Subhuti talks about the talented women who illustrated three of the most popular Tarot Decks in use today. Here are their stories:
One of the interesting things about teaching people how to use the Tarot Cards is that it inspires me to research the history of the cards. In the process, I discover things I didn’t know before.
Quite recently, for example, I was preparing to give a training and became fascinated by the stories of three women who illustrated some of the most best known Tarot Decks, while they themselves remained virtually unknown.
The first Tarot Deck I came across was known as the Rider Waite Deck, which was published in the United Kingdom over a hundred years ago, in 1910. Rider was the name of the publisher and Waite was the name of the English gentleman who gave the cards their esoteric description.
Waite was a product of that intensely fashionable interest in Victorian and Edwardian times about the occult and spiritualism. He wanted to create a new Tarot Deck and was fortunate enough to meet an artist called Pamela Colman Smith.
Pamela Colman Smith had been born in 1878 in Middlesex, England, of American parents. As a teenager, she joined a travelling theatre company, touring England, and then trained as an artist at an institute in Brooklyn, New York.
She returned to England, working as a theatrical costume and set designer, as well as an illustrator for books and posters. In 1903, she joined an esoteric organisation called the Order of the Golden Dawn and began to paint mystical visions that came to her while listening to music. There, she also met A.E. Waite.
In 1909, Waite encouraged Colman Smith to give visual interpretation to his ideas about the 78 cards of the Tarot. She agreed and did an amazing job. Within a year, she had painted all 78 cards, including full scenes on each card, filling them with mysticism, ritual imagination and fantasy, as well as the deep emotions experienced by the artist herself.
When I bought my first Tarot Deck in 1974, it was the called the Rider Waite Deck and there was no mention of Pamela Colman Smith, not on the box containing the cards, nor in the instruction booklet which accompanied them.
But times change and just last year, when I bought a new deck, I was happy to see that her name is now on the box, together with Rider and Waite, while inside, there is a small card – the same size as the Tarot cards – with a photo of Pamela Colman Smith and a brief history of her life and collaboration with A.E. Waite.
After painting the cards, Pamela Colman Smith failed to gain any further recognition as an artist and disappeared into obscurity, dying in relative poverty in 1951, at the age of 73. It’s unfortunate that her paintings and other works have been lost, but it’s fitting that the so-called Rider Waite Deck, which, in fact, was painted entirely by Pamela Colman Smith, now acknowledges her contribution.
Next, we come to the Aleister Crowley Tarot Deck, which was published over fifty years later than the Rider Waite Deck. Crowley, as is well-known, was a rather notorious character in his day, with an insatiable appetite for adventure, travel, drugs, sex, philosophy and all things esoteric.
He was hungry for spiritual power and was fascinated by Ancient Egypt and its gods, believing that if he could understand the hieroglyphs and writings decorating old Egyptian temples and artefacts, he would be able to assume god-like powers himself.
Crowley was also interested in all of the world’s religions, especially Judaism and the Kabbalah, and eventually started his own religion, called Thelema, of which he himself – predictably enough – was its chief prophet. It never took off as a movement, partly, I suspect, because of Crowley’s dubious and rather scandalous reputation.
Towards the end of his life, at the age of 63, Crowley decided he wanted to create a Tarot Deck of his own, which he called the Book of Thoth, in tribute to the Ancient Egyptian god of wisdom. He had trouble finding a suitable artist, but was eventually introduced to Lady Frieda Harris, whose comfortable, middle class social status could hardly have been more different than that of her predecessor, Pamela Colman Smith.
Frieda Harris was the daughter of a surgeon and at the age of 23 married an English politician who was later made a baronet, which gave his wife the title Lady Frieda Harris. Subsequently, she became an artist and painter, neve needing to work for a living because of her well-to-do background.
She met Crowley when she was 60 years old and, after hearing of his plans to create a traditional-style Tarot Deck, persuaded him instead to design a new set of cards, expressing all his esoteric and occult knowledge.
Crowley and Harris collaborated for five years and were passionately devoted to each other. Although her contribution was more or less forgotten, Crowley himself praised Harris in the introduction to his Tarot Deck, while at the same time humorously acknowledging how picky he’d been in directing her efforts:
“She devoted her genius to the work,” he wrote. “With incredible rapidity she picked up the rhythm, and with inexhaustible patience submitted to the correction of the fanatical slave-driver that she had invoked, often painting the same card as many as eight times until it measured up to his Vanadium Steel yardstick!”
During this time, Crowley’s financial sources dried up and Frieda Harris kept him afloat, giving him a regular stipend, causing him to comment “I am absolutely devoted to Lady Harris and have the evidence of countless acts of kindness on her part.”
She felt the same devotion towards him and even made a pencil sketch of Crowley on his death bed in 1947. Shortly afterwards, Frieda Harris left Britain for India, spending the rest of her life in Srinagar. She died in 1962 at the age of 85.
Crowley and Harris passed away before their Tarot Deck was published, which did not occur until 1969. To this day, it is referred to as the Aleister Crowley Deck. Credit is given to Harris in the instruction booklet accompanying the cards, but perhaps one day her name will also be seen, as part of the title, because really it should be called the Crowley Harris Deck.
The third deck I wish to discuss is the Osho Zen Tarot, which was painted by an American-born friend of mine, Ma Deva Padma. I met her at the Shree Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, India, where we both lived in the 1970s as sannyasins, or Osho disciples.
I first got to know Padma through the Rajneesh Shakespeare Company, formed in 1979 to present A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Indian public. As a public relations exercise, the play worked well, conveying an underlying message that our “free love ashram” was also a place of culture and meditation. Later, another play, Twelfth Night was added to our repertoire, and Padma designed the costumes for both plays.
When Osho and his disciples shifted to Oregon in the United States, Padma and I worked on the community’s weekly newspaper, The Rajneesh Times, in the commune’s design studio. It was there that I first saw her illustration of a Tarot Card known as The Fool and although initial plans to produce a complete deck were put on hold, it was obvious that Padma had the talent to create it.
After Osho’s arrest and deportation from America, in 1985, his reputation as a mystic took a steep nosedive in the eyes of the general public and many commercial publishers around the world stopped producing his books.
As I understand it, the idea of the Osho Zen Tarot was conceived as a first step in the process of rebuilding an international publishing network for Osho’s vision and Padma was given the task of creating it, painting all 79 cards.
As many people know, the deck was a big success, published first by St Martin’s Press in New York, in 1994, and later in different languages and countries around the world. After that, St Martin’s began publishing Osho’s books and gradually other publishers followed suit.
Padma’s profile as the painter of the Osho Zen Tarot was low key, like her predecessors, Pamela Colman Smith and Lady Frieda Harris, but for a different reason. As a sannyasin and an ashram resident, Padma contributed her creative abilities as part of a collective communal effort, rather than as an individual artist.
In spiritual terms, work assigned by the ashram was seen as an opportunity to dissolve oneself into a universal dance of energy and expression, in which the idea of “my” creativity played little part. In other words, anonymity was voluntary, rather than a product of social attitudes.
Later, after leaving India, Padma branched out on her own, moving to Australia and producing many new paintings, plus a whole new Tarot-style deck, based on the I Ching, called The Tao Oracle.
This, then, is the story of three women who painted illustrations for three popular Tarot Decks, currently in use all over the world. So, next time you pick up one of these decks, it might be a nice gesture to pause for a moment and meditate over the creative artistry these three women poured into their work.
It’s a good time for them to receive the recognition they deserve.