The High Priestess5 Tarot Readers on the Legacy of Pamela Colman Smith

Photograph of Pamela Colman Smith (Photo credit: Library of Stuart R. Kaplan)

Four years ago, I purchased my first Rider-Waite deck, the best-known tarot deck, from a bookshop in Greenwich Village. Squeezing past the crowd of customers swarmed around a table filled with crystals and pendulums, I scanned shelf after shelf of tarot decks: cat tarot, vampire tarot, mermaid tarot. I didn’t know where to begin. A woman nearby asked if I was looking for a deck for myself or for a friend. Afraid of sounding like a newbie, I lied and said that it was for a friend. “Try the Rider-Waite,” she suggested. “It’s a classic.”

Once I got home, I slid out the vibrant cards. They felt familiar and mysterious at once. After shuffling through the Major and Minor Arcana, I reached for the black-and-white booklet that came with the deck. As I read through the first few pages, I came across the name of the artist who designed the cards that surrounded me: Pamela Colman Smith. Her contributions to the deck boiled down to two small paragraphs, Smith’s life and legacy felt like a footnote in the shadow of the occult scholar Arthur Edward Waite. A biography released earlier this year, Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story by Stuart R. Kaplan, Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons explores Smith’s life, but her name and story continue to be largely glossed over in discussions of the deck.

Born on February 16, 1878, in London, Corinne Pamela Colman Smith, also known as “Pixie,” grew up abroad and split her formative years between England, Jamaica, and New York. Smith’s penchant for narrative manifested itself in various mediums: illustrations, oil paintings, poetry, folktales, miniature theatre, costume design, and ultimately tarot. Smith began her studies at the Pratt Institute at the age of 15. In 1899, she published a collection of illustrated Jamaican folktales and soon met W.B. Yeats, who commissioned illustrations from Smith to accompany his work. While working with Yeats, Smith became a member of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Shortly after, she met Arthur Edward Waite. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, Waite describes Smith as “a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist.” Waite asked Smith to design the 78 cards that later became known as the Major and Minor Arcana. Although this project would introduce countless generations to Smith’s work, she herself considered the project “a big job for little cash.”

Originally published in 1909 as the Rider deck—later known as the Rider-Waite and, most recently, the Smith-Waite deck—Smith’s iteration of Waite’s vision became the standard for future iterations of tarot and a touchstone deck for tarot practitioners and students alike. Despite this, many are still unaware of her story and the expansiveness of her work. In honor of Smith’s legacy, I spoke with five women of the African diaspora who practice tarot—Courtney Alexander, Vei Darling, Staci Ivori, Bri Luna, and Rachel True—about the power of tarot and representation and how learning about Smith’s contributions to tarot is an affirmation.

When did you start using tarot?

Courtney Alexander: I began using tarot about three years ago. I had experience [with] readings, but because of my Christian upbringing I [was] afraid of delving into tarot. My first couple of experiences with tarot readings in particular were not especially great, but did pique my interest enough to begin understanding the tools that were being used.

Vei Darling: I started tarot very recently and publicly. I had been wanting to get into tarot for years, but felt the call more for astrology, so I put it on the back burner, hoping to be gifted a deck from someone. Well, that never happened, so after a tarot talk at The Wing DUMBO, I got a deck—Tarot del Fuegoand have been using that ever since. It’s been maybe three or four months and it’s going really well.

Staci Ivori: Tarot wasn’t something I was immediately attracted to. I had received readings for entertainment, but it wasn’t until I actualized a repetitive situation that had shown up in a reading that I had an aha moment and decided to form a relationship with tarot and study the cards. That was about four years ago.

Bri Luna: I began studying and using the tarot at a very early age. I’ve always loved to study the imagery, symbolism, and history of the cards. I share tarot spreads with my community, and I work with the cards to connect deeper into my own intuitive visions as a means to help bring clarity to issues in my life. It is a practice that I hold very dear to my heart. I have over 200 decks in my collection.

