by Kathy Berkowitz
Arthur E. Waite’s 1910 Tarot deck is one of the most popular Tarots in the contemporary world. Yet despite Waite’s deck having captured the hearts and minds of two generations of Tarotists, Waite himself has not shared in this popularity. The general consensus is that Waite owes his Tarot’s success to the artist Pamela Coleman Smith who designed the deck. Furthermore, Waite is often not given credit for the ideas behind the deck; instead, credit goes to the secret society of the Golden Dawn where Waite was a member from 1891 to 1912. The Golden Dawn is purported to be the real keeper of the secret tradition.
Even the most authoritative historians of the Tarot, Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett disparage Waite in their book, A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-1970 (page 138),
What did Waite mean by speaking of the ‘two parts’ of the secret tradition, one of which had ‘passed into writing’ and the other had not? Much of the ‘secret tradition’, including the secret attribution, was contained in Book T, read by those who attained the Second Order; but the attribution itself was revealed to Golden Dawn members much earlier on.
So, often, Arthur Waite’s mysticism is either dismissed or ignored as a false front. Consequently, the mystical path that Waite says he followed has never been investigated, at least in published form. The following essays will attempt to correct this deficiency by exploring Waite’s mystical path and its influence on his 1910 Tarot.
Between 1903 and 1908, Arthur Waite considered starting The Hermetic Text Society. Although this society never came to fruition it provides a basis for understanding Waite’s mysticism. The two writers that top Waite’s book list for his Hermetic Text Society were pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th Century), and Bonaventure (1217-1274). The hypothesis of these essays is that Waite’s Trumps match the steps in Bonaventure’s book The Soul’s Journey into God.
To show this connection I have divided the twenty-two Trumps into eleven pairs based on pictures and verbal hints from Waite’s guide book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, I then match the pairs with the steps on the Soul’s Journey. Waite devotes most of his book The Way to Divine Union to the influence of Dionysius on the mystical tradition. He writes, ‘The truth is that the way of Dionysius, however it may be presented variously, is the way of all the mystics’ (page 53). Bonaventure’s Soul’s Journey follows Dionysius’s contemplative system, and so I will be illustrating the steps of the journey by quoting from Dionysius’s corpus of writing, which contains four books and ten letters.
Briefly, Dionysius’s method involves what is called positive and negative theology. In positive theology God’s attributes are described in words, concepts, and symbols. However, the ultimate goal of contemplation is to empty the mind in order to experience the Unknown God. Waite is referring to Dionysius when he writes, ‘we are united with the Unknown by the suspension of all cognition…this theology is received in an absolute stillness of mind and is unattainable by mental processes’ (Divine Union, page 53). Contemplation, then, moves beyond mental processes to what is known as negative theology, or suspension of thought.
The six steps of the Soul’s Journey are equated with the six days of creation, and the regeneration of spiritual faculties lost in the Fall of Man. Arthur Waite refers to the restoration of a lost faculty throughout his writing. For example, in his Introduction to The Cloud upon the Sanctuary by Eckharshausen (1752-1803) Waite writes, ‘We must take the key […] that there is within all of us a dormant faculty, the awakening of which gives entrance, as it develops, into a new world of consciousness […]. The awakening of this organ is the lifting of the Cloud upon the Sanctuary, enabling our hearts to become receptive of God even in the present world’ (page xxviii).
The Beginning of the Soul’s Journey
Pair 1 – The first Trump pair is Temperance and Judgment:
In the Pictorial Key, Waite uses similar words to describe the Temperance and the Judgement cards.
For Temperance he writes, ‘Hereof is some part of the Secret of Eternal Life’ (PK page 124).
About Judgment he writes, ‘[…] They will understand it has been called truly in the past a card of eternal life, and for this reason it may be compared with that which passes under the name of Temperance’ (PK page 151).
Another feature common to both cards are the angels. Waite cautions that Temperance ‘[…] on the surface […] has no especial connection with (the virtue of) temperance’ (PK page 24). In another description of Temperance he writes ‘All conventional emblems are renounced herein’ (PK page 24). Rather he writes that Temperance has to do with the combining of the psychic and material natures.
