Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

This is an article that originally appeared on my About.com site, but because of a network overhaul, it’s no longer available there. I wanted to share it with you anyway, because so many people forget the contribution that this woman made to the world of Tarot. Of particular note is that Smith was a woman of color, working in the creative arts during the turn of the twentieth century.

Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith

The Rider Waite Tarot deck is one of the most iconic collections of images in the metaphysical world. If you see a Rider Waite card, you know exactly what it is. This is the deck that many new Tarot readers choose to learn the ropes on, and it’s often the one that is used in books on Tarot, because the symbolism is so rich and heavy. But where did the Rider Waite deck come from? Turns out it was designed and created by an artist whose name doesn’t even appear on the deck most of the time.

Pamela Colman Smith (1878 – 1951) was a London-born artist who spent her childhood in Manchester and Jamaica with her parents. Smith was biracial; her mother was Jamaican, and her father was a white American (his father, Smith’s grandfather, was the mayor of Brooklyn for a time).

As a teenager, Smith attended art school in New York City, at the Pratt Institute, and developed a stylized look that soon put her in high demand as an illustrator. Some of Smith’s most popular drawings were utilized in works by Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, and she wrote and illustrated books of her own as well.

After her mother passed away in 1896, Smith left Pratt without graduating, to join a traveling theater group and lead the nomadic life of a troubadour. In addition to working onstage, Smith developed a reputation as a skilled costume and set designer. Keep in mind that during the early part of the twentieth century, this was an unusual occupation for a young, single woman. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement that took off in the years around the turn of the century.

Little is known about her romantic life, although Smith never married or had children. It’s certainly possible that she preferred women; there is a great deal of speculation about her relationships with housemate Nora Lake, as well as Smith’s close friend, actress Edith Craig, who was definitely a lesbian. Smith surrounded herself with creative, intelligent people who valued her passion for art.

Her early work with William Butler Yeats would prove to be the catalyst for some changes in Smith’s life; around 1901, he introduced her to his friends in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At some point in her Golden Dawn experience, she met the poet and mystic Edward Waite. Around 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to do the artwork for a new Tarot deck he was interested in creating.

Waite wanted to see a Tarot deck in which every card was illustrated – which was something completely new. Up until this point, throughout the history of Tarot, decks primarily had illustrations only on the Major Arcana, and sometimes the court cards. The only known example of a fully illustrated deck, up until this point, was the Sola Busca deck, commissioned by a wealthy Milanese family in the 1490s. Waite suggested Smith use Sola Busca for her inspiration, and there are many similarities in the symbolism between the two decks. Smith was the first artist to use characters as representative images in the lower cards; rather than just showing a group of cups, coins, wands or swords, Smith worked human beings into the mix, and created a rich tapestry of occult symbolism that set the gold standard for modern Tarot decks.

The resulting collection of 78 cards was published by Rider and Sons, and sold for a whopping six shillings as the first mass market Tarot deck. Thanks to the publisher and Edward Waite, the deck became known commercially as the Rider Waite deck, although in some circles it is now referred to as the Waite Smith deck, or even Rider Waite Smith, as credit to the artist.

Interestingly, Smith did not receive royalties from the deck, and it appears that she wasn’t paid much at all for her creation of the original work. Although her artwork was popular, she never seemed to gain mass commercial success, and she died penniless in Cornwall in 1951.

Although Smith’s artwork appears simple on the surface, it’s deceptively complex. Each piece represents so many different aspects of the human experience, which is why this deck – whether you call it Rider Waite, RWS, or Waite Smith – has become such a valuable tool for intuitive readers.  Many modern Tarot readers owe a great debt to Pamela Colman Smith, for providing us with a collection of 78 paintings that delve so deeply into our hearts and souls.

For a thorough and in-depth look at Pamela Colman Smith and her life, be sure to read Beth Maiden’s post at AutoStraddle, Fool’s Journey: The Fascinating Life of Pamela Colman Smith or Mary K. Greer’s The Art of Pamela Colman Smith.

