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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Waite’s Key to the Tarot, part 2

Errors Galore

The Key to the Tarot contains many typographical errors as well as some mistakes that are the equivalent of the verbal slip of the tongue. It is as well that they are cleared up so that they don’t become stumbling blocks to the readers’ understanding.

On page 32, the sun is called the Dog Star, a misprint for Day Star, a term indicating the solar orb very much to the taste of Golden Dawn members. One splinter group made a point of going through all the Order’s rituals and substituting ‘Day Star’ for the original ‘Sun’!

While talking of Trump 8 (Strength in the Waite-Smith deck), Waite says that the symbol over the head of the woman is also seen on the Hierophant card. (p. 74.) As all students of tarot know, it is the Magician, who, in Waite’s pack, has a sign above his head similar to that hovering over the woman representing the virtue Strength. The error remained uncorrected in the 1993 reprint of the Key!

On page 80, the Trump depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is designated the fifth card; it is, in fact, Trump 6, The Lovers.

The text speaks of “dregs and less” on page 137. The expression is “dregs and lees”.

Perhaps the most misleading error is not a simple typo but is made by Waite himself. Commenting on Mathers’ pamphlet on the tarot (1888), Waite makes a correspondence between the Trumps and certain keywords employed by Mathers. (Pages 57 & 58.) Waite’s account is incorrect. He mis-attributes by one all the keywords he names. Thus Trump No. 1 is Will, according to Mathers, Trump 2 is Science, Trump 3 is Action, Trump 4 is Realization, Trump 5 Goodness and Mercy. Yet Waite informs his readers that the human will being “enlightened by science, represented by the Magician, its manifestation by action – a significance attributed to the High Priestess – its realisation (the Empress) in deeds of mercy and good works, which qualities were allocated to the Emperor. . .” and so on. Has Waite mismatched the qualities deliberately, to put readers off the scent? It seems so obviously a mistake to anyone at all familiar with the tarot as a means of divination that perceptive students can correct the error in their heads as they read; and nobody but the rawest tarot rooky will be wrong-footed by Waite’s inaccurate elucidation. It is so obvious an error that one questions how Waite came to make it in the first place, as well as wondering why it has been allowed to stand for a hundred years without being either corrected or commented upon by the publisher.

The Key in Outline

We might start a deeper investigation of the book’s content by looking at its layout, for this will tell us much about Waite’s perception of the tarot as an oracle and as a book of wisdom. Part One begins with a short introduction to the deck, though it is not until the final paragraph that Waite describes the tarot as a physical object, the Greater Arcana of twenty-two cards and the Lesser Arcana with its fifty-six cards. In the following chapter, he supplies a compilation of the various names under which the Trumps are known; and, starting with the Empress, he describes details of the cards’ designs, explaining, to give but one instance, that Trump 17 shows one large star with seven smaller stars grouped around it, a naked female figure kneeling below them, “her left knee upon the earth and her right foot upon the water”.

In the next section, he devotes a single paragraph to the suits of the minor arcana before embarking on a new chapter covering the history of the tarot – the same account for which I have already commended him. He is substantially correct in everything he says concerning the tarot’s physical history considering the time at which he was writing. We know more about the tarot’s history now but even so Waite is exceptionally clear-eyed in his account, penned in an era when his contemporaries continued to voice the opinion that the deck carried in its symbolism and form all the data once contained in the legendary Book of Thoth.

These preliminaries out of the way, he is now ready to open Part Two of his exposition. So far as Waite is concerned, this contains the mystical soul of tarot, and he names the opening chapter of Part Two accordingly: ‘The Doctrine Behind the Veil’. Here, he covers, among other things, the distinction, as he sees it, between the Major and Minor Arcanas. The latter is only useful for divinatory purposes, he tells us, while the Major Arcana has another, superior use. This “other use” he explores in the next chapter, ‘The Major Trumps’, wherein the designs of the Waite-Smith cards are described along with some account of their individual symbolisms. He tells the reader, regarding the card The Hanged Man, that “the figure – from the position of the legs – forms a fylfot cross.” He does not explain what a fylfot cross is (it’s a swastika); nor does he explain the relevance of this information either in a general sense or in relation to the symbolism of Trump 12. This is typical of his approach throughout, not only concerning this chapter, but the entire book.

