The Mystical History Behind the Tarot

March 6, 2024

Many Christians oppose tarot due to its links with divination and fortune-telling. Yet, some are embracing the cards for self-guided spiritual reflection. Gil Stafford, a retired Episcopal priest, incorporates tarot alongside the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs in his practice. Brittany Muller, author of The Contemplative Tarot: A Christian Guide to the Cards, combines tarot with the Book of Common Prayer for visio divina. Carl McColman, a writer and spiritual director, offers an online course on the anonymous book Meditations on the Tarot, a Christian mystical text with an afterword by theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Personally, what intrigues me about tarot isn’t fortune-telling or ritual, nor the integration of feminine wisdom into my Christian faith. Rather, it’s the cards’ captivating allure and their sense of taboo, instilled during my Christian upbringing in the 1980s Satanic Panic era.

Learning about the deck’s history, I was struck by a lesser-known fact: its artist, Pamela Colman Smith, had no religious affiliation before working on it but later converted to Catholicism. Despite gaining recognition in occult and feminist circles, Smith’s contributions were often overlooked in her time. However, she was intricately connected to notable figures like Bram Stoker and T.S. Eliot, and was even initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn alongside W.B. Yeats.

Smith’s story also highlights the exploitation of her talents; she was poorly compensated and received little credit for her tarot art. Despite this, she eventually found herself a Roman Catholic and caretaker of a chapel in Cornwall, though details of her conversion are sparse.

Contemplating this, I wonder about Smith’s journey and the parallels between her path and my own Christian upbringing, symbolized by the Rider-Waite deck resting alongside my religious artifacts.

The origins of tarot are somewhat elusive, likely emerging in 15th-century Italy as a card game centered on trumps. Over time, these cards evolved into a spiritual tool for contemplation and divination, with the trump cards forming the Major Arcana—comprising figures like the Fool, the Magician, and the High Priestess—while the remaining cards became the Minor Arcana, featuring suits such as swords, cups, wands, and coins.

When reading tarot, one typically begins by focusing on a specific question through prayer or meditation. Drawing cards, the seeker then reflects on the symbols and imagery, aided by intuition, guidebooks, or both. Interpretation can range from a single card draw to intricate spreads, each offering insights into past, present, and future, or detailing situations, obstacles, and solutions. While tarot doesn’t necessarily involve magic or extrasensory perception, it encourages creative storytelling, as evidenced by Italo Calvino’s use of tarot cards in The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

Interpretations vary based on individual experiences and perspectives. For instance, a reading indicating deception and manipulation might resonate with common life experiences rather than supernatural phenomena. However, some practitioners view tarot through a lens of mysticism and divination, a perspective that has historically alarmed certain Christian communities. Despite this, figures like Antoine Court de Gébelin, Éliphas Lévi, and Arthur Waite, who contributed to tarot’s development, had ties to Christian mysticism. Waite, in particular, saw tarot as a symbolic research grounded in mystic experimentation, delving into ancient wisdom rather than mere fortune-telling.

The collaboration between Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith in creating the Rider-Waite tarot deck illustrates this fusion of occult practice and Christian mysticism. While Waite provided scholarly insights, Smith infused the deck with her artistic skill and intuitive symbolism. Their working relationship, though productive, was marked by condescension from Waite, reflecting the gender dynamics of the time. Smith’s conversion to Catholicism shortly after completing the deck adds another layer to her spiritual journey, suggesting a continuation rather than a rejection of her occult interests.

In essence, tarot’s history is a tapestry woven from threads of mysticism, symbolism, and personal interpretation, reflecting the diverse spiritual landscapes it has traversed throughout the centuries.

Smith’s tarot designs were heavily influenced by her involvement in the suffragist movement, where she crafted political posters in her distinct style. Through her art, she developed what O’Connor refers to as a “symbolic lexicon” of womanhood, which continues to captivate and inspire many women when contemplating the Rider-Waite deck. The intertwining of feminist politics and occult spirituality has been a recurring theme throughout history. In the United States, the spiritualist movement intersected with women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, while in England, esoteric religion provided a platform for unorthodox visions, as noted by Joy Dixon in Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England. This resonance with contemporary times is evident in the resurgence of interest in reclaiming witchcraft and ancestral spiritual practices, often in opposition to patriarchal structures. O’Connor asserts that Smith occupies a significant position at this juncture, despite her relative obscurity.

