A.E. Waite’s Vision: Two Tarots to Rule Them All
PART ONE: Playing to both the public and the inner circle of his mystery school, one of the occult Tarot's founding fathers gave the world a double dose of beauty
NOTE: THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF A THREE-PART SERIES ON WOODRUFF.
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THERE’S PROBABLY A FORGOTTEN A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith Tarot deck stashed somewhere in your kitchen drawer—still waiting to reveal its secrets during the next full moon.
I carry a miniature version in my car’s glove compartment because you never know when a cop would rather have an impromptu reading than spend time writing up a ticket. (This actually happened to yours truly. Thank goddess the three-card draw’s outcome was the Six of Wands.)
The Waite-Smith Tarot as directed and overseen by the occultist Arthur E. Waite has become the equivalent of the Marvel franchise of the Tarot world—the most popular Tarot deck in the universe.
The deck has deservedly laid claim to Western culture’s love affair with all things fringe or New Age. Colman Smith’s illustrations for the deck are both charming and unsettling—in the way Walt Disney’s Bambi introduced the beauty and terror of nature into our child-mind.
Placed within the matrix of a reshuffle-able trajectory, the magical symbols, and icons that Waite and Colman Smith assembled speak directly to our wish to impress order on the random and chaotic.
Art like this—easily accessible (and carried in a purse or glove compartment)—is worth scores of Xanax prescriptions or expensive therapeutic excursions with a shrink.
A whimsical prototype
During the last century, the Waite-Smith deck became the de facto criterion for all POMO (post-modern) Tarot decks that have followed in its wake. None of which—save for the Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris Thoth deck—contain much metaphysical gravitas—at least as scholarship relates to a deck’s lineage.
But for every beauty, there’s a beast—like the aesthetics-destroying Motherpeace Tarot—a ‘circular’ deck of cards that banished the phallocentric influence (those straight erect edges) and makes for fabulous cocktail coasters.
As someone who was boot camp-instructed in the Tarot—by working consistently with both decks (I must have done over two thousand readings when I worked as a telephone psychic years ago), I’ve found subsequent POMO decks to be charming (or alarming) but lacking in the ineffable magic that Colman Smith and Harris siphoned from the molten brains of their male muses.
Rectification and guidance
For his first attempt at a deck, Arthur E. Waite, a mystic Christian and former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, formed a friendship with Colman Smith shortly after the young artist was drafted by W. B. Yeats into the Order.
After their group disbanded—a phenomenon that happened like clockwork with secret societies in the early 20th century, Colman followed Waite into the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn. And it was there, in 1909, that Waite commissioned Colman Smith to create what he eventually named ‘the rectified Tarot.’
Rectified because Waite, like other reconstructive visionaries, was certain he had discovered a more accurate application of the Tarot’s innate symbols—a feral hodgepodge of images collected over the years from various iterations of the cards. He especially wished to dispel the false notion that the Tarot was a byproduct of ancient Egyptian mystery schools.
What’s particularly impressive about the Smith-Waite deck is how quickly—and with such overarching perspicacity—Colman Smith was able to create a complete and comprehensive collection of work. She designed all 78 cards in a period of several months (and for very little money).
As an artist myself, that understands the rigors of two-dimensional creation, you must channel an extraordinary force—a kind of guidance if you will—to have your work arrive so finetuned and finished.
In researching this article I came across a fascinating footnote regarding the esoteric underpinnings of the Waite-Smith deck. R. A. Gilbert’s detailed biography, A.E. Waite: Magician of Many Parts tells of Waite intimating that someone who was “deeply versed” in the subject of “The Secret Tradition” assisted Waite and Colman in the deck’s arrangement and choice of symbols.
Waite does not identify the helper, but there’s little doubt to Gilbert that it was W. B. Yeats, who had remained friendly with Waite despite another failing of a secret school they’d both attended.
All the world’s a stage
Try this sometime with your Waite-Smith deck: Lay out all of the cards, in no particular order, upright, and in straight lines. And then sit back and study the tableaux vivant before you. After a short while, you’ll be pulled into the rousing horizontal plotlines.