Part Three opens with a chapter entitled ‘The Outer Method of the Oracles’. For Waite, what is outer is exoteric and profane and what is inner is esoteric and sacred. By ‘the oracles’ he means divination. (Much of the time, one needs a PhD in the English language in order to understand what Waite is saying.) We are a little over half way through the book and he is at last willing to talk about how a person may divine using the tarot cards. Strikingly, he begins his exposition with the minor arcana; for, let us remember, Waite has already expressed the opinion that the minor arcana have no other occult use than divination. Only after that does he give divinatory meanings for the Trumps, and rounds off the section by listing further alternative meanings for the cards of the minor arcana.

These alternative meanings are significances so at odds with those he has recorded earlier in the book that he could not included them at that point in the text without totally and utterly bewildering the reader. For example, he tells us that some authority or other has assigned the 3 of Cups the meaning “unexpected advancement of a military man”.cups 3swords09

There being no way of incorporating this idea pictorially into the image on the card, he has held back the information until the present chapter. Similarly, the 9 of Swords, he explains, has in some quarters the meaning “An ecclesiastic, a priest”. But this information cannot successfully be encoded into the symbolism found on the Waite-Smith version of the card; to add a priest to the illustration would cause the picture to take on the suggestion of a person receiving the last rights, but that would shift the implications away from the Golden Dawn meaning of the card (which Waite appears to accept). In the G.D. system, the 9 of Swords had the title Lord of Despair and Cruelty. It is held to represent misery, suffering, want, loss and anxiety; also malice, cruelty, pain and illness – but not death. Although Waite sets ‘death’ at the head of the list of meanings he supplies to readers of the Key, the image doesn’t suggest it. It better suggests illness, misery, anxiety – indeed, all the conditions on the G.D. list. In order not to break his oaths of secrecy, Waite does not quote from any G.D. documents; the only word in common between the meanings in the Key and the G.D.’s account of the 9 of Swords is ‘despair’. Rather than break his oath, in the Key, Waite quotes from other authorities. As a result, the picture on the card often doesn’t fit one or other of the significances Waite names in any way at all, or is a bad fit, as occurs here with the attribution ‘death’ to the image of person in despair but showing no sign of expiring in the foreseeable future. ‘Death’ would be a more likely meaning if there were a priest in the picture. Waite won’t allow this, however, and reserves the meaning (first found in Etteilla, 1785) “an ecclesiastic, a priest” until the tail end of his account of the cards’ divinatory meanings.

The same goes for all the alternative significances found in this section of the book, from “unfavourable issue of a law suit” for the 6 of Swords to the “generally favourable; a happy marriage” of the 5 of Cups. Compare these meanings with the pictures on the cards and the meanings given by Waite in the relevant sections of the text. They are thoroughly out of step, one with the other.

swords06 tarot-cups-05

To end this section, Waite describes the significance of groupings of cards, situations where all four Aces appear in a reading, or all four Kings, or three Queens, or two Fours and such like. This was common practice at the time; the G.D.’s major Paper on the tarot, Book T, gives significances of this kind, though they are not, of course, those presented by Waite in the Key.

The final pages of the Key are given over to ‘The Art of Tarot Divination’. Waite first describes the now ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread and then a layout popularized by the French cartomancer Julia Orsini; finally he describes a method employing only thirty-five cards. Waite’s approach to tarot is the opposite of that found today, where the meanings of the individual cards are set forth early on and their use in spreads is the next thing to be explored, with the occult or spiritual implications of the cards being discussed last, if they are discussed at all.

The way information is ordered in the Key, clearly signals Waite’s priorities: First in importance is the spiritual or mystical side of the Trumps. Of secondary consideration are the divinatory meanings of the cards. And last of all he gives instructions on divination by means of the tarot.

On pages 15 and 16, Waite expresses the opinion that the wrong symbolic stories have been told concerning the tarot. It is hard to work out what he means by this. He goes on to say that the wrong history of the tarot has been given in every published work which so far has dealt with the subject, so the “symbolic stories” to which he refers evidently don’t include the tarot’s real or imagined history. I could guess at his meaning but it would only be a guess, not even an educated guess, and under such circumstances I prefer not to speculate.

