Pamela Colman Smith was the artist who created the popular Rider-Waite Tarot deck. Her working partnership with Arthur Edward Waite stemmed from her membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which she joined during the years 1901-03. Founded in 1888, the group's studies and occult development flowered during the Neptune/Pluto conjunction in Gemini (1891-93). The original form of the Order dissolved before World War I, as personality clashes, disputed leadership, and legal problems plagued the group. Much of modern occult practice is derived from the GD, and from subsequent splinter organizations created by former members.
Very little is known about Pamela Colman Smith. Few of her letters and personal possessions have been located to date. Her birth chart provides an opportunity for mystical detective work, and the object of this article is to provide a better understanding of the "First Lady of Tarot" through astrological delineation.
Pamela Colman Smith was a Sun-sign Aquarian, born February 16, 1878. She was born under a Lunar Eclipse, the Moon in Leo near the South Node. Her innovative, eccentric Aquarian personality was magnified as her Sun is in exact opposition to the ruler of Aquarius, Uranus. The Moon, South Node, and Uranus in Leo form the handle of a bucket-shaped chart. Life experiences are filtered through the planet(s) that form the focal point of the chart. The Moon/South Node/Uranus "handle" gave Pamela a uniquely original viewpoint that was far ahead of her time, derived through intuition and absorption of the past.
For this reason, I have used a birth time of 3:30 p.m., placing the Full Moon in the first house, with a 9 Leo rising. Pamela's abundant creativity and marked intuitive faculties, as well as photographs showing her as round-faced and almond-eyed, make this rectified birth time plausible.
This time of birth places the bulk of the planets on the western side of the chart, indicating her opportunities depended upon involvement with others. With the North Node and Sun in Aquarius, she was drawn to a life of peculiar associations. Since she was much younger than the original Golden Dawn members and founders, her natal Saturn in Pisces (9th house) is apt. She was drawn to mystic development through older people. Her working life revolved around art, the theater, music, and dramatic expression (ruled by Pisces).
The most exact aspect in her chart is between the asteroid Pallas (named for a regional variant of Athena) conjunct the North Node in Aquarius, both quintile Neptune. Pallas bestows the ability to accumulate diverse threads of ideas and information, and to weave them into innovative renditions. The quintile designates special talents. The Node contact shows her visionary work would eventually be disseminated to others. As further analysis will show, this chart hinges on Neptune as the primary source of both talent and frustrated ambitions.
Pamela's abilities were prone to critical testing by the squares between Mercury/Juno in the early degrees of Aquarius to Chiron/Neptune in Taurus. The early degrees of Taurus encourage individual development, while the Aquarian degrees are "primarily concerned with social, collective processes and the function of the individual within them." The conflict between the combined planets in this fixed-sign square defines the root of her life struggle.
The Mercury/Juno conjunction casts her as scribe to other people's
visions, particularly with Yeats and Waite. She designed theatrical
sets for William Butler Yeats, and it was he who introduced her
to the Golden Dawn. This
conjunction denotes her keen assimilation of diverse, multi-cultural influences, and adds a detached, avuncular overtone to her working partnerships.
The Chiron/Neptune conjunction provides form for inspiration, while improving upon prior standards in the creative process. Because of the experiential quality of Taurus, Pamela was able to absorb knowledge through a process of intuitive osmosis, and displayed a much greater actual facility than indicated by formal educational credentials. She achieved only the first degree of the Golden Dawn initiatory process (1 =10 , Zelator), although in the group for several years. The asteroid Chiron indicates a precocious aptitude for symbols, and is often prominently placed in the charts of tarotists. In Pamela's chart, Chiron's attachment to Neptune creates a desire for occult and religious symbolism, rituals, and ceremony; for ancient and traditional modes of worship. It also denotes difficulty in sustaining intimate relationships - she may have seemed rather remote and inscrutable to others.
This fixed-sign square pattern rigorously exercised her capacity to find a home for her abilities. The exact Juno/Chiron square indicates both challenge and wounding from artistic partnerships, but they were a necessity for providing stable (if temporary) structural elements to her career. Though possessed of abundant talent, Pamela never really had solid ground under her feet as an artist. She redirected some of her soaring imagination into building miniature-scale theater sets as an avoidance or coping mechanism, obscuring her actual lack of rootedness. Pamela required vents for the massive internal and external conflicts stirred by her relentlessly creative nature and hypersensitivity. The Aquarius-Taurus squares demanded intricate levels of selective perceptions, with Mercury and Chiron acting as filters between the individual and the collective cultural milieu.
