Arthur Waite

Arthur Waite Biography

Arthur Waite (1857-1942), was an occultist and magician associated with the Golden Dawn. Waite is author of the Rider-Waite deck, which has become the most popular Tarot deck in the world.

“Waite certainly did start a revival of interest in Alchemy, Magic, Mysticism, and all the rest.”

Aleister Crowley,
Author The Thoth Tarot deck

Arthur Waite Biography: Life and Work

Early Life

Arthur Edward Waite (referred to as A.E. Waite) was born in Brooklyn, America in 1857. His mother bought him to England while he was still a baby. Despite his poor background, he received a good education at Roman Catholic schools. When he left school, he became a clerk at a solicitors office and in his spare time he spent long hours at the British Museum studying the occult.

Loses Faith

His early life was colored by disappointment, namely, by the death of his sister, estrangement from his mother and the lack of money to attend University and further his interest in learning. In his own autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, Waite admitted he thought of suicide. “There came a time indeed when I carried laudanum as a possible way of escapeIn any case, the potion was not drunk.”

At the time of his sister’s death, in 1874, Waite had no doubt as to the reality of life after death. He wrote her soul, ‘heavenward soaring’, would be with the angels in the presence of God. But still, his faith began to ebb and in the following years he became increasingly skeptical on the Church’s teaching about the survival of the soul after death.

It was at this time, predisposed and searching for meaning, that in 1878 he discovered modern spiritualism.

Modern Spiritualism

Modern Spiritualism began in America in 1848, at Hydesville in New York State, with the Foxes sisters. These young women held seances in their home, and ended up launching a mass new religious movement. On the basis of receiving rapped messages (mysterious knocks which came through walls and furniture in answers to questions), the girls became celebrities. Soon, others began to receive messages purported to come from the dead. These messages came by raps, but also table tipping, and later automatic writing and trance speaking. The movement spread rapidly through the United States and Europe.

In England, mediums were few and far between, but by the 1870s they were found in abundance. They were even able to produce more spectacular phenomena than their American counterparts, including direct voice messages (spirit speaks through the medium), levitation of objects and the materialization of ectoplasm in the shape of human faces, hands and even whole bodies.

Waite, like many, was gripped by this movement and soon acquired a remarkable knowledge on the subject. By the late 1880s, he was writing articles for Light magazine, one the leading spiritualist journals at the time.

Path Towards Mysticism

Continually evolving and learning, by the 1890, Waite had become less interested in psychic phenomena and seances. Instead, he began to write more about the merits of the mystical over psychic experiences. In a lecture he delivered that year to the London Spiritualist Alliance, entitled The Interior Life from the Standpoint of the Mysticism, he disappointed many in his audience by insisting on the superiority of the personal transcendental inner experience of the mystic, over the parlor phenomenal of the seance room.

Waite’s interest in Spiritualism was waning, while at the same time he had discovered the Theosophical Society, co-founded by the famous Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891). Theosophy is a religion, founded primarily on Blavatsky’s teachings, and it draws upon older European philosophies such as Neoplatonism and Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. At some point, he found this new religion wanting too because he had little interest in eastern philosophy and esoteric Buddhism. Moreover, he was unimpressed by the type of spiritualists the religion seemed to attract at gatherings, such as astrologers, mesmerists and palm readers.

This bought him to the works of Eliphas Levi, the most extraordinary magician of the 19th century.

Discovers Eliphas Levi

Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), born Alphonse Louis Constant, was among the most charismatic figures in the modern history of occultism.

Waite first came across Levi in 1881, but only began ‘serious study’ when he bought a copy of Levi’s book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Dogma and Ritual of High Magic). This book was a treatise on how to perform ritual magic. Ten years later Waite translated the book from French into English, and published it. However, by then, he was less certain that Levi, either, offered the path to enlightenment.

Still, back in 1886, Waite thought otherwise. At the time, he believed in Levi’s attempt to build a bridge between religion and science. Levi incorporated Tarot into his magical system, and he can be singularly credited with launching the popularity of Tarot cards as a divination tool.

Levi had a deep impact on the Golden Dawn, and Golden Dawn members Waite and Aleister Crowley. For example, Levi was the first to declare that a pentagram with one point down and two points up represents evil (see the Devil card symbolism). In time, however, Waite began to dispute Levi’s views on the antiquity of the Tarot, and he condemned his historical inaccuracies.

Dreams of a Secret Society

Waite continued to increase his knowledge of the major divisions of esoteric theory, including magic, alchemy, tarot, Kabbalah, freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and Holy Graillater (origins and study of the holy grail, Waite published a book in 1909 called The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal). He began to dream of a secret order that could unify and teach all of these traditions. A secret society of occult dreams. In the meantime, he became a freemason and joined the Societas Rosicruciana and the Knights Templar.

Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, also known as the Golden Dawn, was a secret society devoted to the study of paranormal and metaphysics. Founded in the late 1880s, Waite was accepted as a member in 1891 into the Isis-Urania Temple in London. It offered members a sequence of initiatory rituals of a very eclectic nature that combined Egyptian, kabbalistic, and Rosicrucian symbolism, together with prescribed courses of study appropriate to 5 different grades.

A.E Waite in robes |
Arthur Waite in Ceremonial dress (1922)

Going Separate Ways

In 1903 disagreements among members in the Golden Dawn led to a parting of ways. Those interested in magic and occultism stayed with the poet William Butler Yeats, while those interested in Judeo-Christian mysticism followed Waite into The Independent and Rectified Order of the Golden Dawn.

In 1915, Waite returned to the main Golden Dawn and rewrote its ceremonial rituals from a Christian mysticism viewpoint. The structure of the Order was still based upon the kabbalistic Tree of Life but the new rituals eradicated all Egyptian and pagan references, and the symbolism was wholly Christian and Rosicrucian, while magic was avoided.

Waite Commissions The Rider Waite Deck

In 1901, Pamela Colman Smith joined the Isis-Urania Temple, and this is how she and Waite came to meet. Waite was a lapsed Catholic but still had strong Christian values, and Pamela had just converted to Catholicism. So, when Waite left the temple in 1903, Pamela followed him. As Waite came to know Pamela better, he considered her the perfect psychic artist to illustrate his new deck of cards, that would be based on Judeo-Christian mysteries rather than occultism.

He commissioned her to design his new deck in 1909, allowing her only a few months to complete the task. He wrote a book to accompany the deck called The Pictorial Key to The Tarot.

Interestingly, tarot scholar Gertrude Moakley wrote in 1959, “This set of mystical Tarot cards … seemed at the time a mere trifle to both of them, compared with their more ambitious projects. Yet their Tarot is one of the few published works by either of them that has remained almost continuously in print for fifty years. Towards the end of his life, Waite did come to realize that of all his monumental works, all his multitudinous activities…, this little Tarot was one of the most fruitful.”

She continued, “How often this happens! The little thing which is just ‘tossed off’ turns out to the epitome of all its author stood for, still alive and fresh when all the rest of his work has begun to smell of dried lavender. And when a brilliant man and woman like Waite and Pamela Smith work together, his masculinity and her femininity are sometimes flint and steel to produce new brilliance.”

Intuitive Reading

The technique of intuitive reading was born with Waite. He suggested that a card reader begin by interpreting the cards using the images to open up the intuitive psychic senses; and only then refer to the guide book for the meanings.

Further Studies Based on The Rider Waite Tarot

List of card meanings, 78 cards interpretations

Tarot card symbols, symbolism of all 78 cards

List of Books by Arthur Waite

Waite was a prolific author who wrote articles and books on many subjects including ceremonial magic, Devil worship, alchemy, divination, freemasonry, western mysticism, Kabbalism and alchemy. He also translated and reissued several mystical works.

His books never brought enough by way of royalties to provide an adequate income and he relied heavily upon money from writing articles and reviews on esoteric matters.

Selection of Books by Arthur Waite

  • The Hermetic Museum (1893) 
  • A New Light of Mysticism: Azoth, or, The Star in the East (1893)
  • An Anthology of English Fairy Poetry (1888)
  • The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah (1902) 
  • Studies in Mysticism and Certain Aspects of the Secret Tradition (1906)
  • The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal: Its Legends and Symbolism Considered in Their Affinity with Certain Mysteries of Initiation and Other Traces of a Secret Tradition in Christian Times (1909)
  • The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1909)
  • The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, and an Analysis of the Inter-Relation Between the Craft and the High Grades, in Respect to Their Term of Research, Expressed by the Way of Symbolism (2 volumes; London: Rebman, 1911)
  • Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual, by Eliphas Lévi (translation)
  • Ceremonial Magic (1913)
  • The History of Magic: Including a Clear and Precise Exposition of its Procedure, its Rites and its Mysteries (1913), by Eliphas Lévi (translation)
  • The Secret Doctrine in Israel: A Study of the Zohar and its Connections (1913)
  • The Collected Poems of Arthur Edward Waite (1914)
  • Some Deeper Aspects of Masonic Symbolism (from the magazine edition of 1916) 
  • Raymund Lully, Illuminated Doctor, Alchemist and Christian Mystic (1922) 
  • Saint-Martin, the French Mystic, and the Story of Modern Martinism (1922) 
  • Lamps of Western Mysticism: Essays on the Life of the Soul in God (1923)
  • The secret tradition in alchemy (1926)

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