Still with “symbolic stories” in mind, he goes on to observe that “[i]t has been intimated by two or three writers that, at least in respect of the meanings, this is unavoidably the case.” But he is now talking of “meanings”; so, is the reader to equate those with the “symbolic stories” he was discussing in the sentence immediately previous to this? He next gives it as his opinion that it is unavoidable that the true “meanings” of the cards remain to all intents and purposes secret “because few are acquainted with them, while those few hold [them] by transmission under pledges, and cannot betray their trust.” This sounds as though he has the cards’ correspondences in mind rather than their divinatory meanings. True, Waite has his own Christian-leaning interpretations of the Trumps (available in his Manual of Cartomancy) but they are not so very far from those found in fortune-telling books of his own age – whether Mathers’ The Tarot or Charles Platt’s Art of Card Fortune Telling – nor are they markedly different to those given in current instruction manuals of tarot reading. The one area that was considered a great secret in Waite’s day was that pertaining to the astrological correspondences assigned the cards. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, every authority on the tarot, it seemed, had his own set of correspondences. None was considered entirely satisfactory, however, and a theory developed that the ‘true’ attributions had been kept secret for generations, only passed on to spiritual seekers with clean hands and pure hearts, none of whom were empowered to reveal them to the general public. On pages 15 to 16, Waite hints broadly that he knows the secret correspondences, though naturally he cannot disclose it because he is “under pledges”.

As Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett tell us in A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970 (Duckworth, 2002): –

“Though Waite recognised that the Tarot could not be kept a secret, he could not bring himself to believe that there remained no secret knowledge to which he himself, with a very restricted circle of others, was privy. This divided frame of mind accounts for the deep ambivalence perceptible in his book.” page 135.

“He twice declares in the Key that there is a secret tradition concerning the Tarot, implying that he is privy to it. He seems out to mystify rather than to enlighten, darkly alluding to esoteric knowledge that he may not, and other cannot, communicate.” page 136.

These are opinions with which I totally concur. Waite’s tendency to mystify his readers mars the book, as does his method of presenting the cards’ divinatory meanings. That will be the subject of the next part of my examination of The Key to the Tarot.

To be continued.

Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, Part 1

In this short series, I intend taking a closer look at A.E. Waite’s The Key to the Tarot, a companion piece to the Waite-Smith deck. Insofar as its text is substantially the same, my observations will apply equally to The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, this book being little more than The Key to the Tarot illustrated with Pamela Colman Smith’s drawings of the cards.

key waite greeneI shall be quoting from The Key to the Tarot, Revised and Updated Version by A.E. Waite, with a ‘Foreword’ by Liz Greene, published by Rider in 1993, and it is to that edition of the book that my page numbers refer. I have chosen to work from this version of The Key for two reasons. First, its publication date is sufficiently distant from the time of Waite’s death for readers to have an expectation that minor errors will have been corrected. Second, versions bearing Ms Greene’s name are sometimes advertised in such a way that it appears as though the entire book is a collaboration between Mr Waite and Ms Greene. Only the other day, I saw a complaint on an Amazon page written by someone who had expected more input from Ms Greene than a ‘Foreword’.

While Ms Greene’s name may be draw to many, her thoughts on the tarot are in some respects a world away from Waite’s, and her ‘Foreword’, while informative about the way the tarot is perceived as a divinatory tool at the time Ms Greene was writing, regularly exhibits a disconnect with Waite’s statements in The Key. Ms Greene’s comments are made with no reference to Waite’s very different conception of the tarot, meaning that newcomers to the book will possibly be expecting Waite’s approach to the subject to line up with hers, and they may be disappointed, and somewhat surprised, to discover that it doesn’t.

Liz Greene’s ‘Foreword’

“The Fool who begins the cycle of the Major Arcana . . .”

p. 9.

So says Ms Greene. Waite, on the other hand, continually sites the Fool between Judgement (Trump 20) and The World (Trump 21). Ms Greene does not explain the discrepancy between her view and Waite’s. She might have justified her position by pointing out that the Trump has a Zero on it, but she doesn’t. She might at the very least have commented on Waite’s placement of the card, since it is at odds with her own, but she doesn’t do that either.

Waite’s own system of ordering the Trumps in the Key is, as I have observed, to place the zero card between Trumps 20 and 21, something he does time and time again. Ms Greene could have explained this seemingly bizarre positioning of the Fool, since it has perplexed generations of tarot students. As it is, she says nothing whatever about either the numbering of the card or the way Waite positions it. What lies behind her decision to maintain silence regarding the anomaly is surely the fact that, by the time her foreword was written, the Fool’s place as the first of the 22 Trumps was almost universally accepted across the English-speaking world.

Also, Ms Greene gives no space to the idea that the Trump entitled The Fool signifies “folly, mania, delirium, frenzy, bewrayment, intoxication and extravagance”, despite the fact that Waite, in his text, specifically assigns it these qualities in divination and no others.

