Part of a sequence of four portraits of earthly authority (priestess/empress/emperor/hierophant), the Empress sits in a field of golden stalks in a flower-print robe on a pillowed settee, a flowing stream behind. Clad in white upon red velvet, ready for the alchemical wedding with the red-robed white-bearded Emperor. She's even got a heart-shaped stone bearing the symbol of Venus, for heaven's sake. Any rube can read this one: fertility, sensuality, feminine languor, all that jazz.
The Waite-Smith deck has her slender and fair, crowned with stars (her tiara overgrown too with flowering plants?). Along with the Emperor she forms the inner, secular pair of the four-card portrait run, both of them trumped by the Pope/Hierophant. So far so canonically early-20C mythohistorical.
Modern renderings often take the fertility symbolism further along toward literalism, by necessity - the average city-dwelling tarot reader/querent probably hasn't set foot in a wheat field in years, never mind mulled over the seasonal/menstrual symbolic parallel. So you get pregnant Goddess types with flowing hair and garlands of flowers, or nursing mothers looking out of the card with bizarrely come-hither looks. ('Baby' translates directly to 'control' in microcultures where motherhood is the only way to get male respect on female terms.)
Aleister Crowley's Book of Thoth, meanwhile, glosses Frieda Harris's gorgeous watercolour art like this:
With regard to the Pelican, its full symbolism is only available to Initiates of the Fifth degree of the O.T.O. In general terms, the meaning may be suggested by identifying the Pelican herself with the Great Mother and her offspring, with the Daughter in the formula of Tetragrammaton. It is because the daughter is the daughter of her mother that she can be raised to her throne. In other language, there is a continuity of life, an inheritance of blood, which binds all forms of Nature together. There is no break between light and darkness. Natura non facit saltum. If these considerations were fully understood, it would become possible to reconcile the Quantum theory with the Electro-magnetic equations.
There are many, many, many ways in which I want to be nothing at all like Aleister Crowley. But when he gets going, prosewise, no one can touch him. The archetypal occultist, in some ways, trading his sense for visionary poetry, then whirling his way back through ironic self-awareness to something mirroring sense, darkened and distorted.
Anyhow the Book of Thoth is a load of bollocks, but what a read. Alas, no one's putting out new work in Crowley's mode anymore. The language of Tarot-interpretation (and -extrapolation or -narrativization) is, like most 'spiritual' writing, more straightforwardly autobiographical now; 'psychology' has been absorbed into our pop-thought idioms while the various esoteric/mystical traditions have been passively, and in some cases actively, put aside. There are plenty of Magical Thinking brotherhoods - ever been to a political convention, or hung out with hardcore sports fans? - but the fetish for systematization and taxonomy, for encyclopedic knowledge-gathering and -correlation, has largely passed.
You can have the Book of Thoth or Google, but not both. Even if Google just links you to the monomaniacs, the Browsing and Delving urges are distinct - i.e. you can only take pleasure-as-an-end from one of those activities at a time, I think, and if Google is always everywhere, well...
Part of the appeal of the Waite-Smith deck, for me, is the lovely simplicity of the art. The faces resemble those of standard-deck court cards, the proportions straight out of classical statuary, the colours unnaturally simple. (Some say 'garish'; I say 'faintly otherworldly,' and recall a certain lyric about 'the sky was yellow / and the sun was blue'...) Other decks have more technically accomplished art, to be sure, but tarot artists seem to be unusually prone to zealous overreach; there's a lot of stuff in the average tarot card. This is a well-intentioned pain, the idea being to give the reader lots of material to work with, but the end result being visual clutter, which affects the experience directly at its point of initiation.
Rule one of visual art: get the visuals right!
I actually prefer Smith's pip cards (non-trumps), which tend to be more austere and less worked-over, to her beautiful but comparatively busy Major Arcana. The 'mood' of the Waite-Smith deck speaks to me.
Oh, I just remembered why.
I bought my Waite-Smith deck at a store called 'Bell Book and Candle' in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1993 or so, hanging out one afternoon with an unbearably beautiful girl whom I'd met at the National Spelling Bee. (Many nice friendship stories begin this way, with a great beauty and a Caribbean island and the Spelling Bee, but in the history of mankind not a single sexy story has included the words 'Spelling Bee.')
I recognized the bell/book/candle symbolism from one of the Zork games. I never did get the hang of tarot reading. It didn't accomplish anything for me so I put the deck aside, lost the book I'd bought with it, and only pulled the cards out again in 2003, while teaching at Tufts. I'd discovered the brilliant tarot-themed 1987 puzzle game, The Fool's Errand, whose villain (I'm reminded) was the High Priestess. There was something about the image of a happy-go-lucky rube wandering alone in a world of strange but solvable puzzles that appealed to me. Go figure.
I went for the cards again a few years later, after picking up a copy of the startling, darkly inspiring urban-fantastic Deviant Moon deck as writerly inspiration. I preferred the Deviant Moon deck to the Waite-Smith, as a visual art object, but the old deck still struck me as complete in a sense. You might describe the difference this way: the Deviant Moon deck, brilliant as it is, looks like a concerted attempt to capture a coherent aesthetic, a little steampunkish, dark, surreal, co-opting Odd(tm) imagery (like old headstones and asylum chimneys).
The Waite-Smith deck looks like someone's travel notebook of another universe, complete unto itself, not even Strange on its own terms...and haunted. Melancholy. Quiet.
That quiet always sang to me; I realized recently that I stayed away from the cards not because they were boring, but because their seeming inactivity was precisely what unnerved me about them. An eldritch quality - like British medieval folksongs about frolicking on the heath, which turn out to be about the Black Death.
Pastoral disquiet. That's it.
The Waite-Smith Empress isn't disquieting though. She just looks bored. Because the Major Arcana don't erupt into magical oddity and celestial glory until about the halfway point, the Empress just has to sit there are symbolize, basically, herself. Even Waite sounds bored in the Pictorial Key:
She is above all things universal fecundity and the outer sense of the Word. This is obvious, because there is no direct message which has been given to man like that which is borne by woman; but she does not herself carry its interpretation.
Maybe if the weather was nicer today I'd be more...up. Though I can blame the Waite-Smith cards for that too: even their sun doesn't really look sunny! Talk about melancholy, half the Waite-Smith figures look like they're trying to go about their business and remembering that a close friend died last month.
I never did get in touch with her after that, nor her with me. I'd have to look up her name, even.
And you know what? It wasn't the Spelling Bee where we met, and it wasn't 1993. It was 1995 and we met in Baltimore, her name was...Christ, was it Annalicia? Did I wear shorts and feign confidence? Did she laugh about me on the phone with her friends afterward, or never mention me again?
And yet I'm absolutely certain of the name of the occult store, Bell Book & Candle. It's still there. Lonely Planet says it 'pulls in the vacation crowd.'
The Empress doesn't care one way or the other what's going on, and the Emperor looks pissed off. Yeah, that's pretty much how I remember it.