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Waite-Smith Trumps & G.D. Meanings

by Tony Willis    

Whatever A.E. Waite may say on the matter, the images of the Waite-Smith tarot rely as much on the significances the Golden Dawn attach to the cards as they do on any interpretations offered by his alternative sources. It should not be forgotten that Waite and his artist Pamela Coleman Smith were both members of the Golden Dawn when the latter drew and painted, under the former’s direction, the pictures for the tarot deck that now bears both their names.

If the Waite-Smith images reflected the Golden Dawn meanings in an undiluted state, writing this article would be a far easier task to complete. But, for reasons best known to himself, Waite decided to have the images of the spot cards partly relate to the Golden Dawn meanings and partly to certain other sets of meanings which, where the minor arcana are concerned, tend more often than not to run counter to those advocated by the Golden Dawn.

The Trump cards pose less of a challenge and I will start with them. Nowhere in The Key to the Tarot (or in the illustrated version, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot) does Waite express his own opinion as to the meanings of any of the cards belonging to either arcana. Instead he tells us what significances other authorities have assigned them. He does, however, record his approved interpretations of the Trumps in a book first published under the pseudonym Grand Orient. These can be extracted and compared with the Golden Dawn meanings. When I speak of Waite in the following section, I am referring to him writing under the nom de plume Grand Orient.

In every case, the first meaning cited is Waite’s, the second being the official G.D. reading of the card.

For Trump number 1, which he calls the Juggler, Waite gives the following meanings. “Skill in any department within the sphere of the subject [consulted about]; subtlety; savoir faire; on the evil side, trickery; also occult practice, apart from the wisdom of adeptship.”

In the Golden Dawn system of divination, a card might be ‘dignified’ or ‘ill-dignified’. For our purposes, we can take these terms as signifying ‘upright’ and ‘reversed’ respectively. Waite may or may not have intended ‘trickery’ to be a quality of Trump 1 when ill-dignified. I cannot be certain as there was a tendency in the first half of the twentieth-century to allow the Juggler to indicate trickery even when upright, a reflection of the juggler’s status as a fairground huckster, whose main aim was to extract money from potential customers. Setting that consideration aside, Waite’s meaning for the card matches very well that assigned it by the Golden Dawn, which was: ”Skill, wisdom, adaptation. Craft, cunning, etc., always depending on its dignity. Sometimes Occult Wisdom.”

Of the significance of the High Priestess, Waite tells us that she indicates: “Nature generally and particularly also as regards her operations, including therefore the material side of generation and reproduction; fertility; change.”

Apart from the abstruse attribution of Nature to the card, Waite remains, as he did with Trump 1, in line with the Golden Dawn understanding of the card.

“2. High Priestess. Change, alteration, Increase and Decrease. Fluctua­tion (whether for good or evil is again shown by cards connected with it.)”

The G.D. express the same ideas as put forward by Waite but in different terms.

Having established the principle that Waite’s interpretations of the Trumps are broadly in line with those laid down by the Golden Dawn, I am going to list the remaining meanings, those put forward by Grand Orient and those of the G.D., side by side. The correspondence between the two is, in almost every case, unmistakable.

3. Empress – The sphere of action; the feminine side of power, rule and authority; woman’s influence; physical beauty; woman’s reign; also the joy of life, and excesses on the evil side.

3. Empress. Beauty, happiness, pleasure, success, also luxury and some­times dissipation, but only if with very evil cards.

4. Emperor – Logical understanding, experience, human wisdom; material power on the male side, and all involved thereby.

4. Emperor. War, conquest, victory, strife, ambition.

Although Waite, in his summation of The Emperor’s divinatory meanings, appears to move away from the G.D. paradigm, note that Paul Foster Case, who like Waite and Coleman Smith, had been a member of the Golden Dawn, agrees with his interpretation. Case gives the meanings for Trump 4 as: Stability, power; reason (vide Waite’s ‘logical understanding’); ambition. Not all the Order’s teaching relating to tarotmancy is to be found in the its Knowledge Paper on the Tarot.

5. Pope, or Hierophant – Aspiration, life, power of the keys; spiritual authority developed on the external side; temporal power of official religion; on the evil side, sacerdotal tyranny and interference.

5. Hierophant. Divine Wisdom. Manifestation. Explanation. Teaching. Occult Wisdom. Also advice, meaning Good Counsel.

Waite’s perception of the card veers in a spiritual, even a sacerdotal direction; the instructions given by the G.D. tend more toward the material, with its Teaching, Explanation, and Good Counsel. The appraisals are, of course, nothing more than two sides of the same coin.

6. Lovers – Material union, affection, desire, natural love, passion, harmony of things; contains also the notions of modus vivendi, concord and so forth; equilibrium.

6. The Lovers. Inspiration (passive and in some cases mediumistic). Motive-power and action, arising from Inspiration and Impulse.

While Waite does not repeat the significances allotted to Trump 6 in the G.D.’s Knowledge Paper on the Tarot, mark well that other ex-G.D. alumni supply readings for the card paralleling those given by Waite writing as Grand Orient. Crowley has: attraction, beauty, love, and when reversed or ill-dignified instability, indecision, union in a shallow degree with others. Paul Foster Case’s reading of the card is even closer to that suggested by Grand Orient.

7. Chariot – Triumph of reason; success in natural things; the right prevailing; also predominance, conquest, and all external correspondences of these.

7. The Chariot. Triumph. Victory. Health. Success though sometimes not stable and enduring.

8. Fortitude, or Strength – Courage, vitality, tenacity of things, high endurance.

8. Fortitude. Cour­age, Strength, Fortitude. Power not arrested as in the act of Judgment, but passing on to further action; sometimes obstinacy, etc.

9. Hermit – Caution, safety, protection; wisdom on the manifest side; and the isolation thereof; detachment; the way of prudence; sagacity; search after truth.

9. The Hermit, or Prophet. Wisdom sought for and obtained from above. Divine Inspiration (but active as opposed to that of the Lovers).

This is a further instance where other products of the G.D. training system concur with Waite/Grand Orient. Crowley assigns the card the meanings: wisdom, prudence, circumspection, retirement from participation in current events. Paul Foster Case agrees with all of this, excluding only ‘retirement from participation in current events’.

10. Wheel of Fortune – Mutation, circumstances; revolution of things, vicissitude; time and its variable development; all that is understood by the external side of fortune.

10. Wheel of Fortune. Good fortune and happiness (within bounds), but sometimes also a species of intoxication with success, if the cards near it bear this out. In practice the Wheel signals a change of fortune for the better.

Waite’s approach to Trump 10 is high-minded and esoteric, as it so often is; but basically he adheres to the G.D. view of the card. Speaking of the more day-to-day significance of The Wheel, Paul Foster Case invests it with the meaning: Destiny; good fortune; turn for the better. Crowley writes of it in the same vein.

11. Justice – Equilibrium on the mental side rather than the sensuous, for which see No. 6; under certain circumstances, law and its decisions; also occult science.

11. Justice. Eternal Justice and Balance. Strength and Force, but arrested as in the act of Judgment. Also in combination with other cards, legal proceedings, a court of law, a trial at law, etc.

12. Hanged Man – The symbol of renunciation, for whatever cause and with whatever motive.

Waite does not use the word ‘sacrifice’ in relation to Trump 12, but it evidently belongs under this heading, and almost every other commentator of the time places it here, the author of the G.D.’s Paper on the Tarot included.

12. Hanged Man or Drowned Man. Enforced sacrifice. Punishment, Loss. Fatal and not voluntary. Suffering generally.

Crowley gives this Trump the meanings: Redemption through sacrifice, enforced sacrifice, punishment, loss, suffering in general, defeat, failure, death. Paul Foster Case concurs. All the keyword Crowley employs are compatible with the interpretation the G.D. put upon the card. We can assume that Waite accepted them too, even if he prefers the term ‘renunciation’.

13. Death – Contains naturally the meaning implied by its name and illustrated by its pictorial symbol, but not only and not at all of necessity; transforming force, independent of human will; may signify destruction; power behind the world which alters the face of the world, but it is this power in one of its respects only.

13. Death. Time. Ages. Transformation. Involuntary Change. Sometimes death and destruction, but rarely the latter, and the former only if it is borne out by the cards with it.

14. Temperance – New blood, combination, admixture, with the object of amelioration; providence in desirable change.

14. Temperance. Combination of Forces. Realisation. Action (material). Effect either for good or evil.

For once, Waite’s keywords for the Trump throw light on those favored by the author of the Order’s Paper on the Tarot. Other G.D. students found the Order’s suggestions regarding the meaning of this card less than helpful. Thus Paul Foster Case assigns Trump 14 the significances: Combination, adaptation, economy, management. Case, like Waite/Grand Orient, overlaps with the Order’s meanings only on ‘combination’. In the G.D.-type temple I attended, Trump 14 was assigned supplementary meanings closer to Waite’s and Case’s. They were issued orally and I and my fellow students were very glad to have them.

15. Devil, or Typhon – Fatality, evil, the false spirit; can indicate also the good working through evil.

15. Devil. Materiality. Material Force. Material temptation; sometimes obsession, especially if associated with the Lovers.

Here is yet another example of Waite gearing a meaning towards the abstract spiritual; and even when he travels down the planes a notch or two – and speaks of good working through evil – he does not provide specifically event-oriented keywords either to match or compete with the Order’s ‘Temptation’ and ‘Obsession’. We can turn to Paul Foster Case to flesh out the meanings supplied by Waite and the G.D. He furnishes his pupils with the terms ‘Bondage’ and ‘Force’ (citing particularly the force of convention and public opinion).

16. Ruined Tower – Destruction, confusion, judgment; also the idea of Divine Wrath.

16. Tower. Ambition, fighting, war, courage. In certain combinations, destruction, danger, fall, ruin.

Waite concentrates on the latter portion of the meanings that the Order associates with Trump 16. But since most authorities on the tarot of his era do the same, Waite can hardly be criticized for that.

17. Star – Light descending, hope; the symbol of immortality.

17. Star. Hope, faith, unexpected help. But sometimes also dreaminess, deceived hope, etc.

While the Waite/Grand Orient meaning is sketchier, there can be no doubt that the two lists depend upon the same comprehension of what Trump 17 represents.

18. Moon – Half-light, mutation, intellectual uncertainty, region of illusion; false-seeming.

18. Moon. Dissatisfaction, voluntary change. Error, lying, falsity, deception. The whole according whether the card is well or ill-dignified, and on which it much depends.

As with the Star, while Waite tends to be more ethereal and conceptual in his language, the parallels between his meanings and those of the G.D. are manifestly present – ‘false-seeming’ on the one hand, ‘lying and deception’ on the other, and so on. The phrase ‘half-light’ plainly has special connotations in Waite’s philosophy; compare with ‘full light’ assigned to The Sun in the following paragraph.

19. Sun – Full light, intellectual and material; the card of earthly happiness, but not attained individually.

19. Sun. Glory, Gain, Riches. Sometimes also arrogance. Display, Van­ity, but only when with very evil cards.

When he uses the phrase ‘earthly happiness’ Waite has material satisfaction in mind, e.g., riches or monetary gain. His ‘full light’ translates, in G.D. terms, into ‘glory’ on the positive side and ‘display’ on the negative. Waite also subscribes to a tradition that the G.D., in my experience of its tarot method, did not: he reads the boy and girl on the Marseille version of the card as a paring, a couple, 19t marriage emphasizedand this accounts for his observation that earthly happiness is not attained individually. In some French schools of tarot, the card symbolizes marriage, and accounts such a union as another facet of earthly, that is to say physical, happiness. There are continental decks whose symbolism points more candidly in that direction. (See illustration.)

