The Genius of Pamela Colman Smith: the four of Cups and the Kingdom

Pamela_Colman_Smith_circa_1912It is often said that when creating (for ‘very little cash’) the rudely misnamed ‘Rider-Waite” deck, Pixie Colman Smith bought her wonderful mix of theatrical and artistic creation mostly into the Minor Arcana, particularly the Pip Cards.

“The actual processes by which the Waite-Smith collaboration took place are not certain, but it seems likely that Mr. Waite’s input was largely restricted to the twenty-two Major Arcana. Of the fifty-six pip cards – the Minor Arcana – it is likely that Miss Smith had a very free hand. They, therefore, are her creation, and it is there that we see her genius.” (

It seems likely that she drew on some images of the Sola Busca Tarot for this, recently acquired and exhibited by the British Museum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂 Naturally, however Pixie changed things and added a considerable amount of ‘stuff’ herself. As Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin point out in ‘Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot’ much of this stems, at least via a surface view, from Pixie’s theatrical background and the landscapes where she lives, moves and has her being. Some ‘stuff’ however is deep and profound and so subtle it flies in the face of the current dominant view that Pixie never really groked the esoteric Christian and Qabalistic milieu of her collaborator, Arthur Waite.

For example, let’s take the Four of Cups, first Sola Busca and then Pixie’s.



Pixie is clearly innovating here. The only other major deck in circulation back when she was creating this card was the Marseille which bears no relation at all to this image. This innovation has been seen by some to refer to Gautama under the Bodhi tree. However, it is clearly drawing on western imagery, not eastern. The use of the hand from the cloud motif draws from Hermetic emblems popular in the early modern period. There are no actual Buddhist symbols, and it is doubtful Pixie was exposed to much Buddhist iconography at all.

The card, according to the Golden Dawn system, refers to Chesed of Briah, the Creative World. This is pretty much the deepest level of consciousness a human can experience while incarnate and still plodding around the world. We can touch upon other ‘higher’ states in meditation, but regular folk can’t really live in a state deeper than what this card represents. Thus the card exists as a resting point between our current state of consciousness and a dramatic next step.

The next step is Binah of Briah – bridging the gap between phenomenal and noumenal world. Achieving such a goal, in Christian esoteric terms, cannot be done individually but is a corporate action. In shorthand, it is the coming of the Kingdom.

The key point here is there are three cups already on the ground and the fourth only being offered to or shown to the seated figure. This immediately brings to mind the Tetragrammaton, the holy four lettered name of the One. So we have YHV presented as the three cups on the ground and the final H in the cup coming from the clouds. The four lettered name, in this card, exists only in potential. It has not yet been remembered, the final Heh has not joined YHV since the figure seats inert and unmoved by what is being offered to them. Kinda like humanity, eh?

This is straight forward Hermetic Cabalism, sneakily placed here for our inner selves to be exposed to. However, Pixie goes further.

Say the phrase ‘four cups’ to any observant Jew around this time of year and they will automatically think of the Seder Passover meal. During this sacred meal, four cups of wine are drunk to honour and remember four great deliverances of the Jewish people as promised in Exodus. These are often summarised as God saying ‘I bring you out’ of captivity in Egypt, “I will deliver you from slavery’, ‘I will redeem you’ and ‘I will take you to be my people’. Again, like the final Heh, the final cup is the culmination of the other three, the creation of the People of God.

The meaning of the four cups can also be added to by exegesis and commentary. They can refer to the four Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, and Leah or the four ages, the final one being the World to Come, and also to the four letters of the Holy Name of God, the most honoured guest at the Seder. (

It all coheres wonderfully 🙂

Pixie would have known about these Seder customs. Not only would she have studied these matters but she had several Jewish friends, including her exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz. She began work on the Smith Tarot around Passover 1909.

But wait, there’s more!

There is not a complete consensus that the Last Supper as described in the Gospels was in fact a Seder Passover meal. It may have been a supper on a day in the week of Passover. But viewing it as a Seder is hardly heterodox. Now, as a Seder meal there should have been four offerings of the cup during the meal. We know of two definitely only from the Canonical Gospels. But the most significant point is Matthew 26:29. Here Christ interrupts the Seder, the sacred narrative and says:

But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

And does not drink.

In the Tarot the cup remains in the hands of the one from the cloud. The Tetragrammton is not established on the earth. The Kingdom is not established. It will not, and cannot be established until we are all, in corporate action, established within the Kingdom of the One. The figure in the card is ourselves, humanity, waiting to drink finally from the cup of remembrance, to grasp the final (and feminine) Heh and so to speak the word of Mystery upon the earth.

So much in such a simple card! Pixie is so clever 🙂


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