Sunday, March 26, 2017

Call It The Rider-Waite-SMITH, Please

Today is the last Sunday in March, which is Women's History Month. I thought it fitting to close out with a repeat of a previous column celebrating the woman at the heart of tarot, Pamela Coleman Smith, whose designs make up the famous Rider-Waite-Smith deck and whose name is often unfortunately, heinously, criminally left out of the deck's name.

You can still see her on the cards, though. Look on each for a small monogram of a “P” crossed with a looping “C” and “S.” It looks like a cross between a sigil and a logogram, and it is the signature of Pamela Coleman Smith.

You can find it easily in the lower right of the Three of Cups, the card that celebrates the richness of deep friendship. Smith chose to illustrate that card with three women dancing in joy and abundance and camaraderie, their golden chalices held high, and so now that card has become synonymous with the power of female relationship.

Pamela did that.
The Rider-Waite-Smith, also called the RWS, is the most famous of the tarot decks. Its images are well-known in popular culture. What is less well-known is how revolutionary those images are, how they completely transformed tarot interpretation. As the illustrator for the deck, Smith created pictorial scenes not just for the major cardsthe heavy hitters like Death and The Foolbut also for the pips, the numbered cards. By portraying the minor arcana in this way, Smith removed the separation between the "big" cards and the "little" ones, making the more mundane moments of our lives, the nostalgia and ennui and first heart-flutter of romance, as important and worthy of contemplation as the milestones.

She created scenes and peopled them with with dynamic characters, allowing the reader to literally imagine herself in the cards. Her background as a theatre major shows in these stagings, which are clear enough to get right to the heart of each card's energy, but intricate enough that the reader can layer her own life on top of them and read the detailshere a white dog, there a handful of rosesas personal revelation.

As Smith herself explains in an article entitled "Should the Art Student Think?":
"Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose. . . . First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body. . . . After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details. . . . Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! . . . Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country."

The door into the unknown country. Yes indeed.

It's one of the great unfairnesses that Smith received very little compensation for her work, and even less recognition for helping create what has become the most accessible and popular tarot deck of all time. As she wrote to her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, "I have just completed a big job for very little cash!" Even her name got dropped from the deck, which is why I both write and speak that SMITH now in all caps.

She was a multi-faceted persona synaesthetic artist and member of The Order of the Golden Dawn who eventually converted to Catholicism. She published writers like William Butler Yeats in the magazine she founded, had her work exhibited at top notch galleries, worked as an illustrator for Bram Stoker, and yet she died penniless.

She was a fervent supporter of women's suffrage, lending her voice and her talents to the cause. Little is known about her romantic life except that she never did marry, preferring the company of women, it seems. She was eccentric, brilliant, generous, and lived a life of adventure and whole-hearted creative joy.

So when you speak of the tarot, be sure to give Pamela Colman Smith her due. Say her name loud and proud. 

In honor of her, and as a gift for you, I offer the Three of Cups this week. May you find joy and support and abundance among your tribe, and may you always know the love of good strong creative women.

For Further Reading:

The BBC's Bio of Pamela Colman Smith (with fascinating footnotes)

"Giving Thanks to Pamela Colman Smith" on Little Red Tarot

"Pamela Colman Smith" at Wikipedia (also with interesting footnotes and further source reading

Holly Voley's Website devoted to Pamela Colman Smith

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