A. E. Waite’s Tarot Borrowings from Folk Fortune-Telling

Tarot spreads come in all shapes and sizes. You can deal just one or two cards, or cover your table in so many that you can’t see the wood grain any longer. And the most popular is probably the Celtic Cross, popularized by Arthur Edward Waite in his books he wrote to accompany the tarot he made with Pamela Colman Smith (I won’t swear that he invented it; I suspect I’ve seen similar in some other writers he knew, but it’s still absolutely true Waite is the inflection point for that spread hitting culture more generally).

Now, the thing is, Waite wrote a lot of books. And, come to that, poems, short stories, and essays. I’ve got a nice little indie publication of a few of his essays on tarot, and in one he provides a spread, or well, when you see it you’ll see why it’s debatable that’s the correct word, in one he talks about a spread, a way to read the cards, that caught my attention. What’s interesting about it is how much it looks like folk traditions of fortune-telling by cards, rather than really polished, instagrammable "spread."

Read more: A. E. Waite’s Tarot Borrowings from Folk Fortune-Telling

My post is in two parts, then. In the first, I want to tell you about the way Waite says to read cards. And in the second, I want to talk some about how that looks like folk traditions, at least insofar as they were recorded in Europe generally in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Book of the Secret Word and the Higher Way to Fortune

Yes, that’s the title of the essay. It was in A Manual of Cartomancy, a book Waite wrote in the early 20th century and published under the pseudonym "Grand Orient." He wrote under a variety of names. The traditional explanation I’ve heard is that Waite wanted to be taken seriously, like dead seriously, and when he also wanted to explore things he thought were more frivolous, he used a false name. That’s probably true. But honestly, I think there’s a fairly interesting con going on here, nothing sinister, but in that weird sense that occultists are always having you on, even when they’re not.

See, sometimes, Waite would write under his own name and refer to the books he wrote under a pseudonym. In another essay in this little collection, Waite writes

the publishers of The Occult Review have recently issued a certain Manual of Cartomancy … which gives one of the modes of operation among a hundred and one curosities for the delectation of people with occult predispositions and perhaps some intuitive faculties. The writer of this Manual, who has sufficient grace in his heart to speak of trifles only with becoming seriousness and of grave things as if he knew that strange worlds lie occasionally behind them, has included in his budget of paradoxes a long and recollected section on this very subject of the Tarot. [1]

That’s his own book he’s writing about. Waite, it should be remembered, believed popular fiction was a vehicle for spiritual growth (though he did also believe it was for people who weren’t smart or educated enough for the real thing, to be fair). Waite’s weird, is what I want you to get out of this. Everyone thinks he’s this stuffy Victorian, and sure, yeah, he is, but he’s also odd.

And one of his oddities is that no matter how much he kept saying that tarot was for spiritual enlightenment and the Holy Grail, he also kept telling people how to perform fortune-telling with it.

Now, in Secret Word, Waite, writing as Grand Orient, does two interesting things with the tarot. First, he says the "major arcana" (the trumps) can all be read in three ways, depending on the question: basically, pragmatic, religious, and spiritual. So you can ask tarot cards how to get a job or whether you should switch religions, for instance. He provides short meanings for each card in each of the three modes. He ends that section by saying you can eventually read all three at the same time, but it’s a bit of a feat. And that’s definitely true, of course.

The second thing Waite does is provide some case studies, some readings. It’s unclear if he’s making them up or if he really read these for people. And he proceeds to list every single card, by number value, until he’s listed every trump but the Fool (which he sets to the side to indicate the querent). That’s a lot of cards. Most spreads you get nowadays aren’t going to have you use 22 cards, even if they include the entire deck. Damn.

Of course, since the cards indicate universals (that’s the argument anyway, right?), they should all be present in a person’s life all the time. So shouldn’t they all be on the table? It’s the arrangement, not the presence or absence, that Waite is looking at here.

And that’s where Waite’s method looks like traditional fortune-telling.

In Donald Tyson’s book Essential Tarot Writings you can read a handful of essays, from the 18th and 19th centuries, on how to do fortune-telling with cards. This isn’t directly related to tarot, but Tyson includes them because they clearly influenced tarot writers like Waite. The basic method didn’t change much between the essays, and in fact Tyson points out that some obviously plagiarize from others, so in essence every essay is adding small changes and innovations to the same method.

