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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.

“Don’t Call Me Stupid”

From the time occultists started to write about the tarot, The Fool was given the significance of ‘foolishness’, however defined. For is it not logical to assume that a figure labeled ‘Fool’ and depicted as a vagrant in tatters being seen on his way by a neighborhood dog would represent mistaken choices, silly, even idiotic decisions? The design on the Waite-Smith card (which, let us remember, was an innovation back in 1910 when the deck came out, an innovation so novel that many wanted to know from whence the image derived) presents the Fool as a carefree youth, unconcerned that he is about to stride off the edge of a precipice as his attention is elsewhere. With change of image comes change of meaning; and sure enough, Waite’s picture of the Fool invokes in the tarot reader far kindlier thoughts and emotions than does the original image of a ragged beggar.

early Fool 1  early Fool 2  early Fool 3

The Waite-Smith deck didn’t really catch on in tarot circles until the late fifties/early sixties. Even then it took a while for it to become widely accepted. Right up to the start of the seventies, some manuals of tarot divination continued to cite the earlier interpretation of the unnumbered Trump.

What was this earlier interpretation? In what terms was ‘folly’ described by our predecessors in tarot lore? I have on record two gypsy meanings for the Fool from different sources. One is ‘Foolishness’ pure and simple. The other is ‘Aberration’, a term suggesting that the inquirer is going to do something totally out of character and not to his credit or his benefit – an act that can thus be categorized as foolish. Another interpretation is: “A thoughtless act may come back to haunt you.” These readings of the symbolism set the tone for the various interpretations of the idea of “folly” I am about to set before you.

It is debatable how old any of the gypsy meanings are. Some experts say that as late as the 1950s, gypsies didn’t make readings using the tarot at all. It might be worth noting, then, that Etteilla, writing in 1785 gave ‘Aberrations’ as one of the Fool’s meanings. The so-called gypsy meaning may actually have been adopted from Etteilla’s lexicon, some time in the nineteenth century or even later.

S.L. Mathers, in his short work The Tarot (1888), assigns the following meanings to the Fool card: Folly, Expiation, Wavering. Reversed: Hesitation, Instability, Trouble arising herefrom.

In The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus reports that the card signifies “Inconsiderate Action, Madness”. However, another translation of his text gives “Impulsive act, Folly”, in which we clearly hear echoes of the ‘Foolishness’ and ‘thoughtless act’ recorded above. In his Tarot of Divination, Papus is more succinct but the message is the same. He writes, simply, ‘Impulse, folly’. Later in the book he speaks of ‘Expiation’ in relation to the Fool, and is here following out the same line of thought as Mathers. What both authors mean is that, whatever it is that is about to befall the inquirer, it represents the expiation of some act she has committed in the past. Thoughtlessness and blind impulse inevitably give rise to failure in one department of life or another. Which accounts for the appearance of ‘Failure’ among the meanings put forward by The Church of Light and also by British occultist Frank Lind. The former gives the meanings as ‘Failure, Folly and Mistake’, the latter as ‘Extravagant idealism. Folly. Mistake. Failure. Excess – which is the general meaning of this card; and so it lays emphasis upon the rest of the cards [in the reading], particularly those in its vicinity.’ Lind has taken on board significances assigned the Fool by Charles Platt (Card Fortune Telling, c. 1921), who says the card “represents the extreme in anything and everything, but not in a good sense. Reversed: the total neglect of duties, negligence, carelessness, vanity.” (This is a paraphrase.)

fool 0 allternativefool 0 frenchmodern tdm 22t

Sepharial, when not following C.C. Zain of the Church of Light to the letter, gives the Fool the meanings: “Necessity, privation, ruin, egotism; selfishness; vanity, credulity, blind credulity; ignorance, blindness, error, conspicuous folly, insanity. Unrestrained passions. Inconsequence; danger; detachment, isolation.” In this, he covers all the bases, delineating almost every form folly may assume in everyday life (from privation and danger at the lower end of the scale to complete ruin at the upper) and every cause of folly – from the blind credulity that leads some to invest their savings in get-rich-quick schemes to the selfishness and egotism that leads other people to conclude that they know what is best under all circumstances and on that basis to reject every entreaty or morsel of good advice offered them no matter how well intentioned or supremely rational those entreaties or morsels of advice may be.

