Well, sort of. I’ll backtrack to the pre-Golden Dawn origins of the Tarot, but since I began my Tarot journey ten years ago (and then stopped for awhile and restarted) with a Rider/Waite/Colman-Smith (RWS) clone deck called the Robin Wood (beautiful illustrations–click and go see), I think it’s appropriate to begin my journey in earnest with the origins of that particular deck.
I am still overwhelmed by all the symbolism, history, and traditions (with some shifting of same). I’ll recommend TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles) as a welcoming community for the newcomer as well as the established reader; great forum they have that’s easy to get around in.
But, to my new friend, A. E. Waite and his illustrative partner, Pamela Colman-Smith. I began by reading his Little White Book (LWB), called The Key to the Tarot, which came with my Original RWS deck. I would imagine that most folks get a “real” book to have a better organized and more detailed outline of the Tarot with page-long descriptions and meanings. I have those books, too, but I really wanted to see what Waite had to say, and what might have shifted or been sifted out by other readers and writers later on. I wanted to see how he saw his own project and the practice of Tarot.
He seems to have been a bit skeptical and judgmental about the straight fortune-telling use of the cards. He thought that the Major Arcana/Trumps had a much…deeper?…more “spiritual” set of messages beyond the “mundane” queries of life like, “Who shall I marry?” and “How will I get along with my new boss?” (Although those questions are of real importance to many querents, mind you!). Before he asked Colman-Smith to redraw the cards, he, I assume in consultation with her, decided to do what looks like a major upgrade to the Minor Arcana/Pip cards (the ones that have suits like wands, swords, cups, and pentacles) to bring them up closer to what he seems to have seen as the greater soul work mission of the Major Arcana. So, for the first time, according to Waite, at least (I may find out different later), the Minor Arcana had full illustrations with people and scenes in them instead of just the symbol for the suit displayed in a certain number.
The legacy of this change has been immense. I have great respect for those ancient readers who had only numbers and suit symbols to help them remember what the card meanings were. With Colman-Smith’s illustrations, there are many cues to make reading easier. On the other hand, a bit of freedom is gone or at least endangered by expectation here. Waite says that he researched the meanings used by the readers before him to decide on his preferred meanings, but he also has a section in the Key where he gives alternative meanings that often stray pretty far from his preferred ones. He didn’t seem to like all the variations much and settled upon his own system, which many readers and deck creators use today.
But now, after reading the Key, I am becoming more flexible myself about how the cards are interpreted. Waite’s is really only one take on it, and it sounds like his predecessors pretty much did their own thing with interpretation. I used to poo-poo some of the current Tarot books because of how far they “strayed” from the “standard” interpretations being taught in beginner books on Tarot, but now I’m thinking that the variety is actually more reflective of the historical use of the symbolism to delve into the past, present, and future. It’s also more respectful of the individual reader’s intuitive sight. As Waite points out, the symbolism in Tarot is actually based on universal human archetypes that reside in mythological and cultural stories from everywhere, even beyond Europe.
And this is why I, lover as I am of comparative myth and archetype, love the Tarot and all its manifestations up through the 21st century. I do credit A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith, though, for making the universality of Tarot visible and launching a creative spiral of beautiful decks and deep and wonderful interpretations.
Let the divination (connection with the intent of divinity) continue!