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Waite’s Key to the Tarot, part 2

March 4, 2019

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.

  1. This was fascinating to read. I look forward to the next instalment. I really enjoy reading scholarly responses to texts, and I feel those are difficult to come by on the subject of divination (at least while still being on the side of divination rather than tearing it down).

    • Hi Nicola,
      Thank you for your supportive comments. Criticism of the Great Names in the tarot world isn’t always appreciated.
      Tony Willis

  2. While I do appreciate his contributions to the tarot, that book really was a frustrating mess to read and his card meanings often felt like trying to force two magnets together. I often sensed a tone of resentment in his writing compared to some of his other books, like he didn’t want to write that one. I look forward to your continuation.

    • Hi Ashe,
      It’s possible that Waite wrote the book to promote the Waite-Smith tarot – or Rider-Waite tarot as it was then called. That would explain the tone of resentment.
      He certainly appears conflicted in the Key, as others have noted before me.
      Tony Willis

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