But so pleased for you. What a wonderful deck and piece of history.

  5. jema says:

    Ewww…wow…ewww… Can’t decide really, it all comes down to smell. Does it smell?
    It’s odd how fast some decks get scussy though, like I got this Shadowscapes, used it a week and it is somehow unhealthy looking, just from normal shuffling. Perhaps it is all in my mind though. Most of my used decks are actually very low on laminating, like Masonic, Transformation, Aquarian, all pre-loved, no gloss, and holding up really really well. My Aquarian smells vaguely of incense, the Masonic got that old book smell and the transformation smells a little bit like earth.

  6. sapienza says:

    Great post. I love how the deck has indents on each side from where it has been held, how absolutely wonderful. I do love old stuff like this. I also think that decks like this have a ‘feel’ about them, you kind of get a sense right away whether it’s ‘yucky dirty’, or whether it’s ‘loved dirty’ if that makes sense.

    How lovely to know though that if the owner of this deck did die, that something s/he loved so much is now in the hands of someone else who appreciates it so much and seems to have a sense of why it matters that this is so, rather than it ending up in the rubbish.

  7. This deck reminds me of the movie “The Red Violin”!

  8. Le Fanu says:

    I don’t know the film Red Violin… But further to jema’s question – the deck doesn’t smell of anything (though I do rather like it when decks smell of incense). Not even just musty. It is a wonderful deck to behold, so imbued with character and yes there is that instinctive feel that it is just well-used, not filthy. I can shuffle it and not feel repulsed.

  9. Cláudio-Brasil. says:

    Congratulations! By buying and writing. I’ve seen decks used, but this gives a lot of envy.

  10. Lifeisabutterfly says:

    Please let us know if you ever do an actual reading with it, that would be very interesting.
    I know a Colombian shaman who has a pack of Spanish Naipes he uses exclusively in his practice for 25 years and it’s literally falling apart. He is very sad about it and is having a terrible time dithering about looking for a replacement. His face crumpled as he confided to me nothing else seems to satisfy him, he finds fault with every single new deck he comes across, even if they are exactly the same as his old one…

  11. John says:

    The Imperial War Museum has a deck of cards worn exactly the same as these. Perhaps it’s to do with a certain method of shuffling.
    http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30080585
    This address shows the box & arrows allow you to see the cards inside.

  12. Heather says:

    If you google Rider Waite Smith decks on YouTube, Angelo Nasios has a nice tutorial on how to determine if a deck is vintage. Looks like the one you have is vintage! Lucky🙂

  13. Melissa says:

    They are well worn, over used, and out of shape. I bet each and every card has a story to tell though. Great addition to your deck collection. I am envious🙂

  14. narelle says:

    wonderful to see this and know that old used decks are so appreciated.i have one very like this with very fluffy edges . same deck i think. came in the blue box with the world card on front. it was my first ever deck back early 70’s or late 60s? and i still use it most of the time. i bought a replacement of this deck as it was gettign a bit tatty but still havnt used it much at all.. i always go back to the old tried and tested one.. it does feel wonderful. the new one doesnt have the history in it. mine isnt quite so beat up as this one as ive always kept it wrapped in a piece of black silk inside a carved wooden box. when the box was new id put a few drops of incense oil inside.. so my cards also smell soft and warm and very friendly.. i love my original deck. despite having a bit of a collection of decks nowadays.. its always this old rider waite i turn to.

    • Le Fanu says:

      Lovely story. I love hearing about treasured decks. Sometimes the new, cleaner “replacement” copies we buy just won’t do. I know that feeling.

  15. What a wonderful treasure! You made a few points that struck a chord with me, I used a Motherpeace deck exclusively for almost 15 years before I started buying other decks and now I have almost 400. I like the variety of my decks but they dont get used and abused like my old faithful Motherpeace, the deck is complete and in good shape but it is obviously old and dis colored with frayed edges, and it feels amazing! There are some new decks I have that I really like but the pristine perfection of them left me cold. The Fountain Tarot is a great example, I felt myself being so gentle with the cards and it was off putting. I bought a second copy just in case I was wrong and then I trimmed my Fountain Tarot and edged the newly cut sides with a silver ink pad that let the color bleed onto the front of the card just a bit and then I shuffled then like crazy. I took the deck with me everywhere and pulled them out as often as I could. It worked, and my worn in deck no longer leaves me cold, it’s actually declightful. After everything it looks worn but not dirty, the card stock has help up well and marks have wiped off easily and I haven’t used the pristine deck at all. There is a mindset that comes automatically with a worn, well used deck for both the reader and the sitter. This helped me realize that I have more than enough beautiful decks to dive into, i should be investing time in the decks I have because there is nothing like the felling of a well worn and much loved deck in your hands.

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