What you would do is deal out all the cards in rows, and then read combinations of cards, particularly those surrounding significators. So the querent might be a light-haired woman, and so the reader would search out the queen of a red suit and look for what was around it. They would also look for the first cards, and cards on the corners, and other particularly important positions or individual cards. The 2 of Hearts is the "wish" card and its disposition indicates whether the querent’s desire will come to pass, a bit like looking to the Moon in a horary question — the chart is still the chart, and the cards are still the cards, but look first to the Moon, or the 2 of Hearts.

If you’re familiar with Lenormand tableaux this will sound famliar, because it seems as though Lenormand was developed in part to help simplify this traditional method.

What’s interesting from an analytical point of view is that the traditional method hinges not on positions in a "spread" but on the relationships between the cards, though there are "spread" positions as well. Waite’s method, then, is obviously an attempt to recreate this context-sensitive reading with the tarot trumps.

Last note on how to do this

If you’re like me, you want to give this a try. I do not know if Waite’s use of triplets is an innovation of sorts because he’s only got 22 cards to work with, all in a single line, or if there’s a tradition that was doing that, instead of basic pairs. But either way, Waite has you using triplets, though in a way they’re just two pairs (and, in that sense, something I have seen before, in modern Lenormand methods that have you deal three cards, or look at three cards in a tableau).

Waite does use reversals here, as opposed to his more formal Golden Dawn influenced writing in which he uses dignity instead.

Pick out a card that indicates something. Waite doesn’t really talk about how to do this, so to get started, just look for the most obvious card. If you’re thinking of how to deal with a bad situation, look for the Tower and the cards next to it. The card on the left and the Tower make a pair, and the card to the right will make another pair with the Tower.

Waite does seem to use the first few cards to figure out the main theme, and then to scan the rest of the cards for related pairs. He determines, in his first case study, that marriage is the apparent solution to the querent’s problem, because the Empress is the first card and Judgment near the end indicate a big change — an important woman and a big change can add up to marriage, right? [2]

We might say, then, that in general, begin by looking at the first card and the final card or triplet to determine the overall indication of the reading, and then scan the cards for obvious connections before going systematically through and reading each triplet in turn.

  1. A. E. Waite. The Golden Dawn Tarot Darcy Kuntz, ed. Holmes Publishing Group. 2013. Print. p. 15. ↩︎

  2. ibid p. 32. ↩︎

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On the term “arcana” as applied to tarot

Have you ever wondered why some people call the trumps of the tarot "the major arcana," and why some people call the major arcana "the trumps?" And, of course, why the small cards are sometimes, but not always, called the "minor arcana?" Well, it’s from the 19th century — but perhaps not the source you expect!

Read more: On the term “arcana” as applied to tarot

First, what the hell does it mean, anyway? Well, you probably know that "arcane" sort of means magical, but it isn’t a simple synonym for the word. It means "hidden" and thus means magic in the same way that "occult" does. So, what that means is the tarot cards are being described as secrets, when the word "arcana" is used. "Arcana" is the plural, also; "arcanum" is the singular.

Now, before, I get really started, let me say that if you use these terms, it’s perfectly all right, both because no one can tell you what to do and I’m also not trying to convince you to stop. I know someone who studies tarot very carefully who refers to Death as "the nameless arcanum," because she’s based in a very particular modern tradition, and there’s meaning there, real heavy lifting symbolism shit happening. It’s useful. This post basically comes from my encounters with people who think the Golden Dawn invented the term. They did not, they just adopted it from the work of Paul Christian.

I’m going to link you to wikipedia here because quite frankly I don’t know Christian that well myself yet. Paul Huson refers to him a few times in Mystical Origins of the Tarot, and Christian’s book, The History of Magic, is on my long to-read list. But at this point anything I tell you will come from his wikipedia article anyway.

So, basically, he was a French occultist in the mid 19th century, post-Levi. That’s important to note, because in some sense the Golden Dawn can be imagined as a late 19th century English revision of Levi’s work. For example, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, perhaps the second best-known contribution of the Golden Dawn to occult practice and history, [^1] is in effect drawn from the work of Levi.

