The most popular Tarot deck in the world is the Waite-Rider deck, authored by A.E. Waite and published by the Rider Company. The illustrations in the deck were done by Pamela Colman Smith and it’s been within recent memory that people have started referring to it as the Waite-Smith deck. The standard description of it is that the illustrations were prepared by Pamela Colman Smith, “under the directions of A.E. Waite.”
It might be more accurate to say that the illustrations were prepared by her DESPITE the instructions of A.E. Waite.
PAMELA COLMAN SMITH
She’s one of the more fascinating people in the history of modern occultism. She had a wonderful smile and was so tiny that she was nicknamed, “Pixie.” As she was growing up her family shuttled between London, Jamaica, and New York and she spent several years living in Kingston and absorbed much of the Jamaican culture. Her mother was an artist and she, too, developed artistic talents at an early age and began attending the Pratt Art Institute in New York at the age of 15.
By the age of 21 both of her parents had died and she moved by herself to London where she supported herself working as an illustrator, author, and set designer for theatrical productions. It was there that she met the poet William Butler Yeats who introduced her A.E. Waite, one of the founding member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Shortly thereafter Waite commissioned her to illustrate his Tarot deck and the rest is history.
But that’s where it really gets interesting.
There have been many, many people who have claimed that they were channeling some sort of a higher power that guided their creativity and, “co-created,” with them. Painters, sculptors, writers who felt the presence of a greater power than themselves literally telling them what to paint, carve, or write. Some of them talk about spirit guides, others describe the guides as angels, a few might even think that god was talking to them.
It is my strong belief that this is exactly what happened to Pamela Smith when she created the Waite deck.
Consider this: Smith created ALL 78 cards between April and October of 1909. That means that for that 6 month period she was pumping out an average of 13 highly complex illustrations a month. As an artist I can tell you that’s nearly impossible.
There is also strong evidence that Waite may have had fairly precise instructions about the Major Arcana but Smith pretty much invented the illustrations for the Minor Arcana herself, even using some of her close friends as models. With the sheer volume of illustrations she produced and her admittedly short exposure to occultism, you have to think that those pictures were almost painting themselves.
And, finally, there is the evidence of the nature of A.E. Waite himself. He was, to put it mildly, one incredibly boring old fart. Shortly after Smith produced the cards Waite published a book called, “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.” Here’s just a bit of his definition for the card The Magician:
“With further reference to what I have called the sign of life and its’ connexion with the number 8, it may be remembered that Christian Gnosticism speaks of rebirth in Christ as a change, ‘unto the Ogdoad.’ “
And it gets a lot worse. Can you imagine having a drink with that guy?
The Waite-Smith tarot deck is truly magical. Every card is beautiful and tells its’ own unique story. That magic definitely didn’t flow out of A.E. Waite. It flowed out of the eyes and soul of Pixie. She was in the groove and some higher force was using her mind and her hands to bring those cards into being. Aren’t we lucky that happened?