The Waite-Smith Tarot as Storyboard

From Wikipedia: “A storyboard is a graphic organizer in the form of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing a motion picture, animation, motion graphic or interactive media sequence.”

I think this definition is a workable analogy for envisioning the “movie” of a querent’s future as it unfolds via the cards in a tarot spread. Of all the tarot decks on the market, the Waite-Smith (aka RWS) Tarot and its near-identical clones arguably lend themselves best to this purpose. First, a bit of disclosure: as a Thoth aficionado of many years’ standing, I’m no great fan of the RWS and its “canned” story-lines; I think the images in the 40 minor arcana cards too often hijack the reader’s attention at the cost of more nuanced interpretation. When considered in light of the underlying esoteric principles (with which Waite was fully conversant), many of them are cringe-worthy. But put them together in a spread sequence (a “storyboard,” if you will) and a little magic manages to find its way out. The minor cards furnish fragments of narrative detail that can be synthesized with more intuitive impressions while not slavishly buying into their anecdotal thrust; all but one of the court cards (the King of Swords, although his sword does tilt slightly toward the viewer’s left) exhibit “facing” or directionality that adds a past-and-future inflection; and the trumps, with a few exceptions, follow the medieval “blueprint” closely enough to provide a sound rendering of the archetypes involved.

Of these, I find deciphering the minor arcana to be the most fun. Although I view some of them (or at least the folklore that has grown up around them) as thoroughly unsatisfactory from a metaphysical standpoint (the 6 of Pentacles and the 6 of Cups come to mind), for the most part they offer no end of insight and entertainment in terms of metaphoric fodder. One of the best examples of this is the 10 of Cups, which I can’t help but think of as the “Ob-La-Di, Ob La-Da” card, with Desmond and Molly Jones in their home-sweet-home, with a couple of kids running in the yard (if you are too young to have been a Beatles fan, look it up). I often describe the 8 of Cups as the “poisoned well” card; the retreating man has looked in the cups and found their contents toxic, so he is trudging away in discouragement humming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The 10 of Swords is the “scorched earth” card; there is nothing worth saving so it’s time to move on without looking back. The 8 of Swords is a sensory-deprivation card that urges “Follow your heart, not your head.” These are just four examples of how I choose to work with the RWS images in a story-telling sense.

Below is a full rendering of the four RWS suits (minus the court cards) in storyboard form; this is a compilation and edit of several essays posted on my previous blog site, The Wands and Cups storyboards were the first ones I completed so they are substantially less “fleshed-out” than the other two.

The “Barbarians at the Gate” RWS Storyboard

This is the first in my series of “storyboard” studies of the minor arcana cards of the Waite-Smith deck, this time examining the Wands. The quote in the title originated in Roman times, although modern readers will connect it more readily to the story of rapacious corporate greed portrayed in the book and movie of the same name.

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The suit of Wands in the RWS deck is a schizophrenic beast. After the initial, enthusiastic spark of the Ace it takes a detour into more measured contemplation and deliberation, — the Two and Three, which exhibit little of the trademark vigor associated with Fire — then turns celebratory with the Four and Six; the contentious Five seems antithetical to the overall benign mood of these cards, but some writers view it as showing a youthful “mock battle” or children at play. The Golden Dawn and later Aleister Crowley associated the suit with work and business, probably due to its demonstration of initiative, aspiration and enterprise, while French writer Joseph Maxwell related it to the industrious element of Earth. Waite retained the connection with Fire, but the early cards suggest more of a cautiously “banked” blaze than one in its full, fierce prime as we might expect from their proximity to the “root” of the elemental power.

The last four cards descend into conflict and difficulty, seemingly as a reaction and sobering corrective to the overconfident assumption of victory displayed in the Six. Here is a play-by-play narrative of the “story in the cards” as I see it. Note that the 19th Century tarot writers invariably described the querent with the pronouns “he, him and his,” so I will use that convention here for simplicity; I staunchly refuse to employ “they, them and their” as singular pronouns for grammatical reasons.

Ace of Wands: Man yearns for action (like a “burr under the saddle” that goads him).

Two of Wands: Man hesitates, with one foot in the past and one in the future, considering his options.

Three of Wands: Man launches his initiative and patiently waits for it to yield its rewards. (Note, however, that he has his back turned to the world and is so absorbed in his own affairs that he is vulnerable to “blind-siding.”)

Four of Wands: Man revels in early success (but he has yet to venture outside the boundaries of entrepreneurial prudence and needs a challenge to continue advancing).