Well, Hey, It’s a Book Signing!

Great news! The Good Witch’s Daily Spell Book is now available through Barnes & Noble, so go ahead and order a copy, or pick one up at your local store!

If you’re in the Central Ohio area, though, I’ll do you one better – stop by my favorite witchy store, Blessed Be Spiritual Shop on Saturday, February 25th, from 2 – 4 pm, where I’ll be doing a book signing event! Come on over, hang out with me, and see what Blessed Be has to offer!

By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment

As many of you know, I recently graduated from Ohio University with my B.A. in History. One of my required courses was a Historical Research and Writing class, and it was awesome. After all, it combined three of my favorite things: history, research, and makin’ words! My professor, Dr. Mark Nevin, was fantastic, and over the course of 14 weeks, we each developed a thesis, pored over acres and acres of primary and secondary sources, and finally presented an academic research paper in which we supported our thesis argument with all of the evidence we could find. Continue reading By Sorcery, Charm, or Enchantment

Good Witch Update!

So, Good Witch’s Daily Spell Book was supposed to be released on December 30, just in time for everyone’s annual I Ate Too Much Over the Holidays And Seriously Need a New Me phase. Unfortunately, there’s been a delay in the publication schedule, so if you haven’t spotted GWBSD in your local B&N, that’s why – because it ain’t there yet.

However, the good news is that my awesome editor assures me it will be released in February, which is very exciting – it means you can get it in your hot little hands by spring, which will come in handy since many of the spells in it suggest you get outside! Also – Mother’s Day gifts in May. Your mom wants a copy, trust me on this.

So, in addition to that update: there’s something else really cool going on, but it’s still kind of a Secret Project! As soon as I can announce it officially, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops!

In the meantime, I’m going to post something really neat that I think you’ll all enjoy, just to tide you over… stay tuned!

Join Me at Dayton Pagan Pride!


You guys, I’m super excited to announce that I’ll be presenting at Dayton’s Pagan Pride celebration on Saturday, October 1st! If you’ve been wondering about the magic of household witchcraft, you’re not going to want to miss my workshop – we’ll talk about household altars, kitchen magic, and (totally my favorite part) using mundane items in magical workings. Yes, if you’ve ever pondered how to use things like dog biscuits, a pair of socks, or an adult toy in a magical working, you totally need to stop by for this one.

I’m pleased to say I’m in really good company for this event – author Tish Owen, singer Kellianna, and rootworker Elizabeth Ruth will be there, along with Michael Dangler and Seamus Dillard of The Magical Druid. Join us for a magical day of ritual, workshops, vendors, and more!


Review: Byron Ballard’s Staubs & Ditchwater

This is a review which originally appeared on my About Paganism site – the content has recently gone away (because book reviews generally don’t garner a ton of page views) but since I’ve been delving deeper into Appalachian folk magic recently, this is a good time to re-share it.


Book Review:

Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo, by Byron Ballard.

I first met Byron Ballard in March 2012, when I visited Asheville, North Carolina, to cover the story of the Buncombe County School District and their religious materials policy. She’s one of those people who makes everyone feel comfy and welcomed, with her earth-mother vibe and say-what-you-mean-mean-what-you-say personality. When I heard she was writing a book about mountain magic, I was thrilled. As someone whose ancestry is deeply rooted in the hills of western Kentucky, I’ve always been fascinated by the concepts of magic as found in Appalachia, borrowing much of its roots from the folk magic of the British Isles and other far flung places.

Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is a perfect primer for those practitioners who are interested in looking at magic from a practical and traditional standpoint. The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of mountain magic, and accompanied by brilliant essays detailing Ballard’s own experiences, both as a practitioner of magic and as an Appalachian woman.

She makes the important distinction, early on, that the witches in her own family never saw witchcraft as a religion – it was a practice, and a skill set to be cherished.

