While playing with some funny cards, it occurred to me that today is Pixi’s birthday. Pamela Colman Smith, the Grand Lady of Tarot, and one who turned a marginal art into commerce. A great genius. Historians of tarot love to hate this woman and her involvement with the Golden Dawn. Was she an enlightened woman or a business woman? Whatever the answer, where the tarot itself is concerned, the truth is that even before it went esoteric, some time around the 1700s, it has been not only a marginal art – as testified by the few writings on it around the time it popped up in our cultural history going back to 1400s – but always also a commercial thing.
What Pamela did in 1909 was just to boost that a little bit; enhance the possibility for every housewife to earn a little extra on the side by reading fortunes. Her illustrations for Arthur Waite became iconic, with thousands of spinoffs and hilarious reproductions ever since. There is simply no phenomenon out there for which there isn’t a Tarot: Tarot of the Housewives, of the Simpsons, of Baseball, of Vampires, of everything. Before her time, it was also women who were into the tarot. Though one should never underestimate the fortunetelling mages of the Renaissance. These were all men, deeply steeped into occult lore and magic and having influenced a host of others that came after them. Etteilla was one.
Anyway it’s a long history. It’s not a history of art alone, but mostly a history of money. Anyone interested in the history of the tarot should be looking into who made money from it. That’s where the juice is. The historical juice. Psychologically speaking, it is a fact that we can use this marvellous tool to gain insight into all sorts. We all suffer from blind spots. We see random images on the table in the form of cards, we can quickly tell a story about alternative solutions to a problem. Most people tend to go: ‘Wow, why didn’t I think of that?’ If we bother to ask the images a question, that is. This aspect of the tarot has also turned into big business. Everybody into teaching the tarot sells the promise of the truth about yourself. Or some truth anyway. And so it goes. I think Pamela understood this very well. For which reason I celebrate her. Both for her occult flair and for her understanding of money.
Here’s what my funny pack says, in connection with my desire to hear Pamela deliver a message on her birthday.
‘You want money?’, the Bufon on the 10 of coins seems to ask, ‘illustrate for the King who has it.
Yep, ever so pragmatic, our lady. Happy birthday, Pixie.
For a great book on the Waite-Smith Tarot, consult K. Frank Jensen’s book, The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot.
Note on the deck: The Spanish Collectors. Reproductions, Rioja 1992
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