Rachel True: The first time I encountered the symbols and the story of tarot, before I even came across the deck, was as a little kid. I spent a lot of time looking through [Carl C.] Jung’s Man and His Symbols. I really loved that book as a child. I got my first tarot deck [at] around age 8 from a family friend, and I discovered that the images [in the cards] were the same images from Jung’s book, so that really hooked me. I felt that the deck was speaking a language I could understand [and] parse if I sat with it long enough.

The High Priestess card from the 1909 Rider-Waite tarot deck (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

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What do you love most about tarot?

Courtney Alexander: I especially love the versatility of tarot, from the artwork to its many methods of use. Tarot [is] not just this mystical set of cards; in some people’s minds, [they are] possessed by spirits or other entities to give you messages. They were vital to me developing spiritually as well as emotionally. Tarot gave me a tool to uncover the deeper parts of myself that I did not initially have a language [for] or understanding of.

Bri Luna: Jay Weidner says, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a symbol is worth a thousand pictures.” I study symbolism and the subconscious mind. I am a very visual person—symbols speak to me. I take in the feelings of the colors, the patterns, and design. I allow the cards to actually “speak” to me. I have never cared for “rules” in guidebooks. Children are such exceptional tarot readers [because] they have no preconceived notions of what the cards are “supposed to mean”; they speak freely. The beauty and power of tarot [is that] you can never stop learning something new.

Vei Darling: I love divination. I love figuring out the symbolism of the artistic representation of each deck and trying to get what it must mean in terms of the situation. I especially love when a card screams out to me before I have time to even try to read it.

Staci Ivori: I love that tarot is a mirror for what you already instinctively know.

Rachel True: For me, tarot is an immediate resource. My school of tarot is very Jungian, but what I love about it is that it’s a shrink-in-a-box for me. If you are freaking out and can’t get to sleep because your anxiety or your depression is hitting you and you can’t call a friend at 2:00 a.m., you can drag out your tarot deck to help decipher the now and what choices can help you manifest the future that you want. Also, as I dig in and utilize tarot as a practice, it’s helped my intuition grow and my psychic sensitivities are way more heightened. That’s a choice that I made; tarot was an integral part of opening that part of myself.

I honor Pamela as an ancestor, as a tarot fairy godparent. I am grateful for her work, and will share her story to anyone who will listen.

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How has seeing yourself represented in tarot, within the deck or through community, enhanced your connection to the cards?

Courtney Alexander:
We understand that language is vital to clear communication—having the same language is what forms communities and helps us connect. The same goes for visual and audio representation in our spiritual tools. It provides a different language and helps people connect in a more nuanced way. When I look at my cards, I see myself, my family, [and] my ancestral spirits. I see those who are here for me. When I have used other decks in the past, I never felt the cards were truly made for me or [have accommodated] who I am in this existence, in this life right now, so through creating [my deck], I realized the importance of that cultural connection and how it affects the language of the spiritual tools we use.

Bri Luna: I’m actually laughing because I have had the honor of being immortalized on two different tarot decks (the Starchild tarot and The She Wolfe tarot deck). Seeing representation of Black and Brown spirits and bodies on tarot decks [is] so important. For so long the tarot has been very whitewashed, very Eurocentric.

Vei Darling: Magick is about accessing all aspects of myself, communing with them, and integrating them into my life. Tarot helps access that which I need clarity on. As a person who is marginalized for their mere existence and vilified for pride in their existence, accessing all of me requires decks that speak to every part of me. Representation implies respect. It implies that my existence, humanity, and power are respected enough to give me something tangible to connect to. It’s important because it’s ridiculous for someone who has never experienced what I have to condescend to think they could ever truly express my truth or explore my depths. For this reason, I’m most interested in finding decks that resonate with all of me. Magick is symbolism and if I don’t feel myself in a deck, I would hardly be able to use it.

