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Waite’s Key to the Tarot, Part 4

April 10, 2019
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.

  1. This is a fascinating article and really clears up a lot of confusion I’ve had about the Minor Arcana. Thanks for providing more sources to dig into, also.

  2. Sean permalink

    Auntie, I found your blog while on a search for the Book T meanings for the Tarot cards. I love the depth of information you give with MM’s articles. I’m going to read all the way through your blog! (currently at 2013). I’d love to see the true meanings of the cards, as clear as possible. I hope you can clear up any intentional deception on Waite’s part and help show the true meanings of the cards. Also, what would the result of a reading be if the final “result” card is a court card? I know these cards represent people or personalities, but can they show an event or something happening? Many grateful thanks for your writing. Blessings from China, your fan, Sean.

    • Hi Sean,
      I’m caretaking the blog while Auntie has a rest. I’m the one writing about Waite at the moment.
      Auntie will be thrilled that you like Madeline Montalban’s tarot articles. She and I are great fans of Ms Montalban too.
      The true meanings of the cards. Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘true’. If you’re a Qabalist, you might think the G.D. meanings are the true meanings. But non-Qabalists would not agree.
      Madeline Montalban’s system assigns meanings to the court cards not attached to them as ‘people’ cards. The King of Wands reversed, for instance, represents danger. As a ‘result’ card following a run of cards promising success or accomplishment, it would mean that the inquirer would have to struggle to maintain the gains predicted by the preceding symbols. But if preceded by negative cards, the King of Wands shows failure – the inquirer would not attain her stated aim. You will find the ‘non-people’ meanings for court cards in Ms Montalban’s articles.
      Tony Willis

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