20. The Last Judgment – Resurrection; summons to new things; a change in the face of everything.

20. Judgment. Final decision. Judgment. Sentence. Determination of a matter without appeal on its plane.

Waite’s understanding of the Trumps rarely goes against the G.D. interpretations, but here we have one of the exceptions. It is a divergence I can sympathize with. In my time as a member of a G.D.-type temple, most of my fellow students had problems absorbing the significance given to Trump 20 in the Order’s Knowledge Paper on the Tarot. Meanings more in line with those favored by Waite/Grand Orient – summons to new things, change in the face of everything, new life breathed into an old ambition – tended to be adopted in place of the G.D.’s ‘final decision, judgment, sentence.’ Crowley brings a degree of clarity to the matter with his description of the card’s meaning in his Book of Thoth: “Final decision in respect of the past, new current in respect of the future; always represents the taking of a definite step.” In practice, the first two significances frequently run together, affording the card an aura of ‘out with the old and in with the new’.

21. The World – The glory thereof under the powers of the higher providence, the sum of manifest things; conclusion on any subject.

21. Universe. The matter itself. Synthesis. World. Kingdom. Usually denotes the actual subject of the question, and therefore depends entirely on the accompanying cards.

Here we have one of the few instances where the meaning suggested by Waite, in the persona of Grand Orient, needs analyzing. (When writing as Grand Orient, Waite is generally more straightforward and less grandiloquent than he normally is. In this instance, however, he regresses into Waite-speak.) Under this heading, he is referring to the glory of the World operating under the powers of the higher providence, the Cosmos as the container of all things manifest. Or in G.D. language, the matter inquired about. A more useful meaning for those working with the predictive tarot is ‘the conclusion of a subject’. Oral teaching within the Order is summed up in Paul Foster Case’s recommended reading of the card. “Well-dignified it signifies success, a favorable issue to the circumstances. Sometimes change of place.” That last phrase, ‘change of place’, in tarot parlance invariably indicates elevation, a promotion or its equivalent. The G.D. named the card The Universe and, in the Waite-Smith tarot, A.E. Waite follows suit.

Writing as Grand Orient, Waite gives no predictive meaning for The Fool card. He takes it as his significator and associates no other connotations to it. To divine how he would have interpreted it in a reading made with all 78 cards we need to look at the significance he allows it in The Key to the Tarot. There he takes a view both traditional and widely accepted at the time he was writing: “Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy, bewrayment [betrayal, though literally ‘to have one’s true character exposed’]. Reversed: Negligence, absence, distribution, carelessness, apathy, nullity, vanity.”

This matches neatly the meaning the G.D. gave to the card, which was:

The Foolish Man: if the Divination be regarding a material event of ordinary life, this card is not good, and shows folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania, unless with very good cards indeed. It is too ideal and unstable to be gen­erally good in material things.

Changes of Symbolism in the Waite-Smith Trumps

There are many innovations to be found among the Waite-directed designs for the Waite-Smith Trumps. The illustrations for Trump 6, The Lovers, and Trump 0, The Fool, are original conceptions. Otherwise, however, none of pictures for the Trumps in the Waite-Smith deck seem to have been snatched out of thin air; they all have a history.

The blueprints for Waite’s Magician and High Priestess are to be found in the ‘Egyptian tarot’ published in Practical Astrology (Edgar de Valcourt-Vermont, 1901). The designs for the Trumps of the ‘Egyptian tarot’ are based on the teachings of Paul Christian.

01 brotherhood of light       2 b of light

Trump 1: The ‘Egyptian tarot’ calls this card the Magus, following Christian’s lead. This may be where the G.D. got the idea to call their version of Trump 1 The Magician. Waite has his artist embellish the design with roses and lilies, a snake belt, and a change of costume that befits the magus’s new station in life. The reason for these additions, as well as for the inclusion of roses over the Magician’s head, are explained by Paul Foster Case. (See the chapter on The Magician in his The Tarot.) Waite reverses the hand gestures so as to have the magician hold the wand in his right hand. Though this change should perhaps not be considered an innovation, the exchange had occurred previously on occasion on the design of the Juggler card in decks printed by means of woodblocks. Though an image may be drawn correctly on woodblock, the picture appears in reverse, as in a mirror, when the card is printed. The illustrations of the Trumps presented by Court de Gébelin in Le Monde Primitif suffer the same fate.

01 II  the-magician-rider-waite

Trump 2: Neither in the ‘Egyptian tarot’ nor in the Waite-Smith deck is there any sign of the Tarot de Marseille’s Papess in their respective representations of Trump 2. Waite has Coleman Smith elaborate the picture by putting on the veil between the pillars a design suggesting the layout of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and by situating a crescent moon in the card’s bottom right-hand corner, the G.D. associating Trump 2 with the Moon. The symbol on the priestess’s breast is, in the ‘Egyptian tarot’, is the sigil for Mercury. On the Waite-Smith card, this is altered to a Greek cross, representing the four lunar phases (although continental commentators tend to call it a Solar Cross). The ‘Egyptian tarot’ presents the pillars either side of the priestess in different colors – white and black or black and red. Waite has letters imprinted on the pillars, B and J, standing for Boaz and Jachin, thereby identifying the Temple at whose entrance the priestess sits as that of King Solomon. Waite may not be first to name the pillars. Morley, in his Old and Curious Playing Cards of 1931, has a depiction of the High Priestess, still named La Papess, flanked by pillars bearing the names Boaz and Jakin written in full. Jakin is the preferred spelling of the word among French Masons. Morley’s card, which he dates to the nineteenth century, shows the priestess adorned with a Greek cross, a crescent moon at her feet, exactly what we find in the Waite-Smith version of the card.

2 la_papesse   Trump2HTM

Examine the Marseille version of the Trump and compare it to the Morley card, of which the Waite-Smith rendering is a modification. Plainly, a huge chasm lies between the two concepts. The change was brought about by Paul Christian’s commentary on the Trumps. He renames Trump 2 The Gate of the Occult Sanctuary and presents the priestess as guardian of that gate. The ‘Egyptian tarot’ obliges by depicting her in front of two pillars, one red, one black as per Christian’s instructions. Later rectifiers of tarot turn the pillars into those of the Solomonic temple and align the priestess with the moon. Waite and Coleman Smith were inheritors of that tradition and incorporated it into their work on the Waite-Smith tarot.

Old and Curious Playing Cards is a fascinating book but I am puzzled by the dates given to some of the Trump cards used as illustrations. Morley has examples of Trumps 3 and 4 that are exact duplicates of their Waite-Smith fellows. The former is dated to the nineteenth century, the latter is undated but appears to come from the same deck as his examples of The High Priestess and The Empress. However, his L’Imperatore, as said, differs not at all from Coleman Smith’s Trump 4. He wears the same headgear, holds the same scepter, as the Waite-Smith Emperor does; he faces out of the card and sits on a throne decorated with ram’s heads exactly as the Emperor does. The ram’s heads link the Trump to the sign Aries. Morley’s card has a French title but no French school of tarot associated Trump 4 with Aries, and in the nineteenth century, neither did any British or American school of tarot, apart from the Golden Dawn, whose attributions, at that time, remained a secret. I am, therefore, wary of the dates Morley gives to any of the Trumps found in his book that closely resemble Waite-Smith designs.

Trump3HTM   Emperor not ws

Having covered Trumps 3 and 4, I shall move on to Trump 5.

Whereas, in her transition from Papess to Priestess, the figure on Trump 2 lost all her papal regalia, the renaming of Trump 5 after the chief officer of the Eleusinian mysteries has no effect on the way the central figure on that card is presented. It remains a pope, despite the change of name. The triple tiara, the crosses on the stole and slippers, the tonsure of the supplicants at hierophant’s feet all proclaim a Christian rather than a pagan setting.

Trump 6: Waite replaces the traditional design with a representation of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. This symbolism has great significance in G.D. teaching, which is why he chooses to introduce it here. Again, the most reasonable explanation of the image is to be found in Paul Foster Case’s The Tarot (McCoy Publishing Company, 1947).

Trump 7: The Waite-Smith picture is a partial redrawing of the Marseille card. (Sphinxes now draw the chariot, for instance.) The image relies on Eliphas Levi’s re-envisioning of the card. Otherwise there is nothing novel or innovative about the illustration.

Trump 9: Waite has thoroughly overhauled this Trump, though the changes are not immediately apparent, and the too-trusting student might easily miss them. The traditional Hermit is in motion; often he is compared to Diogenes, searching for a good man by the light of a lantern in broad daylight. In the Tarot de Marseille’s card, the lantern is partly concealed by the hermit’s cloak, hence the mystic title Christian gives the Trump: The Hidden Light. In contrast, Waite’s hermit stands atop a mountain, his lantern held on high. Waite specifically says (in The Key to the Tarot) that the lantern is a beacon for others. He rejects the idea that the hermit’s “lantern contains the light of occult knowledge and that his staff is a magic wand.” Waite argues instead that “this is a card of attainment . . . rather than a card of quest.”

HTMFLtrump9b   9 hermit

Of the designs of Trump 8 and Trump 11 there is nothing to say. Waite exchanges their positions, renumbering them in the process. However, their designs are the familiar Tarot de Marseille ones, smartened up somewhat by Ms Coleman Smith’s elegant draftsmanship.

The Waite-Smith Trump 10 is a redrawing of the traditional illustration, in this instance relying heavily on Eliphas Levi’s re-envisioning of the card.

10 II    10 Wheel

Trump 12: As was the case with The Emperor, the Waite-Smith Hanged Man has been remodeled. Most notably the gibbet from which the figure hangs has been transformed into a T-cross. Waite, a committed Christian, possibly wanted the symbolism to replicate as nearly as possible the image of Christ on the cross. Waite has had his artist insert a halo around the hanged man’s head. Of the inner significance of the card, Waite is coy, telling readers of The Key to the Tarot only, “I will say simply on my own part that it expresses the relation, in one of its aspects, between the Divine and the Universe.”

12 II   r-w 12-The-Hanged-Man

For Trump 13, Waite sets aside the Marseille image and has Ms Coleman Smith instead adapt one of the earliest Italian designs from the mid-fourteenth century.

13 cary yale    r-w death

Trump 14: For this card, Waite has had Coleman Smith redraw the traditional design to include a stream at the angel’s feet besides which a clump of irises grow. Other additions include the geometric figure on the angles breast and the haloed crown glittering in the distance.

14 II   r-w temperance

Trump 15: Morley has an illustration of The Devil in Old and Curious Playing Cards that is almost the twin of the Waite-Smith picture. He claims it dates to the seventeenth-century although its style is that of those nineteenth-century cards also included in the book that bear suspicious similarities to their respective Waite-Smith equivalents. The Waite-Smith Devil is in many ways a toned down version of Eliphas Levi’s design for the card.

Devil not ws    RWS_Tarot_15_Devil

Trump 16: The Waite-Smith Tower is at base a redrawing of the traditional illustration. The major adjustment is that the crenelated battlements of the top of the tower in the Tarot de Marseille version now resemble a crown suitable for a medieval king to wear. This may not have been the original intention, but ‘crown’ is a highly charged word to Qabalists such as Waite and Foster Case, and it is noteworthy that Case too, in his BOTA deck, has the upper part of the tower resemble a toppled crown.

The Waite-Smith tarot’s Trump 17 is little more than a redrawing of the traditional design, as is its Trump 18.

18 moon   waite_moon_large

For Trump 19, Waite again jettisons the traditional design in favor of a very early one depicting a boy on a horse carrying a banner. To this Waite has had his artist add a wall over which the heads of sunflowers are visible. He has also had her add a feather to the wreath on the child’s head, replicating the wreath sporting a single plume that adorns the brow of the Waite-Smith Fool.