Almost the entire English-speaking portion of the tarot world now embraces an upbeat meaning for the Fool. It is taken as indicating: Fearlessness, courage, joy of life, a new beginning, hidden potential about to be revealed, a higher than usual level of intuition, and being in the right place at the right time

Against this background, I stick with the significance I was first taught for the card: Folly, pretty much as defined by Mathers and Papus above. Why have I chosen to go against the trend? Two reasons. Firstly, the interpretation fashioned in the second half of the twentieth century for the card is based primarily on the Waite-Smith image. Having spent time in a Golden Dawn-type esoteric school, I am aware that the G.D. allowed this Trump two interpretations, one positive, the other negative. It is the positive G.D. meaning that is applied most often to the Waite-Smith card today. In Book T, the G.D.’s tarot bible, this meaning is given as “Idea, thought, spirituality, that which endeavours to rise above the material.” The Fool’s negative side is said to manifest as “folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania, unless with very good cards indeed.” The constraint applied to the use of the positive meaning appears in Book T as: The card “is too ideal and unstable to be gen­erally good in material things.” The instruction in the school I trained in was that, unless the subject of a reading was purely spiritual (on the understanding that precious few reasons for reading the tarot are purely spiritual), the more negative meaning was the one most likely to apply.

Aleister Crowley, in The Book of Thoth, follows Book T almost to the letter: “In spiritual matters, [it] represents ideas, thoughts, spirituality, that which endeavors to transcend earth. In material matters [it] may show, if badly dignified, folly, eccentricity, even mania.” Similarly, Paul Foster Case, in his book The Tarot, lists the divinatory significance of the Fool as: “In spiritual matters: Originality, audacity, venturesome quest. In material affairs: Folly, eccentricity, inconsiderate action”. Both Case and Crowley received a G.D. training, and in respect of the Fool remain true to Order’s comprehension of the card.

My second reason for keeping to the older interpretation is that, by removing the concept of folly from the tarot we prevent the cards from giving us a rounded picture of the world we live in. We inhabit an era in which it is not politically correct to show disrespect to another person, and so a familiar cry of modern times is: “Don’t call me stupid!” Contrast this attitude with what you will hear blurted out every five minutes in the course of a typical car journey. “Idiot!” “Learn to drive, you moron!” And worse. There is a post on FaceBook that reappears every few weeks or so: “You can’t fix stupid.” Inconsiderate acts and foolish mistakes are alive and well in the twenty-first century and in my opinion it is as well not to exclude their appearance from our tarot readings. Especially when there is already a card to signify fearlessness and courage – Strength – and another to represent a higher than usual level of intuition – The High Priestess.

The duality expressed by the card, as well as the way opposing meanings are allocated in the Three Worlds, is conveyed by the Fool’s "Secret Titles”. At the highest level, the Divine World, the title is Radiatio meaning “radiation” or “to shine”. At the most basic level, that of the Material World, the title is Materia, “matter”. These attributions present the tarotist of an esoteric inclination with a paradox. Light shines; matter, considered esoterically, does not. Emission of light is a property of the sun and the stars; the Earth (matter) is illuminated by them, it does not itself radiate light. Esoterically, matter is often referred to as blind matter. Alchemically, it equates with the base metal lead. Light, on the other hand, is equated with gold. At one end of the Fool’s spectrum, we have lead, at the other gold. Alchemists believe there is an essential link between the two metals, and it is that link that would, under the right circumstances, permit lead to be transmuted into gold.

Between the Divine and Material Worlds there lies the Intellectual World, the world of mind and the imagination. In this world, the Fool’s Secret Title is Signum, “sign”. The sign generally associated with the card by occultists is called, in Latin, Furca, meaning a fork, and is typically represented as a capital Y. It represents a fork in a road. One path will lead the seeker to the radiant Divine World while the other leads to dark world of matter from whence she or he set out in the first place. One branch of esotericism places the Fool after the Judgment card and before The World, using this ordering of the Trumps to illustrate a parable. On reaching the interior experience marked by Trump 20, they say, the seeker’s soul is judged. If it is sufficiently developed in wisdom, compassion and understanding it passes on the state represented by The World, identified in this tradition with the Crown of the Magi. But if the seeker’s soul still contains impurities, it is returned to Earth and given another chance to climb the ladder of initiation.

