The world's most popular tarot deck, the Waite-Smith Tarot (sometimes called the Rider-Waite Tarot) is about to be totally revised in our book, Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot. Everything that people have guessed about for a century, in hundreds of books and thousands of websites, is about to be overturned with facts. But one question remains open: why did this deck become the model for virtually every other deck in the last century?
The answer is as simple as it is unique. The deck was created quickly, in less than six months, by a Bohemian Catholic artist who had likely never used tarot, at the behest of a Catholic Mystic who had no interest in the use of the cards for fortune-telling. As a result, the two drew on the simplest of resources: their own experience and the world's greatest story-teller, William Shakespeare.
As our book reveals for the first time in 115 years, over half the deck is based on Pamela's real life environment during the late summer of 1909, and her background in the theatre, particularly Shakespeare. Her ability to intuit music into images and her speed of production allowed the deck to be created in a fraction of the time of even the most contemporary decks.
As we have now discovered where Pamela stayed during the production of the deck, with Ellen Terry in the area of Winchelsea and Tenterden, England, we can now provide photographs from the time that show Pamela in the very scenes she painted into the Tarot. The 3 of Wands and the 5 of Wands are images of the gypsy gang at Smallhythe erecting an elaborate rose trellis, and the cat on the Queen of Wands is none other than Snuffles (or Snuffy, to his friends), the black cat owned by Edy Craig, Ellen Terry's daughter. The dog on The Fool card is Ben, who is photographed at the time in almost exactly the same pose that Pamela draws him into the Fool card, and the kimono of the Fool is that given to Terry by the artist Whistler, worn by "Teddy," a young child. Pamela drew quickly on these influences, pulling to mind the most immediate example of an "innocent" connected with the "rising sun," and brilliantly figuring Teddy and Ben into the scene.
"Complete and perfect realization of pleasure and happiness, almost perfect; self-praise, vanity, conceit, much talking of self, yet kind and lovable, and may be self-denying therewith. High-minded, not easily satisfied with small and limited ideas. Apt to be maligned through too much self-assumption. A good and generous, but sometimes foolish nature."
So, Pamela took this and quickly worked out the closest figure to represent it, which was Shakespeare's character of Falstaff. Her image of Falstaff on the 9 of Cups perfectly captures a description in Henry IV, Act I, Scene 2:
"Thou art so fat?witted, with drinking of old sack
If you have a look now at the 9 of Cups, and every other 9 of Cups that has followed that design, you can now see that it is clearly Falstaff, with his "old sack" (beer) in the cups, the unbuttoned shirt, and even the bench. Our website supporting the book shows a rare photograph of an actor of the time as Falstaff, and you will see almost exactly the same hat that Pamela has drawn! So by understanding the character of Falstaff, someone who has forgotten their values to laziness and pleasure, we can understand more about how Pamela used that correspondence to perfectly capture the Golden Dawn intention for the card.
In effect, Pamela intuited the Golden Dawn meanings through the lens of theatre, and a perfect summer, thus providing us an almost perfect deck for real life. She was following the rigorous structure of Kabbalah, Astrology, Numerology, and Alchemy through the Golden Dawn meanings, yet simply and perfectly transposing them into designs based on the world's greatest playwright. As a result, we are presented with a deck that is both profound and accessible, fixed in structure yet infinitely variable.
Why is the deck only almost-perfect? There are two reasons; one is that A. E. Waite was sticking to his oaths as a member of the Golden Dawn, and hence was not prepared to let Pamela access some of the more mystical teachings on the cards. So the Fool card is based on a Marseille-type image, not the Golden Dawn version of a child with a wolf. The Hanged Man is not the "drowned giant," and other Major cards are neutered in their potential expression. It was a fault that Waite later rectified when he designed his second set of Tarot with the stained glass artist J. B. Trinick, ten years later (see our book, Abiding in the Sanctuary). Those tarot images are astonishing and truly mystical, nothing like the cartoon-versions that Pamela's cards are in comparison.
The second reason is that Pamela was neither schooled nor consistent in her execution of work. We have included accounts in Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot from her contemporaries bemoaning the fact she always had so many irons in the fire and rarely completed jobs. Her life is testament to many failed projects and her letters sad evidence of her lack of discipline and wild spirit.
Her drawing of the alchemical symbols on the 7 of Cups, the patterns on the quilt of the 9 of Swords, or the girdle of the charioteer, look "esoteric" and significant, but are but a quick representation of their actual structure, order, or symbolism, by someone without access to their teaching or utilization.
So, the deck is not as profound as it might have been, yet makes up for this in accessibility, and not as symbolically consistent as it should have been, which gives it instead a mysticism that comes from confusion, not occultism.
At least we have now answered many questions over the last century that have led to guesswork; the mismatched shoes on the 7 of Wands are because the character is Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew; the figure on Temperance is modeled from the play Amber Heart, and even the odd Two of Pentacles is now revealed as "False Mercury" from an image by Edward Burne-Jones, a major influence on Pamela. The snail on the 9 of Pentacles is there because it shows us the scene from As You Like It, on which the character is modeled. Pamela also left us a clue to the exact scene in Romeo and Juliet that is shown on the 9 of Swords (this is detailed in Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot).
In understanding the sources of the designs we can more easily understand the intent of the images and their resonance to the Golden Dawn meanings and system. This provides us a powerful correspondence on which we can draw in our readings or when designing a new deck. The secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot may have now been revealed, but no doubt their power will continue to mystify us in every tarot reading and future deck.
Marcus Katz (England) is a tarot teacher and co-director of the Tarosophy Tarot Association. He has studied and taught tarot for thirty-five years and has delivered more than ten thousand face-to-face readings. Marcus has ...