This dynamic tension drew Pamela into the tumultuous cultural shifts during the first two decades of the 20th century. Her perceptual bent toward the mystical, theatrical life produced works of sublime artistry, yet she was never really anchored in that world.
The Rider-Waite Deck: 1907-1909
Symbols are the underlying cultural cognition of the psyche, and the basic operating principle of the tarot is the stimulation of intuition through a random display of a structured symbol set. Pamela's treatment of the figures and settings enhanced the range of expression of the block-print styles used in older decks. Her line drawings show the mannered, graceful posturing of fin de siecle theater, capturing poses and gestures required of actors in the days before spotlights and microphones. Though not tremendously detailed, the backgrounds for the primary figures in the pip cards give a feeling of place and time not provided in previous decks. She enhanced the elements of spatial dimension and distance contrasts, and populated the cards with animals, children and flora. While she relied on previous decks for the symbolism in the trump cards, the fully illustrated pip cards were an original feature.
True to her Aquarian nativity, Smith's artistic style is a reflection of her time period's great enthusiasm for illustrations in published literature and poster art. Her drawings use elements of style popularized by contemporary illustrators Harry Crane, Edmond Dulac, Alphonse Mucha and the Robinson brothers, to name a few. Improved printing equipment allowed her to include more details in the final renderings.
The original commission for the deck took place sometime during 1907-08, shortly after her Saturn return at age 29. Her progressed chart and transits give a general idea of what may be occurring in modern artists' charts while they are creating tarot decks. Inspirational planet Jupiter transited Leo in 1908, activating her Sun/Moon signature. Often this planet brings major projects with immense scope for originality. The deck was an attractive commission, as it offered her a chance to do something exciting.
Pamela's progressed Midheaven was moving toward a conjunction with natal Pluto, a sign of work on deeply occult matters. Further, progressed Mercury and Sun were conjunct in the late degrees of Pisces, and progressed Jupiter was conjunct her natal Juno. Both of these planetary sets indicate that the inspiration for the deck was stirred by partners, but Juno indicates that a woman (Florence Farr Emery, perhaps) would have been an important source of ideas. Progressed Ceres and Saturn were also conjunct. This important feature suggests that Waite (the authority figure, Saturn) may have been more instrumental than expected in overseeing the project. He had a vision to harvest through her artistic skills (Ceres).
Her progressed Venus moved to conjunct her natal Sun during
these years, another indication that she was receiving advice
about the drawings from a woman (or women), very likely amplifying
the ideas provided by Waite. This Aquarian conjunction shows extensive
communication and a variety of research material reviewed during
the artistic process. The Sun/Venus symbolism suggests "a
woman in the light." With progressed
Sun/Mercury in Pisces, the sign of masks, the indefinable quality of the faces in the deck is likely a result of disguising the people who posed for her. One may imagine her sketching her actress friends, Florence or Ellen, rehearsing for plays.
As the Sun/Venus pair was squared by progressed Pluto and Mars, Waite was probably rather critical of her work, demanding painstaking modifications on the sketches submitted. He may have been quite concerned with getting it finished within his prescribed time limits. Further, he may have approached other artists about the project before turning to Pamela - she may not have been his first choice of artists, but available and willing to work for what he was willing to pay. Saturn can be stingy!
In mid 1908, Venus retrograded in Cancer. This provokes speculation about the direction they were to take with the deck, likely going back to the drawing board during this period. It is possible that they came up with the idea for illustrated pip cards during this period, as this Venus retrograde would have made critical yet favorable aspects with both her natal and progressed planets. They may have made decisions about the precise symbolism to be used in the trump cards, based partly on the historical decks available at the time (the Sola-Busca), and with Waite's own research into the hidden lore of tarot symbolism.
