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Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, Part 1

February 16, 2019

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.

  1. I agree that Waite offers little in the Key. I’ve been using it for its descriptions to see what ive missed when I look closely at the RW deck.for example, in the 7of Swords, I might want to know how the tents are described, or the group in the distance. I generally find little use for the book itself but hang kntto it because one day I might.
    I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

  2. Aplkont permalink

    W O W ! Great remarks in this introduction on the subject of Waite TAROT. Look forward for next….

  3. Instructive article. Reading for others, it becomes self-evident that the Tarot does both; paints a psychological portrait or photographs a snapshot, or detects, reflects and forecasts in respect of external events.

    It is magnificently prescient and powerful as a divinatory system, and often dramatically and precise in its accuracy used in support of ‘fortune telling’ activities as well as a counselling or meditation system. The art s in deciding which it is doing. And often it is doing both.

    • You speak truth. Liz Greene, unfortunately, puts the emphasis on the psychological side of the equation in her Foreword.
      Tony Willis

  4. hermes400 permalink

    Clear, profound and illuminating!

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