Arthur Edward Waite


THE Tarot is a puzzle for archaeology and it is also an intellectual puzzle. When the bare fact of its existence first became public in Europe, the seventy-eight cards were in use as a game and also as a method of divination and may have served these purposes for generations. Yet from the first to the last every one who has taken up their study at all seriously has felt that the Trumps Major at least belonged originally neither to a game of chance nor to that other kind of chance which is called fortune-telling.

They have been regarded as (1) allegorical designs containing religious and philosophical doctrine; (2) a veiled treatise on theosophy; (3) the science of the universe in hieroglyphics; (4) a keystone of occult science; (5) a summary of Kabalistic teaching; (6) the key of alchemy; and (7) the most ancient book in the world.

But as these impressions have not been put forward accompanied by any tolerable evidence, it has been thought to follow in logic that Tarot cards belong to those arts in which they appear to have been used and to nothing else. In a little study of the Tarot, accompanied bv the striking designs of Miss Pamela Colman Smith, and in its enlarged form as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot[1] I have intimated that a secret tradition exists regarding the cards. The statement is open to every kind of misjudgment, and it is time to correct a few exaggerated inferences which have arisen out of it. An opportunity seems given by the very interesting article of Mr. J. W. Brodie-Innes, in the last issue of the OCCULT REVIEW. He has reminded me of the whole subject and has mentioned one collection of cards which are a name only to myself. I will add to my remarks certain points of fact which are not mentioned in my books. There are in reality two Tarot traditions, or- shall I say ?- unpublished sources of knowledge: one is of the occult order, and one is purely mystical. Each of the occult sciences has a golden side of its particular shield, and this is a mystical side, alchemy being a ready case in point.

The art of transmuting metals was pursued secretly, and a long line of physical adepts claim to have attained its end, their procedure being recorded in books which ex hypothesi are clear to initiates, and to no one else. But there was another school or order of research speaking the same language of symbolisms, by means of which they delineated a different quest and a distinct attainment- both of the spiritual kind. I am led to infer that this spiritual or mystical school was later, though the peculiar veil of emblems used by Zosimus the Panopolite makes one inclined to suspend judgment.

After the same manner there was Operative Masonry, but there came a period- placed usually towards the end of the seventeenth century- when there arose out of it that Emblematical Art which is so familiar now among us. In this case also there are vestiges of a figurative school at an earlier period, so again it is prudent to keep an open mind. Masonry is of course occult only in an attributed sense but- as a last example- there remains Ceremonial Magic and its connexions, an occult art above all and in respect both of object and procedure about the last which might be supposed to have an alternative mystical aspect; but the fact remains.

The occult tradition of the Tarot is concerned with cartomancy in so far as it belongs to the manipulation and play of the cards for fortune-telling, but it has also a curious astrological side. The mystical tradition is confined to the Trumps Major, which I have termed the Greater Arcana in my two handbooks. The occult tradition leads no one anywhere, and its mode of practice in respect of the cards is- I am told- little, if anything, better than the published kinds- so far as results are concerned. I am not of course adjudicating on this question: as a mystic I should regard all such results as worthless.

A prognostication which turns out amazingly correct is of no more consequence to the soul of man than another which proves far from the mark. The occult astrology of the Tarot has naturally its divinatory side, but it is not without traces of another and deeper intention. I should think it likely that the occult tradition will "leak out," as the saying is, one of these days, for it has passed through various hands which do not seem to respect it. The mystical aspect may be explained most readily as belonging to Kabalistic theosophy, and has proved illuminating to many on the mystic quest, provided that they happen to find help in symbolism. It is precisely the same here as it is in the Churches and secret societies like Masonry.

Certain are aided by its pageants of ritual, while to others they are little better than a rock of offence. The Eighteenth Degree of Rose-Croix is a hopeless adventure for those to whom ritual speaks no language, but so also is a Pontifical High Mass. Moreover, such good people would probably be well advised not to concern themselves about the mystical tradition of Tarot cards. They are not for such reason to be relegated to a lower scale and those of an opposite temperament have no warrant for assuming superiority. No one is further from God because the Ode Written in Dejection by Coleridge carries no message to his heart. There is no off or near side of the Kingdom of Heaven by these alternatives of inward character.

Such being the nature of the Tarot tradition in its two aspects there remains to be said that it has no information to offer on the time, place or circumstances of Tarot origins, nor on the question of its importation into Europe, supposing that it came from the East. There are of course expressions of opinion on the part of people who know the occult tradition, but I have not found that they are of more consequence than those of outside speculation. Speaking generally, my experience of all such traditions, when they happen to make a claim on history, is that they present mere figments of invention.