Five of Wands: Man tests his strength in the fray of competing ambitions. (Here is the stimulation he has been craving).

Six of Wands: Man sees nothing standing in his way and basks in the acclaim of his (perhaps envious) peers.

As an aside, I see the next four cards as a plot shift that ultimately derails the protagonist’s apparently assured “train to glory.”

Seven of Wands: The victorious hero sallies forth on a new campaign, perhaps without sufficient advance mapping of the contested territory. It suggests a military scout who has encountered more resistance than he bargained for and is hard-pressed to extricate himself. (But he’s holding the high ground in the skirmish, giving him a “fighting chance.”)

Eight of Wands: The scout rapidly “beats feet” back to the main camp, barely ahead of the “slings and arrows” of the outraged — and markedly superior — foe.

Nine of Wands: The erstwhile hero takes a stand at the perimeter, valiantly defying the first wave of the assault but not entirely unbloodied in the onslaught. (The battle may have been won, but not the war.)

Ten of Wands: The distraught survivor of the conflict gathers up his possessions and trudges away from the battleground in defeat, a refugee in his own land. (Is that salvation in the distance or only a marginally secure way-station in his flight? I’ve never been convinced that he will be able to lay his burden down just yet.)

The upshot of this scenario is that what started out with unfettered optimism winds up in considerable distress, presenting a cautionary tale that reflects overweening pride going before a fall. Wands is sometimes described as the suit of Spirit, and here we see spiritual innocence losing its virtue in the often brutal give-and-take of adversarial competition. Waite and Smith give this ostensibly most positive suit in the deck a decidedly morose undertone.

The “Boy-Meets-Girl” RWS Storyboard

In this second installment of the RWS “storyboard” series I cover the suit of Cups, which hints at both amorous exploits and the allure of hedonism. The “boy-meets-girl” fairy-tale is one of the oldest (and perhaps now most irrelevant) cliches in the annals of romantic storytelling. It struck me that the RWS suit of Cups offers an almost pitch-perfect “storyboard” for the ups-and-downs often associated with these narratives, with a few added wrinkles to make it interesting. In this essay I will use the “boy-meets-girl” scenario, but feel free to substitute any set of relationship variables you prefer as you read: “girl-meets-boy;” “boy-meets-boy;” “girl-meets-girl;” or, if you’re really serious about your political correctness, “they-meets-them” (smile, that’s a joke).

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There are ten iterations in this allegory, spanning the range of romantic experience from initial yearning to ultimate fulfillment. Here is my rather fanciful take on the story-line:

Ace of Cups: Boy yearns for love.

2 of Cups: Boy meets “Girl A.” (Life is good.)

3 of Cups: Boy meets “Girl B” and maybe “Girl C.” (Life is even better . . . for a while.)

4 of Cups: Boy gets bored with “too much of a good thing,” or perhaps he just has too many “irons in the fire” or “balls in the air” and is weary of the effort.

5 of Cups: Boy loses “Girl A” due to his inattentiveness (and maybe “Girl B” and “Girl C” if they find out about one another).

6 of Cups: “Girl A” returns; Boy has been missing her.

7 of Cups: Boy still doesn’t know exactly what he wants.

8 of Cups: Boy loses Girl A” for good and wanders off, seeking redemption.

9 of Cups: Boy finds his soul-mate (or maybe becomes an alcoholic or bartender).

10 of Cups: Boy eventually finds emotional fulfillment and settles down.

In another sense, this series of cards can show the “roller-coaster ride” of alcohol addiction and recovery: naive bliss and exhilaration in the Ace, Two and Three that is dampened by a dose of sobriety in the Four and soured in the Five (together suggesting the “morning after”), then briefly redeemed in the Six (“hair of the dog”) before wandering into delirium again in the Seven and being frustrated anew in the toxic Eight (“falling off the wagon”), reaching the depths of self-indulgent excess in the Nine and finally leveling off and climbing back out of the pits in the Ten, perhaps with help. To me the story-line implies a repeating cycle of behavior rather than a final triumph over indiscretion, which the uncompromising suit of Swords ultimately brings to a head.

