The Rider-Waite Tarot is the most popular Tarot deck in use today. In fact, its position as the grand-daddy of all Tarot decks is evident when you see just how many imitators and replications it has spawned since it was first published way back in 1910.
As popular as it has become, the deck carries with it a rather dark and contentious history—one which, until the publication of Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot by Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin has not been fully told.
In their book, these highly respected writers on all matters Tarot-related reveal some of the hidden history to Waite’s deck as well as the underlying occult influence that inspired it.
From the books’ outset, the authors try to rebalance some of the common beliefs that surround the Rider-Waite deck and the fact that its very title is something of a misnomer in that it excludes the main architect behind the deck’s popularity: Pamela Colman Smith or, to give the nickname given to her by her close friend Ellen Terry, the ‘Pixie’.
The deck’s name is derived in part from the cards originator, Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942) and its publisher William Rider & Son of London.
Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot opens with an introduction to a core mystery that surrounds this deck. a mystery that centers upon the apparent lack of credentials and experience that both Waite and Smith had when designing and creating what went on to become the world’s most famous divination deck.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Pamela Colman Smith (1878–951) is the forgotten genius behind the deck. In order to redress, this the authors dedicate an early chapter in their book to the history of her life as an artist along with her role that English stage actress Dame Ellen Terry, GBE (1847–1928) had in her life—a relationship that was to have a close bearing on how many of the pictorial images of the Tarot deck came into being.
Having revealed the type of life that both Waite and Smith had during their time in London, the authors then turn their attention to the deck itself and offer an almost fingertip analysis of each of the 78 cards.
This includes a detailed appraisal of their design, use of colors, primary characteristics and esoteric symbolism. They also include the divinatory meanings for the cards and even classical references which may have directly influenced each card’s design.
Waite was a Kabbalist and one-time member of the late nineteenth-century Hermetic and occult society the Golden Dawn—a ritual-based occult fraternity that based its teachings upon the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
Thus, it is not too surprising to find that the Kabbalah features in his Tarot deck nor that Katz and Goodwin have taken a closer look at the links between the Kabbalah and the minor arcana cards in their investigations.
A later chapter returns to Pixie the artist and includes reproductions of some of her artwork and its association to popular classical music.
As the book draws to a close, the authors include some advanced insights and divinational advice with respect to the use of spreads and their interpretation.
Waite himself offered some guidance in these methods in his book ‘The Pictorial Key to the Tarot’ but the authors have included some of Waite’s deeper esoteric practices that he used when using the Celtic Cross Spread along with their roots in the Golden Dawn tradition.
The book closes with a bibliography, Glossary, appendices, endnotes and art credit list.
As its title suggests Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot is a book about secrets. Because of this, I shall not reveal exactly what they are or how the authors believe them to have impacted upon the formulation of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck for fear of spoiling the story for those of you who might be drawn toward purchasing the book for yourself.
However, I will say that this publication does contain some fascinating material.
I have personally and professionally used the Rider-Waite deck regularly ever since the mid-1980s and have also studied the Golden Dawn in depth throughout the same period. I still came out of reading this book in a state of some shock at the realization that I had previously held many mis-conceptions about this deck and A E Waite that were quite untrue!
I will not give the game away by saying that this is a book that features quite heavily the deck’s artist Pamela Colman Smith. It traces her life, the influences that led her toward the style of artwork that she perfected, the relationship (or non-relationship) that she had with Waite and the powerful impact that her connection with Ellen Terry and her home had upon her.
Through reading this book, one almost feels as if the part that A E Waite played in its design and eventual popularity comes as a secondary concern. The reasons for this conclusion become self-evident as the book continues through one page after another of fascinating historical and metaphysical detail.
It should also be noted that this book is also beautifully illustrated—mostly with examples of Smith’s own artwork—some of which were commissioned and others which are simple sketches by her of English landscapes—many of which were later woven into the deck’s design.
So, with that said, I shall say no more about the book’s illuminating and fascinating content other than to comment upon the fact that, although it is a comprehensive publication—one that that spans over 450 pages of quality material, it contains no reference to the connection between the cards of the Major Arcana and the paths that connect the Sephira of the Tree of Life.
The minor arcana is featured in its relationship to the Kabbalistic glyph but not the major.
Overall though Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot is an excellent book that strips down the world’s most popular Tarot deck to the minutest detail and reveals its inner characteristics from many unique angles.
The story that the authors tell within the book and the insights into advanced Tarot-work that they offer will be thoroughly appreciated by both Tarot divinationalists and historians in equal measure.
So, if you are a fan of the Rider-Waite deck or even someone who is interested in a genuine historical enigma, such as how such a cobbled together piece of work ever became the single most defining system of divination the world has ever seen, then this book will utterly delight and educate at one and the same time.
A powerful and classy piece of occult research that successfully challenges many historical and metaphysical myths that surround the Rider-Waite Tarot deck!