I am going to suggest that Temperance is Bonaventure’s six winged Seraph in disguise.
The first image in Bonaventure’s Journey is that of the six winged Seraph symbolizing the six stages of illumination. The six appendages in the Temperance Trump figure illustrate the soul’s journey The feet would be the first two steps, the hands the third and fourth steps, and the wings the final steps. The path behind the angelic figure would represent the journey, ‘a direct path that goes up to certain heights on the verge of the horizon’ (PK page 124). The square and the triangle on the angels breast symbolize the material and psychic natures that will united.
The Judgment card would represent that ecstasy of the seventh day that follows the soul’s six day journey. Waite writes, ‘It should be noted that all figures are as one in…ecstasy’ (PK page 148) They have accomplished the great work of transformation and ‘restored” the lost faculty. Therefore, the paired Trumps of Temperance and Judgement mark the beginning and the end of the journey of the soul. Waite writes in another essay that, ‘Divine Ecstasy (is) as a counterpoise to something called Temperance’ (PK page 18), further emphasizing the relationship between the two.
It may seem inconsistent that Temperance would represent the beginning of the soul’s journey because the card comes mid-way through the Trumps at number fourteen. Still, in some of the early Tarot decks, Temperance is number six. In his book, Tarot Symbolism, Robert O’Neill lists the Trump sequence of early decks. Here is a list of decks where Temperance is number six: ‘Steele Manuscript (c 1470); Fifteenth century printed sheet at Metropolitan Museum; Florentine Minchiate deck, late eighteenth century; and Fifteenth Century hand-painted deck known as the ‘Charles VI’ (page 293) Waite studied some of the early decks and so would have been aware of the variations in numbering and probably knew that Temperance was often number six, and perhaps connected it in this way with the six winged seraph of the Soul’s Journey.
The First and Second Stages of the Soul’s Journey:
The second pair of Trumps are the Empress and Emperor:
Here is a traditional couple of the Tarot. The Empress is the ‘visible house of man” the ‘inferior garden of Eden’ (PK page 80) The Emperor is the Kingship of the ‘intellectual throne’ (PK page 87) seeking to remove the Empress’s veil and yet she remains an in tact virgin. I believe this pair represents the first two stages in the journey where the intellect attempts to penetrate the veil of the physical world, but can only experience the world as sign (surface), not sacrament (cause).
For Bonaventure the soul’s journey begins in the mirror of the external world where the mind reads like in a book the origin, magnitude, multitude, fulness (active potency), beauty and activity of created things, for ‘…from the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made’ (Rom. 1.20) The Empress as the visible house of man, as well as beauty, activity, and fecundity would symbolize the mirror of the physical creation, while the Emperor would take this external world in through the doors of the five senses to attempt to read her like a book.
Bonaventure writes ‘It should be noted that this world, which is called the macrocosm, enters our soul, which is called the smaller world, through the doors of the five senses as we perceive, enjoy and judge sensible things’ (Soul’s Journey, page 69)
The beauty and peace of the physical world arouse a yearning in the intellect. This arousal and yearning are like erotic love. As Dionysius wrote, ‘Love for you came on me like love for a woman’ (Divine Names, page 81) which Waite paraphrases as ‘there is no direct message which has been given to man like that which is borne by a woman’ (PK page 83). Although the Empress is ‘the door or gate by which an entrance is obtained into life’ (PK page 83), the Emperor’s rational powers are incapable of penetrating into the invisible beauty that lies beneath the visible sensory world. The Emperor yearns for what lies beneath and takes in the image into his mind and this forms ‘the first two stages in which we are led to behold God in vestiges, like the two wings covering the Seraphs feet’ (Soul’s Journey, page 75).
Third Stage of the Soul’s Journey
Pair 3 – Hermit and Star:
Waite suggests a connection between the Hermit and the Star when he writes, ‘It is a star which shines in the lantern’ (PK page 104). He associates the divine attribute of Truth with the Star: ‘For the majority the figure will appear as the type of Truth unveiled’ (PK page 139).