19t early w-s   rw sun

Trump 20 is Ms Coleman Smith’s rendering of the traditional design, to which she has added other bodies rising in the background of the card. The intention almost certainly is to indicate that what is represented esoterically by the Trump can, and indeed will, given time, happen to everybody and not just to the three individuals usually on view. This moves the imagery away from the emblematic in the direction of a Christian vignette of the Last Judgement.

20 judgment 75   20t judgement

Once again, Trump 21 is essentially a redrawing of the Tarot de Marseille card.

The Waite-Smith Trump Zero’s design was a novel one when it was first introduced, something that tends to get forgotten today. It is Waite’s ”interpretation” of the G.D.’s understanding of the Trump. Not wanting to reveal the image used by the Order (a naked male child plucking a yellow rose, accompanied by a wolf, which the boy has on a leash), Waite created another, the picture we are now all familiar with. Like the G.D., Waite turns his back on the traditional image – a ragged beggar attacked by a dog or a lynx-like animal. Paul Foster Case’s deconstruction of the Waite-Smith card’s symbolism is illuminating. It can be found in the chapter on The Fool in his book The Tarot.

22 fool zEgyptian trt 00-Fool

0 Foolw-s-fool

While Case approves most of Waite’s innovations, and indeed builds upon them at times, improving or clarifying them where he feels it necessary to do so, note that he reverts to Tarot de Marseille models for cards such as The Emperor, The Hanged Man, Death, and The Sun, evidently preferring these images to those Waite replaced them with.

This discussion of the symbolism and significance of the Major Arcana has taken more space than I at first intended to allow it. With this work carried out, however, I will continue in my next article to look at the pictures on the Waite-Smith spot cards and their relationship to the divinatory meanings sanctioned for them by the Golden Dawn.


Court Cards, When Not People

Over the years, the question I have been asked most often is: What do the court cards mean if they don’t signify people. There is a part of my mind that, even after being asked this question numerous times over four decades, doesn’t understand why people are asking it. Our lives a composed of a sequence of interactions, with our spouse, our children, our relatives, our friends and work companions, surely it is useful, necessary even, to have cards to represent people in a divination, However, as so many would-be tarot readers have trouble interpreting the court cards in this manner, I have put together alternative meanings for these cards. Yet note that the two facets of meaning can be intertwined. The King of Wands reversed can signify approaching danger, but the source of that peril may very well be a go-getting, outwardly successful business-man type. With that point understood, let us move on to, first, a broad view of the courts as events rather than individuals.

Broadly speaking, court cards that forecast an agreeable outcome are: the upright King, Queen and Page of Wands, the Page of Pentacles, the King, Queen, Knight and Page of Cups and the King of Swords. Those forecasting an unwelcome outcome are the upright Knight of Pentacles and the Page of Swords. The other upright cards – Knight of Wands, King and Queen of Pentacles, Queen and Knight of Swords – bear a mixed influence.

King of Wands   PageWands   Queen of Wands

The King of Wands signifies successful business dealings, but this can be read as success in a general sense where the question is unrelated to career or business matters. His Queen is a symbol of generosity of spirit and of loyalty and trustworthiness. As the ‘result’ card she points to expansion or growth of some kind. So where the question is “Will I gain the promotion?”, her appearance gives the  answer “yes”. In a regular divination, the Page of Wands denotes: A message from someone closely related to you; also well-regulated financial affairs. In the ‘result’ position, and where the question concerns money, it is an excellent omen. In any other matters it signifies that favorable news concerning the situation will soon arrive.

The Page of Pentacles also announces good news but also forecasts a pleasurable or satisfactory end to the scenario under review. The King of Swords points to attainment, particularly where a decision has to be made by a third party that could benefit or disadvantage the inquirer, depending on which way it goes.

Page of Pentacles   King of Cups   Queen of Cups

The King and Queen of Cups likewise predict favourable outcomes. The keywords for the Cup courts are fertility and growth. Depending on the question asked, the result will be happiness, advantage, increase or pleasure. The Knight of Cups is indicative of promises being kept, the support of others and a pleasant trip or visit, if that fits in with the question the inquirer has posed. More broadly the card represents the goodwill of the gods, smiling down on the inquirer’s hopes. Good news concerning money or a birth are represented by the Page of Cups in any reading. As a ‘result’ card (position ten in a Celtic Cross spread, for example) it signals gain or growth. “Will my bid on a property be accepted?” The Page of Cups, as the last card in an Equal-Armed Cross reading, says, “You will obtain what you want.”

The Knight of Pentacles is not a good card to have in the ‘result’ slot. The card warns of a new and worrying influence coming into play that does not bode well for the inquirer’s dreams and ambitions. Nor is the Page of Swords a helpful card as to have as the ‘result’, for it speaks of evil tidings and impediments and, in matters of romance, a treacherous rival in love, who will strive to do the inquirer harm.

cups page   mmTarot 67   Swords Queen 2

Cards of mixed import are the hardest to interpret. They usually denote partial success in an enterprise, as with the Queen of Swords. Her meanings are: riches combined with discord, abundance together with worry, joy intermingled with grief. I have known the card appear where a dispute has occurred over a will, or when someone close to the inquirer has died (grief) but has left them a considerable sum of money in their will (joy).

The Knight of Swords has some of the qualities of The Juggler/Magician. Elsewhere in a reading the card signifies the skilful avoidance of trouble, prompt reaction to an obstacle that gets one’s plans speedily back on track. As the ‘result’ card, this Knight tells the reader that the inquirer will achieve her ends and will do so mainly through her own capable and ‘can do’ attitude. The point being, that there is something that first needs to be cleared up or attended to; success isn’t guaranteed, and if the inquirer is dilatory, she may well lose out because of it.

There are parallels with the Knight of Wands, whose meanings are prudence in money matters and the need to economize. Its appearance as the ‘result’ card intimates that attainment is possible, especially in money matters, but that ultimately success or failure is in the inquirer’s own hands. If they will rein in their expenditure of cash or energy, whichever applies to the question asked, much can be achieved, though perhaps not everything hoped for. The Knight of Wands is a symbol of unbridled enthusiasm and for anything good to come out of a situation this knight is involved in, energy needs to be focused or contained.

swords knight   wands knight   pentacles queen

The Queen of Pentacles indicates an urge to make money. Here the meaning is presented abstractly. Turned into concrete terms, it becomes: the inquirer uses her skills to make money. The card represents growth in material terms, but it is not good for emotional matters. However, if the Queen of Pentacles describes the inquirer’s love interest, obviously it is a good omen if the card falls in the ‘result’ position, for then it represents him gaining her affections eventually.

As mentioned at the outset, this is one of the drawbacks to using the court cards to represent something other than people. Most of those consulting the tarot are not hermits; they have relatives, friends and co-workers and these individuals will often turn up in a reading signified by a court card. For instance, the Page of Swords represents a rival in love but it can also describe the rival according to way the reader views the suit. A practitioner of the Golden Dawn method of interpretation would read the Page of Swords as someone with a subtle mind, clever and wise in the ways of the world; he may in his manner, display grace or dexterity or both. (I find it best in a multicultural world to keep to a description of temperament rather than concentrate on hair and eye color.)

The court cards in reverse are not promotors of happy results. The King of Wands reversed foretells danger ahead for the inquirer; at best the future is uncertain. The outcome is marred by suspicion, jealousy or mistrust where the Queen of Wands holds the ‘result’ position. Frequently, its message to the inquirer is “You need to be suspicious; there’s something here that doesn’t quite add up.” The Knight of Wands denotes bad luck often resulting from the imprudence of a friend. But it also signifies carelessness in financial matters, and the reader has to choose which of these two meanings to apply. The Page of Wands tells of a wasted opportunity, though it can also point to waste of another kind: thriftlessness or extravagance.

A brighter message is borne by the reversed King of Pentacles. The card denotes good counsel, and advice that should be taken. The intimation is that the inquirer will regret it if she doesn’t take the advice on offer. The Queen of Pentacles reversed is a ‘no’ to success, attainment or expansion. She is a symbol of obstacles, resistance, and opposition in general. Where the question concerns finances, her meaning is that monetary affairs will not proceed smoothly. The Knight of that suit in reverse portends ruptures, discord, and quarrels. In the ‘result’ position, it denotes failure due to a falling out or massive disagreement. The Page of Pentacles reversed also signifies failure of hopes, in particular highlighting the loss of money or prestige. The outcome pointed to by this Page will displease the inquirer, probably leaving her with a great deal to worry about.

q wands gd cicero R[2147]   q wands in gd mould R[2148]   q wands tmd R[2149]

Three examples of Queen of Wands reversed

The Cups courts in reverse continue the pattern. The King of Cups warns of shifty dealings, and like the reversed Queen of Wands, intimates that the inquirer has good reason to distrust the motives of another person involved in the situation, possibly a man fitting the description assigned the King of Cups. The Queen of that suit in reverse tells a happier story, for she portends success although with some attendant trouble. The card often signifies that the inquirer’s dreams are fulfilled only to a small degree, the whole package being denied her. The reversed Knight of Cups warns of duplicity or underhand dealings. The same interpretation should be put on the card when found in the ‘result’ position as was applied to the reversed Queen of Wands and King of Cups above. Much the same can be said of the Page of Cups, whose reverse meaning is flattery, artifice, or trickery.

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The King Swords in reverse is a symbol of chagrin, worry, grief, fear, or disturbance. In essence, in the ‘result’ position, it is a ‘no’ to questions such as “Will I marry X?”, “Will I get the job?”, “Will I be awarded the contract?” If the rest of the reading has been positive in tone, the card can mean: You will get what you want but it will be such a headache to you that you will wish you hadn’t. The Swords Queen in reverse speaks of loss, privation, absence, separation. It is not a good portent for either romantic, family, career or financial concerns. The reversed Knight of Swords is one of the chief symbols of the inquirer being taken advantage of. The card denotes a treacherous situation, where the inquirer cannot trust the ground beneath her feet. Even if the foregoing part of the reading has been good, this knight in the ‘result’ position warns that all is not as it appears to be. The reversed Page of Swords is similar. Its message is to be vigilant, for bad luck, seemingly, is about to strike from out of the blue.

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Contacting the Elements

by Tony Willis    

As British occultist Dion Fortune tells us: A spiritual crisis always ensues in some form or another when spiritual power is called down. Take this into account before embarking on any of the following exercises.

An Experiment Regarding the Elements and the Tarot Suits

Here is an experiment anyone can attempt. Its aim is to establish a connection between the person performing the experiment and the four so-called Elements, or building bricks of the Universe. Long before the modern elements oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc. were discovered, ancient philosophers posited the existence of four “consistencies”, solid, liquid, gaseous and electrical. These they named Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These Elements were and are crucial factors in magickal philosophy. The signs of the zodiac are divided among them, Aries being a Fire sign, Taurus an Earth sign, and so on round to Pisces, a Water sign. Every person alive is considered to have a “temperament”. Some people have relatively simple temperaments; they may be Earthy (practical, pragmatic, full of common sense), Airy (talkative, amiable, but easily distracted), Watery (emotion-driven, caring, intuitive), or Fiery (ardent, possibly rash, no-sooner-the-word-than-the-deed types). But most people are a mixture of Elements. How much of each Element one has in one’s personality can be estimated from the horoscope. Almost nobody, however, is born with the harmonious disposition produced when the four Elements are in balance.

One of the first tasks often set for trainee magicians is one intended to lead them to an understanding of the imbalances of Elements in their own temperaments. Once this is attained, the next mission the trainee magician is tasked with is to strengthen the weaker Elements in their character and to learn how to harness the strengths of the dominant ones.