The initiatory system is not a matter of receiving instructions in occult practice behind closed doors and having mystic titles bestowed on one. As one who knows has revealed: “The process of initiation is one of regeneration. It means developing our inmost essence, first to birth and then to full growth. This involves a rejection and mystical death of all the lower principles that obstruct your growth.” With each incarnation, the human soul starts this process over again from the beginning. Those who find their way to the path of initiation move forward by means of instruction and discipline; one is impotent without the other. It is by this blend of teaching and discipline that the schools of initiation purify and rectify the soul. The method is sometimes referred to as spiritual alchemy. Alchemy itself is known to the Wise as “the work of fire”, and in spiritual alchemy fire is applied to the soul so as to burn away impurities.

It the present age many profess a desire for initiation without understanding what they are asking for. Even in the twenty-first century, the old adage remains true: When the pupil is ready, the master appears. Often the complaint is made that true occult knowledge – which is instruction combined with activities based on the instruction – is reserved for a favored few, and kept under wraps by them. This is not entirely the case. The alchemist Artephius wrote that he had resolved to publish the whole truth of the alchemical method “sincerely and truly; so that men may have nothing more to desire concerning the work [i.e., the Great Work]. I except one thing only, which it is not lawful that I should write, because it can be revealed only truly by God, or by a master. Nevertheless, this likewise may be learned from this book, provided one be not stiff necked, and have a little experience.”

Artephius invokes qualities the Fool does not possess. The Fool is inexperienced and ignorant in the worst possible way because he depends for his knowledge on his own opinions, understandings, interpretations. Such a person cannot be taught and must endure incarnation after incarnation until he realizes that he cannot ascend the ladder of initiation unaided. This endless round is one of the meanings behind that arrangement of Major Arcana popular in certain schools of initiation where the Trumps are laid out in a circle, the unnumbered Fool between Trumps 21 and I, where he is at once the first and the last card.

22 aos     Arcane-Arcana-01-bateleur-magician

The circle is broken when the Fool grasps the significance of a Being greater than himself. On occasion the Fool is retitled The Foolish Man, bringing to mind the Bible verse: The foolish man says in his heart “There is no God”. Contrast that attitude with this remark about the great occult philosophers of old, Raymond Lully, Alain de l’Isle, John Trithemius, H.C. Agrippa, and others: “Faith was the beacon of light that led them on to conviction, by a free perspicuity of thought beyond things seen, to believe and hope truthfully, which is the distinguishing prerogative of all great minds.”

This insight comes from a school that imagines the Trumps in circular formation. In this arrangement the card is set on a knife’s edge, at the point at which faith dawns and the soul becomes truly aware of the realm “beyond things seen”. Esoterically speaking, the Fool is essentially a materialist. But the Juggler – the Magician, Trump 1 – is given the occult attribution Visible and Invisible (see card above). The Fool apprehends only the visible world; the Juggler recognizes both worlds, has access to both, can operate in both. The step from Fool to Juggler is the first step on the ladder of initiation.

The Place of the Fool in the Tarot

Due to the astonishing popularity of the Waite-Smith pack and the ubiquity of its images as reproduced in ‘tribute’ decks such as the Morgan-Greer and Fez Morocco tarots, modern understanding of the Fool in English-speaking countries is deeply-rooted in the portrait of a young man blithely striding toward a precipice, a satchel on a pole slung over his shoulder, a rose in one hand, a dog leaping playfully beside him. The card is numbered zero and its symbolism is interpreted as depicting the soul at the start of a great adventure. Stepping off the precipice is a metaphor for the soul’s descent into matter, the Trump emblemizing the beginning of the Fool’s Journey, a quest that will end when he reaches Trump 21, The World, symbol of attainment and completion.

The master tarotists of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries viewed the card through a lens composed of other distinctive symbols. The gaily caparisoned youth of the Waite-Smith and BOTA decks displaced an earlier image of more mature, bearded male, dressed in rags. In this picture, the dog is not capering beside the fool, it is attacking him from the rear and he is fleeing from its bite. The only factor the two representations have in common is the pack tied to a stick resting on the fool’s shoulder.