Staci Ivori: A person and their relationship with tarot or personal deck becomes a deep bond. When you can connect with others who share that bond, our personal power collectively grows. In 2016, I took a deep dive in the Brooklyn Fools Tarot Journey, a six-month tarot intensive. The connection and community I created with the other students and our teachers is a bond that is still strong today. My tarot sisters played a huge part in allowing me to see my own gifts and realize how important community is to me!

Rachel True: I didn’t have what the girls today have. There wasn’t an internet community of tarot readers or Wiccans. I had to go buy books, really dig in, and study by myself and with people around me. Growing up, there wasn’t a visible community of people who looked like me, which is part of the beauty of the times today.

The Voyager deck, which is a multicultural collage deck, was probably the first time that I saw actual Brown faces on a deck. I came up in different times and it’s beautiful that there’s ready-made community for people, but you have to be careful. You have to make sure that whatever community you’re a part of is in alignment. You have to make sure that you use your powers for good, whatever community you are a part of.

Pamela Colman Smith with her theater figures, circa 1912. (Photo credit: Library of Stuart R. Kaplan)

How has Pamela Colman Smith and her contributions to the Rider-Waite deck impacted your relationship with the deck? How has her legacy affirmed you?

Courtney Alexander: Learning that the Rider-Waite deck was created by a woman of color was a very surprising yet affirming revelation, but it was also sad to realize that although we have contributed to [the] world of tarot from the very beginning, there still had not been a space created for us to continue to make contributions in a public way. It made me feel even more proud to be a part of this legacy in our community, to create representation in a way that Pamela Colman Smith may not have been able to even if she wanted to.

Vei Darling: I don’t use the Rider-Waite deck at present. I sent my best friend a deck for her birthday last year, but I never really identified with it because it seemed old, stuffy, and white. To find that it was a woman of African descent [who designed] it? It’s awe-inspiring. That is what representation does. It connects us to that which perhaps we would have never connected before.

Staci Ivori: In my own journey learning about tarot, while definitely enriching and rewarding, I’d felt isolated. Most often than not, I was the only Black person in the room. I still find myself in those places a lot within the healing community. Knowing Pamela Colman Smith, a woman of color with an added queer identity, was the illustrator and contributor to the most wildly popular tarot deck is fucking mind-blowing and beautiful! It makes me feel sacred and in total alignment with the universe in the work I do today, and that I’ve made one huge connection back to something that was always mine!

Rachel True: I’m excited that there’s a global community out there, because when I started with tarot I didn’t know about Pamela. I knew the name on the deck, but I didn’t know the history behind the person. Knowing that we had a stake in [tarot] is affirming. I also think about her and how it might have been hard for her to only represent Anglo people in the cards. I wonder what her process was like; there must have been a sense of isolation, which I can relate [to] as an actress who came up in the ’90s and had to work in a predominately white industry. I feel like she must have been an artistic dreamer and there’s a little bit of isolation in that as well.

Bri Luna: When I found out that Pamela was a mixed-race Black woman, mystic, and artist like myself, I felt proud. I felt even more connected to the deck that gave me and so many others their first training wheels into their subconscious. I also found her story very relatable: to work in this realm creatively as a woman of color and have your work imitated on a large scale with little to no recognition for what you’ve sparked into the minds of thousands. I felt angry and sad for her that it took over 100 years for this brilliant woman—this beautiful queer Black woman—to get her respect as the mastermind behind the imagery of these cards. Which is why, now more than ever, she has inspired me to continuously show up for myself and for other WOC working in the realm of the occult and taking up space in this mystical renaissance. I honor Pamela as an ancestor, as a tarot fairy godparent. I am grateful for her work, and will share her story to anyone who will listen.

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Dianca London Potts earned her MFA in fiction from The New School. She is the former prose editor of LIT Magazine and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, a Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop participant, a VONA Voices alumna, and the online editor of Well-Read Black Girl. Her words have been featured in Kweli Journal, Lenny Letter, The Village Voice, Obsidian, and elsewhere. She currently works and resides in Brooklyn. You can follow her musings on Twitter via @diancalondon.