“Whether he is portrayed as a mediaeval youth, a fifteenth-century court jester, the god Dionysos, or a modern adolescent, the Fool – and all the other seventy-seven cards which accompany him – is alive and well in every one of us, offering us insight and guidance at each stage of our own individual journey through life.”

p. 13.

Here Ms Greene surely assumes that all the alternatives she itemizes co-relate more or less completely. The unshaven beggar, pursued by a dog, which she omits from her list, does not so easily coordinate with the other images presented there, yet he is also The Fool – and it is an image of The Fool more aligned to Waite’s stated divinatory meanings (see above) into the bargain.

The Psychological Tarot

“If we understand the images of the Tarot cards psychologically, the oft-debated issue of divination becomes a subtler and deeper dynamic. If it is the inner human being which is depicted by the cards, then it is the inner or psychological circumstances which are reflected in the patterns shown by a spread. . . . Because all the cards – Major and Minor Arcana included – describe stages of the human journey on various levels, they have a tendency to reflect the internal stage we have reached at the time we examine the cards.”

pp. 10-11.

These are statements typical of the “psychological” approach to Tarot readings. Ms Green says that the psychological patterns “may or may not” be translated into outer life. This is truer of future indications than of past ones. Which is as it should be since divination enables us to reconfigure or at least to adjust our futures. What, however, does ‘the “psychological” view’ have to say about the way the past is depicted in a tarot reading? Is it a presentation as how “the inner human being” views or remembers it? Or is it a record of things as they actually were? In the latter case, that part of the reading would not be purely psychological. Indeed, it may not be psychological at all; it may be merely an accurate record of events in the order in which they occurred. Ms Greene has nothing to say on this point.

The Foreword in Perspective

I would suggest to anyone purchasing The Key to the Tarot as a result of reading my articles on the subject that they concentrate first on Waite’s words and only then to turn to Ms Green’s ‘Foreword’. In doing so, the disconnect I have pointed out between Waite’s opinion of the tarot and Ms Green’s will become patently apparent.

Waite’s Text

Passing on to the body of Waite’s book, it would help us to take our bearings were we to understand the author’s view of the cards, what meaning he considered they possessed and what their legitimate uses were. My first question, therefore, is: What does Waite himself believe about the Tarot?

“On the highest plane it [the Tarot] offers a key to the mysteries, in a manner which is not arbitrary and has not been read in.”

p. 15

So far as I can ascertain, Waite believed this to be true. He leans towards this view of the tarot and away from its employment in “vulgar” fortune telling. On page 42 of the 1911 edition of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, he states, “I hate the profanum vulgus of divinatory devices.” He saw the spiritual meanings of the cards primarily as subjects for meditation and appears to have had little or no time for the tarot as a divinatory tool, despite devoting page after page of the Key to the divinatory significances of all 78 cards.

On the subject of what the tarot means to him, Waite goes on to assert

“that a secret tradition exists regarding the Tarot”

p. 16

Apparently, Waite also held this to be true. He may be referring to the Golden Dawn tradition or to one he had invented himself (or that he had come across in the course of his researches, or had had revealed to him). He is so closed-mouthed on the subject that it is impossible to divine which of these alternatives is the correct one.

He changes the positions and the numbers of Justice and Strength as the Golden Dawn did, and he supplies the Fool, left unnumbered in traditional tarot decks, with the cypher zero, again in accordance with the Golden Dawn’s tarot manual, Book T. But he does not place the Fool before the Magician, as Book T does; he sites it between Judgment and the World after the manner of Levi, Papus and other authorities of the French school of tarot.

Anyone in possession of a Waite-Smith deck would be inclined to arrange the Trumps in numerical order starting with zero. Waite confounds this idea by, time and time again in the Key, placing the Fool after Judgment, refusing to explain why he does so. This is typical of the unhelpful attitude that permeates the Key. Waite has a tendency to create mysteries and then vanish, smiling broadly, in the manner of the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Waite on the History of the Tarot:

“We shall see in due course that the history of Tarot cards is largely of a negative kind, and then when the issues are cleared, there is in fact no history [of the Tarot] prior to the fourteenth century. The deception and self-deception regarding their origin in Egypt, India or China put a lying spirit into the mouths of the first expositors, and the later occult writers have done little more than reproduce the first false testimony in the good faith of an intelligence unawakened to the issues of research.”

p. 18

Obviously Waite has no time for those early commentators who fondly imagined that the Tarot first saw the light of day in the temples of ancient Egypt. Court de Gébelin speculated on the name, Tarot, presuming that it was a combination of two Egyptian words, tar (road) and rho (royal), a derivation that, had it been correct, would have marked the deck out as a royal road to initiation and adpethood. Although there are no such words in ancient Egyptian, S.L. Mathers repeated de Gébelin’s wild surmise in his short 1888 treatise on the Tarot. It surfaces sometimes even today.

