Golden Dawn Influence on the Waite Smith Tarot

I’ve been talking about tarot a lot lately, in the past few months I mean, on the Hermetic House of Life server. It’s always nice to have other people to discuss stuff like this with. One of the themes that tends to come up is this perceived gulf between people who use stuff like astrological symbolism in tarot reading and those who don’t. And generally, I feel like the gulf isn’t really there. The Astro information is just information, like anything else, and if you don’t know it, you don’t use it, and that’s fine. And if you know enough to say that the 2 of Wands might mean the time around the Spring equinox and that’s it, great!

What I’m here to write about today, though, is the Waite-Smith tarot and astrology. It’s not necessary to know astrology to use the Waite-Smith deck, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that astrology was instrumental in the design of the deck. And that’s my thesis for today: to fully understand the WS deck you do need to know how it uses astrology, even if you don’t really end up using it for readings. However, let me be clear now: you can absolutely use the deck without knowing any of this stuff. But it’s in there.


You may already know this, but just to set the stage (which is, itself, a WS deck joke, you’re welcome): A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith were members of the Golden Dawn, and while Smith was not as far along as Waite, she wasn’t a brand new member either. Waite wanted to produce a tarot deck, and he worked with Smith to do so.

There’s a standard narrative about the design of the WS deck that I want to complicate. The narrative is that Waite “spoon fed”* the majors to Smith, but Smith was left alone to do whatever she wanted with the minors, leading them to vary considerably from the Golden Dawn models. This is kind of true, but also kind of misleading.

First, yes, the evidence we have makes it clear Waite was much more involved in the design process of the majors than the minors. So it is easy to say they evince the kind of visual imagery the Golden Dawn would lead one towards: the Emperor is Aries, and rams appear on the card, so on, so forth. However, Smith was also a member of the order, and had a copy of Book T, the Golden Dawn manual of tarot design. So the minors, at a minimum, may have the astrological symbolism inherent to their design. That is to say, it’s not true that Smith was ignorant of how the minors worked within the Golden Dawn system. In my experience, that’s what people think.

Now, you’ll notice that doesn’t prove the minors are using the astrological information, only that the common argument that says Smith didn’t know that stuff is incorrect. I’ll say more of that in the next section.

To wrap up, though, the thing to keep in mind is that Smith was more than a hired hand, but Waite was more involved than people tend to remember. He was not as involved as Crowley was in the design of the Thoth deck, but it’s clear he did more than pay Smith and cut her loose, so to speak. If you’re interested in a careful analysis of the whole history, you can read Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot by Katz and Goodwin, though they themselves tend to want to say that Smith was left alone for the minors, despite the evidence of the The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which famously has descriptions of cards that are wrong. If Waite had the card in front of him and hadn’t bothered to talk about its design, he wouldn’t get things wrong. It’s clear the descriptions in the Pictorial Key were, at least in part, drafted as the cards were being painted, and thus some features of cards changed in the process after he’d already written the description.

Card Meaning: the 3 of Pentacles

The argument that I’ll use here is very oblique, and I want to acknowledge that. However, I think it’s strong, or, well, I wouldn’t have bothered with this post I guess. Basically it comes down to this: the meanings of certain minor cards are very different in the cartomantic traditions before the Golden Dawn. Effectively, the Golden Dawn’s layering of systems, such as astrology, onto tarot made new meanings, that people tried to reconcile as best they could. Waite famously tended to try to get everything to play nice, while often someone like Crowley ignored older meanings if they didn’t work with the astrological and kabbalistic correspondences. He didn’t do so often, and reconciled more than one might think, but he wasn’t as dedicated to the project like Waite was. Simply, Crowley was content with the post Golden Dawn tarot tradition being a development, a change, in the tradition, while Waite wanted everything to have always been such and such a way.

So, really, the idea is that this card, the 3 of Pentacles, only means what people think it means now because of the astrology. And, the WS image of an artisan carving shapes into a church pillar while people look in comes from that meaning, which means the image is derived from the astrological information, in part.

I’m using Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, which compiles meanings from a number of well-known sources, for this comparative reading, if you want to read it for yourself.

