April is the cruelest month, but with ten swords stuck in your back, June may not be much fun, either. With the Sun in Gemini, sign of the similar yet dissimilar twins, one mortal, one immortal, and with Malkuth, the end of the cycle, we see the dividing line between an inseparable pair. Waite internalizes the “ruin” which the Order of the Golden Dawn assigned to the card. Pamela Coleman Smith serves up a masterpiece. She illustrates the moment at which Castor, the mortal twin has died, but Zeus has not yet placed the twins in the highest celestial sphere as Gemini (making them both immortal). Ten years after its publication, the greatest poet contemporary of Waite and Colman Smith memorialized the RWS deck in his greatest poem because he recognized a common theme: the agricultural cycle, the dying and reviving god, Pluto and Perephone… whatever you wish to call it. It is our feeling of anguish and despair at the nadir, the darkest hour before dawn. The sacricial god of fertility and life is dead, but shall be reborn. That we sometimes forget that is the central message of the Ten of Swords.Read more
Capricorn has multiple origin myths. One of them is the story of Pricus, a sea-goat deity, goat above, fish below. Pricus may show us that in the Four of Pentacles, rather than representing wealth and greed, the illustration may portray the succession of generations. The core of the Pricus story is the heritage that parents pass onto children, and the search by the children for differentiation. Each generation modifies, adds and wields the transformed heritage as their Earthly dominion… until the next generation. The Order of the Golden Dawn called this card “Earthly Power.” The repudiation of the parents fuels the metaphor’s pathos. The story of Pricus, the time traveling goat, may provide us with an insight into Éliphas Lévi’s famously insightful quote about tarot, that “an imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.”Read more
Venus and Virgo walk into a bar. The bartender, Dionysus, reminds us of somebody… oh, yeah, that funny shaped guy with the Popeye arms, from the Nine of Cups, that’s who. Well, Dionysus sees the big bull-headed guy, Yesod, walk over to the two dames, now seated at the bar. “Uh oh,” he sez to himself, “I seen this movie before. He who gets slapped…” We are in Venus in Virgo, and Waite makes a minor adjustment to the Order of the Golden Dawn’s assignments. He moves prudence from the Eight to the Nine of Pentacles. Yesod better watch out.Read more
The stage cards of the RWS deck. One would be justified in wondering whether they’re an editorial comment—All the tarot’s a stage, And all the majors and minors merely players; They have their suits and their sephiroth; And Adam Kadmon in his time plays many parts. There is one minor arcanum, the Four of Wands, in which the stage lacks all players. If no actors are on stage, either the curtain has just risen, and we await their entrance; or they just exited, and the curtain is about to fall. Sometimes you just have to ask what’s missing. Then there’s the story of Venus, Aries, Pluto, Persephone and a boozy Celtic interloper. John Barleycorn must hide.Read more
The RWS Five of Wands depicts five young men play-fighting or sparring. It may not be the most transparent of Colman Smith’s illustrations. Perhaps a more up-to-date version might show five suburban parents accosting a Little League umpire with baseball bats and murderous intent because their kids’ team lost. But Colman Smith’s illustration may tell us something about how she and Waite felt about the fives. Geburah, the emanation for the fives, was seen by Waite and his contemporaries as signifying a struggle against circumstance or an opposing force, at a time when the outcome is not certain. Yet Waite’s contemporaries were one-dimensional in their interpretations of the Five of Wands. Waite’s genius was to turn a monolithic interpretation into a complex one.Read more
With this article I begin a series of analyses of the inspired art with which Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the 36 cards of the decans. These posts will attempt to explain the illustrations by recounting the stories—mythic or otherwise—that contributed to the concepts with which she imbued her scenes. This in the hope that if we understand the stories that underlie them, we can not only better interpret but we can also better communicate a cohesive story out of several cards laid down in a spread. Indeed, these are stories that have fascinated humankind for millennia. We start with the Eight of Cups, attempting to explain its solitude, and exploring a component apparently unique to Waite and Colman Smith—the eclipse we see in the sky of the illustration. It would be just like Waite to bring in Good Friday, but we shall see that the Prodigal son was already there. Alas, Elvis has left the building.Read more
Those familiar with version 1.0 of the wheel may recall that version was focused on the Golden Dawn. This is version 2.0 (beta). I have redone everything, and consider it appropriate as an RWS “spin.” I have replaced the descriptions taken from the Book T with excerpts of the divinatory meanings from The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. I’ve kept the Golden Dawn’s esoteric names for the minors.
The main reason for the update, actually, was to move the “source” document out of Microsoft Visio. It is now a scalable vector graphic (.svg). As such, free and open software such as InkScape can work equally well to edit the source document as proprietary software such as Adobe Illustrator. The Tarot Wheel carries the most liberal of the Creative Commons licenses (attribution type) expressly because I hope to see others pick it up and customize it. It would make a splendid platform as a “Little White Book” for a new deck. In addition to the finished wheel, I am making a completely “empty” one, i.e., no text, no colors, just shapes, available as well.
I hope that this will help those new to tarot, especially. If you’re in RWS land, i.e., the Waite-Smith tarot and other decks derived from it, you may find it of use.Read more