Paul Christian, a one-time pupil of Eliphas Levi, fantasized about a hidden temple, yet to be discovered, under the desert sands built by the Egyptian priesthood as the arena for their initiation ceremonies. Around the four walls of this structure were distributed the images of the tarot trumps, Christian says. During the course of initiation, the candidate had the meaning of these images explained to him. A beautiful parable, maybe, but there is not an iota of evidence for it. It is this over-romanticized conception of the tarot cards that Waite objects to in the quote above where he protests against “[t]he deception and self-deception regarding their origin in Egypt, India or China”.

His assertion that “there is in fact no history [of the Tarot] prior to the fourteenth century” remains true to this day, though few in the occult community believed it at the time Waite was writing. Actually, he gives a rather good history of the Tarot on pages 38 to 51, one surprisingly balanced and accurate for the era.

That, unfortunately, will probably be the one and only time I praise A.E. Waite for anything he has written in The Key to the Tarot. The book seems to me to fail in the objective of supplying its readers with an understanding of the cards from the perspective of divination; and when he addresses the mystical aspect of the tarot, in which he was genuinely interested, Waite assumes a deliberately obscurantist posture that leaves readers no wiser than they were before. After making great claims for the cards when they are employed in a mystical context, he then shuts up like a clam, and a rather self-satisfied clam at that.

I will have more to say concerning both failings in subsequent parts of this article.

To be continued.

Minor Arcana–Divinatory Meanings

The vast majority of the divinatory meanings ascribed to the cards of the Major Arcana found in the earliest publications concerning the tarot have stood the test of time. Only a very few have undergone a drastic overhaul. The qualities each Trump symbolizes have been almost universally accepted because the parallels between the image on the card and the qualities allocated to it are so blindingly obvious. The symbolism of the card Justice suggests a law suit, and that of the card Death, the end of something; the Hermit, since he is a sage, specifies wisdom (sagacity), and so on for each of the twenty-two Trumps. Until relatively recently, the logic behind these associations safeguarded them from ill-informed tampering. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the meanings dispensed to the cards of the Minor Arcana.

r-w-JUSTICE            image

The tarot masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to focus their attention on the Trump cards at the expense of the minors. Oswald Wirth designed an impressive tarot deck, but it consisted only of the 22 Major Arcana. The original “Egyptian” tarot (the brainchild of two nineteenth-century Frenchmen) likewise was limited to the 22 Trumps. This imbalance of explanation left a vacuum that had still not been adequately filled when A.E. Waite published his Key to the Tarot in 1910 (expanded into The Pictorial Key to the Tarot in 1911). Over the decades, various attempts to fill the void found their supporters. However, no one method attained widespread popularity, and there was certainly never one set of meanings that looked remotely as though it would gain ascendancy over all others.

Some tarotmancers adopted the meanings for the Minor Arcana put forward by Etteilla (A way to entertain oneself with the pack of cards called Tarots, 1785), even though most occultists branded him a fraud and an esoteric carpetbagger. Papus presented his own ideas for interpreting the Minor Arcana in his The Tarot of the Bohemians (1889). Yet when he came to write The Divinatory Tarot (1909), he returned to Etteilla’s meanings for those cards. In England, Charles Platt’s meanings built up a decent following (The Art of Card Fortune Telling, 1921). S.L. Mathers had published a set of meanings for the Minor Arcana in 1888 (The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc.) based on Etteilla’s, though with a few alterations; these meanings, too, acquired adherents.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, cartomancy by means of playing cards was popular in the British Isles while the tarot pack was practically unknown. It was only those who had an active interest in the occult – here signifying something beyond the fortune-telling aspects of palmistry, astrology and crystal gazing – who had heard of it. In the late nineteen fifties, no one in my social circle knew what a tarot deck looked like, though a handful had come across the name. At that date, the situation in the United Kingdom regarding the Minor Arcana, among those who were familiar with the tarot, was much as it had been in Waite’s day – which is to say, confused. In some ways the situation was more confused since other methods of interpreting the minors had come into play since 1910, when the Waite-Smith deck was first published: the Brotherhood of Light’s meanings, Richard Huson’s (similar in many ways to those gathered together by Charles Platt); there was Frank Lind’s method, and also the Golden Dawn’s interpretations of the minors, made available through the writings of Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley. Confusion flourished because the more recent additions tended neither to agree with one another nor with those interpretations already in circulation. To make matters more impenetrable still, methods loosely based on Pythagorean numerology, as often as not imported from playing card fortune-telling, had gained a foothold, too.