Here’s the larger portion of the introduction of the "arcana" in Christian’s book:

> The Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in twenty-two Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs, each of whose attributes conceals a certain meaning and which, taken as a whole, compose an absolute doctrine memorised by its correspondence with the Letters of the sacred language and with the Numbers that are connected with these Letters. Each letter and each Number, contemplated by the eye or uttered by the mouth, expresses a reality of the divine world, the intellectual world, and the physical world… Each arcanum, made visible or tangible by one of these paintings, is the formula of a law of human activity in its relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life.

(Christian, Paul. The History and Practice of Magic. Ross Nichols, trans. NY: Citadel Press. 1969. ebook. https://archive.org/embed/historypracticeo01chri. pp. 94-5.)

What’s fascinating here is that Christian is performing a kind of magical semiotics (of course, all magic is semiotic in some sense). He’s saying that the tarot cards are images that lead the practitioner, via the divine, the intellect, and physical experience, to "relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life." They do that by expressing a reality, and note that the paintings "make visible" the arcana. The cards are both the arcana and signs pointing towards the arcana, which are more numinous and difficult to capture.

That’s why they’re secrets, in this formulation: they’re symbols of other things.

Now, there is a lot you can do with this model. Pathworking — which I intermittently lead a workshop on, watch this space — is a powerful meditative technique to explore cards, and it relies in part on this idea that the card is a channel to a realm of ideas, just like any book transports you to another place where you take in other ideas.

Now, we know that on a purely materialist level things are a little more complicated than that. We don’t read texts to pierce their secrets, but to create a collaborative meaning-space with the author. You’ll see a way for magic to intercede in this model as well, though, since animism posits a spirit for everything (well, some versions of animism, to be clear). The spirit behind tarot [^2] can be one of the teammates you have in the collaborative meaning-making space of a card reading.

But at its core, the idea of describing the tarot cards as "arcana" relies on the idea that we are using them to reach out to higher truths.

I said above that I’m not trying to convince anyone to change their terminology. That’s true, but I did think I should probably talk about why I don’t use this terminology anymore, after nearly two decades of using it regularly.

Despite some related meanings we might see in the word "trump," that’s what I use for the "major arcana." First, I don’t think any cards are major or minor in the way the modern tradition posits. Note, in fact, that Christian only talked about the "major arcana." He doesn’t describe the minors as being secrets at all. This goes way back, to Court de Gebelin, who only wrote about the trumps when he published the earliest overt essay on tarot we’ve got so far.

Why trump? well, it reminds us tarot is a game. The trumps were simply iconographically familiar allegorical, religious, artistic, and pop culture images added as a kind of "fifth suit" to a normal deck of playing cards. Now, I want to be clear that I am magically operant, and I certainly am performing magic when I deal cards. But look to the Bateleur, the Magician — he’s a trickster, directing your eye to the right of the frame with his wand while his left hand secrets away the ball that he’ll soon use to fleece you out of your money with the cups and balls. Magic is not all trickery, but there’s always an element of it. A chaos magician would say you’re tricking your internal censor, but they’re very Freudian, after all.

I’ll still sometimes call the minors "the minors," though not the "minor arcana." I call them the pips sometimes, too, though that’s inaccurate for decks other than those printed in the French and Italian traditions with cards that aren’t scenic. [^3] I’m trying to get into the habit of calling them "the small cards," though I can’t remember where I got that phrase from.

The reason for this isn’t just historical pedantry, though I’m too honest to deny that I’m not interested in that. The reason is because I don’t think tarot is keeping a secret from us. In the same way language can be used to hide something, but is actually meant to convey information, I think tarot is not hiding anything, but working to help us construct, define, discover, and meditate on information.

In the end, that’s it. Millions of people call the tarot cards "major and minor arcana," and that’s not going to change. It doesn’t really need to change, even. But I thought it might be interesting to discuss the historical background of the term in the work of 19th century French occultism and the polyvalent way that the term implies an occlusion that I don’t personally believe is there.

[^1]: the best known is of course the Waite-Smith tarot. [^2]: the Golden Dawn called this spirit the angel HRU, in fact. [^3]: you might notice I’m at pains to avoid calling these cards "the Marseille tarot" or a variation of that. It’s because most of the cards we label as that aren’t from Marseille, and like "gnostic," "Marseille" was a weird, accidental title for a tradition of printing. This entire essay is about how my word usage has changed as my understanding of tarot has changed, so I figured it was worth mentioning this as well. As with everything else in the essay, I have no desire to change anyone else’s use of the term, and recognize it’s just the word for that tradition, really. I use it in casual conversation frequently. It’s also important to me to differentiate simply because there’s also the "tarot de Marseille," a contemporary methodology of reading tarot cards that’s not the same thing as the historical practice. It pioneered the "open reading," a powerful technique everyone should study.

