Deck Interview: Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot

I discovered tarot when I was a kid, and all I knew of tarot at the time was the standard Rider-Waite deck, so I’ve been working with these cards for a long time. But my appreciation for them has grown up just as I have, and just as my appreciation of tarot has.

This long-standing relationship with Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations means that I’ve taken them for granted in many ways. I actually never did an interview with my first deck or my second deck, the Giant Rider-Waite, which is so large I see it more appropriate to being a gag gift or used only as a prop in a movie or a more festival-like practice. After hanging onto it for years and years, I finally just got sick of how large the cards were and threw it down the trash chute. I was without a tarot deck for a little while, but then I found this beauty. It’s the original deck but without the harsh—dare I say, garish—colors of the Rider-Waite versions. Everything is much more muted and sophisticated and less like a carnival sideshow with this deck.

I should be clear that I have enormous love for the colorful variants of tarot cards and their sometimes equally colorful readers (and the idea of carnival sideshows). I think it would be so fun to spend time in a small caravan all decked out in bright colors (it and me) slinging cards; it would be such a change from my everyday experience, but that’s not the sort of tarot I normally do, and I would feel like an imposter if I kept it up too long. It would be like putting on a costume and playing a role that wasn’t really appropriate. That’s how I felt about the colorful Rider-Waite deck.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with this deck over the half year or so that I’ve had it, and I wish I’d done an initial interview with it to see what it said then versus how it reads now. But I can’t go back in time, so here’s a fresh interview with an old deck. For my interviews, I use a spread I first learned from a practitioner I follow on Instagram, aquamoongrit, but I tweaked it to reflect the fact that I’m not getting to know the deck; I’m reflecting on our relationship. The original spread is the @matchatofu Tumblr tarot interviewing spread; the page no longer exists, but you can Google it.)


Interviewing the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot

Tell me about yourself. Page of Wands (reversed).

What are your strengths? 2 of Swords. And limitations? The Lovers.

What were you here to help me learn? 2 of Pentacles (reversed). And now what? King of Wands (reversed).

How do we could best work together? The Magician. So what can I improve on? 9 of Wands.

Where is our partnership headed? The Hierophant.

I like to think of my decks as having a personality, usually a reflection of all or some of my own. The reasons for this should be self-evident since I’m interpreting the cards through my own personality; it’s a conversation with myself rather than with actual sentient pieces of cardstock (see My Spirit, My Self), which would be exciting but also absolutely terrifying. Here, the Smith-Waite Centennial displays the side of me that is sarcastic and feels that he must sometimes “suffer fools,” but then, once that’s out of the system, we get serious because the topic is in fact serious.

The cards show a mix of traditionalism, empowerment, and responsibility. With the first and last cards, this deck is admitting that it’s no spring chicken out for adventure and exploration. It’s not going to break all the rules and throw caution to the wind. It’s a conservative deck with a long history behind it, and it’s worked for generations before me, so it will work just fine for generations afterwards. It’s for this reason that I consider using it for literally every reading. It’s just such a staple. That’s what I read in the 2 of Swords it cheekily threw in response to its strengths. “Uh, questions and self-reflection,” it seems to say. The 2 of Swords is actually a card full of symbols that all show how highly the deck thinks of itself beyond just its being a card of careful decision-making: it taps into the unconscious represented by the moonlit ocean; the blindfolded woman shows how it forces us to focus inward and drives out external nuisances, or passing fads, as the old-timer probably thinks of them; and the Swords show the clarity that the deck can provide to the observant reader.

As for its limitations, the Lovers is a bit surprising. I don’t see this as being about an inability to conduct love readings—this deck can do it all—and it seems silly to just double down on how traditional it is (the Lovers depicts the Garden of Eden, after all, which is pretty damned traditional in many ways). I’d like to think that it’s also suggesting the other common meaning of the Lovers, thoughtful responsibility required for a strong relationship. The deck can’t make decisions for me or anyone else, even if it can help us turn inward to find the truth behind what we read in the cards. The relationships between reader and cards and between reader and querent (the client asking a question or seeking insight) are not made lightly, and they should be approached thoughtfully and with an open heart.

The next four cards speak to our relationship and the way that I’ve changed as a reader during my time with this deck. Even though I’ve had this deck for fewer months than I had years with my prior deck, I grew tremendously because I began to take the deck more seriously. I could take it places and practice with it often enough that I became confident in the meanings I could pull out of it, and when I couldn’t access the memory of the meaning I could let go (reversed 2 of Pentacles) and then easily tap into my intuition to find the meaning that really mattered to me (the rolling ocean behind the juggler. I also created my Instagram account once I had it, and I’ve changed on that medium over the months as well. I had certain ideas about how I would use that platform (more in line with the King of Wands), and they’ve changed dramatically. I like what it’s become, although there’s always room for improvement. I do have some new things I’m going to try with it, but that’s news for that medium, not this one. There’s an authenticity and organic quality to the tarot work that I’ve learned to do with this deck. I’ve lost some of the polish and lustre that I might have had before, but getting more real and true to yourself is what tarot is really about for me and the people drawn to my practice.

The Magician is always a gorgeous card to see, and it’s good to recognize how much I’ve grown in my own tarot reading abilities and confidence to use tarot for myself and not just for others. And while I’m not a practitioner of magic or occult arts, and I don’t consider myself a psychic or fortune-teller, I do think that I’ve come to terms with the inexplicable coincidences of tarot and my practice of it, something which this deck helped me to see with plenty of reminders to tap into the spiritual realm of my teenaged tarot years, often seen in the Pentacles. In reading Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot, I’m reminded of my own preferred method of practice, but I’m glad to be pushed to try to learn more about the esoteric aspects of tarot because it’s more input data for my intuition to draw from when doing readings that can often feel like they’re accessing something beyond unconscious knowledge. Now that a lot of the early exploration of my time with this deck has passed and we have a good foundation, the 9 of Wands makes me think that we have a long road ahead together: there will be a lot of use of this deck (and hopefully no abuse of it) as we maintain the great things we’ve started together because we’re headed for a great future based on a solid, if sometimes overly conventional, relationship. There’s a lot of learning and teaching to enjoy together, and I’m looking forward to it.

The cards pictured above are, unsurprisingly, from the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur E. Waite, published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. © 2009, 2015.