The rise in popularity of the Waite-Smith deck, where scenic images appear on all seventy-eight cards, changed all that. Sometimes, tarot packs of the Waite-Smith stamp are termed “fully illustrated” decks. It is these scenic images that fueled a new development in tarot reading, which I shall come to in a moment.

In the late nineteen sixties, interest in all things occult, from astrology columns in daily newspapers and monthly periodicals, to radiesthesia and astral projection, was growing in the public’s mind. The tarot was part of this blossoming of interest in matters esoteric. Tarots had been hard to come by in the Britain of the nineteen fifties, but a growing demand stimulated supply.

If tarots of the Tarot de Marseille type were available in the UK in the fifties and sixties, I never came across them. Virtually the only deck one could lay hands on in post war Britain was the Waite-Smith tarot, or a de Laurence rip-off imported from the States. For several years after I was introduced to the tarot, I assumed that all tarot cards were illustrated with scenes like those on the Waite-Smith cards; that is how pervasive a presence the Waite-Smith tarot was in those days.

As the second half of the twentieth-century wore on, it became normal practice to pentacles 5interpret the Waite-Smith illustrations rather than to assign meanings to the Minor Arcana that may or may not have been in agreement with the image on the card. Adhering to this formula, the picture on the Waite-Smith 5 of Pentacles, depicting two unfortunates battling their way through a snow storm, would be interpreted as symbolizing poverty, loss of money, or financial difficulties. The 2 of Cups, whereon a young couple toast each other with golden chalices, was seen as an image of mutual love. Having pictures on the spot cards made learning their meanings easier. At the same time, however, the pictures direct the meanings. Someone attempting to memorize the significances given in C.C. Zain’s Sacred Tarot, which do not line up with the symbolism of the Waite-Smith spot cards, would be constantly wrong-footed by the Waite-Smith illustrations.

The go-with-the-flow approach is to relinquish all attempts to commit to memory meanings that do not concur with the illustrations, and many tarot students adopted that attitude. So many people came to rely on the Waite-Smith illustrations to indicate what the spot cards portended that, by the end of the twentieth century, meanings dependent on those illustrations were all but standard, at least throughout the English-speaking world. Gradually, voices began speaking up for what we might call “traditional meanings”, until at the time of writing there are books available such as Caitlin Matthews’ Untold Tarot, which is a compendium of lore and techniques applicable to non-fully-illustrated decks. The wheel has almost turned full circle, for it looks as though we are on our way to the return of the broad spread of any number of different methods of tarot interpretation that held sway in Waite’s day.

Inevitably, this raises the question: Is one method of reading the tarot intrinsically superior to any other? I would say not. I base my opinion on personal experience and my observation of tarot readers at work over a fifty-year period. I, myself, have learnt three quite distinct approaches to interpretation of the spot cards. All of them achieved results. I moved from one approach to the next from necessity, not because I found any particular method ineffective. That is what happened when I entered a Golden-Dawn-type mystery school. I accepted an invitation to become a member of the Order and was then trained in its Qabalistic method of interpreting the spot cards, even though this meant I had to abandon the meanings I had learnt previously. In order to progress within the Order, it was expedient that I embrace its teaching on the tarot along with everything else it was giving me instruction in.

