The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A. E. Waite

By Psyche | October 1, 2004

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination, by Arthur Edward Waite
Samuel Weiser, Inc., 340 pp. (incl. annotated bibliography), 1910, 1982

‘The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs. Given the inward meaning of its emblems, they do become a kind of alphabet which is capable of indefinite combinations and makes true sense in all. On the highest plane it offers a key to the Mysteries, in a manner which is not arbitrary, and has not been read in.’1

In general Waite today reads as ridiculously Victorian; pompous and hinting rather than actually explaining anything. It can be assumed that this is due to his Golden Dawn connection. Waite writes: ‘It is regrettable in several respects that I must confess to certain reservations, but there is a question of honour at issue.’ Nonetheless, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is certainly among, if not the, most popular deck used today, and however vague Waite is, it is an important work.

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Part I outlines the Tarot’s assumed and actual history, and Waite’s accounts of other writers thesis on the origins of Tarot are interesting, though, of course, peppered with Waite’s usual snide remarks.

In Part II Waite gives a brief overview of the cards of the Major Arcana, with brief description of some of the symbolism, naturally vague and without expanding, and open to interpretation for the uninitiated, presumably assuming it is obvious to others. As with his notes on Tarot history, he tends to spend more time discussing why other writers interpretations of the cards are wrong than he does illuminating the ‘correct’ way to read them. Later in Part III he gives brief, one or two sentence divinatory readings of the cards upright and reversed.

In addition to the historical and divinatory aspects of the cards, he also discusses significantors and outlines a few spreads, and his annotated bibliography is a great reference.

Of course, this is an essential classic text for historical purposes, one which should find a home on any shelf of a Tarot reader or collector, but it is hardly practical as a primer for the beginner.

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  1. pg 4 []