The foremost tarot experts prior to the twentieth-century relied upon the images from the Tarot de Marseille for their inspiration, believing them to be the most accurate representations of a fondly imagined, but mythical, ‘original tarot’. Whether they were mistaken or not in their belief need not detain us now. What is important, from the point of view of the history of tarot divination, is that those tarot savants took as their starting point the pictures on the Tarot de Marseille Trumps. Tarot de Marseille-style decks show the fool as bearded, his bundle at his back, in ragged clothes, pursued by a dog biting his hose, as in the examples that follow.

tdm fool z  ital qbl 22t  22 II

<beggar, vagrant>

Up to the time that Eliphas Levi took an interest in the tarot, occultists of every stripe placed the Fool at the end of the run of Trumps. In those days the Fool was unnumbered and thus stood out as something separate from the other Trumps. This led to a tendency to treat the Fool differently. A symbolic way of representing the whole deck was to project the minor arcana on to the four sides of square, one suit, fourteen cards, to each side. The numbered Trumps were project as the sides of a cards to each side. The Fool was designate by a dot at the center of the figure. The arrangement suggests that the tarot is made up of three parts – the minor arcana, the numbered cards of the major arcana, and the Fool. Instances where the Fool is treated as a special case can be found in A.E. Waite’s instructions of how the tarot should be read in The Manuel of Cartomancy and Occult Divination (first published under the pseudonym Grand Orient) and in Charles Williams’ occult novel The Greater Trumps.

glyph trt 2  glyph trt1

Both these figures depict the same energy, but each directs it in a different way.

The Fool placed at the end of the Trumps would have been Levi’s starting point. When he came to align the Trumps with A. Kircher’s interpretation of the Hebrew letters, he found that the unnumbered Trump and the significances assigned the last Hebrew letter were incompatible and he concluded that the Fool needed re-siting. By transposing the positions of The Fool and The World, Levi felt he had resolved the issue once and for all. Not wishing to disturb the Trumps’ traditional numerical order, Levi retained the number 21 for The World and the numberless state for the Fool.

Some who came after him altered the numbers too, making The Fool Trump 21 and The World Trump 22. <one papus deck, with the three levels at bottom – Divinatory Tarot>

Those who came after him had no such compunction. In 1936, a tarot was printed in Britain, designed by an artist under the joint influence of the French occultists Paul Christian and Eudes Piccard. Its Fool is numbered 21, its World 22.

mmTarot 22    mmTarot 21

The steps leading to this radical revision had been tentative at first. Once Levi had announced his opinion that the Fool ought to precede the World, supporters of both arrangements fought their respective corners with equal zeal and determination. Below are two examples of the World card from Tarot de Marseilles-type decks. Both images are identical but the Hebrew letter stamped in the bottom right-hand corner is, in the one case, Shin, the penultimate letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and in the other, Tau, the final Hebrew letter. The version with a Shin imprinted on it tells us that whoever is responsible for the creation of this deck considered the proper place for the World to be between Judgment and The Fool. The version with a Tau on it indicates that whoever is responsible for the creation of this deck saw the World as the final Trump, coming after the Fool.

21_monde_shin            21_monde-tau

The “correct” placement of the Fool was a matter of heated debate throughout the nineteenth century. Proponents of both hypotheses defended their stances with closely argued explanations which they themselves found entirely convincing while adherents of the opposing theory found them ludicrous. Then, around 1888, the Englishman, S.L. Mathers, came up with a revolutionary “solution” to the puzzle. He incorporated his discovery into the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric school of which he was a founder member. His solution remained a secret for decades although it became very much an open secret upon the publication of the Waite-Smith tarot deck in 1910.

In the book he wrote to accompany that deck, The Key to the Tarot (later published so as to include line drawings of the cards and retitled The Pictorial Key to the Tarot), A.E. Waite assiduously sites the Fool between Judgement and the World in his commentary on the deck. However, by numbering the card Zero he encourages anyone scrutinizing the deck to bring The Fool to stand ahead of Trump 1, The Magician. Waite also gave the number 11 to Justice, previously numbered 8, and the number 8 to Strength, previously numbered 11. The switching out of these two trumps was the second key factor in Mathers’ re-arrangement of the Trumps. He reasoned that, since the sign Leo (the lion) preceded Libra (the scales), it made sense to set Strength (whereon a lion is depicted) ahead of Justice (who carries a pair of scales). Once this simple adjustment is made, and the Fool promoted to being first of the Trumps, Mathers argued, all the other symbolism falls effortlessly into place. The Emperor, in his war-bonnet, comes to correspond to Aries; The Hermit, an anchorite, to Virgo, the reserved virgin; The Star, with its water-pouring woman, to Aquarius; the mysterious Moon to dreamy Pisces.

