An Athenæum Azostos Reflection on “working mystical women”: the tarot of Pamela Colman Smith (of the Rider-Waite deck) and of Madame Sosostris in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in December.
Over the years there have been many representations of this working woman – mystic, conjurer, or someone embodying mastery of other esoteric arts – in life or in the great microcosm of life: literature. Euripides wrote Medea in 431 BCE, a play that chronicles the classic witch and her “work” (her revenge as a mystic woman and scorned lover). Morgan[a] le Fay appears in various stories throughout history, the first being Vita Merlini written around 1150 CE. Morgan was an enchantress and healer, often under the employment of King Arthur of Camelot.
The various ways humans were feared and revered, sought and scorned, come to a climactic and devastating head when the Malleus Maleficarum was written, a book that launched The Witch Trials in America (and around Europe) in 1487. Shakespeare wrote the “Weird Sisters” (also known as the “Wyrd” or the “Three Witches”) in Macbeth in roughly 1606, thereby creating three of the most famous prophetic working women in literary history.
The mystic woman archetype in literature became so commonplace, that even children’s folk and fairy tales (e.g., the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” by The Brothers Grimm, or Baba Yaga in Slavic folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful”) are strewn with witches, conjurers, fairies, sorceresses, and/or magicians. These characters are usually always women and almost always available for help, hire, and work.
Arguably one of the most famous depictions of a mystic woman in American literature is Madame Sosostris in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which was written 100 years ago this year. Although she is only mentioned briefly, Madame Sosostris is the quintessential mystical working woman. She is a “famous clairvoyante” and “[i]s known to be the wisest woman in Europe” (Eliot lines 43, 45).
“With a wicked pack of cards,” she gives the speaker a “reading,” a telling of their fortune and future (line 46). The cards are reminiscent of a traditional pack, which “is a deck of cards used for occult and mystical practice with a history of socio-political intrigue dating back to the fifteenth century” (Sosteric 358). The tarot generally consists of 78 cards: 56 minor “arcana,” (or suits of swords, wands, cups, and pentacles/coins; based on elemental interpretations of the traditional card suits spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds, respectively) or “pips”; and 22 major arcana, or “trump” cards – both of which are “almost always illustrated with fanciful, mythological, spiritual, and [with] cultural imagery” (Sosteric 359-60).
Madame Sosostris’ cards echo this traditional deck (most often portrayed or known as the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot), though it seems Eliot took some personal and creative liberties. The speaker of “The Waste Land” has seven cards read to them: “the drowned Phoenician Sailor,” “Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,” “the man with three staves,” “the Wheel,” “the one-eyed merchant,” a blank card, and possibly “The Hanged Man” (lines 47-55).
The Wheel and The Hanged Man “correspond to 10. La Rue de Fortune and 12. Le Pendu: the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (see Fig. 1 below) and ‘Hanged Man’ in [Rider]-Waite’s pack” (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) (Fig. 2 below) respectively (Currie 727). With “the man with three staves,” “it is reasonable to assume that [Eliot] had in mind the three of wands” (see Fig. 3) (Currie 728). The “drowned Phoenician Sailor” may align with the “Death” card (based on the imagery of the card itself), although that is purely speculation (Fig. 4).
Even the blank card may have historical, if not metaphysical, significance. In fact, Waite (of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck) recorded an article from The Platonist in 1855 that stated: “It is known to adepts that there should be 22 esoteric keys, which would make the total number up to 100… the 22 esoteric keys [being] 22 blank cards prepared by the student” (in addition to the usual 78 cards as mentioned above) (Currie 727).
Eliot’s divergence from tradition here would be with the Belladonna, possibly the Sailor, and the merchant – meaning these cards are not obviously conflated with or derived from the traditional deck of tarot. Verily, they in no way exist in what is considered recognized or customary tarot. There have been many speculations as to what Eliot may have been referring to, although, as with most literature and esotericism, the symbols may be difficult to decipher or lack inherent pre-ascribed (if any) intentional meaning, save what the author or reader has personally assigned.
When Sosostris’ reading is concluded, she gives a warning to “Fear death by water” (Eliot line 55). It is commonplace for mystics to use some form of divination (as seen with the “wicked pack of cards” in this example) to predict the future or give warnings to a/the client. Divination, sometimes called “soothsaying,” is a way of predicting or prophesizing; it is “[f]ound in all civilizations, both ancient and modern” (Gilbert para. 1). Generally, it is “the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events, sometimes foretelling the future… [or] in the form of horoscopes, astrology, crystal gazing, tarot cards” (Ibid.).
After the warning of “death by water,” Madame Sosostris adds: “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,” another divinatory allusion without an inherent or implied meaning (Eliot line 56). She then thanks the speaker, a sign that was indeed a service, and adds “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone / Tell her I bring the horoscope myself” (the horoscope here is directly related to astrology, an ancient act of divination via the stars and planets) (lines 57-58). These are prototypical examples in modern literature of a working mystic woman. Madame Sosostris gives the speaker a tarot reading, divination, prediction with a nod to her astrological work, as well as thanking them for their business – making her a 100-year-old mystical working woman this year.
Happy birthday, Madame Sosostris – and your “wicked pack of cards,” too.
Currie, Robert. “Eliot and the Tarot.” ELH, vol. 46, no. 4, 1979, pp. 722-733
Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland.” Poetry Foundation, 1922, lines 43-59.
Gilbert, Robert Andrew. “Divination.” Britannica, 2001.
Sosteric, Mike. “A Sociology of Tarot.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens De Sociologie, vol. 39, no. 3, 2014, pp. 357-392.
List of Figures
Smith, Pamela Colman. “Waite-Smith ‘Death.’”
Smith, Pamela Colman. “Waite-Smith ‘The Hanged Man.’”
Smith, Pamela Colman. “Waite-Smith ‘Three of Wands.’”
Smith, Pamela Colman. “Waite-Smith ‘Wheel of Fortune.’”
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