I think it would be useful to lay these cards out as a reading template and then draw ten minor arcana cards from a second deck to reveal how closely an individual’s romantic outlook might align with the model. “Good” cards in “bad” positions could mitigate or even negate the possibility for an unfortunate outcome, and “bad” cards in “good” positions could take some of the shine off the victory. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you could draw ten cards for “Boy,” placing them above the template row, and ten cards from a third deck for “Girl” (see above for gender-inclusiveness options), placing them below the template cards, which could then be used as a kind of pivot-point on which their relationship would turn at various key junctures in their journey together. The partner whose card agrees most closely with a template card would take the lead in “acting out” the potential inherent in the model (or at least feeling the compulsion to do so).

The “Light and Shadow” RWS Storyboard

This is the third of my “storyboard” examinations of the minor arcana cards of the Waite-Smith (aka RWS) tarot. The suit of Swords is unquestionably the least encouraging of the set since any light it emits is muted and often fades into gloom, so the title of this post may be somewhat optimistic. Swords encompass the realm of ideas and intellectual pursuits, so excursions of the mind are central to its nature; it moves from the “bright idea” to the bleak depths of mental anguish and the flat light of despair. There is little joy to be found in its script.

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Since Swords often deal with disagreements and contentious legal matters, I will use the “everyman” paradigm in my narrative, which appears as the “reasonable man” principle in contract law. The RWS tarot is rooted in Victorian sensibilities, so I will stay with masculine pronouns although gender neutrality should be assumed in accordance with modern social values.

Ace of Swords: The “light-bulb moment.” A “bright idea” flashes into view, but it is rudimentary and must be fleshed out in concrete terms before it will gain any traction in reality and become more than an idle daydream.

2 of Swords: The fledgling notion immediately descends into ambiguity as various half-formed options present themselves and are rejected. There is a sense of inertia and futility about this card (the infamous “mental block”) that doesn’t bode well for constructive thought. It implies the alternating flow of the electric current, shunting between positive and negative poles and vulnerable to a “short circuit” along the path. Another analogy is the wind-up mechanical clock: it feeds on its inner tension until it runs down and stops. In esoteric number theory, the Line bends back upon itself and returns to where it started, gaining little but experience.

3 of Swords: The pierced heart in this card is a “red herring.” The 3 of Swords isn’t primarily about emotional heartache, it expresses disabling anxiety in mental terms. In fact, one of the sources for its design comes from the Sola Busca 3 of Batons, which shows a human head penetrated by three staves, looking like a migraine headache and an abscessed tooth rolled into one. In number theory, all of the Threes represent progress and development, but the opportunity here is of the “no pain, no gain” variety. The “bright idea” is beset with hardships as it struggles toward realization of its initial promise.

4 of Swords: In Pythonian parlance, this is the “lying down and avoiding” card. The protagonist must have a rest even though he has barely started; the trials of the 3 of Swords have completely enervated him and he has scant reserves of inspiration. The downcast expression “I’m fresh out of ideas” is relevant here. His mental cupboard is bare and he has to recharge his batteries.

5 of Swords: There is a whiff of desperation about this card, as if the issue must be forced in a “might makes right” way because the momentum of the mental juggernaut has become mired in a debilitating lack of direction and vision. The Fives are corrective in nature and can therefore be chaotic, bringing needed but often unpleasant change. The initiative gets back on track with a “kick in the pants,” shorn of any misapprehensions.

6 of Swords: The “betwixt and between” card, showing the mind trying to find its way in a sea of uncertainty. It isn’t clear from the image whether the boat has just left the dock or is closing in on the far shore, and whether the swords at the bow are defensive or offensive in their operation (fending off the phantasms of doubt or cutting a path through the mental fog). All we can say with confidence is that it is on a “voyage of discovery,” and that — although unsettled in its outlook — it seems to be on an “even keel.”

7 of Swords: A card of conflicted intentions The two swords stuck in the ground suggest that he has unfinished business to attend to, but the man in the picture has his hands full trying to hold the other five by the “pointy end.” He is gazing (with his eyes closed) back over his shoulder at an uncharted future but is stepping briskly toward the certainty of a known past. This card amply illustrates Elizabeth Hazel’s observation that the Sevens represent a step in a new direction, but that the way must be thoroughly mapped before the leading foot is planted. Here the devious-looking man seems to be in denial of that fact, instead intent on preying upon his enemy’s preparations. This suggests that the innovative impulse of the Ace has once again fetched up on the rocks of indecision and could stray from its course.

