The Waite-Smith Tarot – Born Under Cancer and Capricorn
On December 10th, 2019, the most successful astrological tarot deck in history celebrates its 110th anniversary. The Waite-Smith deck was launched in London on 10th December 1909, as Uranus at 18 Capricorn opposed Neptune at 18 Cancer. On this very British tarot deck’s birthday, Saturn will stand at 18 Capricorn.
Appropriately for a Cancer-Capricorn project, it’s the cozy home-grown project that became the leader of the pack. In a March 1999 interview, Stuart R. Kaplan from U.S. Games Systems, its modern publishers, claimed $100 million sales.
Against stiff competition, the Waite-Smith Tarot stands firm, based on the astrological grounding of two members of the Golden Dawn secret society, Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Waite. A third mysterious figure was involved, whom some believe was the Nobel prize-winning poet, amateur astrologer and tarot reader W.B. Yeats. Will the secret be revealed by the 110th anniversary of the cards?
A Deck Built on Astrology
The Waite-Smith deck was built on astrology. The wands suit was given to fire signs. The Pentacles suit to earth. The Cups to water. The Swords to air.
On close inspection all astrological symbols can be found in the cards.
In The Holy Grail (Malcolm Godwin, Bloomsbury 1994) the Yeats connection with the Tarot is explored further. “The Irish poet, W.B. Yeats appears to have been the first to notice the remarkable parallels between the four Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan and the four aces of the Tarot suites. ‘And when we compare the four isolated aces from the Waite tarot pack with the four hallows of the Grail we do find that they have an uncanny resemblance to each other. Superficially, the spear does not seem to match the ace of wands yet when it is recalled that the spear is the hallow which heals the land, regenerating and restoring fertility and life, then the sprouting wand of the tarot fits snugly into place.”
Famous Fans – James Bond and Madonna
Thanks to Madonna (who used the cards as backdrops on her 2004 Reinvention tour) and fans like Patti Smith and Suzanne Vega, the tarot still thrives. Who can forget James Bond and Solitaire in Live and Let Die? My friend Daisy Waugh, of the famous literary family, launches her new tarot detective series in September.
A Very British Tarot
The Golden Dawn, where Pamela met Arthur, was the wildly fashionable middle-class magical society with members including not only wicked Aleister Crowley but also poor Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar. The Golden Dawn also included several chemists and a 72-year-old vicar who shall remain nameless. It all produced a very British deck of cards, with Winchelsea as a backdrop – Pamela’s second home.
Arthur Waite, who lived in Ealing, was a manager at Horlick’s. He was the second of two Librans, crucial to the Golden Dawn. The other was Annie Horniman, an heiress whose father owned a tea company. Annie bankrolled The Golden Dawn with her tea legacy and Arthur did the tarot research. The cards were thus born with the kettle on. More tea, vicar? Or even, more Horlicks?
Pamela Colman Smith and W.B. Yeats
The genius behind the Waite-Smith deck was 30-year-old Pamela, a bohemian artist from Pimlico, who exhibited at the 291 Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, alongside Rodin and Picasso.
Despite this, The British Library still sells a greeting card showing Pamela’s illustration for The Sun card, but crediting Arthur for the work.
Pamela described the tarot commission in a 1909 letter as “a big job for very little cash.” In a year when women did not even have the vote, she had no copyright.
In her 1992 foreword to The Key to the Tarot, a reissue of Arthur’s original book, Liz Greene describes ‘the beauty of Waite’s imagery’ but thanks to a recent publication, Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot (Katz and Goodwin) we now know it was Pamela, not Arthur, who largely created the cards.
His accompanying guide, The Key to the Tarot (Rider) failed to become – like the cards – a global $100 million bestseller. He also interpreted them upside-down, against all Golden Dawn thought. Waite’s reversed Queens are described by him as perverse, depraved and evil.
Not surprisingly, as the cards were relaunched in the Seventies alongside Women’s Liberation, female tarot authors wrote their own books, inspired by suffragette supporter Pamela’s art – rather than Waite’s ideas.
The Queen of Wands is a good example of the stunning images created by her, rather than him. Pamela’s friend, Edith Craig, daughter of Ellen Terry, was the model. Her black cat Snuffles inspired the feline.
Book T, Arthur Waite’s Golden Dawn tarot source was quite abandoned by Pamela for this and many other cards. The Queen of Wands was supposed to have long hair and be accompanied by a leopard. Lesbian Edith had short hair and Snuffles was her pet.
Pamela’s Circle – From Dracula to Father Brown
Pamela was an Aquarian with fascinating friends. Not only Ellen Terry and Edith Craig – but also Bram Stoker, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Ransome and G. K. Chesterton. All these influences can be seen in her cards, from Dracula to Swallows and Amazons, Peter Pan and Father Brown. Debussy was another fan and friend. Easily her most illustrious admirer of all, though, was W. B. Yeats.
Was W.B. Yeats the Third Man?
In Yeats’ home town of Dublin today, in a pub called The Bruxelles, Pamela’s design for the Three of Cups is etched on the glass doors. Tiled signs of the zodiac decorate the dining room. Before it became The Bruxelles, the pub was known as The Zodiac Lounge.
One of Yeat’s own tarot cards, the Two of Coins, is on permanent exhibition at the library on the other side of Dublin.
In December 1909, Arthur Waite wrote a feature promoting the new cards for the Occult Review, claiming that he and Pamela ‘have had other help from one who is deeply versed in the subject.’
Yeats initiated Pamela into The Golden Dawn. She designed sets at his Abbey Theatre in Dublin. So, was the only known astrologer to have won the Nobel Prize, also her secret helper? Is this the Smith Waite Yeats deck? Let’s see what happens when Saturn moves to 18 Capricorn. Maybe Smith has waited long enough!
Jessica Adams is the author of Essential Astrology for Women (HarperCollins) and Handbag Horoscopes (Penguin). Her new book, Pamela’s Tarot, will be published in 2018 and is previewed at below.
Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot
Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin
A History of the Occult Tarot
Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett
Duckworth Overlook 2013
The Magicians of the Golden Dawn
The Aquarian Press 1985
Tarot images/photographs from Pinterest