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Dear Prudence

As you might expect, tarot, given its figurative and symbolic trumps, ends up encapsulating a lot of the culture in early Renaissance Europe. And one of the things that tarot almost has is the Four Cardinal Virtues. These are four virtues that all others rest on, popularized originally by Plato and incorporated into the writings of many Christian scholars afterwards.

These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. And, as you can see, three of those are found in nearly every tarot deck. So what happened to Prudence? And if you want your tarot deck to include it now, what can you do?

The Virtues

So, four virtues, one missing — what are they, anyway? The basic idea is that if these four personality traits are cultivated, everything else that’s good and virtuous will follow. So, for example, Plato makes the point that bravery without prudence is just foolhardiness — and that what bravery really is, is just fortitude allowing one to act in times of hardship. Justice is, I think, clear-sightedness, fortitude is strength and endurance, and temperance is self-control. However, prudence is also both self-control and clear-sightedness. This isn’t a problem with the scheme, just in the way I relate to it. But — and this is a big speculative but — I sort of wonder if that’s why Prudence didn’t make it in. I can’t be the only person who thinks Prudence is sort of a catch-all covering most of the others. But I’m not a Renaissance scholar, so I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty if that was a thing in the popular culture of the time.

But what I can tell you from the writings of tarot scholars is that Prudence could be in the deck in a number of places, misnamed or disguised or something. And whether or not it’s really true that the designer of the early tarot trumps intended one of these cards to "really be Prudence," if you want the tarot to be a book with images for everything in the world, you’ll need to find a place to put Prudence. And one of these might work!


I’m leading with what I consider the strangest example, but it makes a great deal of sense within the Platonic/Aristotlean model. Plato also writes about the need for the mind and soul to govern two diametrically opposed forces: one that wishes to pursue virtue, and one that wishes to ignore it or to pursue vice. While of course one would want to go after virtue and ignore the other, one can’t. You have to control both, which means that ultimately we chart a middle course between the two, hopefully getting as close to virtue as possible, but understanding that there’s simply stuff our body needs and that our soul enjoys that we aren’t going to successfully do without.

And Plato uses the image of a charioteer to drive this point home. So it’s possible to read the Chariot as Prudence if you consider the two horses — or other creatures, depending on the deck — as the two impulses of the soul. This argument comes from the work of Jean-Michel David.

#The Hanged Man This is probably the one that makes the least sense, but it’s not totally off the wall. Court de Gebelin argued that the Hanged Man was originally meant to be portrayed right side up, and not be "hanged" at all, but simply standing with one foot raised, carefully considering their next step — and, therefore, was Prudence, the missing virtue.

You can kind of squint and see it, if you read the Hanged Man as the need for patience, which many of us do, right? The argument that the card was supposed to be inverted doesn’t make sense, but after Court de Gebelin, and in some cases before, many artists took this into account, either depicting the man as less troubled by his plight on purpose or, in some cases, inverting the card. THe Vieville tarot was made around 1650, long before Gebein’s essay, and does depict the Hanged Man card upside down — however, quite famously, a number of the Vieville’s trumps are flipped horizontally too, and most scholars tend to believe there was just an error in carving the blocks for the deck. You’d never know if most of the pips were flipped or inverted, right? But also, most of the cards are flipped horizontally, not vertically.

If you use the elemental schema or the mother letter assignments, the Hanged Man is the card of elemental water — so that could also allow the card to be thoughtful, reflective Prudence. Though, in the end, this is the least convincing, as I said above, partly because it’s so different from everything we know about The Traitor and also because Prudence requires not only careful thought but action. The prudent person not only thinks about when to act, they also act immediately when the time is right. The Hanged Man doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon.

This argument is in Court de Gebelin’s essay, which is available in translation in a few places, including David Vine’s Vintage Tarot Texts v1 and Donald Tyson’s Essential Tarot Writings. I recommend the former wholeheartedly, but I think it’s only available via import from Europe.

The Hermit

This is the first possibility I ran across myself, and I wonder if that’s why I tend to think this is probably the best bet, at least for pragmatic use — with one possibility to follow. I should say I tend to feel personally this is the best option in the trumps.

