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Waite’s ‘Key to the Tarot’, Part 3

March 21, 2019

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.

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