Chapter One delves into the tools of the trade – tools which include imagination, intuition, and the ability to read and interpret the signs that the natural world is sending you. Chapter Two takes things a step further and looks at the material tools that some folks like to use – a basket of herbs, upcycled Mason jars, and poppets, to name a few. Here’s where the chapter really grabbed me, though – the mention of working with Allies.

By Allies, Ballard is referring to assistance from both the spirit world and the mundane. Whether it’s your ancestors, the spirits of the land, or other people in your community who practice folk magic, it’s good to have some backup on hand. I’ve always thought of this as a sort of magical wolfpack – if you’ve got allies, as Ballard points out, you’re never really alone. She points out the importance of teamwork: You are there to share what you know, to compare notes, to learn in a way that is humble and respectful… Don’t be a jerk.

In Chapter Three, the notion of stockpiling supplies is addressed. If you have the land and the wherewithal, grow your own herbs, and store grease and oils and other bits of useful material. Learn how to use them in a way that is practical and reasonable, and you can’t go wrong. In the absence of the opportunity to grow your own, Ballard encourages you to barter or buy from other practitioners – after all, if you need a particular candle, and the only place that has it is the local Spanish marketa where the brujas shop, then hie thee to the marketa. This chapter also includes a valuable compendium of different types of water and its magical uses. Did you know that stump water holds the magical essence of the tree in which it steeped? Me either!

Chapter Four explores divination and omen-reading – and points out the difference between the two. An omen, specifically, is something natural that you’ve observed – a trio of crows sitting in your tree, perhaps, or a swarm of insects landing on your window. Divination, on the other hand, is the art of looking at the future to see what’s around the corner – and there are a number of different methods. Ballard reminds us that if you’re going to read omens, it’s crucial that you learn about the natural world where you live. Because snakes in the driveway in April might be perfectly normal in your neck of the woods, but a very odd occurrence indeed three states away.

Ballard shares some of her own home-grown recipes and goodies in Chapter Five – be sure to read this part, because she takes time to explain the symbolism behind the methods. In other words, not just “do this,” but “if you do this, here’s WHY.” Good stuff indeed.

Chapter Six wraps things all up, in Ballard’s folksy, come-sit-by-the-fire-and-have-some-tea way of storytelling. Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is more than just a book on magic – it’s a conversation with a wise old friend, like chatting with someone you’ve known all your life. Well worth reading, and more importantly, worth reading again.

Visit Byron online at My Village Witch.

Review: Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery

This article originally appeared on my About.com site, but since book reviews tend to show an underwhelming long-term performance there, I’m going to be gradually migrating some of them over here instead. I thought I’d kick things off with one of my favorite reviews, of a book by one of my favorite people, Kris Bradley, also known as Mrs. B.

You really need Mrs. B's Guide to Household Witchery
You really need Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery

If you were familiar with Kris’ blog, Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom, that she ran up until 2013, you know that she spent a lot of time encouraging readers to find the magical in the mundane, and to look for the spiritual in everyday things around the house. By bringing magic and the divine into your home, you can find a brand new way to look at your practice – and that, in turn, translates into so much potential for witchery around the house!

Mrs. B launches right in, and the first chapter of Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery focuses on making the mundane magical, by taking a quick room-by-room tour of your home, starting with your very own front door. Ever think about hanging a protection bag over your stoop? How about sprinkling salt across the windowsills? The living room, laundry room, and especially the kitchen can all be magical places, and Kris offers tips on how to specialize the magic in each of these areas. Bonus area? Adult bedrooms can be a place of all kinds of sexy magical shenanigans!

The second chapter addresses the four classical elements of earth, air, fire and water, and how they can be applied in a domestic setting. Balance in the home is important, and it’s useful to figure out what sort of energy a room has in it already, in addition to what sort of energy you’d like to have there. By using household items such as houseplants and modeling clay, windchimes and ceiling fans, lava lamps and hot plates, or coffee pots and fish tanks, you can incorporate the elements and their energies into any room.