The Hermit is described as a mixture of the ‘Ancient of Days with the Light of the World’ (PK page 104). I believe these two Trumps combined depict the third step in the journey of the soul.
In the two previous stages of the Journey, the soul internalizes the external world and judges through the eye of reason. Now in the third stage that internal image receives divine insight like a light shining on the mirror of the mind. Bonaventure writes, ‘Here it is that, now in the third stage, we enter into our very selves; and, as it were, leaving the outer court, we should strive to see God through a mirror in the sanctuary…’ (Soul’s Journey, page 79). So essentially the external world exists in our mind but we must polish the mirror of the mind to reflect the light of truth ‘as from a candelabrum’ (Soul’s Journey page 79).
In the third stage the powers of the soul – memory, understanding, and will – add to the soul’s ability to perceive Truth. The ‘Ancient of Days’ or memory relates to time. Bonaventure writes, ‘… Memory is an image of eternity, whose indivisible presence extends to all times’ (Soul’s Journey pages 80-81). Waite connects the Star to understanding when he writes, ‘[…] she (the Star) is in reality the Great Mother in the Kabalistic Sephira Binah, which is supernal Understanding’ (PK page 139) and will is implied when Waite writes, ‘[…] where I am you also may be’ (PK page 104). Through the awakening of the soul’s powers the intellect knows ‘that light which enlightens every man coming into the world’ (Soul’s Journey, page 82). Or as Waite phrases it, ‘Ancient of Days and Light of the World’ (PK page 104).
In the third stage the soul learns to separate the sacred from the profane, or as Waite writes, ‘[…] the Divine Mysteries secure their own protection from those who are unprepared’ (PK page 107).
Bonaventure almost seems to refer to the Hermit when he writes (Soul’s Journey, page 86):
You enlighten wonderfully
from the eternal hills;
all the foolish of heart
The Fourth Stage of the Soul’s Journey
Pair 4 – features the High Priestess and the Hierophant:
Like the Empress and Emperor, the Hierophant [and the High Priestess] are a famous Tarot couple. The Hierophant is the ‘ruling power of external religion’, while the High Priestess ‘is the prevailing genius of the esoteric, withdrawn power’ (PK page 88). They combine to form the fourth stage of the Journey when the soul acquires spiritual faculties and becomes an interiorized hierarchy.
In the third stage the mirror of the mind was polished by the dazzling rays of Truth. The High Priestess symbolizes the stage where the natural senses evolve into the higher faculties. Bonaventure writes that, ‘the soul …recovers its spiritual hearing and sight.. it recovers through desire and affection the spiritual sense of smell… it recovers its sense of taste and touch. Having recovered these senses… it sees its Spouse and hears, smells, tastes and embraces him…. For in this stage, when the inner senses are restored… the soul is prepared for spiritual ecstasy’ (Soul’s Journey, page 89).
The sense of yearning and desire aroused in the Empress is here fully expressed in the higher senses realized in the High Priestess, giving meaning to Waite’s statement that from the Garden of Venus (the Empress) ‘the way …leads out therefrom, into the secret known as the High Priestess’ (PK, page 76). Waite writes of the High Priestess that she is the ‘Secret Church’.
For Waite, the Secret Church relates to Dionysius’s Mystical Theology, which is described as (see footnote) ‘the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence’ (Mystical Theology, page 135).
Waite’s description of the High Priestess ‘The vestments flowing and gauzy, the mantel suggest light – shimmering radiance’ seems to echo the ‘brilliant darkness’ of Dionysius (PK page 76). The High Priestess symbolizes the meeting place between human and divine. Dionysius writes, that when one ascends to the summit of the divine in ‘contemplation, one does not meet God who is invisible but rather where he dwells’, and this dwelling place is Divine Wisdom (Mystical Theology, page 137). Bonaventure concurs when he writes, ‘Filled with intellectual illuminations, our mind like the house of God is inhabited by divine Wisdom’ (Soul’s Journey page 93). And Waite writes of the Priestess, ‘She is really… the House that is of God and man’ (PK page 76).