Smith’s life was marked by challenging relationships with domineering men, exemplified by Waite. O’Connor suggests that her marginalization may also be attributed to the prejudices of her time, encompassing racial, sexual, class, and artistic biases. Born to American parents in London in 1878, Smith spent part of her childhood in Jamaica and the United States before returning to London in 1900. Her androgynous appearance, lack of marriage or children, and likely multiracial heritage further contributed to her marginalization. She was subjected to derogatory descriptions reflecting the era’s prejudices, with references to her appearance ranging from class snobbery to racial stereotypes.

Smith embraced her enigmatic origins, often dressing in Afro-Jamaican attire and sharing Jamaican folktales like the Anansi stories. Rather than conforming to societal norms, she leaned into her mysterious identity, which added to her allure within esoteric circles like the Golden Dawn. Despite this, her persistent othering hindered her financial, professional, and social success.

Considering Smith’s minimal recognition and compensation for her groundbreaking work on the Rider-Waite deck, it becomes evident that the gender dynamics of occult England mirrored those of Roman Catholicism. However, despite the patriarchal structures surrounding her, Smith found solace and devotion in her later years within the Catholic Church, aligning with Waite’s belief that tarot and Catholicism were paths toward mystical wisdom. For the woman behind the iconic imagery cherished by contemporary tarot enthusiasts, the cards led her on a journey deeper into the heart of the church.

At least one of her contemporaries was disappointed in her decision. Of Smith’s conversion, Yeats’s younger sister Lily wrote to her father:

She is now an ardent and pious Roman Catholic, which has added to her happiness but taken from her friends. She now has the dullest of friends, selected because they are R.C., converts most of them, half-educated people who want to see both eyes in a profile drawing.

O’Connor suggested in an interview that the disparaging remarks about Catholicism likely stemmed more from the Yeats family’s Protestant biases than from Smith’s actual social or spiritual beliefs. Clearly, Catholicism didn’t hinder her artistic output. While she participated in religious practices such as attending mass and confession at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair, she remained actively involved in the suffrage movement and even held a significant solo exhibition in New York. After her conversion, she continued her artistic pursuits, contributing illustrations to Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm and Charles Perrault’s Blue Beard, a tale critiquing patriarchal power dynamics. She also illustrated an English edition of Paul Claudel’s The Way of the Cross in 1917, including a woodcut featuring communion.

Yet, despite her Catholic faith, Smith passed away in poverty in Cornwall. While her exact burial site remains unknown, her Bible has been discovered, adorned with both tarot symbols and Catholic imagery in the margins, suggesting an ongoing dialogue between the two spiritual worlds.

When I contemplate Smith’s tarot designs, I find myself searching for her narrative, a tale that seems to intersect with my own beginnings. Among her creations, the Fool card resonates with me deeply. It signifies the start of the journey, a blank canvas teeming with potential. The Fool exudes an air of carefree optimism, standing in the sunlight with his faithful dog at his side. Yet, lurking beneath the surface is the precipice of uncertainty, symbolized by the dog’s warning barks.

In many ways, I see myself reflected in the Fool—not in his perpetual beauty, but in his enduring naivety. Despite considering myself a pessimist, my therapist contends that my ability to start anew hints at an underlying optimism. My spiritual quest embodies this contradiction; yearning to believe, yet grappling with doubt. The Fool’s companion, the dog, serves as a reminder of truths I struggle to acknowledge.

The Fool also evokes memories of Smith herself. Like the jester of a card deck, she played the role of a social outsider, continually reinventing herself out of necessity or desire. Through her spiritual exploration, she unwittingly left behind a legacy that transcended her expectations.

For me, this card encapsulates a narrative of resilience—the Fool’s unwavering optimism despite the looming abyss. Each time it appears, it offers the opportunity to begin anew, a reminder of the enduring journey of self-discovery.

In conclusion, the intertwined narratives of Pamela Colman Smith’s life and her iconic tarot designs illuminate the profound connection between mysticism and the tarot. Through her journey as an artist, suffragist, and spiritual seeker, Smith traversed the realms of both occultism and Catholicism, embodying the dynamic interplay between the mystical and the mundane. Her illustrations, infused with symbolism and intuition, serve as a bridge between the esoteric and the every day, inviting seekers to explore the depths of their spiritual quests. In the tarot, we find it used as a mirror reflecting the complexities of human experience, echoing the timeless pursuit of wisdom and enlightenment across diverse spiritual traditions. Thus, the enduring allure of the tarot lies not only in its mystical symbolism but also in its ability to awaken the seeker to the profound mysteries of existence, guiding them along the winding path of spiritual discovery with themselves and God.

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