Queen of Tarot

The ancient wisdom of the cards

Arthur Edward Waite

Tags england, occultists, rider waite tarot deck

Before the Rider-Waite deck was published in 1911, there was no modern deck that featured pictures for each of the 78 cards in the deck. Most decks had illustrations only for the Major Arcana, while the rest of the cards featured simply a pattern of easily recognizable pips. Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) wanted to publish a complete, modern version of the tarot that featured pictures for each card in the deck, including the minor arcana. Many of the ancient copies were fully illustrated, but none were being printed any longer. In 1909, he published "The Key To The Tarot". With the help of his publisher, Rider & Co., he also commissioned a skilled artist and fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) to illustrate the entire 78 card Tarot deck to his exact specifications, so that any variation introduced would not be her fault. Together, Waite's text and Smith's gorgeous illustrations revolutionized the world of Tarot. Ironically, however, Waite does not seem to have succeeded in his attempts to convince the world that the Tarot is a secret language of the Illuminati, even though the deck he envisioned is even today the single most common and influential deck in use. A great many decks are, in essence, nothing more than re-drawings of the Colman-Smith plates. In 1911, Rider published "The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination" in London. This was essentially a second edition of the first book, with the addition of Pamela Colman Smith's illustrations. In 1971, US Games printed a nearly-verbatim copy of Pamela Colman Smith's Tarot illustrations with a new back and a simplified, less realistic version of the colors they were initially printed with (Smith did not do any of the colors herself, apparently). They continue to hold the copyright of that 1971 recoloring, as well as their box and back designs, so for that reason we cannot display this company's cards for you to see. Instead, we use only the cards from the 1911 book, which is public domain in the United States. The US Games version is still the most common tarot deck in print and is sold under the name Waite-Smith Tarot Deck®.

Waite's Motivations

Waite created this book not because of interest in divination -- quite the contrary. Although his book does include divinatory instruction, if you read the entire book from cover to cover it is clear that to Waite, much of the hype surrounding the Tarot was just that; he called the previous works on the matter "reveries and gratuitous speculations expressed in the terms of certitude" (Waite 1911, Part I, Section I). He wanted to create this deck because to him it was a secret dictionary of symbols. To him, these symbols could only be properly interpreted by initiates in a "Secret Tradition" of elite individuals who were privy to its innermost secrets. He was so obsessed with secrecy that he had reservations about publishing this book, but he rationalized it to himself and his peers in the "Secret Tradition" by saying, essentially, that no one would be smart enough to figure out what it really meant, anyway. He clearly felt that he could not write everything he knew, and instead restricted himself to what he felt it was permissible to reveal to laymen. In Waite's day, there was a great deal of speculation and fantasy surrounding the history of the Tarot. His aim in writing 'The Key to the Tarot' and its followup was to combat this questionable scholarship in order to glean whatever actual data could be recovered by studying the Tarot. Waite did not personally believe in the divinatory properties of Tarot cards, but included them because he felt that divination was part of their history. He did not state categorically that it was impossible, but rather attempted to distance himself from that aspect of the cards.

Waite's Goals

Although Waite found it difficult to translate the chicken scratches, purple prose, and outright nonsense that represented the majority of occult documentation in his era, he pressed on because he felt driven to do so, as a matter of honor. He did this because he wanted to codify, as far as possible, the meanings of the cards so that they could be used to understand some cataclysmic event he believed was destined to occur. (As far as I can tell, this is simply more of the usual silliness where the Illuminati are threatening to immanentize the eschaton. The funny thing about eschatons is that they can't get you if you don't believe in them. And they just keep on not showing up, over and over. It's just like in the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series. The good guys keep on smacking them down, but they're determined to do what they can to get us to live in fear. Whatever. You're just a bunch of balding, middle-aged men running naked in the moonlight, and honey, we've seen it all before.) He drew a strong and probably false dichotomy between occultists and mystics. Mystics, to him, were brothers in arms, the ones with the second sight that would assure his sect's glorious future. Occultists were silly, foolish people with too much money, and the charlatans who led and milked them. Waite was quite clear about what the Tarot signified to him: "The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs." (Waite, 1911, Part I, Section 1) He felt that this sacred symbolism was in danger of being lost in the fog, and so he sought to preserve it. He saw it as a document that represented the last extant scraps of prophecy about events that were unfolding over time, originating long in the past and extending far into the future. His book is continually reassuring his peers in the "Secret Tradition" that they would still have their jobs, because no one would understand the full meaning of the Tarot from the pictures alone, and his verbal descriptions were limited to alleviating misconceptions rather than the secret meaning behind them. However, he felt that it was an issue of honor to write his book, because it was "a secret symbological language of the Albigensian sects." He was battling folly and superstition on all sides: there were those who could be automatically discounted because they were not acquainted with his "Secret Tradition" on the one hand, and on the other hand there were members of his own "Secret Tradition" who despised Waite and wanted to stifle him, because he had proof that they were fakers and con artists. Aleister Crowley and Waite were known to dislike one another, for example. Waite's sincere belief was that "[t]he Tarot embodies symbolical presentations of universal ideas, behind which lie all the implicits of the human mind, and it is in this sense that they contain secret doctrine." In other words, they represent universal human archetypes.

