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The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite, ill. by Pamela Colman Smith [1911], at


§ 2


Otherwise, Greater Arcana

1. The Magus, Magician, or juggler, the caster of the dice and mountebank, in the world of vulgar trickery. This is the colportage interpretation, and it has the same correspondence with the real symbolical meaning that the use of the Tarot in fortune-telling has with its mystic construction according to the secret science of symbolism. I should add that many independent students of the subject, following their own lights, have produced individual sequences of meaning in respect of the Trumps Major, and their lights are sometimes suggestive, but they are not the true lights. For example, Éliphas Lévi says that the Magus signifies that unity which is the mother of numbers; others say that it is the Divine Unity; and one of the latest French commentators considers that in its general sense it is the will.

2. The High Priestess, the Pope Joan, or Female Pontiff; early expositors have sought to term this card the Mother, or Pope's Wife, which is opposed to the symbolism. It is sometimes held to represent the Divine Law and the Gnosis, in which case the Priestess corresponds to the idea of the Shekinah. She is the Secret Tradition and the higher sense of the instituted Mysteries.

3. The Empress, who is sometimes represented with full face, while her correspondence, the Emperor, is in profile. As there has been some tendency to ascribe a symbolical significance to this distinction, it seems desirable to say that it carries no inner meaning. The Empress has been connected with the ideas of universal fecundity and in a general sense with activity.

4. The Emperor, by imputation the spouse of the former. He is occasionally represented as wearing, in addition to his personal insignia, the stars or ribbons of some order of chivalry. I mention this to shew that the cards are a medley of old and new emblems. Those who insist upon the evidence of the one may deal, if they can, with the other. No effectual argument for the antiquity of a particular design can be drawn from the fact that it incorporates old material; but there is also none which can be based on sporadic novelties, the intervention of which may signify only the unintelligent hand of an editor or of a late draughtsman.

5. The High Priest or Hierophant, called also Spiritual Father, and more commonly and obviously the Pope. It seems even to have been named the Abbot, and then its correspondence, the High Priestess, was the Abbess or Mother of the Convent. Both are arbitrary names. The insignia of the figures are papal, and in such case the High Priestess is and can be only the Church, to whom Pope and priests are married by the spiritual rite of ordination. I think, however, that in its primitive form this card did not represent the Roman Pontiff.

6. The Lovers or Marriage. This symbol has undergone many variations, as might be expected from its subject. In the eighteenth century form, by which it first became known to the world of archæological research, it is really a card of married life, shewing father and mother, with their child placed between them; and the pagan Cupid above, in the act of flying his shaft, is, of course, a misapplied emblem. The Cupid is of love beginning rather than of love in its fulness, guarding the fruit thereof. The card is said to have been entitled Simulacyum fidei, the symbol of conjugal faith, for which the rainbow as a sign of the covenant would have been a more appropriate concomitant. The figures are also held to have signified Truth, Honour and Love, but I suspect that this was, so to speak, the gloss of a commentator moralizing. It has these, but it has other and higher aspects.

7. The Chariot. This is represented in some extant codices as being drawn by two sphinxes, and the device is in consonance with the symbolism, but it must not be supposed that such was its original form; the variation was invented to support a particular historical hypothesis. In the eighteenth century white horses were yoked to the car. As regards its usual name, the lesser stands for the greater; it is really the King in his triumph, typifying, however, the victory which creates kingship as its natural consequence and not the vested royalty of the fourth card. M. Court de Gebelin said that it was Osiris Triumphing, the conquering sun in spring-time having vanquished the obstacles of winter. We know now that Osiris rising from the dead is not represented by such obvious symbolism. Other animals than horses have also been used to draw the currus triumphalis, as, for example, a lion and a leopard.

