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The secret history of the world’s most popular tarot cards

By Suyin Haynes, CNN

(CNN) — In a 1908 article, British artist, illustrator and costume designer Pamela Colman Smith shared how she thought paintings should be viewed. “Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.”

Smith could well have been describing how to use a deck of tarot cards. After all, she was responsible for creating the illustrations used in the world’s most popular tarot card design. In 1909, Smith and poet and mystic Arthur Waite met through a secret society known as the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”. Their mutual belief in spiritualism, rituals, symbolism and psychic practices led to them to join forces and create a tarot card deck, combining Waite’s concepts with Smith’s Art Nouveau-style illustrations.

Published in 1910, the cards are known today as the “Waite-Smith” or “Rider-Waite-Smith” deck (Smith’s contribution was largely erased from the title and overshadowed by Rider, the name of the original publisher, until the 1990s) but a new edition published by Taschen, ‘The Tarot of A.E. Waite and P. Colman Smith: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Tarot’, featuring both a complete deck of the original cards and a series of contextual essays about Smith, Waite and the deck’s creation, delves into the deck’s history, importance and popularity.

A tarot deck contains a pack of 78 illustrated cards, each depicting specific symbols and characters and originated in Italy during the 15th century. The Waite-Smith deck’s creation reflects an “important cultural junction” of the early 20th century, explained the book’s editor Johannes Fiebig, whose own relationship with studying tarot began more than 40 years ago. “There was a positive sense of personal liberation, of living freely, more artfully (at this time),” he said. “Yet these uprisings were interrupted by the First and Second World Wars.”

In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of interest in tarot, and the Waite-Smith deck rose in popularity alongside feminist, anti-war and international human rights movements, explains Fiebig. Today, tarot is often used as a tool by people to understand themselves on a personal level, often through practices such as readings, interpreting dreams and selecting a card of the day.

Fiebig says that each card can be interpreted and seen differently depending on the individual. “Tarot is an offer for people. It’s more than just fortune telling,” he said in an interview with CNN. “You as the reader of the cards are invited to come in and have a dialogue with (the card’s) image, and so it becomes a mirror.”

The image itself then is crucial to any journey with tarot, and is a major clue to understanding the enduring popularity of the Waite-Smith deck. “(Waite and Smith) were geniuses, but at the time, few people recognized that,” said Fiebig.

Smith’s own creativity was influenced by the colorful, international life she led. Born and raised in Manchester, England, she moved with her family to Jamaica as a child, before enrolling in a college in Brooklyn, New York, as a teenager. She later settled in London, and became intertwined in the capital’s artistic scene, counting writers W.B. Yeats, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, and composer Claude Debussy among her contemporaries and fans of her work.

In an essay about Smith as part of the new book, author Mary K. Greer writes that Smith’s artistic style — with its bold, vivid colors and intricate details — was influenced by factors including her exposure to Jamaican folktales and Japanese prints, and her involvement in theatrical performances and set design. Greer writes that Waite and Smith likely visited an exhibition of a 15th century Italian tarot deck at the British Museum in 1907, which inspired them both.

The cards, created during the summer months of 1909, depict characters, motifs and symbols set against backdrops often associated with the English landscape, such as rolling hills and coastlines. The beauty of the illustrations, says Fiebig, is that their contents can be interpreted in myriad ways, with each card representing both a recommendation and a warning.

For example, the “Hanged Man” card is not necessarily something to fear, but can be seen as an opportunity to share, and the “Star” may not only represent light and purity, but also narcissism and rigidity. “That is the wisdom of Pamela and Arthur,” said Fiebig, referring to the quality of “openness” or “blankness” in the illustrations.

That openness has meant that the Waite-Smith deck has been reinterpreted numerous times, especially during the last decade, alongside an increasing interest in tarot practice. Creators have made decks with characters reflecting their own often-underrepresented communities across race, sexuality, gender, class, disability and more. Yet as tarot expert Rachel Pollack writes in an essay for the new book, these reinterpretations are almost always rooted in the designs, symbolism and motifs of the Waite-Smith deck.

For Fiebig, the enduring attraction and appeal of the Waite-Smith deck stems from the cards’ ability to encourage people to encounter their own personal truths —especially in times of crisis. “Many people are unsatisfied with the given order and are looking for new ways of life, new identities, and new collective values,” he said. “People (want) answers.” It’s a sentiment that seems in keeping with Smith’s original way in which she wanted art to be viewed: “Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything.”

The Tarot of A. E. Waite and P. Colman Smith” is published by Taschen and out now.

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