Waite's Methods

Although I remain unconvinced of some of his theories, I must admit that without the sanity he injected into the study of the history of cards, we would still be mired in the bizarre and convoluted systems of interpretation that existed before, which were all about layouts and secret, arcane arrangements of the cards. The existing texts were filled with alchemical nonsense and vague hand-waving. Waite made it possible to interpret cards in an intuitive, common-sense fashion, without referring to a bunch of weird and unenlightening charts. Although he does not go into extensive detail about his methodology, it is clear that he went to a great deal of trouble to study as many cards and references as possible. In some cases the significance of a symbol can be discounted because it is absent from some decks or varies so widely that it cannot be considered universal. "the cards are a medley of old and new emblems. Those who insist upon the evidence of the one may deal, if they can, with the other. No effectual argument for the antiquity of a particular design can be drawn from the fact that it incorporates old material; but there is also none which can be based on sporadic novelties, the intervention of which may signify only the unintelligent hand of an editor or of a late draughtsman." (Waite, 1911, Part I Section 2) Despite Waite's claims that he was attempting to conserve the traditional Tarot, he was unabashed about adjusting their symbolism when he sees fit. In some cases he seems to have been determined to alter the conventionally accepted view, as in his description of the Hermit, when he waxes philosophical in order to defend his assertion that the card should not be named "Prudence". Normally he has little tolerance for variations introduced by others, but occasionally he adopts them, when they amuse him or back up his arguments. He seems to believe his Secret Tradition got credit for the similarities. I suspect that it was the other way around, and that the similarities arise because his Secret Tradition borrowed liberally from the Greek gnostics who preceded them. This gambit is common to many who seek to innovate in religious matters, because they seek a source of legitimacy. Roman priests, for example, conducted religious ceremonies in Etruscan, though the common people only spoke Latin. Later, Christian priests would pull the same trick, confining scripture and ceremony to the language of their heathen forebears rather than reading scripture in the native tongues of their parishioners. This is a very useful trick, because it confines the really juicy stuff to the educated elite. Waite maintained that the primary text on Alchemy postdated the general availability of Tarot cards by a great deal, proving that the bizarre symbols in the Tarot didn?t come from that text. Instead, he tells us that the Tarot started a custom in his Secret Tradition of illuminating in image form those secrets that were most important to keep from public view. By passing down images instead of text, the true meaning of a symbol could be hidden from uninitiated eyes. Waite saw in the Major Arcana proof that the Tarot does not originate from obvious and natural moralities (as does, he implies, the so-called Matagne deck, a series of miniatures depicting a renaissance cosmology, which is not a tarot deck at all). He also saw it as proof that divination was not the originally intended function of the Tarot, as its symbols are of limited utility in their most direct form in foretelling the future; rather, those interested in divination have adapted its lexicon for their purposes. Further, he proposed that the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana represent two distinct documents which were fused by a later compiler. He theorized that the Tarot of Bologna was created by the Prince of Pisa, who achieved his post via notoriety gained by inventing the combination of a "philosophical" deck with a "gambling" deck for some popular game of chance. Waite believed, as do I, that the Tarot deck was used first for games, and only later for divination.

Waite's Argument

Waite knew that the prevailing wisdom about Tarot cards was nonsense. At that time, most people still believed that Tarot cards were brought into Europe by "gypsies", who were supposedly of Egyptian descent, and that the Tarot was therefore of Egyptian origin and contained the secret of the pharaohs. This was utter nonsense, of course. Waite knew, as we do today, that the Roma came from India rather than Egypt, and that the entire basis of this claim is built on the erroneous assumptions of a 19th century archaeologist named Court de Gebelin. Today it is well understood that 19th century historians and archaeologists must always be taken with a grain of salt, because their science was suspect and their Victorian ideology was far too close to the surface. He compared the images in the Tarot to a group of six watermarks discussed by Harold Bayley in "New Light On the Renaissance". Bayley discusses a series of watermarks in these books which he says are of previously unknown significance to a group called the Albigenses, also known as the Cathars, a sect of gnostic Christians who appeared in the 11th century in Southern France flourished around Europe in the 12th-13th centuries. Some even claimed to be direct descendants of the early Christians. These Albigenses were originally a Bulgarian/Armenian sect, whose aim was to bring about the eschaton in order to free themselves from the pollution of earthly existence. They believed that those who could not achieve such freedom in this life would be reincarnated, to try again until the end of days. They were humanists, who believed in a God of pure love. They were, of course, heretics by Roman Catholic standards, and thus by necessity were a secret society. "Their aim was the curtailment of the Papal authority and the promotion of a purer Gospel. The wealth of the Catholic clergy, their greed for temporal power, and other abuses of the times were the objects of assiduous denunciation by the Albigenses, who maintained that they alone possessed the true secret of Christianity, having had it handed down to them traditionally from the times of the Apostles." (Bayley, New Light on the Renaissance, p 12) Bayley maintained that the handful of watermark designs that came in and out of vogue with printers were actually emblems with a deeper message behind them. He stated that because the printing industry was largely in the hands of Albigenses, its watermarks were frequently filled with Albigensian symbolism. Waite saw in those same emblems the answer to where Tarot cards came from. The symbolism in the cards proved it. Looking through Bayley's book, I have to admit I do see significant correlation with even a cursory glance. However, there are many symbols that are so common or unclear as to obscure the issue somewhat. I do not find the evidence he presents to be sufficient for the extraordinary nature of Waite's claims. Regardless, he theorized that this "Secret Tradition" had always existed with regard to the Tarot Cards, recorded in secret literature and passed on from one generation to the next in the minds of an elect minority. He believed that any alchemical or cabalistic symbols he found in the Tarot could alternately be referring to the alchemical symbols in use by his secret society. He seems blind to the fact that subversive groups often uses codes that are already available, borrowing and supplementing as needed. It does seem likely that there was in fact a cohesive cosmology portrayed in the Tarot, but further research and extensive study of the available artifacts is required to determine whether that cosmology can be linked to any one group. Waite's informal and inadequately documented survey is insufficient.