But before work on the Elements was undertaken, it was considered wise that aspiring mages should forge a contact with the Elements outside themselves, the Universal Elements from which everything in existence, including the human personality, is constructed. The exercise I am about to describe is based on one I was made to carry out myself soon after I received initiation into a mystery school. It was the first exercise all neophytes of that school were expected to carry out. It was considered important because it alerted us to the powers – that is to say, the energies – of the four Elements in the forms that they assume when manifesting in daily life. This entailed invoking those energies into one’s environment, into one’s domestic and work-place settings.

In describing the exercise, I am going to adopt the following correlation of Elements to suits: Earth is assigned to Pence or Pentacles, Water to Cups, Air to Rods or Wands, and Swords to Fire. My reasons for adopting these correspondences have been described in a previous post. There are decks that adhere to these associations with the images on the spot cards reflecting this. In the illustration below, for example, it is evident from the symbolism on the Ace of Swords card that the related Element is Fire. If you work with another set of correspondences then you are welcome to adjust the instructions accordingly.


In magickal language, the tarot Aces are spoken of as the Roots of the Elemental Powers; it is for this reason that the exercise revolves around the Aces. Also, occultism associates the four directions – North, South, East and West – with the Elements. The attributions are: North links to Earth, South to Fire, East to Air, and West to Water. Bear all this in mind as you read through my instructions.

How do you choose which walls to fix the Aces to seeing as houses are rarely orientated exactly to the cardinal directions? For North, for instance, select the most northerly facing wall. You can work out which this is either by consulting a compass or noting the position of the sun at noon in relation to your home. Using a compass, place it on a table and leave it for a minute to settle down. Then, note where the compass needle is pointing. That direction is north. Take your other bearings from this. Using the sun, in the northern hemisphere, note where the sun is at noon. That direction is south. North lies opposite to it. My living room windows have the sun pouring through them at noon. That wall of my apartment faces south. The wall to its right faces west, the wall to its left faces east. The wall opposite it faces north.

Do not deviate from the instructions other than to substitute one Element for another; so that, if you accept the Elemental associations suggested by the Waite-Smith tarot, you may, in the case of Air, replace the Ace of Wands with the Ace of Swords, and, in the case of Fire, replace the Ace of Swords with the Ace of Wands. But if you institute any alterations of your own and get into trouble, I cannot help you. Whereas, if you follow my instructions to the letter, you will come to no harm: elemental events will occur in your life, but they will do no damage. Should you feel swamped by rate at which events are occurring, simply take the Ace from the wall you have it pinned to and insert it back into your tarot deck; almost immediately matters will return to normal.

We will work from the densest Element to the most rarified, as I have found this to be the safest way for those inexperienced in occultism to approach them. Earth is the densest Element, Water coming next; Air is less dense than either Earth or Water, and Fire, representing electricity, the effects of which can be experienced though electric current but cannot otherwise be apprehended by the five senses, is the most rarified of the Elements. To begin, then, you will invoke the Powers of Earth.

You will make this contact by extracting the Ace of Pence/Pentacles from your own tarot deck and affixing it to the north wall of a room. It is best to choose a room that is not used by other people. A spare bedroom, a study, a personal temple, if you are lucky enough to have one – all these can be coopted for the purpose of this exercise. Back in the nineteen-sixties, living in a tiny apartment, I had to use my bedroom as there was no other room I could commandeer. I pinned the card to the wall using a tintack, thus, during the course of the experiment, making holes in all the aces in my only tarot deck. If I was repeating the experiment today, I would use Blu-tack!

Standing in front of your Ace of Pence, make this invocation to Ghob, ruler of Elemental Earth: “Great Ghob, steadfast monarch of the North, look kindly upon my efforts to contact your Element of Earth and the elemental spirits under your care, the gnomes. May the Earth qualities in me be purged and refined by interaction with the gnomes and may their condition be improved by their interaction with me, a human being composed of other elements besides Earth and through whom the quintessential Element of Spirit flows, however weakly.” Leave the Ace in place for seven, fourteen or twenty-eight days, however long it takes to produce a result.

What type of result should you expect? In the case of the Earth Element, where the accent is on growth, fertility, money, and real estate, the indications that a connection has been made can manifest in a variety of ways. To be given a pot-plant; to learn of a pregnancy; to find a coin in the street; to receive a gift of money when it isn’t your birthday; any unexpected gain of money; to see, in real life or on tv, a globe or similar representation of the Earth; to encounter by happenstance a statue or painting of one of the Earth goddess Cybele or Demeter; to be offered an allotment; to find that a seemingly dead plant or tree in your garden has come back to life; to be offered an overdraft or extended credit you haven’t asked for – all these are signs that the Earth forces are running strongly within your aura. Also if you were to inherit money, property or jewelry of some worth. Sometimes, contact with the Elements comes in dreams. To dream of walking through a leafy forest, or beside fields of ripened wheat; or to dream of a plant or tree growing rapidly, as Jack’s famous beanstalk did when it shot up overnight – these too are indications that you have made contact with the Element of Earth.

Fix the Ace in place and wait and see what happens. There is no fixed time scale for the manifestation. It generally comes within seven, fourteen or twenty-eight days. Should you experience a result on the fourth day after setting the Ace of Pence in place, wait until the seventh day before taking it down again.

If there is no result at the end of a month, take down the Ace and move on to the next Element. But check first that nothing has gone wrong. Pointers as to what the problem might be will be found below.

Once results have been obtained using the Ace of Pence, remove the card from the north wall and affix the Ace of Cups to the west wall. Having done this, make your invocation to Nicksa, ruler of Elemental Water: “Great Nicksa, compassionate monarch of the West, look kindly upon my efforts to contact your Element of Water and the elemental spirits under your care, the undines. May the Water qualities in me be purged and refined by interaction with the undines and may their condition be improved by their interaction with me, a human being composed of other elements besides Water and through whom the quintessential Element of Spirit flows, however weakly.”

This act invokes the powers of Water; these are associated with the emotions and the affections. To learn of an engagement or a surprise wedding of the “Julia and I just decided to go for it and the ceremony’s on Friday” type; to be given a fish, crab, or any marine creature or a representation of one, as a charm for a charm bracelet, for instance; to be brought to tears, either through joy or sorrow; to be offered, out of the blue, a trip to the seaside or an aquarium; to fall in love yourself; to be asked to care for a relative or child where this is not normally one of your responsibilities; to encounter a statue or painting of Neptune or Poseidon, lord of the seas – these are all indications that you have made contact with the Element of Water.

Because Elemental Water is associated with the Astral Plane, sometimes referred to as the Astral Sea, you may dream more frequently than normal while the Ace of Cups is on the wall, or your dreams may be heightened, filled with profound or deeply moving symbolism. Other signs that contact has been made are: to see a ship, liner, or similar, either in real life or in movie (this omen is of course invalidated if you live on the coast where such vessels are common features of everyday life); to come unexpectedly across waterlilies or lotuses (but not if you deliberately go somewhere where you are bound to see them, a Monet exhibition, for instance, for Monet often painted waterlilies); or to dream of the sea, or of boats, or of being underwater.

When contact with Elemental Water has been achieved, take down the Ace of Cups and set up the Ace of Rods on the eastern wall of the room. Then, standing in front of the Ace, make this invocation to Paralda, ruler of Elemental Air: “Great Paralda, resourceful monarch of the East, look kindly upon my efforts to contact your Element of Air and the elemental spirits under your care, the sylphs. May the Air qualities in me be purged and refined by interaction with the sylphs, and may their condition be improved by their interaction with me, a human being composed of other elements besides Air and through whom the quintessential Element of Spirit flows, however weakly.”

The Element of Air is associated with thought, the intellect, communications, intermediaries, and forward planning. Signs that you have formed a contact with Air are: being asked to act as an intermediary or go-between; to encounter a dust devil (a miniature whirlwind); to have a butterfly or bee alight on you or to be given a representation of a bird or winged insect; to be called upon to participate in a brain-storming session where this is not a normal occurrence for you; to experience a period of intense communication (one student reported that since pinning up the Ace of Rods on his bedroom wall he had spent almost every waking moment on the phone attempting to trace the whereabouts of a dining table and he had ordered), to encounter unexpectedly a representation of a chameleon – a story in the newspaper, a documentary on tv; to receive a gift of flowers with a distinctive scent; to be given perfume or cologne out of the blue, not as a birthday or anniversary present; to encounter a representation of Hera (or Juno) or Aeolus, god of winds, or of one of his sons; to see unexpectedly a hot-air balloon or a dirigible; to dream of clouds, of flying, of boarding or travelling on an airplane; to be involved in an unusual amount of paperwork, dealing with documents, or with an inordinate amount of form-filling.

When satisfied that a contact has been made with the Element of Air, take down the Ace of Rods and put up the Ace of Swords on the south wall of the room you have chosen to work in. Standing before the Ace, pronounce this invocation to Djinn, ruler of Elemental Fire: “Great Djinn, dynamic monarch of the South, look kindly upon my efforts to contact your Element of Fire and the elemental spirits under your care, the salamanders. May the Fiery qualities in me be purged and refined by interaction with the salamanders and may their condition be improved by their interaction with me, a human being composed of other elements besides Fire and through whom the quintessential Element of Spirit flows, however weakly.”

Action, activity, will-power and leadership are characteristics associated with the Element of Fire, as is lightning. Signs that you have made contact with this Element include coming across the picture of a volcano erupting or of a forge or kiln in action. (Right after I pinned up my Ace of Swords, the company I worked for sent me on a tour of a glass-blowing factory, where there was fire in abundance.) To see lightning – although thunder on its own doesn’t count, it’s the lightning that’s important. Other signs are: to encounter a representation of Zeus or Jupiter, whose weapon was the lightning bolt, or of the smith-god Vulcan (in Greek myth his name is Hephaistos); to see a picture of, or to be given a statue of, or charm in the form of, a phoenix; to be asked to show leadership qualities; to be assigned control of a team at work; to be required to demonstrate courage – sometimes, the need to stand alone against injustice; to be asked to make an important judgement, where this is something not normally demanded or you; to witness a fire-engine racing to a fire, sirens sounding, lights flashing; to dream of a campfire or similar, or of a burning building.

At the end of the exercise, return the four Aces to your tarot pack.


Never have more than one Ace in place at a time. To do so will create a cross-current of astral forces and under those circumstances neither energy will function effectively; in all probability one will cancel the other out.

Should you find that you are not experiencing any results at all from placing an Ace on the designated wall, the cause of failure may lie with yourself. The Aces must be set in place with the intention of contacting the corresponding Element. While the act of fixing the Ace to the wall seemingly indicates intention, it is possible that your mind may be working against you. If at any level you are fearful of what the Ace, once activated, will bring into your life then that subconscious fear will neutralize your conscious intention. Should you suspect that this is the cause of the lack of results you are experiencing, take down the Ace and contemplate carefully your next step. You may either abandon the experiment – which you should do if your fears are strong – or you can start again, making an effort to set your fears aside, making the resolution to take in your stride whatever comes as a result of your action, pleasant or unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable. I have found that, once the student admits they were afraid of what powers they might stir up by activating the Ace, and faces that fear, their next attempt is usually successful, often markedly so.

Meaning & the Minor Arcana

by Tony Willis      

As I wrote at the end of my previous post, entering into an exposition of the meaning of the tarot’s minor arcana from a divinatory point of view presents me with a host of alternative approaches to choose from. I could explain the symbolism of the Waite-Smith cards – it is, after all, the most popular tarot pack in the English-speaking world. Then again, I could relate the Waite-Smith symbolism to the occult philosophy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn where its roots undoubted lie. However, this ground has been covered with great thoroughness in The Western Mysteries by David Allen Hulse (Llewellyn Publications, U.S).

