In Honour of Pamela Colman Smith
That was a fabulous weekend.
Our annual pilgrimage to Cornwall for the Pagan Phoenix South West conference held at a holiday centre just outside of Bude. Some of you may know I was born in Cornwall and have a deep connection to the land that made my teeth and bones so this is my yearly pilgrimage to the wild country and coast of my birth.
The conference was fabulous with some really interesting speakers and I managed to record a couple for forthcoming episodes of DruidCast. Gary Lachman gave a brilliant history of Aleister Crowley, Pete Jennings gave a great talk on Pathworking, after lunch Karen Cater gave a talk and folk music presentation on the Spirit of the Hare that had the whole audience singing along, and the daytime activities were crowned with a talk/performance by our Druid buddy from Anglesey, Kristoffer Hughes, who spoke about Ceridwen. At 8pm I took the main stage with an opening reflective, singalong set, and after a short break kicked it up with a set of anthems and more upbeat songs.
What a fabulous night!
Sunday is our traditional journey to Boscastle for a walk up the cliffs and a Cornish Cream Tea in the village, but this year we made a detour on the way.
If you are reading this and you are interested in magic and the occult I would be happy to make a bet that somewhere in your house you have a tarot deck. And to make this bet a little more interesting I’d also be happy to say that at least one of those decks is either what was known as the Rider Waite deck, or a deck that is based on that deck. Rider was the publisher and the Waite is AE Waite, magician and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. What was so special about the deck was that, up until then, all of the Minor Arcana cards in previous modern Tarot decks had been what are called Pip cards, ie, the Seven of Wands only had an image of seven wands, like a regular deck of playing cards. This made the Minor Arcana much harder to interpret. The Rider Waite deck had full images for all 78 cards of the Tarot. It was revolutionary, and pretty much every deck for years have been based upon the images from that original Rider Waite deck.
But there was a problem.
Rider may have published the deck, and AE Waite might have come up with some of the ideas for the images on the cards, but Waite was not an artist, so he asked Pamela Colman Smith, also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to create the art and images for the cards. A HUGE input to the creation of this legendary Occult tool, but for years and years her name was nowhere on the deck. In more recent years the deck has become known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck or RWS for short, and this is a very good thing. Pamela’s images have been of massive importance to the development of the Tarot, and also to everyone’s lives who have used her cards, and those based upon the images of her cards. Many believe that much of the imagery for the Minor Arcana came directly from Smith herself.
But still to this day, many know so little about her.
She was a contemporary and friend of poet William Butler Yeats, and she illustrated at least one of his poetry books. She was also a friend of Bram Stoker and her illustrations can be found in a publication of his final book Lair of the White Worm. She was the only daughter of Charles Edward Smith (who was the son of Brooklyn Mayor Cyrus Porter Smith), and Corinne Colman (sister of painter Samuel Colman). She was active as part of the Suffrage movement. Her life took her from Brooklyn, to Jamaica, to London. She was part of that amazing cauldron of Victorian magic that gave birth to so much of what we do as modern Pagans.
However, her later life did not go well financially. She struggled to make her artwork pay and subsequently built up a lot of debt. She moved to Bude in Cornwall and tried to make a living there, and she did for a while. She never married, but lived with Nora Lake, her long-time companion of 40 years.
Pamela Colman Smith died in 1951 aged 71. She never saw the full impact that her artwork had on the world. She was buried in a pauper’s unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Michaels and All Angels Church in Bude and the exact location was lost in a church fire that destroyed a vast amount of the parish records. Only local memory and word of mouth recall the grave was beside the wall next to the woods in the churchyard itself.
So on our way to Boscastle me, Cerri, Kristoffer and Ian took a detour to find that church. It was Sunday morning and Service was beginning as we drove up and parked our cars. I do love churchyards. Even when I was a child I used to sometimes ride my bike to the one in the centre of Haywards Heath and just sit there in the silence and peace. I never found them spooky, and this was no exception. It was a beautiful place of memory and respect. We made our way around the church and there at the back was a long stone wall that bordered a small woodland, and as we walked on so gaps in the marked graves began to appear, with unnamed graves between the older and leaning headstones. Somewhere, here amongst the graves, lay the bones of a lady who had the most incredible impact on so many lives, yet she never knew this while she lived.
We opened ourselves and spoke words into the air. Telling her of what had happened since she had passed away. We thanked her for her art, her life, her vision. We asked ourselves questions as to why there was no sign, no marker at all, that said that she lay somewhere in that earth. As we were speaking so birds began to sing, louder. Our eyes were drawn to the countless primroses that covered the ground of the churchyard, then to our feet, where upon one unmarked grave, a single pink primrose grew, one among many, around which a large black beetle walked, alone.
One single pink primrose among a sea of yellow.
Not everything nature gives us is a sign. Sometimes nature is just doing nature things. But sometimes one gets a distinct feeling that something else is going on, and that was one of those moments.
I reached down and touched the earth of the unmarked grave.
Was she there?
And in truth, it doesn’t matter. Her Spirit was in the grass, the trees, the very air of that place, her Spirit is in the card I pulled from my RWS deck this morning. We just wanted to show her some respect, some love, and speak her name so she would know that she is remembered.
For what is remembered, lives.
We left, listening to the hymns being sung by the congregation in the church as we walked back to the cars, and made our way onwards, to Boscastle.