I’ve known people who read the tarot successfully using all manner of meanings. Thinking the matter over in the nineteen-nineties, I decided that there were no “true” attributions; that it made no odds which of the sets of meanings was employed. What did make a difference, it seemed, was the type of deck the reader worked with. Once a person had moved away from meanings dependent on the pictures on the Waite-Smith suit cards, that deck became more of a hindrance than a help. Somebody convinced that the suit of Swords is under the rulership of the Fire Element will find the symbolism of the Waite-Smith Swords court cards jarring because it revolves around the Element of Air. The Queen of Swords wears a cloak embroidered with a pattern of clouds, butterflies and the head of a winged cherub are carved on the side of her throne, while a bird soars overhead. The airy symbolism of clouds, butterflies and birds is picked up, too, on the cards of the Knight and King of Swords. At the same time, the Waite-Smith Wand court cards are imbued with fiery symbolism. All of this is a distraction to the tarot reader who associates Wands with Air and Swords with Fire.

swords queen   swords king   swords knight

Similar distractions arise when the reader has a sincere belief that, let us say, the number 5 possesses affirmative connotations. In the Waite-Smith pack, the brawling youths on the 5 of Wands, the figure mourning the tipping over of three chalices on the 5 of Cups, the beggars hurrying through the snow on the 5 of Pence, and even the aftermath of battle, with a man collecting up discarded weapons, shown on the 5 of Swords, are not easily capable of positive interpretation. The images pull in the opposite direction to the significances the reader is attempting to bring to mind. Even if they distract only a little, it would be better that the obstruction be removed. Today, many readers are doing exactly that by putting aside the Waite-Smith images in favor of one or other of the Tarot de Marseille-type decks so as to have no distraction when attempting to interpret the Minor Arcana cards.

wands 5  swords05  tarot-cups-05

The answer to the question “Why has there never been a broad agreement on the meanings of the Minor Arcana cards?” is simple. There is no tradition behind them such as lies behind those of the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana come to Europe from Arab nations where different symbols were employed: the Swords were curved scimitars, and the suit we call Wands or Rods were polo mallets. The Minor Arcana arrived in Europe bearing much the same form that modern playing card decks have. The Major Arcana were grafted on to it, though nobody can say for certain why this new pack – that we now call ‘the tarot’ – was created.

Early attempts at assigning meanings to the suits do not concern themselves with the Elements, whereas modern introductions to the tarot often fixate on the correspondence between the suits and the Elements the moment the Minor Arcana comes under discussion. In the mid-sixteenth-century (that is to say approximately one hundred years later than the earliest tarots still in existence), one author aligns the four Tarot suits with what he terms the four “goals of human life” – riches, arms, literature and pleasure. The correspondences are self-evident: Riches refers to the suit of Coins (that being its name long before anyone thought of calling it Pentacles); the bearing of Arms refers to Swords; and, of the two suits left, Cups must be pleasure – love, fornication, time spent with friends or loved ones – leaving literature to the suit of Wands or Rods.

Another set of correspondences, later taken up by Etteilla, imagined a link between the four suits and the renaissance class system. In this interpretation, Swords are equated with the nobility – i.e.,all those who are allowed to bear arms (not everyone was); Cups symbolize the priesthood (the chalice holding the blood of Christ offered by the priest to communicants during the Mass); Pence/Coins the merchants; and Wands or Staves the farmers. These designations had a small but noticeable effect on some sets of meanings. Because Wands/Rods were associated with farming and the countryside, the King of Rods often had bestowed upon it the interpretation “a man living in the country”, and the Queen, similarly, “a woman who enjoys country life”. Occasionally, the effect reached as far as the spot cards, with the 8 of Wands at times regarded as predicting “a trip to the country”.

Despite the assertion by occultists of today that the deck was explicitly designed along Qabalistic lines, the spot cards, ace to 10, were not initially associated with the ten spheres of the Tree of Life. This, again, is a correspondence all modern books covering the esoteric aspect of the tarot tend to make much of. It does not, however, appear to have been adopted by tarot commentators of the eighteenth century and didn’t gain credence in the nineteenth century until Eliphas Levi advocated the idea in his books on magick.

That strange publication Practical Astrology (1901) (which, despite its title, contains a good deal of information about the tarot) aligns the spot cards with the first ten numbered Trumps, an approach later adopted by C.C. Zain in his Sacred Tarot (1936) and which can still be encountered from time to time in books on tarot published today. According to this practice, the four aces are deemed to have qualities identical to some, at least, of those attributed to the Bateleur/Juggler. The four twos, likewise, are thought to share qualities identical with certain traits assigned to The High Priestess, and so on down to the four tens, which are considered as reflecting the qualities of The Wheel of Fortune. Vestiges of this practice can be found in those sets of meanings that make the 10 of Pentacles signify alternate financial loss and gain; Frank Lind and C.C. Zain being two authors who accept this as a meaning for the card.