The deck was published by Rider and Sons at the end of 1909. Several aspects point to conclusions and endings in Pamela's chart. Jupiter was transiting Virgo, in opposition to her natal/progressed cluster of planets in Pisces. Some money came her way at that time - although not very much! Transiting Neptune was trine her natal Saturn, suggesting that the project would experience great longevity, and transcend its beginnings. Transiting Pluto trined her Sun, an excellent aspect for recognition, albeit in the long run. During her lifetime, her partner's recognition would exceed that attributed to her, as the Sun and Pluto are both masculine entities. A Solar Eclipse on Dec 12, 1909 at 20 Sagittarius squared her natal Saturn (limitations). Once the deck was turned over to the publisher, she relinquished control over her artwork, and any claim to future returns.
As noted, a great proportion of the aspects by transit and progression point to the importance of the partnership with Waite, and advice from others. Artists working alone on decks should expect to see dynamic aspects from Saturn (discipline and persistence, organization of ideas), Neptune (mystic art), and Pluto (deep occult matters). Helpful aspects from Uranus would confer public popularity; while beneficial aspects from Jupiter, which Smith did not have, would be ideal for reaping prosperity from the project.
Smith's natal Jupiter (24 Capricorn) is closely trine Pluto (23 Taurus). This denotes the acquisition of great wealth. The earth sign placements of these planets would seem to support this assertion, and it is well known that the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is the best-selling tarot deck of the past century.
Why didn't Pamela "Pixie" Smith receive rewards from her labor? There are notable indicators that point to the pitiful fact that she died in abject poverty. First, Pluto squares her Sun/Uranus opposition, forming a fixed T-square. In this rectified chart, Pluto occupies the 10th house (career) and the Sun/Uranus opposition crosses the 2d/8th house axis, the give-and-take houses ruling financial affairs. With an 8th house Sun, often work is not recognized during the native's life time, but posthumously. Her spotty opportunities for paid artistic work probably made her feel compelled (Pluto) to accept any paying job from people whose association she valued (Sun), and where the opportunity to experiment or assert her originality was high (Uranus in Leo).
Additionally, Pluto is in an exact square to the Nodes and Pallas. This exposed her potential for Athenian achievement to catastrophe and uncontrollable forces - namely, World War One. The tarot deck, her magazine "The Green Sheaf", and notable gallery exhibitions for photographer Arthur Steiglitz all took place in the years surrounding her Saturn return. By the time the war swept through Europe, her Golden Dawn associates were scattered to the winds, and her opportunities as an artist, set and costume designer evaporated.
Saturn in Pisces, with difficult aspects, did not support a strong business sense, one that would have led her to conduct her artistic partnerships with better payments for work. Saturn and Jupiter are sextile and in mutual reception, so she enjoyed the acquaintance of the most famous occultists, artists, musicians and theater people of the time. With exalted Venus sextile Neptune, her focus was beauty and creation, not savvy contracts for much-needed residuals (if those existed before World War I, they were probably not offered to women). Thus her gender in the ambient culture (female/Pisces) created limits to establishing herself in a career (Saturn).
Her stressfully aspected Saturn shows a continual struggle to derive financial gains from her most important projects. Eventually, she became disillusioned with the slow sales of her work and rejections from commercial publishers. This frustrating lack of commercial success caused her to remark in 1914 that she "didn't care for people anymore." In spite of this cold rejection by the world, Pamela continued to write books and illustrate, reflecting her stalwart belief in her superb abilities regardless of the lack of recognition and financial rewards.
As she approached the age of forty, Pamela received a small inheritance, and moved to the English coast to an artists colony called The Lizard (©T Å ©N). Eventually, suffering from both physical problems and shrinking financial means, Pamela relocated to Bude, Cornwall during World War II.
Pamela Colman Smith died on September 18, 1951. The lunar eclipse three days before her death was conjunct her natal Saturn. In her death chart (time unknown), Pluto and Mars conjunct her natal South Node. This effectively eliminated easy access to information about her life and works by later biographers. The South Node is a point of confusion and obscurity, and the Pluto/Mars conjunction with the South Node is immensely destructive.
This is further confirmed by the stellium of 4 natal planets in Taurus: Chiron (wounding); Neptune (dissolving); Mars (violence); and Pluto (upheaval). In fact, the original art work for her tarot deck has disappeared, and the original printing plates were destroyed during the bombing of London in World War II. At her death all of her possessions and works were auctioned to settle her debts, thus most of her life's tangible works vanished into the hands of strangers.