For the minors, the storehouse of traditional, pre-Golden Dawn meanings is Etteilla. He writes that the 3 of Coins means:

Noble, of consequence, celebrated, important, large, major, extended, vast, sublime, renowned, famous, powerful, elevated, illustrious, illustration, consideration, greatness of soul, noble deeds, generous deeds, magnificently, splendidly. Reversed: Puerility, childhood, childishness, frivolity, enfeeblement, abasement, diminution, politeness, paucity, mediocrity, pettiness, trifle, frivolity, baseness, cowardice, faint-heartedness, reject, little girl, puerile, feeble, low, groveling, worthless, abject, humble, abjection, humility, humiliation.

In contrast, the Golden Dawn manual reads:

The Lord of Material Works. Working and constructive force, building up, erection, creation, realization, and increase of material things, gain in commercial transactions, rank, increase of substance, influence, cleverness in business, selfishness, commencement of matter to be established later. Narrow and prejudiced, keen in matter or gain. Modified by dignity (that is, whether upright or reversed, and including the influence of neighboring cards). Sometimes given to seeking after the impossible.

And finally, Waite’s reading, which draws the two disparate ideas together:

Vocation, trade, skilled labor. A card of nobility, aristocracy, renown, glory. If for a man, celebrity for his eldest son. Reversed: Mediocrity, in work and otherwise. Puerility, pettiness, weakness. Interpretation depends on neighboring cards.

You can see that the Golden Dawn and Waite maintained the ideas of respectability, but changed why the person is respectable. In Etteilla, the person is a noble, while in the Golden Dawn it’s about work and substance. Waite synthesizes the two by saying it’s about skilled labor and adds in Etteilla’s keywords afterwards. Huson regularly notes spots where Waite will just throw in everything because he didn’t want to drop Etteilla’s work, leading to some of the more confusing entries in Pictorial Key.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the main difference in reasoning for the meanings is the astrological information the Golden Dawn added to the card. The 3 of Pentacles is associated with the middle decan of Capricorn, a sign of pragmatic material considerations – it’s ruled by Saturn and is the cardinal Earth sign. The decan itself is administrated by Mars, meaning it’s an energetic push in a sign all about material considerations – so hard work, the work of skilled artisans. Compare that to the 4 of Pentacles, the crowned man crouching on two coins while clutching another – that’s the Sun’s decan of Capricorn, so it’s golden things in the material sign, and thus hoarding.

The change of meanings is dependent on the astrological information. And the Waite-Smith card depicts an artisan at work. The card image does not make sense if you look simply at Etteilla’s meanings. It only works if you consider the post-Golden Dawn meanings.


This post is getting lengthy already, so I won’t run through any more cards.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude, based on the shifting card meanings and the card’s depiction of a specific version of those meanings, that the minor arcana of the Waite Smith tarot does, at least sometimes, take into account the astrological information of the Golden Dawn tradition.

As I said at the beginning, you don’t need to know this information to read the deck. But that’s precisely because the information is encoded in the images already. You don’t need to know that the 3 of Pentacles is Martial and Capricornian, because the combination leading to “skilled craftsman” is what’s in the drawing. But that is, in some part, the way the drawing got to be what it is. So if you’re going to do more than read with the cards, it is my opinion that you do need to pay attention to the astrological information associated with them.

Think of it this way: you can read a novel and know nothing about the author or the real-life things he was inspired by. But if you’re to do anything more complicated, like teach it, or write about it, you need to know, for instance, that Bram Stoker was gay or bi and that Dracula was written around the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial. This argument about tarot runs the same way: if you’re going to read the WS tarot, you don’t need to know this stuff. But if you’re going to do something like teach it, or write in an advanced way about it, you’d better know it, even if you decide it’s not important to your project. You can write about Dracula and not talk about queer reading, but if you don’t know about the queer reading and someone finds out, your credibility will be shot to hell.

*this is from one of Waite’s letters talking about the process.

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One thought on “Golden Dawn Influence on the Waite Smith Tarot

  1. Pingback: Review: The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn (Aeon Books 2022) – G Conley: Magic Arts

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