At the present time, though, tarot studies are approaching a crossroads in respect of the minor arcana, if indeed that crossroads has not already been reached. A movement is gathering impetus to work with Marseille-type minor arcana cards displaying merely the suit sign repeated, where two swords adorn the 2 of Swords card, five chalices the 5 of Cups, and so on and so forth. The movement is in its infancy; there remain thousands of tarot readers who depend, in one manner or another, on the Waite-Smith images to inspire their interpretations. To please the Waite-Smith multitude is to disappoint the up and coming Tarot de Marseille contingent and vice versa. But in any case, those leaning towards the Waite-Smith model have been well catered for over the years. From Eden Grey’s The Tarot Revealed of 1960 (the first of a series of books by Dr Grey exploring the relationship between the symbolism of the Waite-Smith cards and their divinatory meanings) to Mr Hulse’s book mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph, there are a plethora of texts available to those wishing to plumb the mysteries of that particular deck.

In addition, my proposition, voiced in an earlier post, that different symbolism applied to the minor arcana, in combination with an alternative attribution of Elements to suits, results in distinctive and divergent interpretations of the cards, turns us in the direction of an enduring question: ‘What are the true meanings of the tarot cards, especially those of the minor arcana?’ Many will be disappointed by my answer, which is that if by true one means “the one set of meanings against which all other sets are to be accounted false”, then there are no true meanings. So far as divination goes, one of my first tarot instructors opined that it made absolutely no difference which set of meanings the student embraced. This was in the 1950s when there were a number of sets available – that presented by Papus in The Tarot of the Bohemians, that popularized by Frank Lind, those published by Charles Platt, C.C. Zain, Minetta and several others. My teacher believed that the essence of accurate tarot reading lay not so much in the various significances attached to individual cards as in the innate ability of the cartomancer. My experience of tarot reading and tarot readers extending over a half a century has convinced me that my teacher was right.

Today books on the tarot tend to be sold by presenting the idea that “anyone can read the tarot”. In a sense that dictum is true; it is true in the same way that it is true that anyone can learn to play the piano – but let it not be forgotten that it is equally true that not everyone can play the piano well enough to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. Speaking only of the predictive tarot, I would say that a reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old, armed with a tarot deck and a book of instructions, could deliver a successful tarot reading that touched all the main bases. If the question posed was “Will the family feud that has me and my siblings not speaking to one another be healed?”, the cards would give a clear yes or no, and our reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old would be able to discern that fact from the lie of the cards. But in the case of a no, our reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old, would probably not be capable of teasing out all the nuances of the situation. The tarot might be explaining that, while the inquirer and her brothers are prepared to bury the hatchet, their perpetually indignant elder sister is not. In that case, while the overall answer to the question is no, the reason why it is no (the sister’s intransigence) may elude our eleven-year-old cartomancer no matter how intelligent she is. To go deeper into a reading than a blanket yes or no, win or lose, succeed or fail, it is not clearer divinatory meanings that are required but a more profound understanding of how one card impacts upon another, toning down or ramping up its implications, promoting or de-emphasizing its impact upon the spread as a whole. This is something that cannot be taught.

Meaning – Attached or Projected?

There are readers of tarot who accept that the message of the cards can be extracted from the spread by the simple expedient of assigning distinctive and definite meanings to all seventy-eight. Those who fall under this heading (and I confess that I am one) could, if we so wished, adopt any set of meanings we chose; the only proviso being that it be a rounded set of meanings, covering all the normal exigencies of human life – love, animosity, friendship, marriage, birth of offspring, illness, recovery from illness, elevation in the world, thwarted ambition and such like incidents that everyone encounters year in and year out during the course of their lives. As long as this condition is fulfilled, the cards will yield an accurate view of the inquirer’s situation as it stands at the time the spread is laid out. That at any rate is my experience, having been a student of tarot since 1959.

One factor that can knock on the head the maxim that “it doesn’t matter which meanings one takes up” comes into play when the tarot student joins a school of initiation. Every mystery school I’ve ever known has had its own method of reading the tarot, the meanings ascribed to the cards, Trumps and minor arcana alike, forming the most substantial part of that method. In order to make headway in the school, the student needs to accept the meanings said school gives to the cards. To refuse to do so puts one on the outside of the group mind of the Order, thereby risking non-acceptance by the group mind.

The Knowledge Papers of the Order of the Golden Dawn have been made public; one can buy books outlining the Order’s rituals and the correspondences it relies on to make contact with the Unseen. Among these correspondences are those relating to the tarot cards, and examination of the same will throw light on the meanings assigned by the Order to the cards. For the G.D., Trump 2, which it calls The High Priestess, is ruled by the Moon and accordingly the meanings it associates with the card are “Change, Alteration, Increase and Decrease. Fluctua­tion (whether for good or evil is … shown by cards connected with it.)” All these are understandably Lunar characteristics to anyone versed in the art of astrology; even a close observer of the night sky will recognize these traits from the behavior of the moon in the sky evening by evening. Shakespeare, a diligent student of Nature, has one of his characters declare:

“O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

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Taking this view of the Moon as its premise, the G.D. accordingly bestows on Trump 2 the meanings outlined above: Alteration, Fluctuation, Increase but also Decrease. The Order also assign the Trumps to the twenty-two ‘paths’ on the Tree of Life diagram. It is the Order’s positioning of Trump 6, The Lovers, that gives that card a meaning outsiders find aberrant: “Inspiration (passive and in some cases mediumistic). Motive-power and action, arising from Inspiration and Impulse.” The meaning makes sense within the G.D. world-view though it diverges from almost every other meaning ever attributed to The Lovers. For the G.D., Trump 6 is associated with the 17th ‘path’ on the Tree of Life, and this in turn connects it with the high level virtue of Faith and, at the same time, the intimations of a part of the human psyche known within the G.D. as the Holy Guardian Angel. In A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, Gareth Knight says of this situation: “Such intimations will, of course, be above the levels of mind and so they manifest . . . as Faith.” (p. 160) It is associations of this kind that directed the founders of the G.D. to redefine the divinatory significance of The Lovers as they did – Action arising from Inspiration and Impulse, etc. Altering the meaning of the card necessitated the creation of a completely revised image for Trump 6. See below. The founders of the GD believed they were right to make these changes. Whether you agree will depend on your acceptance or rejection of the G.D.’s comprehension of the tarot Trumps.

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If one does accept the premise, then the G.D.’s correspondences are interlocking: the Order’s interpretation of the Moon in astrology impacts upon its interpretation of Trump 2, and Trump 2 in turn will be aligned with a geomantic figure and particular Enochian squares; the same applying to all the remaining Trump cards. Members of the Order need to hold this mesh of correspondences in mind whenever they are working the G.D. system of magick. Under these conditions, adherence to the Order’s system of correspondences is vital to a successful outcome, whether we are talking about ritual magick or tarot divination.

For those tarot readers who are not members of a school of the instituted mysteries however, I maintain that it is of no great importance which set of divinatory meanings is espoused. So as to be clear, I will restate my main point again: If a person’s only desire is to read the tarot predictively, all that is needed is a pack of cards and a comprehensive set of divinatory meanings, one that encompasses all the most commonplace circumstances of life. After that, the art of interpretation must be acquired, and this objective is best achieved through constant practice, although a degree of insight can be gained by the diligent observation of a true tarot maestro at work.

If, on the other hand, a person desires to read the tarot at a metaphysical or spiritual level, the above rule is countermanded. The occultist or the mystic may choose to work with a specific deck. One of my pupils, who adhered to the teachings of the French school of tarot, claimed she was able to give more accurate readings using the Papus Tarot Deck. (This was at a time when this deck was available at a reasonable price.) But note the ‘may’ in the sentence above: “the occultist or the mystic may choose to work with a specific deck”. This is not a given. In the early days of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, initiates made readings either with a French or Italian tarot of the kind we would identify as being in the Tarot de Marseille mould, or with a handmade G.D. tarot. Since few had the necessary skill to draw and color a tarot for themselves, it was most often a Marseille-type tarot that was used. So, clearly, for these initiates, a specific deck was not regarded as an essential element of a successful tarot reading.

It is of greater importance by far that the occultist or mystic grasp the significances attached to the cards by the initiate-expositors of the esoteric path they have elected to tread. Once these significances have become part of the student’s mental furniture, they will come readily to mind whatever tarot deck is used. And so it would have been for the early initiates of the G.D.

I am going to move next in the direction of the more abstruse meanings of the cards for a while. Specifically, I will be looking into the magickal implications of the four Aces. I have in mind an experiment all can participate in, those of us that have the mind to do so, and I shall be describing that experiment in my next article.

Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, Part 5

By Tony Willis      

The Court Cards

The elemental symbolism of the Waite-Smith court cards is fairly clear. Cups are indisputably allied with Water and Pentacles with Earth. One has to look a little harder to discern that Swords correspond to Air, and recognizing that Wands align with Fire may require a deeper understanding of symbolism than has been called upon thus far to identify the Elements corresponding to the other three suits.

cups king cups queen cups knight

The King of Cups’ throne is on a small raft-like structure floating on the sea. A ship in the background and a dolphin leaping out of the ocean confirm that this king rules a watery kingdom. He holds a lotus-headed scepter, the lotus obviously being associated with water. His consort sits enthroned beside the sea. Her cloak is patterned to resemble water and there are merbabies ornamenting her chair of state. The Knight of Cups and his horse stand by a river. On his surcoat is a design of fishes swimming in water and a water pattern can be discerned on the horse’s bridal. A fish pokes its head out of the cup the Page is holding. There are lotuses embroidered on his jerkin and, at the back of the card, the sea is visible. The links with Water are undeniable.

cups pagepentacles kingpentacles queen

The throne of the King of Pentacles is surrounded by vine leaves and bunches of grapes. The throne itself is decorated with bulls’ heads, invoking thoughts of the zodiac sign Taurus. The King holds a Pentacle of specific design. Of it, Waite tells his readers, “[t]he sign of the suit is represented throughout as engraved or blazoned with the pentagram, typifying the correspondence of the four elements in human nature and that by which they may be governed.” He is speaking of the four mythological or philosophical elements recognized by most educated people at the time he was writing – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – but also of the fifth element – that by which the other four can be governed – Æther or Spirit. What he fails to describe is Earth – the planet of that name on the one hand and the Earth Plane, the material level of existence, on the other – as the arena in which all the other components of being function and interact. This, evidently, was a secret that Waite couldn’t bring himself to articulate directly.

pagepentskt Pentalcesswords king

The Queen of Pentacles has a goat’s head on the arm of her throne, reminding the viewer that Capricorn, the goat, is an Earth sign. On the support at the back of her throne are pears. Like the grapes on the King’s card, these pears represent fruits of the earth. In the lower right-hand corner of the design is a rabbit. As rabbits are such prolific breeders, his inclusion on the card also signifies the bounty of the earth, as does the blooming of the flowers all about the queen, above and on either side of the throne. The Knight of Pentacles has brought his steed to a halt beside a ploughed field; he seems to be contemplating the pentacle he holds up in his right hand. The ploughed field symbolizes the earth in a state of readiness to produce a crop, whether of wheat, beans, potatoes or whatever. Earth, as an element, is associated with the melancholy temperament. Not all melancholics are like Shakespeare’s Hamlet; our forebears believed that it was the ideal temperament for a philosopher, and it is from that angle that the Knight of Pentacles is depicted in a contemplative mood. The description of the card given by Waite – “He rides a slow, enduring, heavy horse, to which his own appearance corresponds.” – also relates to the Earth element, which is seen as long-lasting, sluggish in movement, deliberate in action and weighty. The Page also contemplates his pentacle. There is a ploughed field in the background, over to the right, but the page himself stands on grassland in which wild flowers are growing; a copse is behind him to the left, a distant mountain on his right. All are symbols of the earth in various conditions from barren through fallow to fruitful.