It also sort of makes sense, right? It’s a depiction of a wise old man, carrying a lantern, sometimes even though it’s clearly daylight. It seems to be about deliberative vision, and some decks titled this card the "Capuchin," tying it directly to monks, and we’d probably like to think they’re prudent enough.

This card is also associated with Virgo, and that’s the "reason" I have for preferring it over the other two (as opposed to an accident of when I encountered each idea, I mean).

8 of Disks

This is an odd one for sure, but in the line of tradition started by Crowley, the 8 of Disks is called "Prudence." If you consider the card as the careful practice necessary to master a skill, you can kind of see it, but as with the Hanged Man above, a prudent person also acts when the time is right. The 8 of Disks seems to say you have plenty of time for practice. In a sense it’s the lead up time to the prudent moment, I suppose — but then, all the minors are slices of time, we could say, as opposed to the metaphysical themes and building blocks of the world that the trumps represent.

Prudently Covering My Ass

I don’t actually have a "right answer" here. Prudence simply is not in a tarot deck. She appears in the Minchiate, and even in Etteilla’s version of the tarot, but not in any traditional tarot sets we have. Individual contemporary artists might make a card into Prudence, but if we don’t have that option we’re left with a few others. Either we designate a card to be Prudence like the attempts I’ve summed up here or we decide that it’s not in the deck at all. And why not?

Think of de Gebelin’s idea of Prudence as a person carefully weighing options, one foot in the air. Couldn’t we say that the image of Prudence is a person sitting at a table, looking at a series of cards that represents the options available? The act of reading itself is prudent. Perhaps we should be saying a prayer to Prudence as we begin to read, and expect them to take a seat at the table, rather than appear on the table itself.

Support this work

If you like this piece and the work that I’m doing here, you can support it through Ko-Fi, Paypal, or Patreon.

You might also consider signing up for my courses! Or book a reading! I perform traditional readings as well as tutorial sessions. You could even grab a copy of my tarot reading zine!

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Mutual Reception in the Tarot Minors

I sat down recently and tried to figure out if any cards in the tarot minors create a situation of mutual reception. If I didn’t miss anything, eight cards do so. That creates an interesting situation in which pairs of cards are linked by their planetary rulers and thus can be contemplated together, as though they’re linked in some way.

Continue reading “Mutual Reception in the Tarot Minors”

Stage and Ground: Scenic Tarot and the “Open Reading”

Open reading is a concept that, as best as I know, comes from the Marseille tradition. There’s much more to it than this, but you can think of it this way: looking at the way the cards are oriented on the table, do they look forward or backwards? Where are the obstructions? Taking in general patterns visually is how I might try to define it.

Now, the thing is, a lot of figures in Waite Smith decks are in scenes, which is to say, their facing can’t be taken on its own. They face certain directions to convey certain information already, and so while you could call attention to many figures facing backwards, some of them may or may not fit in with the overall "open reading." This essay is an attempt to test out certain possibilities for using the Waite Smith’s famous scenic composition to recreate a kind of "open" reading through distance.

Continue reading “Stage and Ground: Scenic Tarot and the “Open Reading””

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.

Continue reading “Golden Dawn Influence on the Waite Smith Tarot”

Teacher Archetypes in the Tarot Majors

I’m a teacher for my day job, so obviously the idea of what a teacher is, or what one does as a teacher, is often in my mind. And since tarot is also often on my mind, it stands to reason that I think sometimes of which cards represent teachers and teaching. In this post I intend to talk about the two majors that I see as the teachers, as well as the card I suspect people put in that grouping but which shouldn’t be.

Continue reading “Teacher Archetypes in the Tarot Majors”

On Polyvalent Meaning and Magic

I’m here to tell you something you already know: symbols mean more than one thing. No, that’s not the whole post! Come back! In the practice of magic, mysticism, and the occult, a pattern is played out that is far broader than those admittedly broad fields. Humans have a tendency to think symbols are simpler than they are. So, for example, you might think the 7 of Pentacles means “be patient,” while your friend thinks it means “suffer.” And it means both! And we know that, really. But it gets lost in practice a lot of the time. So this post is specifically about importing theory and techniques from the formal study of symbols and art – my actual specialty, for once – into occult studies generally.

Continue reading “On Polyvalent Meaning and Magic”