Some of the other correspondences were not so exact but the images of those cards were adjusted to accommodate their new attributions. Temperance, for instance, equates in Mathers’ system to Sagittarius. Nothing about the Tarot de Marseilles version of Temperance or any of the early depictions of the Trump suggests this but Mathers had a rainbow added to the Order’s depiction of the card, intending to depict a connection between the rainbow and the bow carried by Sagittarius, the archer. Waite omits the rainbow on the Waite-Smith card, substituting instead an iris. For those with a classical education, the flower will suggest the Greek deity Iris, goddess of the rainbow. Not that Trump 14 had been associated with the rainbow before Mathers’ had his epiphany. There are no rainbows on any early representations of Temperance. No rainbow appears on Trump 14 in the “Egyptian tarot”, 1896, or on the Knapp-Hall deck, 1929. Paul Foster Case follows the Golden Dawn tradition by putting a rainbow on his Temperance card (c. 1930) but, as most modern tarot designers take the Waite-Smith deck as their point of departure, one rarely sees a rainbow on Temperance in more recent decks, though the iris may still be in evidence.

As a result of Levi’s and Mathers’ changes to the ordering of the Trumps, today there are three major ways of situating The Fool in a tarot deck: At the end of the Trumps, treated almost as pendant to them; between Judgment and The World; and as the first of the Trumps.

What individual tarot masters concluded about the divinatory significance of the Fool can be ascertained by examination of the changes of symbolism they accepted for the card, including the number they assigned it. Paul Christian, attempting to restore the tarot to its presumed Egyptian roots, added a broken obelisk to the design. In Christian’s description, ahead of the fool, lurking behind the obelisk, is a crocodile. The received wisdom is that the crocodile is lying in wait and will devour the fool as he attempts to pass. Versions of this image can be seen in the deck Papus used to illustrate his Tarot of the Bohemians, the Oswald Wirth and Moni Sadhu tarots and the British tarot from 1936 already referred to. The first three of these cards can be found below. Note that, while all are unnumbered, two have the letter Shin printed on them.

PapusWirth22  Arcane-Arcana-22-mat-fool  mouni-00

The final example gives the Fool the number 21. In the same pack The World is numbered 22. Many of the French tarot masters situated the Fool between Judgement and The World without altering its number. The Knapp-Hall tarot, in a bid to be all things to all tarot students, labels The Fool 21/22 and The World 22/21.

T22 equal shin christian influence    T21 knapp-hall

In the Fool card above, its divinatory meanings are sketched out by the single words written at the top of the card, and at the bottom, upside down. They are Italian for Ignorance and Stupidity respectively, and they reflect the significance allotted to the card prior to S.L. Mathers’ epiphany moved it to the front of the Trumps.

Today, thanks to the imagery of the Waite-Smith card, the Fool is normally read as predicting positive-tending events. It is taken to indicate new beginnings, inexperience, “expect the unexpected”, beginner’s luck, spontaneity, a thirst for life, endless possibilities, a leap of faith, or a calculated risk. The negative connotations the card originally bore tend to be relegated to its reversed position. Then it is said to indicate naivety, poor judgement, lack of direction, folly, stupidity, and the chaos brought about by foolish or silly acts and decisions; though in almost all the modern tarot manuals I’ve consulted, the first three meanings are the ones promoted; folly and stupidity and the results thereof are downplayed or don’t appear on the list at all. More significantly, one of the key meanings of the Fool reversed under the old dispensation is ignored entirely, and that is ‘neurosis’ or ‘mental health problems’. The modern world is acutely aware of both conditions and yet they have been removed from the tarot lexicon. This situation will be examined more closely in the second part of this discussion which will center on The Fool’s predictive meaning.