1st Ten Major Arcana Wrapup

With this post we will pause for a summary overview of the first group of major arcana, since we’ve now done ten.

  1. With The Fool, Waite creates a context for “the journey outward, the state of the first emanation, the graces and passivity of the spirit,” as opposed to his predecessors’ simpler attributions of inexperience, folly and stupidity to material questions.
  2. In the Magician, with the lemniscate, we see “the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit,” the first of Waite’s overtly Christian additions.
  3. The High Priestess is a special case, and we’ll devote more than a line or two to her. If Waite only wanted to “Christianize” the tarot a little, all he had to do was to bring her a step back to the “Pope-ess” as she was once described. I presume that was a bit much to ask of a Catholic, though. Instead, he portrays her as the feminine incarnation of the mysteries of the Church. I also think, and I realize that never having seen this idea elsewhere that I may be out on a limb here, that there is a connection between the palms of the veil and the temple of Solomon. I think this is the first of several signs that Waite is consciously lessening the importance of the Judaic/Qabalistic roots of the Golden Dawn’s cartomantic foundations. Just as the veil was rent the Friday following Palm Sunday, Waite attempts to tear at foundations of the numerological basis of the Golden Dawn’s strategy of reading the tarot.
  4. As a secular archetype, Waite depicts the Empress as a contrast to the High Priestess: the (literally) pregnant embodiment of the physical quality of womanhood, in contrast to the purely feminine spirit of the other.
  5. The signs of virility on the Emperor (the Ankh and rams), and the lack of common royal symbols such as the orb and cross set up a contrast with the Hierophant. The former as worldly action, and the latter as spritual/ecclesiastical action.
  6. In the Hierophant, we see the addition of small touches, such as the papal keys, underlining the power of the symbols and rituals of the Roman Catholic church.
  7. With the Lovers, Waite moves away from a simple archetype of man and woman together (compare to Plato—the Phrygian myth of Attis and Cybele, in which men and women were physically joined to make one being. That was the archetype, in my opinion). Waite adds to the meaning, turning the Lovers into a homily, stating that romantic and physical love are gifts from the divine.
  8. With the Chariot, Waite appears to set the princely rider up in direct contrast to the High Priestess: as a symbol of action of this world
  9. In the depiction of Strength, Waite transforms the pagan cardinal virtue of fortitude into another homily about the importance of taming the passions with “the sweet yoke and the light burden of Divine Law.”
  10. In the the Hermit, Waite presumably directs Colman Smith to depict him peering down from his mountain, the message being that either you attain God and the heights, or folly should you not choose the path of enlightenment.


First of all, by now it should be apparent that my “read” of Waite’s reinterpretation of the symbols of tarot skews heavily towards “Christian” concepts and homilies. To a lesser degree, and not in a contradictory way, we will see in other illustrations a skew towards “Celt”-ization (after all, Waite put the “Celtic” in “Celtic Cross.” Not bad for a Brit born in Brooklyn!). Juliette Wood has a comprehensive monograph available on the web that might be enlightening.

The other takeaway is that Waite puts additional meanings in previously used symbols. Sometimes, the additional meanings could only be known from his texts. But in other cases, they’re overt. In programming, we call this cramming of additional functionality into something that performs a related function overloading. Waite takes the very basic archetypes of the rennaissance cards, the kings, queens, marriage, pope, abbess, etc., and adds new symbolic meanings. In doing so, he shows his genius, and the genius of the Golden Dawn which overloaded those earlier cards with meanings drawn not from Christianity, but from the Qabal and numerology, which is where Waite differed from them.

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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?