There Was More to “Pixie” than Tarot Cards

Pamela Coleman Smith, about 1912.

At Spiral Nature you can read a long review of a new book about Pamela Coleman Smith (Pixie to her friends), best known for designing probably the most popular Tarot deck of the twentieth century.

Corinne Pamela Colman Smith, who went by the nickname “Pixie,” defied so many social norms, it’s hard to keep count. The more you read about her, the more impressed you get.

Those who left written comments about their impressions of her confess how hard it was to place her within the gender, class, and racial categories of her time. W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked “exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.”

The book has four contributors: Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, currently at work on her own full biography of the artist; Stuart Kaplan’s (the Tarot publisher) section “is just the most incredible and comprehensive collection of Smith’s works to date, and maybe ever”; Melinda Boyd Parsons covers Smith’s experiences with the theatre and ceremonial magick worlds; and Mary K. Greer discusses her work in the context of Tarot history.

Read the whole thing.

Aye, My Hearties, the Six of Coins!

Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame  operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.

The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.

Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.

A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.

There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.

Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.

The ships themselves were typically three-masted “East Indiamen” — like the Friendship of Salem, a working reconstructed ship based on a 1797 original. It is currently undergoing repairs, so I was not able to visit it last month.

The ocean was not necessarily a friendly place. There were European pirates still, plus privateers in wartime (pirates with a government license), and in the Far East there were local pirates as well.1)Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships. So the merchant ships carried cannon and other weapons for self-defense and the crews were trained in their use.

But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.2)Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.

The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.3)Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

While I drank a beer at Jaho Coffee on Derby Street, M. revisited the Spice Trade, making some purchases at Salem Spice on Wharf Street. Somewhere, the old sea captains nodded in approval.

Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.

But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)

It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.

Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.

“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!

“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships.
2. Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook.
3. Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

The Tarot of Dior

Dior handbag incorporating the Motherpeace “Judgement” card.

Boston: November 17, 2017: A group of Pagan studies scholars are walking through a shopping mall adjacent to the Boston Marriott Hotel when suddenly heads swivel to the left.

Our attention subconsciously attracted,  we are looking at images from Vicki Noble‘s  Motherpeace Tarot Deck — in the window of a Dior store.

It turns out the Dior has licensed the images for a line of handbags (full story behind paywall).

It’s another example of using esoteric imagery to sell products, right up there with Prada’s use of the Gnostic text “Thunder, Perfect Mind” more than a decade ago.

(If you can’t get to the video there, go here. Twelve years is a long time in Internet years, and links decay.)

 

A Haitian Take on the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

The Nine of Cups—photo by Alice Smeets.

Members of a Haitian artists’ group are re-creating the Tarot designs of Pamela Coleman Smith, otherwise known as the Rider-Waite Deck.

Photographed by Alice Smeets, they are calling it the Ghetto Tarot.

They have lots of machetes to substitute for swords. Information on crowd-funding and purchase here.

Remembering Ed Steinbrecher and His Esoteric School

Ed Steinbrecher (1980s?)

Looking for something in the bedroom Craft/astrology/Tarot/magick bookshelves this morning, I ran across a copy of Edwin Steinbrecher’s The Guide Meditation. (It’s still available from Samuel Weiser and it’s good.)

I checked with Dr. Google and discovered that Steinbrecher, an astrologer and occult teacher, had passed away in 2002 — here is an obituary from the Los Angeles Times. 

What the obituary does not say is that in between founding his DOME (Dei Omnes Munda Edunt) astrology and meditation center in Santa Fe in 1973 and moving to Los Angeles in 1984, he and co-founder/partner David Benge lived in Colorado Springs for a time.

Imagine a typical 1970s split-level house, with what would be the living room and dining room filled with bookcases — and all the books organized by zodiacal sign, so that gardening, for instance, would be in the Virgo section. So much more mystical than my habit of putting, say, all the books on Colorado and New Mexico history together! (What Sun sign would encompass them?)

M. and I attended various talks and workshops at the DOME house. Ed was passionate about astrology, and this was the time in my life when I was deepest into it. Later, under pressure of graduate school, etc., I decided that something had to give, and that something was astrology, so I stopped doing people’s charts — these days, I might manage to check my transits once in a while. The last astrology lecture I heard was by Liz Greene (who is one of the best Jungian astrologers) in 2004.