8 of Swords: A card of sensory deprivation; the figure in the card is at a standstill, prevented by the fence of swords from going back the other way but also unable to apprehend a rational way forward. The key to escaping this impasse lies in the unbound feet and the water that seems to be flowing off the lower right corner of the card. In astrology, the feet are ruled by the intuitive sign of Pisces, so an opportunity presents itself to “feel” one’s way along the watercourse and thus depart the static scene. This is the “Follow your heart, not your head” card.

9 of Swords: The “nightmare without end” card, often called “the Dark Night of the Soul.” Rachel Pollock has pointed out that this card and the Devil are the only cards in the RWS deck that have a completely black background. All light has been absorbed and no glimmer of hope can be seen. This is one of the worst cards in the deck; the only encouraging words that come to mind are “the night is darkest right before the dawn,” and the observation that the terminal points of the swords are cut off by the right frame of the card, implying that the answer lies just over the horizon.

10 of Swords: Unfortunately, dawn breaks on an entirely desolate tableau. This is the “scorched earth” card; no living thing remains to be seen and nothing can be salvaged, so there is no point in agonizing over what has been lost. Time to pick up the pieces of one’s shattered dreams and soldier on, not looking back. The “bright idea” of the Ace expires in a murky haze of disillusionment. But at least there is a sliver of rejuvenating sunlight peeking like a beacon over the distant hills.

The Swords as a group deliver grim tidings indeed, but all is not lost. In the “spiral” movement of the tarot suits, the depletion of the Ten doesn’t renew itself in the Ace of the same suit but in that of the next suit. Here the fecundating potency of the Ace of Pentacles can infuse the barren soil of the 10 of Swords, preparing it for replanting.

The “Bowling for Dollars” RWS Storyboard

This is the fourth and last of my “storyboard” studies of the RWS minor cards. The title comes from the old TV show “Bowling for Dollars” and plays off the bizarre impression created by the central image on the Ace of Pentacles. It is tempting to think of the suit of Pentacles (Coins or Disks in other decks) as the “work” suit. In fact, in the Thoth deck the 3 of Disks is even titled “Works.” But note the subtle distinction: that’s “works” as in “projects,” not individual labor. In the Golden Dawn system, that distinction is given to Wands due to their connection with ambition, initiative and enterprise, thus “business.” Pentacles more properly relate to material resources such as money, possessions and property, and the focus in a reading is largely mundane Although the court cards are outside the scope of this essay, Aleister Crowley used terms like “dull, heavy, materialistic, practical, steadfast, grounded, strong, persevering and non-intellectual” to describe the Disks court, and the same principles inform the minor cards as well.

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Ace of Pentacles: A card of opportunity ripe for the plucking. For some strange reason, the image in this card resembles a hand holding a bowling ball and the path leading to the gate in the distance is the lane down which it must be rolled. There is potential for success here but no incentive to pursue it until a practical goal materializes. The walled expanse is more an incubator than a tillable field and the road on the far side of the gate beckons. Until the time that portal is breached, the “wheels of progress” are greased and ready but remain idle.

2 of Pentacles: There is a sense of queasy unsteadiness about this card, aggravated by the ships being tossed about on the rolling waves that echo the precarious stance of the juggler. At the instant captured in the image, the dynamic tension represented by the Two may be either his undoing or his salvation. There is an interesting analogy hidden in the scene that very few will notice. Although Waite and Smith would not have had a clue what I’m talking about, any fly fisherman knows that a “tight loop” in the line when back-casting produces greater line speed and a more accurate forward cast, while a lazy “open loop” invites deflection by the wind. In this card the loop of the lemniscate at the juggler’s right hand is flatter and tighter than its opposite number, suggesting that the momentum of his effort is pulling him in that direction, apparently more off-balance. If the “left as past and right as future” convention is applied, the idea of “resistance to change” comes to mind, the urge to back off and let both the opportunity and the attendant risk slide by. The juggler must take his cue from the galleon moving toward the right side of the picture and wrestle that energy around before it upends him. Another sports analogy that strikes me is “the wind-up before the pitch.”

3 of Pentacles: Although a common interpretation of this card is the “master craftsman,” it is really too early in the number sequence for mastery to occur; stability has barely been restored at this point. The suggestion here is more one of teamwork, and of the old business adage “plan the work and work the plan.” The tableau appears to show an architect directing a craftsman in the conduct of the work and perhaps implementing changes to the plan at the behest of the patron in the background. It is a card of turning creative potential into concrete reality, ultimately giving the impetus for growth inherent in the Three a practical outlet in the solid structure of the Four and bringing the nascent changes inspired by the Two to fruition.

