Pamela Coleman Smith – The Real Genius Behind the Waite-Rider Tarot Deck

 

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 Coleman 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 Coleman 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.

 

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PAMELA COLEMAN 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?

 

A Few Tips Before You Start Reading Tarot Cards

Here are a few little tips you should know about reading Tarot Cards that I cover in my book, “Just the Tarot, by Dan Adair.”  (Available on Amazon.com for less than the price of a bagel at your favorite coffee shop. Just saying.)

LOOK FOR LARGE NUMBERS OF THE SAME SUIT.  The Tarot basically divides our world into four different elements that match the suits of the Minor Arcana.  Wands equal ideas. Cups equal emotions. Swords equal personal power. Pentacles equal money and possessions.

So, if you’re doing a reading and you see that the majority of the cards are pentacles, you can assume that money and possessions are a very dominant part of the questioners life right now.  A majority of wands might indicate someone who is an intellectual or is exploring a lot of new ideas. Cups would show that this is a very emotional time in the questioners life. Swords would show that a quest for power and position or power struggles are very present in the questioners life.


COMBINING THE SUITS – You can also find some clues in combinations of the suits.  Suppose the reading has a majority of swords and cups: you might reasonably assume that there are some power struggles going on in the person’s romantic or emotional life.
A combination of wands and cups might indicate a person who takes a sort of
intellectual approach to romance.  Pentacles and cups could show a person who pairs romance and materialism, like a trophy wife or husband.  Pentacles and swords can show power struggles in the workplace, and so on.

REVERSED VERSUS UPRIGHT CARDS – If a majority of the cards are reversed you can assume that there is a lot going on in the questioners life that she isn’t dealing with on a conscious level.  Look for denial, repression or factors that are hidden from the questioner. If the majority of the cards are upright you can assume that the questioner is fairly aware of what’s going on in his or her life and is dealing with it on a conscious level.

NUMBERS, NUMBERS, NUMBERS – There are schools of thought on the Tarot that assign meaning to the cards based on their numerological ranking.  I’m not personally a big fan of numerology so I’m not going to mess with it here. If you’re curious or numerology floats your boat you can look it up on the internet.

MAJOR VERSUS MINOR – As I’ve said in previous posts, ALWAYS pay close attention to any cards from the Major Arcana.  The Minor Arcana tend to show the little crap that we all put up with every day. The Major Arcana show life changing forces in the questioners reading.

The Minor Arcana Tarot Cards

 

So if you followed up on the suggestions in my first post – Can You Learn to Read Tarot Cards?  – then you’ve looked at the various Tarot decks, picked a deck that resonates with you, and you’re looking through the cards thinking profound thoughts like, “What in the hell does THAT card mean?”

We’ll get to that.

In the meantime, when you look at the Tarot deck you’ll find that it’s divided into 5 different parts:  the 4 suits of cards, known as the Minor Arcana, and the 22  very, very, very symbolic cards known as the Major Arcana.

For today let’s just talk about the Minor Arcana.  You’ll see that the 4 suits are designated Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles.  That’s the way that the Tarot divides up and analyzes the things in our world.

Wands represent ideas, intellect, the thought process, what we like to conceive as the thinking mind.

Cups represent emotions, feelings, and relationships with emotional content like friendships, lovers, family.  And that means ALL of the emotions from love to hate and everything in between.

Swords represent aggression, physical force, and mental force like dominance issues and power struggles in the family or the workplace.

Pentacles represent physical possessions, money, our various toys, and both the material world and materialism.

They have other aspects, as I discuss in my ebook, “Just the Tarot.”  Wands are often associated with travel.  Swords, by way of their cutting edges, may be associated with needing surgery.  But for now let’s concentrate on the four basic characteristics of the Minor Arcana:  ideas, emotions,force,and possessions.

Of course, we know by now that the human world is far more holistic than a simple 4 point division.  Every idea has some sort of emotion tied to it and physical or mental force often hides fear or phobias.  And the spiritual flows into the physical world and the physical world often blossoms with great spirituality.  Still, it’s a useful way of looking at the world and the human predicament.

And that’s what the Minor Arcana are all about:  the human predicament. The Major Arcana are all about MAJOR forces in your life:  birth, death, transitions, good, evil. The Minor Arcana are about all of the crappy little things (and good little things) that we deal with in day to day life.  

Each card represents a particular human situation that we experience as we journey through life.  And each reading represents a snapshot of all of the things that the questioner is going through at that moment in time.

Think of it this way:  if you could step outside of yourself (your SELF) and sort of hover around the ceiling for a while and REALLY look at your life objectively, what would you see?  You might see your work-self who is dealing with a crappy, overbearing boss. Then there might be your home-self who loves to paint or write or knit or listen to music and pet the cat.  Then there might be your relationship-self who is deeply in love or maybe has been hurt in the past and is afraid of love or maybe is a hopeless romantic who is in love with love. And how about your physical-self who might be a weight lifter or might be chronically ill or might be a long distance runner or might be in a wheel chair?

All of those separate, “selves,” make up the greater self which is you.  When you look at the Minor Arcana in a reading you’re looking at what’s going on with all of those different selves at that moment.  Home, work, romance, physical state of being, ideas,emotions,power,and possessions. And the magic happens when you see the reading come together as a story of the questioners life.  Yep, even day to day life is HIGHLY magical!