But his Inner Guide Meditation system has a Tarot connection, and that is drawing me back to it. It will be intriguing to re-read the book.

Leading Magazine Endorses Renaissance Magic

For a special issue on “Planet Trump,” the British news magazine The Economist turns to the Tarot.

On the Wheel of Fortune, for example, you can see (if I read them right) French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (rising), German chancellor Angela Merkel (falling) and Dutch politican Geert Wilders, already described by some as “the Donald Trump of the Netherlands.”

Like Trump or hate him, I can’t think of a better recent example of the Tarot used to illustrate contemporary politics — a use for which it is well-suited.

I had to have this for my Tarot file, so I went to the newsstand and spent my $14 for it.

You have to wonder if the designer knew the phrase “greater trumps” and decided to have some fun with it. For the record, “trumps” in the Tarot sense comes from the word “triumph,” which goes back to Latin. The surname Trump apparently comes from a word meaning “maker of trumpets” (English) or “drum” (German), says Wikipedia.

Some “Spare” Links and the “Witchcraft Aesthetic”

¶ The University of Heidelberg has scanned and put online a 1916 issue of Form, a small British art magazine containing numerous illustrations by Austin Osman Spare, noted English occultist and artist. Here is a sample.

¶ If I were visiting Milan, I would visit this Tarot painter’s studio and drop a few euros. Maybe I could afford one card.

His shop boasts an endless variety of cards, making it a treasure trove for lovers of the occult in the Italian North. Some decks depict the major and minor arcana (tarot’s “face card” and “number card” equivalents) in Cubist shapes. Others portray them as animals or even flowers, inspired by vintage science books. One deck reimagines traditional iconography with old maps that Menegazzi finds at Milanese flea markets. 

¶ First, I am always suspicious when a news article introduces someone as “controversial,” as in this case: “the controversial Azealia Banks.” It’s like a way of saying, “We don’t like her, but we are pretending to be objective.”

According to the article, the performer outed herself as a  Brujeria practitioner, in other words, folk witchcraft.

The video shows Banks getting ready to clean out her closet in which she has practiced Brujeria for the past three years. After seeing the closet caked in chicken blood, feathers, and some black stuff we can’t figure out, the Internet of course went wild. But why was everyone so shocked to learn that Banks had been sacrificing chickens? The artist, as problematic as she may be, has admitted to practicing — specifically Brujeria —in the past.

But then the writer, one Samantha Mercado, gets off onto the subtlties of the “witchcraft aesthetic” and female empowerment.

There are plenty of pop culture trends that feed feminism, but the mainstreaming of witchcraft has proved both empowering and problematic. The word and idea of a witch were traditionally associated with demonizing women — images of an ugly outcast cackling over a cauldron or a green Margaret Hamilton come to mind. But recently, the image and connotation associated with witches has become more and more empowering — witches are being portrayed as heroines instead of demons.

With this new, all-empowering image of a witch comes a slew of trends pandering to a “witch aesthetic.” From blogs to high-end clothing lines, it seems like everyone is trying to cash in on the witch trend, and while the increased popularity of witchcraft has helped the practice grow, it makes you wonder if everyone appropriating it understands its origins.

Oh shit, the secret is out. Witches don’t go door to door asking if you have heard the word of Cernunnos. No, we let the “aesthetic” reel in the innocent seekers. We’re happy to see young ladies dressed up in “sexy witch” costumes. Next thing, Pandemonaeon albums, festivals, polyamory, and arguments over “traditional.” (With the guys, it’s tricker. But not much.)

Really, art beats dogma every time.

Thinking How the Tarot Smuggled Paganism to the Present

In my twenties, the Tarot was about the most “occult” thing around that I could bring out in public settings. I learned to read the cards semi-competently and had some adventures thereby. When I made it through an evening of reading for casual strangers in a nightclub, I figured that I was probably at my pinnacle.1)I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.

Then I moved into other things more and more, including other types of divination. 2)For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.” I did write a little on the history of the Tarot, then pretty much shelved my cards.3)They are now unshelved, however. At one point I had thought of collecting Tarot decks — that was right about when the number of decks exploded! From the short list (Marseille, Waite-Smith, Crowley’s Thoth deck, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot, and few others), we went to practically a “Tarot Deck of the Week.” U.S. Games Systems has a few. “The Undersea Tarot,” anyone?