swords queenswords knightswords page

The back of the King of Swords’ throne is decorated with butterflies and a fairy figure reaching out to the king’s head. On his crown is a cherub, a winged child’s head. There are clouds in the sky and two birds are visible over to the right. The winged beings and the clouds are distinct Air symbols. (There are no clouds on the court cards of any other suit.) These motifs repeat on the Queen card. Her cloak is covered with clouds and it is held in place by a clasp in the form of a butterfly. Another butterfly adorns her crown. In the background there are clouds and a flock of birds. The trappings of the horse of the Knight of Swords are patterned either with birds in flight or butterflies or perched birds, the latter motif appearing on the knight’s surcoat as well. His helmet is winged and again there are clouds in the sky and birds wheeling overhead. Furthermore, the trees bend in the wind. The whole scene is redolent with a sense of the powers of Air. A strong breeze also runs through the image of the Page. His long hair is tossed about by it and the trees in the background are inclined by it. The sky is cloudy and birds fly high above. The Air influence is apparent.

wands14wands queenwands knight

The symbolism of the Waite-Smith Wand court cards is on the one hand more subtle and on the other more recondite than that of the other three suits. Anyone unaware that the ancients believed that a creature called a salamander lived in fire as fishes live in water, and that it had a tendency to curl up in a circle, would be mystified by the image found on the costumes of the King, Knight and Page of Wands, repeated on the back of the king’s throne. The Order of the Golden Dawn, from whom Waite has borrowed his ideas concerning the Elements and the suits, depicted their Wands alight or with flames issuing from points where one wand intersected with another. (This is more apparent in Crowley’s Thoth tarot. See the 3 and 6 of Wands below.) For reasons that are unclear, Waite decided to abandon this symbolism. Instead, the Waite-Smith Wands are shown in leaf: either they have recently been cut from their parent tree or they miraculously continue to sprout even though no longer attached to a living organism. It is the latter state that Waite intends to suggests. As he himself puts it: “The wands throughout this suit are always in leaf, as it is a suit of life and animation.”

wands pagewands3crowley 4 wands

Other symbolism on the Wand courts speaks more clearly of their association with Fire. The lions on the king’s throne are a reference to Leo. The lions and the sunflowers on the Queen of Wands card likewise indicate Fire, the sunflowers doing so somewhat more obliquely than the lions. From “sunflower” the mind might move to “sun”, which is a great ball of fire traversing the sky throughout the day. The cat at the Queen’s feet is a domesticated relative of the lion. The Knight of Wands, representing Fire, we might expect to be the most bellicose of the knights. Waite argues against this, however, telling his readers, “although wearing armour [he] is not on a warlike errand”. The horse is rearing to indicate action. In the background there are, Waite informs us, “mounds or pyramids”. Here he is not being entirely honest with his readers; the shapes are surely intended to be pyramids, the name of which derives from a Greek root meaning fire – vide pyromania. There are three pyramids on the Knight card and they stand in a desert landscape, just as the pyramids at Giza do. This motif is repeated on the Page card. The Page also has a feather in his cap resembling a flame.

The symbolism of the Waite-Smith deck is so prevalent today that the attribution of Elements to suits it portrays is accepted almost universally, particularly in English-speaking countries. There has, however, been disagreement going back centuries as to how the Elements ought to be allocated to the suits. Here is a selection of six attempts at aligning the two; as you can see, none is in complete agreement with any other.




































The Golden Dawn followed Levi’s lead, and Waite remained true to G.D. teaching on this point when producing the Waite-Smith tarot. Each of the other tarot experts cited above has given what he feels to be good reasons for his attributions. Some hold up under scrutiny better than others. The most popular alternative to the Levi/G.D. ascriptions among magicians is that given by Ráókczi, which he claims to have learnt from the gypsies. In this system, Cups equate with Water and Coins with Earth, as they do in the Waite-Smith deck. But Swords represent Fire and Wands Air. A blade must be forged by being first heated and then beaten into shape: as fire goes into its making, a sword is thought to be the appropriate symbol for Fire. If the Rod is thought of as a magick wand then it is sacred to Mercury who, as Hermes Trismegistus, is the patron of all occult arts. He is also an airy being, depicted in classical art with a winged helmet and wings on his heels, credited with moving at the speed of thought, rather like Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who can “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. In ancient grimoires, (magickal primers) the magician’s wand is an instrument of Air (Mercury) while his sword is an instrument of Fire (Mars).

That being so, the student of tarot may wonder why the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn adopted Levi’s attributions. Well, in a sense they didn’t: they changed the suit sign of Swords to Daggers and attributed the dagger to Air. As I’ve already said, the various schools of magick found adequate reasons to distribute Elements to this or that suit as they saw fit. And they often went to extraordinary lengths to juggle the Elements so as to have them match up with a particular ideology. With the G.D., this process entailed the renaming of an entire suit! However, the G.D. weren’t the only ones to jump through hoops in order to obtain the desired result.

Once the Elemental orientation of a suit is changed, so too does the divinatory significances of that suit. In the body of The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus adheres to Levi’s attributions. According to Levi, Swords correspond to Air. But when, towards the end of his book, Papus writes about divination with the tarot, he has Swords representing Transformation, Hatred, and War (by which he means disputes, quarrels). This is Fire terminology: Fire is the most transformative of the elements and its ruling planet, Mars, is an undisputed symbol of animosity and belligerence. Papus’s meanings for the Sword suit reflect this, from the “opposition to the hatred; success against the enemy” of the Four, through the “equilibrium [i.e., neuralization] of the opposition; the enemy is rendered powerless at last” of the Six, to the “partial opposition to this success; the enemy only partially triumphs” of the Eight of Swords.

These interpretations have nothing to do with the meanings for the same cards that were accepted by the Golden Dawn, where the suit represents the powers of Air. For the G.D., the Four of Swords signifies “Convalescence, recovery from sickness, change for the better”, the Six of Swords “Labour, work; journey, probably by water; anxiety”, and the Eight “Narrow or restricted; a prison; life is arduous, petty and uninteresting.” Notice how well these meanings correspond to the images on the Waite-Smith cards.


However, they relate not at all to Papus’s Transformation, Hatred, Disputes, and Quarrels. The reason is, as I have stated, that Papus places the Sword suit under the dominion of Mars and Fire while the G.D. place it under the rulership of Air and Mercury. Other tarot schools distribute the Elements among the suits in ways other than those adopted by Papus and the G.D., and the meanings they ascribe to the cards of the minor arcana differ accordingly. Thus Charles Platt (The Art of Card Fortune Telling) equates the tarot Swords with playing cards Spades, marking it out merely as the “unfortunate” suit, and reading the Sword cards in yet another way. Platt has the Four of Swords representing solitude, the Six a voyage or a messenger – someone who has travelled. The Eight of Swords, according to Platt, forecasts illness or blame. His meanings for the remaining cards, of all suits, not just Swords, are likewise at variance with those given by either Papus or the G.D.

All of which brings me to a dilemma that has bedeviled me for over a year. On this blog I have written extensively about the cards of the major arcana but I’ve said almost nothing about the minor arcana. If I were to say more about them, I have various choices. What those choices are and why they place me in a quandary will be the subject of my next article.

Waite’s Key to the Tarot, Part 4

Divinatory Meanings
Major Arcana as Against Minor Arcana

With only a few exceptions, the divinatory meanings assigned to the Trump cards remained strikingly static between 1781 (date of the publication of volume eight of Le Monde Primitif containing an essay on the tarot declaring it a depository of ancient occult knowledge) and 1910 (publication of Waite’s Key to the Tarot). The reason is that the Trump cards bear images and designated titles aligned to the images. The card named the Pope has on it the picture of a man wearing the papal tiara and grasping a triple cross; the card Strength carries an emblematic representation of the cardinal virtue Strength on it; and so on. The image on the World card came, early on, to be accepted as representing the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, rather than the World as the Earth beneath one’s feet.

With these conventions accepted, the Popess/High Priestess was never going to be given meanings such as ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ or ‘strife’; nor were the Chariot or the Wheel of Fortune going to be associated with ‘stasis’ or ‘stability’ in any conceivable form. The combination of established image and title mitigate against ignorant tampering or misguided ‘rectifications’ of that kind. The minor arcana falls in a separate category, however. Until the Waite-Smith tarot was created, the spot cards of the minor arcana were, in appearance, much like those found on a deck of playing cards: the 4 of Swords bore a representation of four swords; the 6 of Cups the representation of six goblets; the 7 of Wands the representation of seven rods or scepters; the 9 of Pence/Pentacles the representation of nine coins. If there was any ornamentation on a card, it was assumed it was simply what it appeared to be – ornamentation – and no symbolic significance was attached to it.

Under these conditions, the spot cards could be invested with meanings more or less at random. In the case of those assigned to the spots by Etteilla, this is precisely what happened. (Readers wanting to know more about the process by which the spot cards gained the meanings they have in Etteilla’s system of divination should consult the relevant chapters in Decker, Depaulis & Dummett’s A Wicked Pack of Cards (Duckworth, 1996).) Etteilla wasn’t alone in making attributions to the spot cards; others attempted the same feat, some proceeding haphazardly, some following a set scheme. One of the most popular methods was rooted in Pythagorean numerology, wherein even numbers are counted as unfortunate and odd numbers fortunate. By this thinking, the 2s of Wands, Cups and Coins exerted a mildly hindering effect on the question asked, while the 9s of the same suits exerted a strong beneficent effect.

For the suit of Swords, these rules were regularly turned on their heads, so that the 2 of Swords was believed to have a mildly beneficial effect on the question. As Swords were symbols of disagreement and disunity, the 2 of that suit, under the above rules, became the card denoting disputes settled or amity restored. Similarly, the 9 of Swords became one of the most malign cards in the pack, as it is in the novel Carmen (on which Bizet’s opera of the same name was based), predicting calamity, illness and/or death.

Another, later approach to the spot cards was to equate them with the Trumps with which they shared a number. Exponents of this approach took the Aces to reflect in some way the properties of The Juggler/Magician and so on through to the 10s, which were held to correspond to the powers of The Wheel of Fortune.

The Order of the Golden Dawn equated the spot cards with the ten spheres of the Tree of Life. It had the Aces correspond to the first sphere, Kether, the Crown, and the 10s to the tenth sphere, Malkuth, the Kingdom, the names of the spheres all having a mystical significance.

Each of these last three approaches is rooted in a particular formula, but as the formulas conflict so do the results. The meaning given to the 7 of Swords by one method may be utterly at odds with the meaning it has acquired following the logic of one of the other methods. Over the course of time, a good many sets of meanings had been attached to the spot cards by taromancers in France, the UK and the US. When A.E. Waite came to write The Key to the Tarot, this presented him with a problem.

Waite and the Spot Cards

The approach to writing a book on the tarot taken today by authors is that they present, as clearly and concisely as possible, their own versions of the divinatory meanings for all 78 cards. Waite didn’t want to reveal his personal understanding of what the cards meant. In the case of the minor arcana, it is probable that he invested them with no divinatory significances at all. If he had a preference it would have been in the direction of the meanings assigned them by the Golden Dawn. The likelihood that this assertion is correct is given weight by the fact that, in the Waite-Smith designs for the spot cards, there can, in almost every case, be discerned symbolism pertaining to the Golden Dawn’s most basic reading of the card.

wands 8The title the Golden Dawn gave to the 8 of Wands was Lord of Swiftness. Waite describes the card as depicting “a flight of wands through open country”, an image clearly intended to convey a sense of speed corresponding to the swiftness of the card’s Golden Dawn title. But in order to keep the picture free of contradictions, Waite is forced to suppress another meaning given to the card in fortune-telling books of his day: Domestic disputes for a married person.