The great mass of Masoic Rites and Orders have fraudulent traditional claims, and those of most Rosicruclan Societies are equally mendacious myths. Among notable exceptions are the Regime Eccosais et Rectifie- which includes the important Grades of Novice and Knight Beneficent of the Holy City- the Military and Religious Order of the Temple, the Order of Rose-Croix of Hendover, and one mystical society which is referable in the last resort to the third quarter of the eighteenth century. As regards Craft Masonry it has worked out its own redemption by emerging from the Anderson period and its foolish fictions. If it be worth while to say so, by way of conclusion to this part of my subject, the Tarot tradition- whether mystical or occult- bears no marks of antiquity. It would not signify how old they were if they had no other claim or value, while if they offer light on any questions of the soul, it matters nothing if they are of yesterday.

On their mystical side the Trumps Major offer most notable differences from any of the known recensions, including those of Miss Colman Smith. It will be obvious than I can offer no details; but Death, the Hanged Man, the Sun and Fool are among notable cases in point. I have said, now long ago,

(1) that there are vague rumours concerning a higher meaning in the minor cards but

(2) they have never yet been translated into another language than that of fortune- telling.

Yet one knows not all that is doing nor always that which has been done, so it is well to add that I spoke within the measures of my own acquaintance- though I have had mere than usual opportunities. In any case, the four suits of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles have two strange connexions in folk-lore, to one of which I drew attention briefly in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal. So far as my recollection goes, I have not mentioned the other in any published work.

The four Hallows of the Holy Graal are (1) the Graal itself, understood as a Cup or Chalice, being the first Cup of the Eucharist; (2) the Spear, traditionally that of Longinus; (3) the Sword, which was made and broken under strange circumstances of allegory; and (4) the Dish of Plenty, about which the Graal tradition is composed, but it is understood generally as the Paschal Dish.

The correspondence of these Hallows or Tokens with the Tarot sults will be noted, and the point is that albeit three out of the four belong to the Christian history of relics they have an antecedent folklore history belonging to the world of Celtlc myth. This is a subject which I shall hope to carry farther one of these days. There are also the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan: these were the Sword of the Dogda, the Spear of Lug, the Cauldron of Plenty and Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny which indicated the rightful King.

I remember one of our folk-lore scholars, and a recognized authoritv on the texts of Graal literature, suggesting to me that something ought be done to link these pagan talismans with the Tarot suits, but I know as yet of no means by which the gulf of centuries can be bridged over. For the Tuatha de Danaan are of pre-Christian myth, but no one has traced Tarot cards earlier than the fourteenth century. The Tuatha de Danaan were mvsterious beings of Ireland and divinities of Wales: some information concerning them will be found in Alfred Nutt's Voyage of Bran. They are said to be (1) earth-gods, (2) gods of growth and vegetation, (3) lords of the essence of life. They are connected with the idea of rebirth, usually of a god or hero.

I assume that an adequate survey of the vast field of folk-lore would produce other analogies, without appealing- like excellent old Court de Gebelin- to Chinese inscriptions or the avatars of Vishnu. It follows that the archaeology of the Tarot has made a beginning only and we know not whither it may lead us. Much yet remains to be done with antique packs, and I should be glad to follow up the reference of Mr. Brodie-Innes to the Clulow collection- now, as he mentions, in America.

Whether it is in a public museum and whether there is a descriptive catalogue are among the first questions concerning it. One is continually coming across the titles of foreign books on Tarot and Playing Cards which might be followed up, not without profit, if we could get at the works themselves; but they are not in our public libraries. Were it otherwise, my bibliography of works dealing with the Tarot and its connexions might be much extended. As regards packs, since the appearance of The Pictorial Key I have inspected a Jewish Tarot which han not, I think, been printed. It represents the black magic of divination- a most extraordinarv series of designs, carrying message of evil in every sign and symbol. It is, so to speak, a Grimoire Tarot, and if it is not of French origin, the inscriptions and readings are in the French language.

I have seen only the Trumps Major and two or three of the lesser Court Cards, but I understood that there is at least one complete pack in existence. Mr. Brodie-Innes speculates as to the authority for my allocation of Tarot suits to those of ordinary playing-cards. Its source is similar to that from which Florence Emery- one of my old friends and of whom I am glad to be reminded- derived her divinatory meanings mentioned by Mr. Brodie-Innes. The source to which I refer knew well of the alternative attribrition and had come to the conclusion that it was wrong. In adepting it I was careful that no allocation should be of consequence to "the outer method of the oracles" and the meanings of the Lesser Cards.

Nothing follows therefore from the attribution of Swords to Clubs and Pentacles to Spades. In my book on the Graal I had already taken the other allocation of Swords to Spades and Pentacles to Clubs. I cannot say that I am especially satisfied by either mode of comparison. There is no connexion in symbolism between a sword and spade, at least until the League of Nations turns all our weapons of offence into ploughshares and reaping-hooks. As little correspondence appears between so-called pentacles and clubs, but it is Hobson's choice. In the absence of a canon of criticism I should prefer to say nothing as to the mystic virtues of numbers in this connexion.

[1] London: William Rider & Son, Ltd., 5s. net.

--- Scanned from the periodical "The Occult Review", Vol. XXIX, No. 3; March, 1919.

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