Some months back, I was reading something that Thorn Mooney had written on Tarot, maybe her Tarot Skeptic blog. We see each other at long intervals; otherwise, it’s email, so I wrote and asked her what historical books on Tarot she would recommend. One was out of my price range.4)It might as well have been published by Brill. The other was The History of the Occult Tarot by Roanld Decker and Michael Dummett.

I bought the book. I read through 200-plus pages of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, ceremonial magicians, astrologers, Western Qabbalists, etc.5)Overlapping categories, yes. trying to force the Tarot to mesh with these other systems, such as the Hebrew alphabet. If it did not mesh, they hammered on it until some sort of fit was achieved, as in A. E. Waite’s switching of the Strength and Judgement cards to fit his scheme.

It all seemed part of Western esotericism’s ongoing demand for a system Where Everything Fits Together and Corresponds with Everything Else — a demand that seems informed by a quasi-monotheistic or Platonic outlook.

But what if it will not all fit together? The Tarot deck itself is a mashup. You have the four symbolic elements, which are also social groups, as favored in the Indo-European tradition:6)Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever. Air/spades/swords/aristocracy; Fire/wands/clubs/farmers; Earth/pentacles/diamonds/merchants & craftsmen; Water/cups/hearts/priesthood.7)If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.

Built on top of that is an upper story derived from “the Pagan dream of the Renaissance,” to borrow the title of Joscelyn Godwin’s excellent book on “the almost untold story of how the rediscovery of the pagan [sic], mythological imagination during the Renaissance brought a profound transformation to European culture.”

As Decker and Dummett write in their section on Tarot-writer Eden Gray, her interpretation of Tarot symbolism was “based not on occult fantasy, but on themes well known to art historians.”8)Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.” Art historians have more to offer here than do correspondence-obsessed magicians, I suggest.

Consider the observations of William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote a preface to one editing of Charles Williams’ Tarot-based novel The Greater Trumps and created his own Tarot-influenced noir novel, Nightmare Alley. He wrote,

The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrime, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work his own metaphysical and religious equations.

So forget the Hebrew alphabetic correspondences. Think instead of the Tarot as the product of some (probably aristocratic and/or clerical) creative dreamers living in (most likely) northern Italy in the 15th century. They were not Pagan as such, but they might have been what we could call “Pagan re-enactors,” trying intellectually and artistically to reinhabit the world of Greco-Roman Paganism.

They took artistic and philosophical themes of their time and grafted them onto a pre-existing card game. Among the pages of this “book” the old gods and archetypes snuggled in for a journey of five or six centuries.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.
2. For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.”
3. They are now unshelved, however.
4. It might as well have been published by Brill.
5. Overlapping categories, yes.
6. Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever.
7. If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.
8. Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.”

“I will never look at a tarot card . . . again”

A New York Times piece about commercial psychics.

Specifically, these are psychics who went to prison for fraud (or worse) and are trying to look good in front of the Parole Board.

She worked out of shops on Ninth Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. In 2009, Ms. Mitchell told a client that a dark spirit was keeping happiness at bay. She asked the client for an $11,450 Rolex watch and a lot of candles and cash to clean the spirits. In all, the client paid $159,205, according to a criminal complaint.

The Rolex should have been a tip-off, no?

But it’s their culture — who are we to judge?

“My culture did not allow me to go to school,” she told parole commissioners. “I never had education. I was to do this fortunetelling business, to make money.”

A lot of otherwise good things go sideways when you start charging money for them.

(Hat-tip: Professor Althouse)

Tarot Cards — They Are for Catholics Too

Thomas L. McDonald, Patheos’ “Technology | Culture | Catholicism” blogger has a five-part series on the history of the Tarot cards. It starts here.

The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming and cultural history that was lost for centuries. They were created to play games, not tell fortunes. . . . .

Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores beautifully in Meditations on the Tarot.

Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists.

He is absolutely right that there is a great deal of bogus history about the Tarot, involving wild tales of a gallery of paintings of the trumps in a secret hall underneath the Sphinx of Egypt, and so on.

I think too that one of the reasons that ceremonial magicians have struggled to mesh the trumps with the Cabala and so forth is that the Tarot is a hybrid system itself, partly from here and partly from there.

I wrote something on those lines myself once, alas in the pre-Internet era, for Gnosis journal.