‘With the spiritual senses restored and prepared for mystical ecstasies, Bonaventure writes the ‘soul is made hierarchical like the nine choirs of angels in order to mount upward’ (Soul’s Journey, page 90). Waite refers to this hierarchy when he writes, ‘He (the Hierophant) is the order and head of the recognized hierarchy which is the reflection of another and greater hierarchic order’ (PK page 91). That greater hierarchy is angelic. This interiorized hierarchy is like a ladder to divine union. The Hierophant, though, is the head of externalized religion, or ecclesiastical hierarchy. In other words, once the Hierophant interiorizes the angelic hierarchy, he is prepared to assist initiates in the form of institutionalized religion.
This is Bonaventure’s summary of the third and fourth stage (Soul’s Journey page 93):
These two middle stages, through which we enter into the contemplation of God with us as in mirrors of created images are like the two middle wings of the Seraph spread out for flight. Through them we can understand that we are led to divine things through the rational soul’s naturally implanted faculties…. Likewise, we are led through the reformed faculties of the soul,… (to) mystical ecstasies, as is apparent in the fourth stage.
This ends the first four stages of the journey of the soul. In the 5th stage the soul acquires the divine attributes of being and love, encounters a dark night or crisis, and must make the choice to pursue the unknown path to the heights rather than the more immediate gratification of the senses. To be continued.
Secret church page 415 of The Holy Grail: The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian Literature
In the footnote Waite writes, ‘These now familiar intimations suggest a Secret Church, as it might be, speaking at a venture, of those who – out of public view, knowledge or suspicion – put in practice the Mysteries of Inward Experience shadowed forth in the Mystical Theology, sub nomine Dionysius’.
Bibliography and notes
Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970, Gerald Duckworth & co. Ltd, London, 2001
Colm Luibheid, translator and Paul Rorem Foreword & Translation Collaboration, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1987
Note: All the quotations and page numbers refer to this translation of Dionysius.
The Pseudo-Dionysius Corpus of writing includes four books and ten letters. The books are as follows: Divine Names, Angelic Hierarchy, Mystical Theology, and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.
Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination, U. S. Games system, Inc. Stamford Ct., 1910 and 1997
Note: I have abbreviated the Pictorial Key to PK and all the page references are to this guidebook.
Arthur Edward Waite, The Way of Divine Union, Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana, U.S.A. (1905)
Note: Although it says on this edition it is 1905, I believe this was published later, 1915.
Arthur Edward Waite, The Holy Grail: The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian Literature, University Books, New Hyde Park, New York, 1961
Robert O’Neill, Tarot Symbolism, Fairway Press, DrawerL, Lima Ohio, 1986 [republished in 2004 by the ATS]
Ewert Cousins, Translation and Introduction, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; the Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, Paulist Press Inc., Mahwah, New Jersey 1987
Note: All the quotations and page references are taken from this translation of Bonaventure
Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain, 1995
Note: Denys Turner is a brilliant scholar of Dionysian spirituality. He has a chapter on Bonaventure, ‘Hierarchy interiorised: Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum‘ that explains the interiorized hierarchy. He gives a succinct description of the steps and really makes both Dionysius and Bonaventure more accessible.
Kent Emery, Jr., Monastic, Scholastic and Mystical Theologies from the Later Middle Ages, Variorum Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, Great Britain, 1996
Note: Kent Emery’s chapter on ‘Bonaventure’ explains much of the underlying structure of the Soul’s Journey. In particular for the first four steps is the following sentence: ‘The association of the three theological virtues with the three powers of the soul and the four cardinal virtues with the four elements of the body was current in the twelfth century’. Temperance carries the breast plate of the triangle inside the square, or three and four.
Ewert Cousins, Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites, Franciscan Herald press, Chicago, Illinois, 1978
Note: I was influenced by Cousin’s essays on Bonaventure’s use of symbolism.
Isabelle De Steiger, Translator; Edward Dunning, Foreword; J.W. Brodie-Innes, Preface; A.E. Waite, Introduction, Karl von Eckartshausen The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, Ibis Press, Berwick, Maine 2003
Note: Waite wrote many wonderful introductions that provide insight into his thinking. This is particularly true for his introductions to mystical works like that of Eckhartshausen.