Papus’s The Tarot of the Bohemians is crammed full of recondite Qabalistic data concerning such things as the Four Lettered Name of God and the correspondences between the Hebrew letters and the twenty-two Trumps. When he turns his attention to the spot cards, however, he does not align them with the spheres of the Tree of Life. Papus’s tortured language when describing his system for assigning meanings to the spot cards has befuddled many a tarot student for the past century and more. To anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of his method, I recommend Fred Gettings’ The Tarot: How to Read the Future where there is a chapter devoted to it (though Mr Gettings does not say where the interpretations he describes originated). Mr Gettings (an accomplished occultist) possesses a thorough grasp of Papus’s method and explains it more clearly than Papus himself managed to do in his chef-d’oeuvre, The Tarot of the Bohemians.

To sum up, Papus has his interpretations for the spot cards, Etteilla has his; Charles Platt has another set; and there are those who align the spots with the first ten numbered Trump cards. Into this quagmire of conflicting information stepped A.E. Waite when he came to write his Key to the Tarot. As a consequence, the wands 10descriptions of the meanings for the spot cards Waite records in that book are often chaotic and confusing to the reader. Of the 10 of Wands he writes that one tarotmancer invests it with the significance of “honour and good faith” before continuing: “it is also fortune, gain and any kind of success of these things. It is also a card of false-seeming, disguise, perfidy.” Later in the book, he records it as having, in some quarters, the significance “[d]ifficulties and contradictions, if near a good card.” To this hodge-podge of ideas he attaches his own meaning, or rather the meaning he had absorbed whilst a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Order gave the 10 of Wands the title “Lord of Oppression”, and Waite dutifully records, “It is oppression simply”. Accordingly, the image on the Waite-Smith version of the card is that of “[a] man oppressed by the weight of the ten staves which he is carrying.”

For several decades, I have marveled at the popularity of The Key to the Tarot and its illustrated companion, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. The text always struck me as not fit for purpose. Waite has a tendency to make assertions about the tarot or about its symbolism but refuse to back up his claims. He will say that he himself is satisfied with the truth of his statement but go no further than that. When it comes to the divinatory meanings of the Minor Arcana, Waite simply lists a miscellany of interpretations drawn from any number of sources, whether they are in agreement or not. I have given an example of his method in the paragraph above on the 10 of Wands. The result is that the novice tarot reader has no clear guidance from Mr Waite as to what the minors signify. One would do better to base one’s interpretations on the images on the cards – which is what most newcomers to the tarot have been doing for the past one hundred years.

A publicity blurb for Key to the Tarot reads: “The symbolism of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is based on profound occult studies by Waite, and his exposition in this book of its use and meaning is unexcelled. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the Tarot.” I could not disagree more. My opinion of the book closely resembles that displayed in a review posted on the Amazon website: “I find this book useless apart from information about what the various contained symbols depict. At best it is rambling and incoherent (left brain), at worst it is misleading. There is a suggestion that he deliberately "veiled" his secrets. I think he was just a poor analyst.” And yet the book has never been out of print since it first saw the light of day in 1910! I surmise that in every generation, students who have acquired a Waite-Smith tarot pack have turned to The Key to the Tarot hoping to find instruction there, and that this desire for guidance accounts for the book’s apparent popularity. But how popular is it? How many people, having bought it and read it, have actually found it useful when attempting to interpret a tarot spread using the meanings Waite supplies? And yet it is not entirely without worth.

Waite has an unfortunate way with words, being inclined to set aside a one syllable word wherever English has a three syllable synonym for it that he can replace it with. When writing about The Fool, he gives one meaning for the card as ‘bewrayment’. My teenage self went through every dictionary in the house looking for the word. (This is circa 1960, when dictionaries took the form of books – imagine that!) I couldn’t find it. Eventually I consulted an eight-part Oxford English Dictionary at the local library and discovered that it meant “betrayal or to be exposed”, whether to criticism or as a fraud wasn’t made clear. As an aside, let me remark that my 2018 spellchecker doesn’t recognize bewrayment either!

But there are some valuable comments in The Key to the Tarot as well as some diktats that, though we now know them to be false, were widely accepted by the best minds studying tarot in the early years of the twentieth-century. By an odd turn of fate, probably fueled by a never-ending supply of human perversity, the valuable comments have been ignored by most readers and the errors of fact fastened upon as key examples of Waite’s brilliant scholarship. The book could benefit from a being given a good dusting-down, the obscure passages explained, the errors and shortcomings exposed. As no one has taken up this task, I intend to pass on fa ew observations of my own in my next post.