Whereas Waite’s sources for the divinatory meanings of the Trumps can be fairly readily identified, he appears to have cast his net wider in the case of the spot cards. Etteilla’s influence remains paramount, though, as often as not, it seems mediated by Mathers. Charles Platt’s Card Fortune Telling (or whoever Platt used as a source) has been consulted too, but there are other sources I have not been able to identify.

wands 10On occasion, there is universal agreement that a particular card is in general beneficent or the opposite. At the other end of the scale, there are cards where hardly any two authorities concur on its significance. One such is the 10 of Wands. In the Key, Waite describes its divinatory meanings in these words: “A card of many significances, and some of the readings cannot be harmonized. I set aside that which connects it with honour and good faith. The chief meaning is oppression simply, but it is also fortune, gain, any kind of success, and then it is the oppression of these things. It is also a card of false-seeming, disguise, perfidy. The place which the figure is approaching may suffer from the rods that he carries.”

How many sources has Waite drawn upon to get this result? Firstly, let it be noted that he has sneaked in the Golden Dawn keyword “oppression”. It is a meaning that other taromancers of the day, who had not had the benefit of a Golden Dawn training, would not have recognized. Yet Waite makes it paramount by stating that what would otherwise be welcome results derived from this card – fortune, gain, success of any kind – are in fact tainted by the blight of oppression; that the wealth and success the card promises will prove burdensome.

Alongside the G.D. meaning of oppression, Waite sets honour and good faith and, evidently relying on a different source, fortune, gain, and any type of success one cares to think of. By yet another method of interpretation, the card can signify false-seeming, disguise, and perfidy, and in the extra meanings towards the end of the book we find the 10 of Wands associated with difficulties and contradictions. That would appear to be five sources in all. If we subtract the Golden Dawn keyword, the indications are evenly divided: honour, good faith, fortune, gain and any kind of success on one side of the occult balance sheet, false-seeming, disguise, perfidy, difficulties and contradictions on the other.

What have readers of the Key made of this over the past one hundred years? My guess would be, very little. So far as I have been able to ascertain, users of the Waite-Smith cards divide broadly into two camps: those “who read the picture” and those who are committed to the Golden Dawn system of card interpretation. Both groups side-step the written significances supplied by Waite in the Key. These are so contradictory that I am not surprised they have been largely ignored. I am more surprised that they continue to be passed on unfiltered to new generations of novice tarot readers through such publications as The Definitive Tarot (Dictionary of the Tarot in the USA) by Bill Butler and Tarot Dictionary and Compendium by Jana Riley. It can only be Waite’s name and his fame as the co-creator of the Waite-Smith tarot that can account for the perpetuation in the tarot world of these inconsistent jumbles of mutually exclusive indications. Waite apparently wanted the pictures on the spot cards to accord with the pronouncements of as many tarot authorities as possible. He then listed, in no particular order (as the saying goes), all the significances that fitted the image on the card. A noble aim in 1910, maybe, but of little practical use to taroists of the twenty-first century.

Golden Dawn System and the Waite-Smith Spot Cards

Although, as previously stated, the Waite-Smith deck can be adopted by those subscribing to the Golden Dawn interpretations of the spot cards, there are several instances where its images don’t sit well with the G.D. meanings. Notably, this is true of the 4 and 6 of Cups, the 7 of Swords, and to a lesser degree the 2 of Swords. One could at a pinch interpret the picture on the 4 of Cups, particularly in the light of Waite’s own comments on the design, as representing “receiving pleasure or kindness . . . but some discomfort therewith.” However, it is hardly the first thought that springs to mind upon looking at the image.

cups 4  cups 6

This state of affairs is even more true in the case of the 6 of Cups. Waite explains fully the reasoning behind the choice of two children as key elements of the symbolism. “A card of the past and of memories, looking back, as – for example – on childhood; happiness, enjoyment, but coming rather from the past; things that have vanished. Another reading reverses this, giving new relations, new knowledge, new environment, and then the children are playing in a newly entered precinct.” None of this reflects the G.D. understanding of the card. The Order’s keyword for the 6 of Cups is Pleasure with no restriction on where the pleasure is centered, in the past, the present or the future. The Order’s knowledge paper on the tarot assigns the card the meanings “wish, happiness, success, enjoyment”. Unfortunately, the Waite image conveys none of this explicitly and only a modicum of it implicitly. Mental contortions, leaning heavily on the second of Waite’s meanings, newness, may bring one to other eventualities suggested by the G.D.: “Commencement of steady increase, gain and pleasure, but commence­ment only.” There is, however, no guarantee of students coming to this conclusion without their being given considerable help.

pentacles 5    tarot-swords-10

That is true of most spot cards for those adhering to the G.D. system: One must know the card’s meaning before inspecting the image assigned it in the Waite-Smith tarot in order to pick up on the connection. Any person in ignorance of the G.D. significance will flounder in the majority of cases. Only where the image is crude in its symbolism, as with that for the 10 of Swords or the 5 of Pentacles, can the uninitiated student light upon the correct significance, and then only in a general sense. The images on the 10 of Swords and 5 of Pentacles mark those cards out as unfortunate or malign. The 5 of Pentacles is almost an icon of destitution, impeccably reflecting the card’s G.D. key phrase, Material Trouble, raised to the nth degree. But it lacks all subtlety, conveying nothing of the G.D.’s other attributions: “Monetary anxiety; trouble concerning material things”; and in particular, “When very well dignified: money regained after severe toil and labour.”

The G.D.’s keyword for the 10 of Swords is Ruin. The Order allows it to indicate death, defeat, and disaster any of which conditions can be elicited from the picture on the Waite-Smith card. But again the shades of meaning the Order assign the card are entirely absent. Depending on its condition, to the G.D. initiate, the 10 of Swords can signify disruption, or failure of a project. Paul Foster Case, a man well versed in G.D. tarot lore, tells us that the card can mean either ruin, pain, or desolation; it might also signify sudden misfortune. But, Case insists, it is NOT a card of sudden death, going full tilt against the image on the Waite-Smith card. He goes so far as to say that, in spiritual matters, the 10 of Swords can mark the end of delusion’, an interpretation that even a tarot reader with decades of experience behind them would never derive from the picture on the card without outside prompting.

Should one have a particular mental bent, it is possible, just, that one might discern in the design of the 7 of Swords the G.D. interpretation of the card, partial success, inasmuch as the man in the picture has only taken some of the swords, not all. This entails one supposing that the man’s initial plan was to make off all seven swords, a point that might escape even the most observant soul. The subtleties of meaning are, as so often with the Waite-Smith illustrations, literally out of the picture. A journey, probably by land and the inclination to lose (a struggle) when on the point of gaining through not continuing the effort, significances the G.D. allot the card, are not suggested by the image, in which many who interpret the Waite-Smith cards by “reading the picture” detect theft, since the man appears to be stealing swords while the warriors sleep in the tents at the back of the scene.

swords 7   2swords

Similar accusations can be levelled against the picture adorning the Waite-Smith 2 of Swords. It better describes some, though not all, of the meanings suggested in the Key than it does those put forward by the Golden Dawn. The newcomer to the tarot might, at a pinch, discern that it implies “equipoise” and “concord in a state of arms” simply through examination of the image. It is a good deal harder to arrive at “conformity”, “friendship” or “affection” and “intimacy” by the same means. The picture clearly favors certain meanings while excluding or obscuring others. When it comes to the G.D. significances, the only one suggested, somewhat obliquely, by the image is “justice”, as it could be taken as an representation of even-handed Justice. Indications of the other G.D. meanings – “quarrel made up”, “arrangement of differences”, and “peace restored” – will be sought for in vain.

In my early twenties, I entered a mystery school teaching the Golden Dawn system of magick. Students had to learn the G.D. meanings for the tarot cards. Several of us imagined that adopting the Waite-Smith cards would aid us in our mission to memorize these meanings. It helped not one whit. Personally, I had better results working with the Builders of the Adytum deck. It has no scenic images on the spot cards; instead it relies on the geometric configuration of the suit signs to convey the potency allotted to the card. Other G.D. members of my own day suffered the same frustration with the Waite-Smith pictures. This frustration was felt from the outset, not least because the spot card images were, in 1909 a new invention, with no history of time-honored use behind them. Soon after the deck was published, J.W. Brodie-Innes, an initiate of the G.D. and a personal pupil of one of the Order’s founders, S.L. Mathers, wrote an article for the Occult Review. Towards the end of it he expresses this wish:

“I trust that Mr Waite may some day find time to tell us from whence he derived his interpretations, and the designs illustrating them.

2pence“Taking as an example the two of pentacles . . . from whence comes Mr Waite’s dancing man? If he belongs to any of the old forms of the Tarot, or is in any way connected with the original designers, he is worthy of serious consideration. But one would like to know his origin and credentials. And the same remark applies to the other designs.”

Implicit in Brodie-Innes’s statement about the origins of “Mr Waite’s dancing man”, is the idea that, if the image doesn’t meet the conditions set forth, it is not worthy of serious consideration, the same going for all the new-fangled images the Waite-Smith cards had introduced into the tarot. Quite the opposite view would be upheld today by all the deck’s many supporters who rely on the images to suggest meanings to them. But it is worth remembering that this was not in any way the prevailing state of affairs when the deck first saw the light of day.


In the next article, I will examine the court cards of the Waite-Smith tarot.

Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, Part 3

Divination & the Trumps

In Key to the Tarot, Waite describes the designs on the Trump cards twice. In Part I, he details some older images; often these are Tarot de Marseille illustrations, but not always. In Part II, Waite describes the pictures found in the Waite-Smith deck. These second descriptions are needed as several of the Waite-Smith Trumps deviate from the Tarot de Marseille images; at times they deviate considerably (The Fool and The Lovers cards are given totally new illustrations, unlike any published previously). Here and there in both Parts of the Key, Waite alludes to the Trumps’ divinatory significances. However, it is not until much later, in Part III, that he sets these out for the reader. He describes the predictive significances of the Minor Arcana first and turns to those of the Major Arcana last of all.

w-s-fool   HTMFLtrump22

r-w-lovers   HTMFLtrump6

I am going to ignore Waite’s way of approaching the divinatory meanings of the cards and pay attention first to the Major Arcana. Waite is somewhat unfair on his readers; if he considered them newcomers to the tarot, he is decidedly disobliging in the matter of the predictive values of the Trumps: on occasion he includes divinatory meanings in the section, in Part II, on the cards’ symbolism, which he doesn’t repeat in Part III. In Part III he catalogs meanings drawn from a number of sources, not always the most dependable.

He liberally quotes Etteilla, who all British occultists of Waite’s day wrote off as a pretender of knowledge. Waite had translated Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians into English, so it is natural that he depends to some extent upon Papus, giving Action as a meaning for The Empress, Inspiration for The Pope/Hierophant, Providence for The Chariot, Hidden Enemies for The Moon, Material Happiness and Marriage for The Sun, and Assured Success for The World. From Mathers (The Tarot, 1888), he has borrowed Mercy and Goodness for The Hierophant. From de Gébelin he has borrowed Circumspection for The Hanged Man, even though de Gébelin bases his opinion on a redrawing of the card showing the central figure standing immobilized, with one leg tethered to a post, about to test the ground ahead of him with the sole of his free foot. British taroists of Waite’s era preferred the traditional image and favored the meaning Sacrifice for Trump 12. (cf. Mathers (The Tarot), Sepharial (The Book of Charms and Talismans) Charles Platt (The Art of Card Fortune Telling) and Minetta (What the Cards Tell)).

