Waite’s Misunderstandings of Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot

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This article was first published in the Restored Temple of Hermes Newsletter in 2005

copyright Robert M. Place 2005

As I mentioned in my last article on the famous, 1909, Waite-Smith Tarot, I often find in books and articles that Waite is referred to as the designer of the deck. I do not believe that the term designer should be applied to Waite. To design, in its artistic meaning, is to create a visual plan for a work of art or to actually create the work. One cannot design a visual work of art by describing it in words and Waite was not known to possess a talent for visual communication. He hired Smith to design the deck because she did possess the talent. The question then becomes; How involved was Waite in this project?

In his memoirs, Waite specifies that he paid special attention to the direction of three trumps but we cannot assume that he had as much control over all of the cards. It is most probable that for the Major Arcana Waite described the design that he desired for each card, complete with the symbolism it should contain and the significance of each symbol, and, then, he would have stepped out of the picture and let Smith work in her usual spontaneous and intuitive manor. Waite seems to have given Smith more freedom to express her visionary talent in the creation of the fifty-six Minor Arcana, which comprised the bulk of the work. When the art was complete, Waite looked at each piece and wrote a description for his book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.

That the art came first and the descriptions second, is demonstrated by the fact that Waite at times misinterprets what he is looking at. As this is not always obvious to Wait’s readers, I am often asked to give examples. Therefore, I will describe some differences between the words and the art here.

Smith Cups01

The most often sited example is the Waite-Smith Ace of Cups. The Waite-Smith Ace of Cups depicts a hand emerging from a cloud holding a chalice. A dove is depositing a host in the chalice and five streams are emerging from the chalice as in a fountain and pouring down to the pond below. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite says, “the hand issues from the cloud holding in its palm the cup from which four streams are pouring.”


This is an image that borrows heavily from Christian iconography. The cup seems to be an allegorical image of the Grail. The dove is the standard Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit and the host with the cross is the body of Christ. This Grail is marked with the letter “M” representing Mary. The Grail is being depicted as the body of Mary, which is a vessel receiving the body and blood of Christ. The five streams represent the five wounds, which Christ bled at his crucifixion to bring eternal life to the world. It appears that, Waite would prefer to connect the Grail to the fountain in the center of Eden from which four rivers flowed. He, therefore, saw only four streams.

Smith 9Cups

The next example will be less obvious to most readers. On the Nine of Cups Smith depicts a man sitting boldly in the center facing us with his legs spread and his arms folded. Behind him is a curved table with nine cups. Smith has depicted him as fat with a smug smile. His body gesture is a classic example of defensiveness and defiance, as if he is guarding his cups, which are obviously too many for one person. Of the listed divinatory associations he seems to be illustrating victory, success, and advantage, but Smith has depicted these in an unfavorable light, as something selfish. However, Waite seems unaware of these overtones and describes the character as “a goodly personage” who “has feasted to his heart’s content.”

Smith Swords6

The Six of the Swords depict a man propelling a boat with a pole. In front of him, sit a woman and a child and in front of them six vertical swords seem to be stuck into the boat. The figures have their backs toward us and their heads are bowed as if in sorrow, which is appropriate considering their heavy load of swords and the overall heaviness of the design. The water on the right side of the boat is choppy and turbulent and the water to the left is calm. Waite seems not to notice the differences in the texture of the water. He only says that “the course is smooth” and, in spite of the oversized swords, that “the freight is light.”

Smith Swords11

On Smith’s Page of Swords the trees and clouds are blowing in the wind, birds are flying and the ground seems to be swirling. Everything in the design seems to be moving except the page himself, who stands defiantly in the center on a rise in the earth with his weight on one foot holding his sword aloft and looking over his shoulder.   Waite, however, says that the page is “in the act of swift walking.” Even if his right leg, the one not bearing weight, is preparing to swing forward and allow him to step off the rise, this is not a depiction of walking but of a pause in the walk a moment of stillness in the midst of this commotion.

Smith Pents07

Waite says that the man on the Seven of Pentacles is “a young man leaning on his staff” and looking “intently at seven pentacles attached to a clump of greenery on his right.” Waite has missed a small detail at the bottom of the “staff” that depicts the head of a hoe. The pole is not a staff but the handle of the hoe. With this detail added, the picture now suggests that the man has cultivated the greenery on his right and he is admiring the fruits of his labor. Smith’s inspiration for this card is possibly an 1859 painting by Millet called “Man with a Hoe.”