4 of Pentacles: There is another Beatles song that fits this card to a “tee” — “I Me Mine.” George Harrison had this to say about the song (from the 1980 book, I Me Mine):

“Suddenly I looked around and everything I could see was relative to my ego, like ‘that’s my piece of paper’ and ‘that’s my flannel’ or ‘give it to me’ or ‘I am’. It drove me crackers, I hated everything about my ego, it was a flash of everything false and impermanent, which I disliked. But later, I learned from it, to realise that there is somebody else in here apart from old blabbermouth. Who am ‘I’ became the order of the day. Anyway, that’s what came out of it, I Me Mine. The truth within us has to be realised. When you realise that, everything else that you see and do and touch and smell isn’t real, then you may know what reality is, and can answer the question ‘Who am I?’”

The man in the image is desperately trying to hold onto everything that must eventually be let go to make way for continued growth. It is a card of greed and vanity for sure, but perhaps more accurately one of misplaced values and short-sightedness. He is in his “comfort zone” and nothing is going to dislodge him . . . except the ravages of time and creeping stagnation. An overbuilt structure that can topple under its own weight is another useful metaphor.

5 of Pentacles: The curious thing about the image here is that the beggars seem to be disregarding the very institution that might provide them relief from the cold, walking past with downcast expressions as if oblivious to the warmth and light within. Waite was undoubtedly a Christian, but the implication here is that the majesty of the Church is too lofty to serve those who are most in need of its charity; the gulf between abject poverty and material wealth (or, for that matter, mere subsistence) is too wide to bridge with prayers and platitudes, so the pilgrims must look elsewhere for succor. There is a frosty indifference about this card that aligns well with the idea of the Five as “forced change” that brings discomfort at the same time that it re-establishes forward momentum. The advice is to keep on trudging.

6 of Pentacles: The conventional view of this card as showing charity in action doesn’t square well with the esoteric nomenclature of “Material Success.” In that sense, the image is misleading, unless it is interpreted as an “embarrassment of riches” that creates the urge to “salve one’s guilty conscience” by giving some of it away. The man is not so much a “do-gooder” as he is a realist who knows that idle wealth must be put to work or its management can become more of a burden than it is worth. Either that or he is just trying to outfox the taxman with tax-deductible contributions to non-profit ventures. The point is that this isn’t really a card of benign goodwill but rather one of savvy investment.

7 of Pentacles: The striking thing about this image is that the farmer has only managed to harvest one “coin” and he is already taking a break from his labors. The Golden Dawn title is “Lord of Success Unfulfilled” and Aleister Crowley bluntly called it “Failure.” The RWS card simply suggests stalled progress and unfinished business; the investments tendered in the Six have yet to yield any return, and if the worker continues to rest on his hoe they won’t in the foreseeable future. The bounty may “go by” before he has a chance to bring it to market.

8 of Pentacles: This is a card of tireless diligence and consummate craftsmanship, the true earmark of the master. The rewards of productivity are ensured and the artisan is closing in on the end of his task, but he still has his “nose to the grindstone” and hasn’t slackened his efforts. The fumbling incompetence of the Seven has been forgotten in the satisfying glow of a job well done.

9 of Pentacles: This is almost universally seen as a card of bounty and comfort, but there is in fact a whiff of decadence and self-indulgence about it, an overripe aura of impending decay. Note that the hedge of grapevines behind the woman has no gate in it so what she has at hand is all she is going to get, although she seems completely indifferent to that prospect. She is complacent in her sequestered garden and intends to stay that way as long as her resources last, letting the world pass her by. These insightful lines, paraphrased from the Eagle’s song “Hotel California,” strike a chord: she is “just a prisoner here of her own device” and “she can check out any time she likes but she can never leave.”

10 of Pentacles: There is a deadening banality about this card that echoes the sanctimonious declaration of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss (who apparently knew his Leibniz): “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” a satirical comment on mindless positivism. It is generally interpreted as a benevolent card, but as the final card of the last suit and also of the entire deck, it is the epitome of exhaustion. It begs the question “Is this all there is?” The prospect of a “reboot” with the Ace of Wands has yet to make its appearance, so the members of the extended family in the image are rather fatuously indulging in their obvious good fortune and are heedless of the looming bankruptcy of their estate (although I think the elderly man suspects something is amiss). There is a definite “enjoy while it lasts because it won’t last long” implication to this card.

And on that note I will sign off with the observation that (except for the inevitable edits) “Yes, that’s all there is.”

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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