Secrets of the Waite-Smith | Review

19 November 2015

secrets_bookFor a long time it was anybody’s guess as to what Pamela and old Arthur Waite actually meant to say with this world famous deck. It is food for thought and maybe even a source of conflict in the tarot community. Tali Goodwin and Marcus Katz have tried to take those jousting weapons (5 of Wands anyone?) away from us and instead offer us a clear and concise history of ‘the making of’ the RWS in Secrets of the Waite-Smith.

Like I said, they’ve tried. But have they actually succeeded? Yes and no. But luckily way more yes than no. Many historians would love to have a time machine and travel back in history to see what really happened. I myself, being a historian, can attest to that wish and in a variety of ways it is answered by Secrets of the Waite-Smith.

As a reader I predominantly use decks based on the Waite-Smith tradition and to know the origins of my own personal deck has been a wonderful journey throughout early 20th century Tarot history. Knowing more about both its creators is for sure something I wanted and Goodwin and Katz do not disappoint in that area. Arthur Edward Waite and the endearing Pamela Colman Smith each get their own chapter.

Not scientific
The book is a ‘fun’ read. I’m a non-native speaker and the writing is quite accessible. Even though the volume is based on a lot of research, it is definitely not scientific. This could be a disappointment to some and I guess a more ‘nerdy’ approach might overcome some of the (admittedly minor) issues of this book. Here and there there’s a mix-up between references and the conclusions of the writers. In some cases it is apparently quite clear what Waite intended with the Majors, but in others -since Pamela Colman Smith was mostly responsible for those – it depends on the links between her background as an artist and her places of residence. Nonetheless, this ‘guesswork’ does make for an interesting perspective on the cards and in many cases gives additional or clearer meanings to the minors (and majors). I have had a few ‘aha-moments’ and they also added to my personal journaling.

Inside work and cover Secrets of the Waite-Smith

Inside work and cover Secrets of the Waite-Smith

The whole book is obviously a labor of love for Tarot and represents loads of research. It contains a lot of never before published imagery ranging from art that possibly inspired the deck to private pictures of the artist. It is huge, especially for this price. Does it really matter that it doesn’t have an index, no table of contents and only endnotes instead of footnotes? Well, yes… but that might be me, since I love picking up the reference books or know immediately which books are used. But I think many others won’t care and if the authors wish it, this could be remedied in a second print run.

What was a little annoying though, is that there is a lot of use of Waite’s own Pictorial key. I would have loved seeing a better division in this; put Waite’s keywords in a little table and then focus on Katz’s and Goodwin’s interpretations, suggested by new ways of reading based on their extensive research. That is really a shame, because I am not buying this book for the Pictorial key but for the true story behind the world’s most popular tarot. And since their conclusions are super-interesting I think they’re selling themselves short by giving such a huge role to meanings that weren’t a secret (so to speak).

Another thing that might put people off is the heave use of Kabbalah-based interpretation. If you are not familiar with these correspondences yet, or if you want nothing to do with it, you will still encounter a lot of reading material on this subject. Especially for a beginner that might be frustrating and I can imagine that not only seasoned readers or collectors want to have a peek at & in this book. But then again…for others the Kaballistic material might exactly be what they like in this volume.

Screenshot 6C secrets of the wait-smith

A screenshot of the 6 of cups information on the Secrets of the Waite Smith website

I think Secrets of the Waite -Smith Tarot definitely adds to the world of Tarot books. It is a combination of a history book, imaginative brainstorming waves and (to a lesser extent) reading tips. There’s also an accompanying online course you can follow via the Tarosophy Tarot Association. It’s an interesting one, but it does immediately reveal the most important secret in the book: how Pamela Colman Smith got inspired for the scenics and symbology of the minors in the rider-waite-smith deck. In order to be fully informed you of course still need to buy the book. (QS: Unfortunately the Secrets of the Waith-Smith Tarot website that was supposed to support the book with extra information is disappointing. Only 7 cards are available and most of its meanings and inspiration is already shown in either the course or the book itself.)

Overall you can say that Goodwin and Katz have really immersed themselves in RWS-treasure in order to get the true story for us readers. And I think you get at least part of that story. There is a lot of new material. It is fascinating to look through the eyes of one of the most famous tarot designers of all time and understand how she came to create certain minor arcana cards. As far as Waite goes, well the man really was a bit pompous and even after reading this book you can rest assured he took his secrets to the grave.

Author or artist Publisher Publication
Tali Goodwin & Marcus Katz Llewellyn April 2015

Wrap Up

Secrets of the Waite-Smith