The result is an unsatisfactory jumble of ideas lifted from opposing systems of interpretation, a jumble to which Waite makes no attempt to bring order. Take, for example, the meanings he gives for The Magician. For the upright card, he suggests: Skill, diplomacy, address; sickness, pain, loss, disaster, self-confidence, will; the Querent, if male. For the reversed card, he puts forward: Physician, Magus, mental disease, disgrace, disquiet. (Page 122.)

The first pointer to unravelling the attributions Waite presents the reader with in Part III of the Key is that a semicolon almost invariably signals that he has moved from one source to another. I haven’t been able to find the original of “Skill, diplomacy, address” but the six words that follow, from “sickness” to “will”, are found in Etteilla’s list of divinatory meanings for the Trump. (If anyone knows where Waite took “Skill, diplomacy, address” from, would they please pass the information to me. That authority would be an excellent one to explore, as those meanings are standard for British tarot in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It may be, of course, that Waite supplied these meanings himself. They are the closest to his own conception of the card (as laid out in A Manual of Cartomancy and Occult Divination), and the use of “address”, which I shall explain presently, is typical of Waite. A third alternative is that these meanings derive from Wirth, as translated by Waite. Below I give some of the significances Wirth allots to Trump 1; they are close to the terms Waite uses while not being direct borrowings from any translation I have consulted.)

The third authority Waite has borrowed from in this instance I judge to be Papus, who advocates using Trump 1 to represent the male inquirer (or querent). His Tarot of the Bohemians had a profound influence on British taroism. In 1936, a quarter of a century after the publication of the Key, a book came out in which the meaning for the Juggler/Magician was given as: “[It] Represents the enquirer himself, should the latter be a man. … If this card is reversed in the case of a male enquirer, it signifies that he will always be more or less at odds with life and the world, unless modified by favourable cards in the vicinity.” The impact of Papus’s reading of the card on the 1936 interpretation is clear.

the-magician-rider-waite   r-w priestess 2

The reversed meanings for the card are all from Etteilla, and that is the reason why there are no semicolons in the sentence.

Notice that these meanings, upright and reverse, are a mixture of good and bad indications. The tendency today is to group the “good” meanings under the heading “upright” and the “bad” under the heading “reversed”. Tarot books published in the last twenty years tend to assign significances to the upright Magician that are very close to the skill, diplomacy, will and self-confidence nexus of meanings, while esoterically the card is seen as depicting a Magus or Initiated Adept. The negative implications put forward by Waite have fallen out of favor (physician, mental disease) and the reversed card is today taken to signify the opposite of the upright indications – lack of self-confidence, weak will, ineptness (as the contrary manifestation of “skill”).

The modern reader may wonder what is meant by “address”; it simply means “to address a problem”, or by the rules of interpretation that pertained prior to the nineteen sixties, “the ability to successfully address a difficulty”. Nowadays, this is generally framed as “success by effort”, “the ability to utilize one’s capabilities in order to accomplish a task” or, when presented as advice, “If you are single-minded and prepared to seize the opportunities offered, you will be successful.” An instance of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, an edict that cannot be applied across the board to the meanings of all the Trump cards.

As already noted, it is usual today to assign positive interpretations to the Magician when upright, leaving negative significances to the reversed aspect of the card. This seems eminently rational to the modern mind, so much so that it is rarely if ever questioned. Yet Waite offers his readers a commixture of fortunate and unfortunate implications for the upright Magician. I do not censure him for this; in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it was common for British taromancers to imbue Trump 1 with ambiguous traits; Waite is merely following this tradition. Sepharial, in The Manual of Occultism, awards Trump 1 the meanings Self-dominion (meaning self-control), Austerity, and Selfishness without distinguishing between the upright and reversed card.

The Order of the Golden Dawn drew on this tradition for its interpretation of the Trump 1: “Skill, wisdom, adaptation. Craft, cunning, etc., always depending on its dignity.” In the G.D.’s lexicon, “dignity” does not mean “upright or reversed”; it relates to the effects of the cards surrounding the Magician, with special reference to those on either side of it. To the G.D., Trump 1 mediated the powers of the planet Mercury; this was true also of adherents of the French School or tarot. Since Mercury is the patron, not only of scholars, but of thieves and liars, it was taken for granted that his influence would be variable. The French occultist Oswald Wirth lists the properties of Trump 1, which he terms Le Bateleur or The Juggler, as “Dexterity, skill, diplomatic shrewdness. Persuasive speaker, lawyer, cunning, astuteness, agitation. Lack of scruples, opportunist, intriguer, liar, scoundrel, swindler, charlatan, exploiter of ingenuousness in human nature.” According to Wirth, the Trump mediates the influence of Mercury for good and for ill. In the quote just given, one can detect an ineluctable deterioration from the qualities of Dexterity and Skill through to those of the Liar, Swindler, and Exploiter. Frank Lind, writing at the end of the 1940s, continues in the same vein: “Mental activity. Versatility. The resolute pursuance of some aim. Trickery. Will.” All these, with the possible exception of Will, are characteristics of the planet Mercury.

Today, even among those who accept Mercury as the ruling planet for Trump 1, it is rare to see the attributes cunning, craftiness, scoundrel or trickster applied to The Magician in the upright position. Whether you hail this change as a triumph of rationalism or denounce it as a gross simplification depends on your view of how the tarot functions in divinatory mode.

Waite assigns The High Priestess the meanings: Secrets, mystery, the future as yet unrevealed; the woman who interests the Querent, if male; the Querent herself, if female; silence, tenacity; mystery, wisdom, science. Reversed: Passion, moral or physical ardour, conceit, surface knowledge.

The idea that Trump 2 represents the ‘female querent, the woman who most interests the querent, if male’, comes from Etteilla and was taken up by Papus. Silence and tenacity are from Etteilla. Wisdom and science are in Mathers; silence and mystery are in Oswald Wirth. The Little White Book that goes with the Cagliostro tarot deck contains meanings that hark back to Levi and Paul Christian. It gives, for the reversed card, “spiritual and physical love”; this equates in part with Waite’s reversed meaning. I have not been able to discover Waite’s actual sources and would again be grateful to any reader could enlighten me on that score.

For the upright High Priestess, Platt has “secrets, mystery, science, knowledge, the unrevealed future”. His book was published shortly after the Key but another version of the text may have seen the light of day earlier; or Waite has been fishing in the same pond as Platt. I say this because Waite never in the Key gives us his own meanings for any of the cards, Major or Minor Arcana, and therefore must have taken the words and phrases he does offer his readers from somewhere.

Mathers gives “Conceit”, and “Superficial Knowledge” as reverse meanings for the Trump 2, and we can feel confident that this is where Waite got them from.

However, the delineation cited above bears no resemblance to the keywords Waite puts forward as in the guise of Grand Orient. These are change and intuition; the former is part of Golden Dawn teaching; the latter, though commonly associated with Trump 2 today, may not have had that association among the general public in 1909 (when A Manual of Cartomancy and Occult Divination was published).

Waite gives The Empress, when upright, the meanings: Fruitfulness, action, initiative, length of days; the unknown, clandestine; also difficulty, doubt, ignorance. Reversed: Light, truth, the unraveling of involved matters, public rejoicings; according to another reading, vacillation. Again, these meanings are a mixture of good and bad indications. The “bad” are now entirely suppressed in books of divinatory meanings. “Action” is to be found in Mathers and Papus, and derives from Paul Christian. Everything after the first semi-colon is from Etteilla; everything before it should be from a single source, though I have not been able to locate it. All the keywords found before the semicolon were current at the time Waite was writing. Action and initiative are in Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians. Fruitfulness is given by Minetta and Charles Platt, and though their books were published after Key to the Tarot, they nonetheless reflect the thinking of the day in respect of The Empress. Etteilla applies the keyword Night to this Trump. As I have said, the unknown, clandestine, difficulty, doubt and ignorance, are all extracted from Etteilla. He assigns the keywords Day and Light to the reversed Empress, hence Waite’s light and truth. Vacillation is from Mathers.

empress r-w   r-w 12-The-Hanged-Man

I think the foregoing makes it clear that, in the Key, Waite recycled data from a variety of tarot authorities without differentiating the entries beyond separating them by a semicolon. For the Trumps, his preferred sources were Etteilla, Papus, Mathers and, if not Platt, then whoever was Platt’s source. Secondarily, he relies on Wirth. Having established these facts, there is no need to continue dissecting the delineations Waite presents us with. From this point on, I will limit myself to commenting on the potentially misleading implications of Waite’s approach and the elucidation of terms that have altered their meanings over the past one hundred years and which therefore may give modern readers a jolt when they encounter them.

Waite takes most of his meanings for The Hanged Man from Etteilla, but mixes them with keywords drawn from other writers. He gives the meanings as: Wisdom, circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination, prophesy. Reversed: Selfishness, the crowd, [the] body politic.

The first three keywords plus prophecy are in Etteilla. Sacrifice is in Mathers as is selfishness. The body politic is in Etteilla. Intuition, wisdom, sacrifice and selfishness are in Platt. Sacrifice is in Papus too as is trial, ordeal. Prophet and seer are in Wirth. Circumspection is ultimately derived from de Gébelin, whose misinterpretation of the image on the card has already been remarked upon. Waite has previously assigned Circumspection, under the term Prudence, to The Hermit, where it is most often lodged today. Some of these meanings Waite suggests for The Hanged Man – divination, prophesy, discernment and circumspection – and two of the reversed ones – the crowd and the body politic – have sunk without trace in the English-speaking world. Their inclusion must baffle modern readers of the Key. Waite himself rejected them for the symbolically more coherent view, the same view adopted by the Golden Dawn. Writing as Grand Orient, Waite gives the meanings of Trump 12 as “Renunciation, for whatever cause and with whatever motive. Atonement”, this appearing to be Waite’s understanding of the simple keyword Sacrifice.

Under the meanings for Trump 14, Temperance, the keyword “accommodation” can be found. By this Waite means something like “compromise”. The term is still used today in expressions such as, “I think we can come to an accommodation.”

r-w temperance   RWS_Tarot_15_Devil

For The Devil, Waite suggests the meaning “extraordinary efforts”. This meaning is the odd one out in Waite’s list as all the others allotted by him to Trump 15 upright are of negative significance. My guess is that it has its origins in Force Majure, transmuted at some point, either by Waite or by the source he is quoting, into “extraordinary efforts”. Force Majure is sometimes translated into English as “a force the inquirer is unable to resist”; it has been interpreted as an illness or as a temptation, the latter significance being particularly appropriate for a card named the Devil.

The divinatory meanings for Trump 17 put forward by Waite are: Loss, theft, privation, abandonment; another reading says hope and bright prospects. In this instance, Waite has married two mutually exclusive sets of meanings, split, as is normal for Waite, by a semi-colon. I don’t know of any tarot readers today who assign negative significances to The Star upright; as a rule they are relegated to the reversed aspect of the card, while the upright meanings tend to revolve around hope, optimism, fresh starts and a the promise of a brighter future.

RWS_Tarot_17_Star   bota trump 22

When Waite incudes “distribution” as a reversed meaning for The Fool, I take it that he understands the term to signify “prodigality”, a keyword regularly associated with the Trump at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Whether upright or reversed, Waite’s suggested meanings for The Fool are negative, as was customary at the time the Key was written. The meanings he puts forward are: Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy, bewrayment. Reversed: Negligence, absence, distribution, carelessness, apathy, nulity, vanity. Today, almost all English-speaking tarot readers have discarded these significances, at least for the upright card, but in Waite’s day they were not in the least extraordinary, The Fool being taken as a symbol of folly as per the first word on Waite’s list of keywords.

There is more to be said about the designs of the Waite-Smith Trumps but I shall continue (in the next article) with the divinatory meanings Waite suggests for the cards of the minor arcana, and will return to the symbolism of the Trump cards at a later time.

To be continued.