One of my favorite chapters, by far, is the one on Household Guardian Spirits. While I realize that not every practicing Pagan incorporates household guardians, for those of us who do, this section comes in very handy. There’s a review of some of the many domestic spirits found in a variety of cultures, including many you’ve probably never heard of.

The next section focuses on magical recipes – and anyone who’s hung out over on About Paganism for any length of time knows I’m a big fan of mixing up some kitchen magic! With a combination of herbal blends, incense and oil mixes, and even a house wash, there’ s a little bit of something for every domestic goddess (or god) in this part of the book. The witches’ herbal is useful as well, as a basic primer for those who are just beginning to delve into the use of herbal magic.

Finally, Kris wraps things up with some simple sabbat celebrations for those of us who are just plain busy. Got just a few minutes to spare? Celebrate five minutes alone, or a small group ritual for SamhainYule or the other Pagan holidays.

Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery is a very back-to-basics approach to modern domestic witchcraft. Kris shows that you can drop all the trappings, forget about the fancy commercially-bought tools and gizmos you have, and just do as our ancestors once did – use what’s handy and use it wisely. Take advantage of the natural magical energies of your home, and celebrate the space you’re living in.

Things I’d like to see in a follow up book? More household craft projects, and more in-depth ideas about incorporating magic into day-to-day practices like cooking, cleaning, and organizing the home. On the whole, Mrs B’s Guide to Household Witchery is a great book for those who are just beginning to explore their domestic witchery options, and a good refresher for those of us who have been doing it for a while and needed a bit of a reminder on how to turn the mundane into magic. I’ll give it 9.5 broomsticks out of ten!

Buy From Amazon


Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. 

Review: The Witches’ Almanac Coloring Book

Color All the Things!
Color All the Things!

I love to color, and as much as I hate to sound like that annoying hipster barista at your favorite coffee shop, I was actually coloring a lot before it became a trend. It’s therapeutic and keeps me from throwing rocks at people or eating my feelings.

One of the best things about coloring becoming popular, though, is that now, instead of being stuck with Dora the Explorer and Ninja Turtles, there are a floppity-million coloring books out there for grownups. No matter what your interest – I have Outlander and Game of Thrones – there’s something for you to color in.

Which is why, gentle reader, when the nice folks at Red Wheel Weiser sent me their newest foray into the world of coloring, I may have squee’d just a little bit. The Witches Almanac Coloring Book is FUN, y’all!

It’s divided into seven sections – Woodcuts, Constellations,

So Pretty!
So Pretty!

the Planets, Creatures, Egyptian, Americas (unfortunately short), and Tarot. It’s a neat collection of artwork to color in, and I’m seriously enjoying it.

The best part: I really love the Tarot section. The images are from the Rider Waite Smith deck that we’re all so familiar with, and includes all of the Major Arcana. If you’ve ever felt like the traditional RWS colors didn’t resonate with you, now’s your chance to change that. Make the sky purple any time you like.

These pages WANT you to color them!
These pages WANT you to color them!

Also, I loved seeing the woodcut artwork, many of which were featured in days gone by as illustrations for anti-witch treatises – you know, the ones where we’re all Satan’s whores? A lot of the woodcuts will look familiar to regular readers of the Witches Almanac publications; they’ve been used by Weiser regularly, and for the most part, these are fantastic.

Just Hangin' Around Coloring
Just Hangin’ Around Coloring

My one complaint? A few of the images – not many, but a few – appear so stretched that they appear pixelated and blurred, which makes them less than appealing to color. For the most part, though, the lines are nice and crisp. The book is a good quality – especially for the $12.00 price tag – and there’s a nice mix of different styles in there. In all, the good definitely outweighs the not-as-good. I’d give it eight broomsticks out of ten!


Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.