Biography of Pamela Colman Smith


Differences between the Tarot de Marseille and the Waite-Smith Tarot


To mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Waite-Smith Tarot, New Zealand issued this set of commemorative stamps in the year 2009.


By the late 19th century, the Tarot de Marseille became popular because this was the tarot deck used by the principal French occultists of the era, such as Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), Papus (1865-1916) and Oswald Wirth (1860-1943).  They applied this name to refer to a variety of closely related card sets that were being manufactured in the city of Marseille in the south of France; this city was the centre of playing card manufacture at that time in France. The Tarot de Marseille became the standard from which many tarot decks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were derived.

For reasons beyond the scope of this website, an esoteric group had arisen in England at the end of the Victorian Age called The Golden Dawn; this group became dissatisfied with some aspects of the Tarot de Marseille.  In 1909. the leader of one of the Golden Dawn splinter-groups, Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), decided to commission the design and manufacture of a rectified tarot deck that fully met the esoteric principles of the Golden Dawn. He obtained the artistic services of Pamela Colman Smith to make the illustrations for the deck, and arranged for the deck to be published by the London firm, William Rider & Son, Ltd.

The principal differences between the Tarot de Marseille and the Waite-Smith Tarot may be summarized as follows:

1) Each card in the Waite-Smith deck has its own unique illustration which may be associated with the divinatory meaning of the card. Up until that time, virtually none of the other commercially available tarot decks had special pictures for the pip cards. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, only the 15th century Sola Busca tarot had such illustrations.

2) Cards numbered VIII Justice and XI Strength were exchanged with each other in the Waite-Smith deck. Thus the Justice card was given the roman numeral XI designation and the Strength card was given the numeral VIII. This change was effected to bring the "rectified" Waite-Smith deck into conformance with the Golden Dawn's Book T (see table at the bottom of this page).


Tarot de Marseille - The Lovers

Waite-Smith Tarot - The Lovers

Tarot de Marseille - The Sun

Waite-Smith Tarot - The Sun

3) Most cards of the Waite-Smith Major Arcana were given illustrations that were somewhat similar to those in the Tarot de Marseille with two exceptions.  The Lovers Card (VI) and the Sun Card (XIX) of the Waite-Smith deck are quite different from the images of the corresponding cards in the Tarot de Marseille. These cards are compared, side-by-side, in the above illustrations; the Tarot de Marseille cards used are from the early 18th century Tarot of Jean Dodal.

4) The names of two of the four suits of the Minor Arcana were changed as follows:

Tarot de Marseille (in French Tarot de Marseille (in English) Waite-Smith
Bâtons Staffs Wands
Coupes Cups Cups
Épées Swords Swords
Deniers Coins Pentacles

 5) The names of two other cards of the Major Arcana were changed: Card I - the "Juggler" becomes the "Magician" and Card II - the "Papess" becomes the "High Priestess."

The following table summarizes the differences between the Major Arcana of the Tarot de Marseille and the Waite-Smith Tarot.  Also, the attributes for each card, as stipulated by the Golden Dawn Book T, is also provided:

Tarot de Marseille Waite-Smith Attribute per Book T* Hebrew Letter per Book T*
(No Number) Le Mat 0 - The Fool Air Aleph
I - Le Bateleur I - The Magician Mercury Beth
II - La Papesse II - The High Priestess Moon Gimel
III - L'Impératrice III - The Empress Venus Daleth
IV - L'Empereur IV - The Emperor Aries He
V - Le Pape V- The Hierophant Taurus Vau
VI - L'Amoureux VI - The Lovers Gemini Zain
VII - Le Chariot VII - The Chariot Cancer Cheth
XI - La Force VIII - Strength Leo Teth
IX - L'Hermite IX - The Hermit Virgo Yod
X - La Roue de Fortune X - Wheel of Fortune Jupiter Kaph
VIII - La Justice XI - Justice Libra Lamed
XII - Le Pendu XII - The Hanged Man Water Mem
XIII - La Mort XIII - Death Scorpio Nun
XIV - Tempérance XIV - Temperance Sagittarius Sameth
XV - Le Diable XV - The Devil Capricorn Ayin
XVI - La Maison Dieu XVI - The Tower Mars Pe
XVII - L'Étoile XVII - The Star Aquarius Tzaddi
XVIII - La Lune XVIII - The Moon Pices Qoph
XIX - Le Soleil XIX - The Sun Sun Resh
XX - Le Jugement XX - Judgement Fire Shin
XXI - Le Monde XXI - The World Saturn Tau

*  "Book T" is a Golden Dawn manual, primarily written by MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) and William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925), concerning the metaphysical uses of the tarot. The document includes descriptions of the tarot, along with the astrological, kabalistic, elemental and spiritual attributes. The Golden Dawn method of esoteric tarot made use of the seven planets of classical antiquity, associations with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the tree of life concept taken from the Jewish Kabbalah. Arthur Edward Waite disagreed with the association of the Major Arcana with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but he accepted most of the other ideas contained in Book T.


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