The final point in the natal chart analysis is to emphasize her emerging recognition in the 1990's as the artistic genius of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Two coincident factors are largely responsible for her rising star. Pluto - her destiny's nemesis - opposed its natal position in 1993-94. This transit turned her natal T-square into a Grand Cross. Her contribution could no longer be hidden in the shadows of the occult underworld, but must manifest in the light. Also in the mid-90's, the seminal Uranus/Neptune conjunction occurred near her natal Jupiter in Capricorn - the planet of fame and fortune. Not only was her work recognized, but the name of the work, the Rider-Waite Deck, has been changed in the popular consciousness (Uranus/Neptune) to the "Waite-Smith Deck."
The entrance of Uranus and Neptune into Aquarius in the late 90's re-activated her natal Aquarius/Taurus squares. This stimulated a resurgence of public interest in her works, life, tarot deck, and even the mystery of where her final resting place is located (a tenth house matter). Her cards are broadcast on television daily, and appear in magazines and books everywhere. It is interesting to note that many non-tarot people assume that this is the only deck there is!
There is additional potential for her hidden works to be revealed through chance recognition during these long-term transits of Aquarius. The movement of transiting Jupiter in the next 4-5 years may bring items to light through inheritance or an estate changing hands.
The innovative Rider-Waite-Smith deck has expanded and amplified the utility of the tarot over the past 90 years, and remains the definitive version of the symbolic content of pip cards. The companion book ,"The Pictorial Key to the Tarot" by A. E. Waite was published in 1911, and was illustrated with line drawings from the deck. Pixie Smith's contribution to the tarot is unmatched in the past century, and it is only appropriate that she receive recognition for this.
In tribute to her legacy, it may be said that those who reach for the riches of the earth and the bounty of Pluto's treasure may build monuments to their own remembrance; but those who aspire to the treasures of the stars and the wisdom of the ages may have a temple of remembrance built for them by the gods.
Corinne Pamela Colman Smith was born in Pimlico, Middlesex, England (00W22, 51N29) on February 16, 1878, and died on September 18, 1951 at Bude, Cornwall (04W33, 50N50).
(from Greer, Appendix F, pages 405 - 409) Rodden Rating: X
Mary Greer. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses.
Appendix F, pp 405 - 409 provide all dates and factual data used
in this article.
Ibid. pg. 406
This eclipse occurred at 10:30 a.m. GMT on February 17 1878 at 28Ò Leo, about 19 hours after she was born.
Dane Rudhyar, An Astrological Mandala, p. 249.
Mary Greer, Women of the Golden Dawn, pp. 318; 407-408.
Ibid. p. 407.
Ibid. pg. 405.
Ibid. pg. 409.
Ibid. pg. 409.
George, Demetra and Douglas Bloch. Asteroid Goddesses. ACS Publications, Inc., 1986.
Greer, Mary K. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. Park Street Press, 1995.
Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume III. U. S. Games Systems, 1990.
Rudhyar, Dane. An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and its 360 Symbolic Phases. Vintage 1974.
Schulman, Martin Karmic Astrology: The Moon's Nodes and Reincarnation. Volume I. Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1975.
The Waite-Smith Tarot Deck is available in various editions (Rider-Waite, Albano Waite, the Universal Waite, a miniature edition, and others) from U. S. Games Systems, Stamford, Connecticut. (www.usgamesinc.com)
Elizabeth Hazel is an astrologer and tarotist, and the author of "Tarot Decoded" (Weiser Books, 2004). She is also the creator of the Vala Tarot, and has written numerous articles about tarot and astrology. She lives in the Historic Old West End of Toledo, Ohio one of the largest extant Victorian neighborhoods in the U.S.A. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article focuses on Pamela Colman Smith (1878 - 1951), the artist who created the popular Rider-Waite Tarot. Her natal chart is delineated to provide a concise description of her personality, talents, and life conflicts.
Smith's work on the deck with A. E. Waite from 1907-09 is scrutinized. Transits and progressions provide clues to her artistic process and sources of inspiration. Her lack of financial rewards and posthumous recognition is discussed.
The conclusion gives a summary of her withdrawal from London after World War II and the end of her life. Planetary transits in the 1990's that coincided with growing recognition of Smith's contribution to tarot are noted.
Smith, Pamela Colman. Artist. Astrology. Chart Analysis. Biographical. RWS Tarot.
These charts were cast using the resources of www.astro.com a lovely site. Check it out - Holly