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In 2015, my life capsized for a completely cliche reason: a breakup. My heart splintered, and as a result, the depression and anxiety that I was normally able to manage swallowed me whole. I was struggling to cope. A friend recommended that I get a tarot reading, and after a few days of sulking in bed, I decided to look into her suggestion. Tarot, a deck of 78 cards that represents an allegorical story, is primarily used for self-reflection and can illustrate the cycle of lessons we face throughout our lives.
I knew it was traditionally associated with fortune-telling, but when I arrived at the Tarot Society gallery space in Brooklyn for my reading, I opened the door unsure of what to expect. Because I grew up in a strictly Christian home, a small part of me felt like tarot was forbidden, but I was desperate. Once inside, I was warmly greeted, given a cup of tea and led to a small room for my reading.
As I sat down, the reader introduced herself, lit a bundle of sage and slid a Rider-Waite tarot deck from a cloth bag.
After placing the deck in the center of the table, she told me to think of a question for the cards. She instructed me to cut the deck into three stacks and select six cards. I hesitated, feeling silly for resorting to divination, but I pushed past my misgivings and drew the cards. My reader turned over each card, telling me their names. She went through the meaning of each one and interpreted what it meant for me:
The reader said that this card can appear when you’re experiencing anxiety, despair, sadness or feel as if you’re caught in a nightmare. It can also represent an unhappy relationship or a desire to rewrite the past. It symbolizes fears you must face before you can heal and move forward.
The High Priestess is intuitive, creative and divine. She is in touch with her subconscious. This card urges you to trust your instincts, the reader said.
A card of optimism when upright, the Queen of Wands can appear in reverse if you are caught in a moment of low self-esteem, exhaustion or grappling with jealousy. This is also a sign that you must take charge and embrace your power, she said.
My reader divulged that this card is indicative of romance, love, relationships, soulmates and major choices that have been or will be made. It also represents inner balance and harmony found by self-acceptance, she said.
When upright, this card represents celebration and happiness. When reversed, my reader indicated, it can signify the breaking of an agreement or a relationship. It can also represent sabotage.
She defined this card as one of wholeness, completion, fulfillment and success. The world suggests that what you go through will teach you the lessons you need to learn in order to thrive. This card is a reminder that the universe is ultimately on your side, she said. In relationships, this card suggests happiness, marriage or meeting someone new.
After the reading, I felt calmer. In the months that followed, I purchased my first Rider-Waite tarot deck from a bookshop in Greenwich Village. I was still heartbroken, and my anxiety was manifesting in ways that were making it difficult to focus on my goals and responsibilities. I needed something to help me visualize what I was feeling, a way to make everything feel more manageable. I started pulling a card each morning and meditated on how its meaning connected to what I was feeling or hoped to feel. After a week or two of doing this, I started to feel less fractured.
As I started to memorize the meanings of the Major and Minor Arcana, I began to understand the symbolism of each card, along with the history of the Rider-Waite deck, which was created in 1909. Although the cards were named after co-creators Arthur Edward Waite, a scholar, and William Rider, a publisher, they were hand-drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, who completed the commissioned 78 paintings featured in the deck for a small amount of money. Smith’s crucial collaboration with Rider and Waite led to the creation of one of history’s most celebrated tarot decks.
Despite her contribution to the Rider-Waite deck, Smith’s work, which extends beyond tarot, has been largely obscured by history. Her legacy has been captured in the newly released “Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story” by Stuart R. Kaplan, Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor and Melinda Boyd Parsons, the first extensive exploration of Smith’s life.
Born in 1878 as Corinne Pamela Colman Smith (also known as “Pixie”) to a Jamaican mother and a British father, Smith spent most of her childhood in Jamaica, although her family traveled widely, splitting their time between Kingston, London and New York. At 15, Smith began her studies in painting, drawing and composition at the Pratt Institute in New York, but she left without a degree to avoid the influence of other artists. After her time at Pratt, Smith returned to Jamaica to care for her mother, who passed away in 1896, and remained there to help her father manage their estate. During this time, Smith wrote lively letters to friends, entertained notable figures like Sir Henry Blake, and reconnected to the stories of her childhood, which would later inspire her to write, illustrate and publish a collection of Jamaican folktales called the "Annancy Stories.”
In the years that followed, Smith became known for her miniature theatrical pieces inspired by Jamaican folklore and her illustrations, which helped her create a name for herself within artist circles in New York and abroad. She became a sought after illustrator and buzzworthy figure within her community. Smith and her father returned to New York in the spring of 1898, and she became known as a costume and stage designer, folklorist, editor, publisher, poet and suffragist. Whatever the medium, her artwork vividly embodied her creative, political and spiritual vision. Described as an “odd-artist mystic girl” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in a full-page feature published in 1904, the fluidity and convergence of Smith’s many talents and interests became the driving force behind her work.
Smith was a woman defined by spiritual duality. Initially a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — a collective dedicated to the exploration and study of metaphysics and the occult — she later converted to Catholicism.
Smith and Waite became friends around 1901 after meeting as members of the Order of the Golden Dawn. They both craved a deeper understanding of mysticism and the occult. Although both eventually left the order, the two remained friends and continued to explore the symbolism and history of the occult.
When Waite discovered the medieval predecessor to tarot during research and decided to create a modern edition, Smith was the only person he felt could help him actualize his vision.
In Waite’s autobiography, he refers to Smith as:
With Waite’s guidance, Smith conjured the Major and Minor Arcana and illustrated the Rider-Waite cards, creating what became one of the most famous tarot decks in the Western world.
Within the tarot community, Smith’s contribution has become more widely known, particularly to women of color. Practitioners and querents — those who are asking questions — have found solace in her story.
For Courtney Alexander, the creator of the Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot deck, Smith is an affirmation. Alexander learned about Smith in 2016 when she began working on her own tarot deck. Alexander’s Dust II Onyx drew on the fundamentals of the Rider-Waite deck and “the eclectic and expansive nature of the black diaspora,” she said.
“It made me feel validated to see a woman behind such prolific work,” Alexander said. Through researching Smith’s life story, Alexander realized she could become the first black woman to create a widely distributed tarot deck on her own. Alexander became “more humble and appreciative” of the fact that she will be able to take “ownership” of her work in a way that Smith, who died in 1951, was not able to.
Much like the Black Power tarot deck and Manzel’s Tarot, Alexander’s work is cultivating space for previously underrepresented communities, especially those whose roots stem from the African diaspora. Like Smith, women of color like Alexander, Rachel True, Bri Luna — and even me — are embracing intuition, creativity and community through the practice of tarot. Within this context, the cards aren’t a method of divination. They’re a restorative form of survival.
Sources: "Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story” and Biddy Tarot.