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Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, part 2

March 2, 2013

Another way in which Waite is unhelpful is this. He most often informs his readers which aspects of symbolism are invalid without stating what the valid symbolism is. On the rare occasion when he does confirm a piece of symbolism he adds a dismissive rider, such as the following, from page 25: “These interpretations may be true after their own manner, but they miss all the high things to which the Greater Arcana should be allocated.” In discussing the Hanged Man, Waite intimates that all meanings previously assigned to that Trump are incorrect (Key to the Tarot, p. 27). He does not at any point, however, present the ‘true’ meanings. Instead he records, further on in the book (p. 125), those meanings he has only lately disparaged. And yet, on page 17, he boasts: “As regards the verbal meanings allocated [by Waite] to the . . . Trump cards, they are designed to set aside the follies and impostures of past attributions.”

It is an odd sentence. My guess is that by ‘verbal meanings’ Waite has in mind verbally transmitted meanings, even though in this instance he is passing on the meanings in print. Waite asserts that the meanings he provides “are the truth so far as they go” (p.18). The “follies and impostures” he speaks of are probably those off-the-wall meanings assigned mainly, but not exclusively, to the spot cards, many of them traceable back to Etteilla, an eighteenth century reviser of tarot lore.

On page 127, Waite informs readers: “It will be seen that, except where there is an irresistible suggestion conveyed by the surface meaning, that which is extracted from the Trumps Major by the divinatory art is at once artificial and arbitrary, as it seems to me.” He is referring to such meanings as these: for the Pope or Hierophant, captivity, servitude; for the Hanged Man, divination, prophecy; or for the World, voyage, route, emigration, flight. There is nothing about the symbolism of the Hierophant that suggests captivity, nothing about the symbolism of the Hanged Man that suggests divination, and nothing about the symbolism of the World that suggests emigration or flight. But Waite has set up an Aunt Sally that it is easy for him to knock down. These meanings come from Etteilla and his imitators, and Etteilla’s method of assigning divinatory meanings was indeed both arbitrary and artificial.

The meanings given to the spot cards of the Minor Arcana by Etteilla, S.L. Mathers (speaking without his G.D. hat on) and others are as arbitrary and artificial as those attached by Etteilla to the Trumps. There are far more examples of arbitrary and artificial attributions among the Minor than the Major Arcana. The Key to the Tarot informs us that the 10 of Wands has a wide spread of meanings associated with it: “honor, good faith”, “oppression”, “[good] fortune, gain”, “false-seeming, disguise, perfidy”, as well as loss in relation to a lawsuit. A modern day tarot student might only recognize ‘oppression’ as a valid meaning for the card. The 8 of Cups, we are told, represents turning away from pleasure, but also “joy, mildness, timidity, honor, modesty”. From an additional note on page 131, we learn that some tarot readers of Waite’s day took the card to indicate “marriage with a fair woman.” Depending on which authority one consulted, the 5 of Pentacles could signify “material trouble”, “destitution”, “love and lovers”, or “concordance, affinities”. As Waite himself remarks, “These alternative cannot be harmonized.” The 2 of Pentacles means, variously, “gaiety, recreation”, “news and messages in writing”, “obstacles, agitation, trouble, embroilment”. Again, an additional note, this time on page 136, provides a further interpretation of the card: “Troubles are more imaginary than real.” With the exception of the suit of Swords, almost every spot card is supplied with a bewildering assortment of meanings. Had Waite listed the meanings by author, we might be able to work out what system, if any, a particular commentator was following. By such means it is possible that an understanding could have been reached of the way in which the meanings for the spot cards were assigned by followers of various schools of esoteric thought. As it is, the lists of meanings in The Key to the Tarot are of no practical use either to students of tarot history or to those seeking to learn to read the cards.

Waite makes a number of statements that either contradict one another or are contradicted by evidence found elsewhere in The Key to the Tarot. On page 87, he asserts: “I have not attempted to rectify the position of the cards in their relation to one another – the zero therefore appears after number twenty – but I have taken care to number the World or Universe as twenty-one.” He is referring to the cards of the Major Arcana. What can “I have not attempted to rectify the position of the cards in their relation to one another” mean given that Waite renumbers Strength as 8 and Justice as 11? Previously the accepted number for the card Strength was 11 and that for Justice 8. If the numbers mean anything at all, they indicate order. Paul Foster Case, who follows Waite in changing the numbers of these cards, uses an arrangement of the Trumps that places Justice, as card 11, at its center. This, Case avers, is appropriate for a Trump representing balance. To him Justice as number 11 has meaning. If it had no meaning to Waite, why would he bother to change the number from 8 to 11? Then again, despite what he says on page 87, on pages 33 and 35, Waite numbers the Fool as 21 and the World as 22.

On page 20 he says that the High Priestess was sometimes called the Mother or the Pope’s Wife, which, he opines “is opposed to the symbolism”. I take it he is referring to the symbolism of a celibate female pontiff or abbess representing a complimentary opposite of a celibate pope. His objection will be that the pope cannot have a wife. However, on page 22 Waite states that “the High Priestess is and only can be the Church, to whom the Pope and priests are married by the spiritual rite of ordination.” Within two pages of saying that it is opposed to the symbolism to call the High Priestess the Mother or the Pope’s Wife, she has become both Mother Church and married to the Pope. So what was Waite’s original complaint about?

Towards the end of the book, we encounter Waite’s understanding of divination. “The records of the art of divination are the records of findings in the past based upon experience; as such, they are a guide to memory, and those who can master the elements may give interpretations on their basis. It is an official and automatic working. On the other hand, those who have gifts of intuition, of second-sight, of clairvoyance – call it as we choose and may – will supplement the experience of the past by the findings of their own faculty, and will speak of that which they have seen in the pretexts of the oracles.” (pp. 120/1) If anyone can inform me what the sentence “It is an official and automatic working” means, I will be indebted to them.

The whole quote is diffuse. As well as I can make out, Waite is saying that the recorded meanings assigned the cards represent a nexus of ideas found to be reliable when the tarot is used for fortune-telling; that they are a guide to memory and should not be lifted wholesale from a text and applied without adjustment to a tarot reading; and that intuition or clairvoyance may not only augment the written meanings but may also at times recast them. None of this I disagree with. I only wish Waite had said it more clearly.

The British tarot expert Madeline Montalban held much the same opinion but expressed it more lucidly. “Nobody can be an absolute authority on the Tarot, for it is, in its predictive aspect, a means of interpretation, and correct interpretation depends very much on the ability of the person who does it. Not all authors on the Tarot give the same meanings to the cards, but this does not prove any of them wrong. It simply means that, in attempting to bring down the great mystery of the Tarot to be of general use as a predictive medium, each author has given the meanings he himself has found to be most reliable. It all boils down to this. Find a good method, and stick to it. If it satisfies you, then do not try to align it with every word somebody else has written, for you will only get confused. All systems work satisfactorily if you stick to them, and also add your own common sense in interpreting the cards according to the meanings taught by the particular system you have adopted.” Interpretation of the Tarot, she says “depends on the system you use, your own powers of adding to the bare facts of the interpretation of the cards, the kind of question asked and, above all, [your] ability to analyze and synthesize.” The quotes are from her December, 1960 article in the U.K. magazine Prediction.

At the end of The Key to the Tarot, Waite gives some example spreads. Here the Celtic Cross Spread appears for the first time in print. It remains popular today and I will have more to say about it in the concluding part of this article.

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