Smith’s image for the Eight of Pentacles is based on The Sola Busca Tarot’s Six of Coins which represents a metal worker raising the shield like disks that are the suit symbols for that deck. In Smith’s design, the craft worker is sitting at a bench and using a small hammer to chase the stars on the metal pentacles. When he is done, he hangs them from a board possibly to display them for sale. Waite calls him “an artist in stone at his work.” But, the pentacles are too thin for stone, his bench is too light, the pentacles are hung by a cord or a wire that would be difficult to attach to stone and too weak to hold its weight, and they are colored yellow, representing gold. Waite wanted him to be the apprentice to the artist on the Three of Pentacles, who is carving stone. The man is doing production work in contrast to the individually creative work of the artist on the Three of Pentacles.

Smith Pents08

There are other examples in which Waite’s descriptions of Smith’s illustrations seem vague or uncertain but the ones I have listed here are examples where I strongly disagree with Waite’s interpretation of the picture. I feel that these examples demonstrate that Waite was not the author of these designs and that he only commented on them after they were complete. All of these examples are cards from the four minor suits but there are also examples of discrepancies in Waite’s descriptions of the trumps. But because this discussion will be more involved, I will save it for my next article.

About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
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7 Responses to Waite’s Misunderstandings of Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot

  1. spaceloom says:

    Could it be, though, the other way around? Could Waite have written these descriptions which Smith used as springboard for her work? She took the words as guides, but the design itself emerged with its own unity (as designs will do) and sometimes this required a slight deviation from the notes?

    • robertmplace says:

      That would be highly unlikely. First, that is not the way the relationship between an illustrator and an author works. And, second, Smith was not even commissioned as an illustrator but as the designer. Waite says this and all of the early descriptions of the deck by the publisher say this. The editor even mentions that Smith researched early decks for her designs. Take the Seven of pentacles for example, If Waite wrote that the man is leaning on his staff, why would Smith change it to a hoe and place him in a garden where the tool belongs for him to have completed his work? It is more likely that Waite misinterpreted the picture.

  2. markwoff says:

    This is a fascinating article. Not sure it makes a strong case for a clueless Waite. It is at least *as likely* that Waite provided a pre-conceived interpretation supposed to inform the art, or developed separately from the art, as him misinterpreting the art.

    ‘Look, I distinctly said “four streams”. What’s the five all about? … Oh, is it? Is it really? Well, no, I hadn’t thought about that. … No, I’m going to write about four. …. I don’t care.’
    etc etc…

    • robertmplace says:

      In his memoirs Waite only expressed this much concern for the symbolism of the Majors. In the introduction of The Key to the Tarot he is apologetic about writing a book on divination, as if it beneath him. Even with the majors, there are only three cards that he mentions that he wanted to have more control over. And this is only because he didn’t want Smith including symbolism that he felt would violate his oath of secrecy to the Golden Dawn. It is improbable that after giving Smith free-rain to work in her usual intuitive manner (which is his stated reason for hiring her) That he would refuse to change one word in his description to harmonize it with the picture.

      • markwoff says:

        Thanks for the response. I take your point. However, that comment about the Golden Dawn seems quite an important one. To me it makes it even more probable that Waite is being all hand-wavey and obfuscatory, rather than getting it wrong. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s Notes to ‘The Waste Land’, which are precisely no help whatsoever as exegesis: “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience.” …Waite, pressed, might also have murmured…

        I really like your Alchemical Tarot, by the way. Two things inspired me to get it: reading ‘The Chymical Wedding’, by Lindsay Clarke – have you seen it? A distraction read while my partner was enjoying a very long labour with our eldest… which was the other inspiration! Anyway, thanks also for that…

  3. malcolm says:

    It would make sense if the artist drew from contemporary or historical/mythical artwork for much of the minor deck, eg in the `3 of Cups` from Lucas Cranach.

  4. rowsella315 says:

    In the Seven of Pentacles I always feel as though the young man is waiting for his fruit or riches to ripen while overlooking the one at his feet. Perhaps he has made some money or accomplishment but needs to be patient for further riches/payoff or higher goals and greater success. Which leads me to the English proverb of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush as a reversal– don’t take unnecessary risks as interpretation. Many times when I sit with a card I take intuitive impressions from it, what is it telling me? Learning more symbols is what attracted me to your tarot. I have been reading the Brotherhood of Light books and have started the Alchemy (Vol. 3). I am still integrating the astrological symbols of signs, planets and symbols of their aspects and elements.

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