8. Fortitude. This is one of the cardinal virtues, of which I shall speak later. The female figure is usually represented as closing the mouth of a lion. In the earlier form which is printed by Court de Gebelin, she is obviously opening it. The first alternative is better symbolically, but either is an instance of strength in its conventional understanding, and conveys the idea of mastery. It has been said that the figure represents organic force, moral force and the principle of all force.

9. The Hermit, as he is termed in common parlance, stands next on the list; he is also the Capuchin, and in more philosophical language the Sage. He is said to be in search of that Truth which is located far off in the sequence, and of justice which has preceded him on the way. But this is a card of attainment, as we shall see later, rather than a card of quest. It is said also that his lantern contains the Light of Occult Science and that his staff is a Magic Wand. These interpretations are comparable in every respect to the divinatory and fortune-telling meanings with which I shall have to deal in their turn. The diabolism of both is that they are true after their own manner, but that they miss all the high things to which the Greater Arcana should be allocated. It is as if a man who knows in his heart that all roads lead to the heights, and that God is at the great height of all, should choose the way of perdition or the way of folly as the path of his own attainment. Éliphas Lévi has allocated this card to Prudence, but in so doing he has been actuated by the wish to fill a gap which would otherwise occur in the symbolism. The four cardinal virtues are necessary to an idealogical sequence like the Trumps Major, but they must not be taken only in that first sense which exists for the use and consolation of him who in these days of halfpenny journalism is called the man in the street. In their proper understanding they are the correlatives of the counsels of perfection when these have been similarly re-expressed, and they read as follows: (a) Transcendental justice, the counter-equilibrium of the scales, when they have been overweighted so that they dip heavily on the side of God. The corresponding counsel is to use loaded dice when you play for high stakes with Diabolus. The axiom is Aut Deus, aut nihil. (b) Divine Ecstacy, as a counterpoise to something called Temperance, the sign of which is, I believe, the extinction of lights in the tavern. The corresponding counsel is to drink only of new wine in the Kingdom of the Father, because God is all in all. The axiom is that man being a reasonable being must get intoxicated with God; the imputed case in point is Spinoza. (c) The state of Royal Fortitude, which is the state of a Tower of Ivory and a House of Gold, but it is God and not the man who has become Turris fortitudinis a facie inimici, and out of that House the enemy has been cast. The corresponding counsel is that a man must not spare himself even in the presence of death, but he must be certain that his sacrifice shall be-of any open course-the best that will ensure his end. The axiom is that the strength which is raised to such a degree that a man dares lose himself shall shew him how God is found, and as to such refuge--dare therefore and learn. (d) Prudence is the economy which follows the line of least resistance, that the soul may get back whence it came. It is a doctrine of divine parsimony and conservation of energy, because of the stress, the terror and the manifest impertinences of this life. The corresponding counsel is that true prudence is concerned with the one thing needful, and the axiom is: Waste not, want not. The conclusion of the whole matter is a business proposition founded on the law of exchange: You cannot help getting what you seek in respect of the things that are Divine: it is the law of supply and demand. I have mentioned these few matters at this point for two simple reasons: (a) because in proportion to the impartiality of the mind it seems sometimes more difficult to determine whether it is vice or vulgarity which lays waste the present world more piteously; (b) because in order to remedy the imperfections of the old notions it is highly needful, on occasion, to empty terms and phrases of their accepted significance, that they may receive a new and more adequate meaning.

10. The Wheel of Fortune. There is a current Manual of Cartomancy which has obtained a considerable vogue in England, and amidst a great scattermeal of curious things to no purpose has intersected a few serious subjects. In its last and largest edition it treats in one section of the Tarot; which--if I interpret the author rightly--it regards from beginning to end as the Wheel of Fortune, this expression being understood in my own sense. I have no objection to such an inclusive though conventional description; it obtains in all the worlds, and I wonder that it has not been adopted previously as the most appropriate name on the side of common fortune-telling. It is also the title of one of the Trumps Major--that indeed of our concern at the moment, as my sub-title shews. Of recent years this has suffered many fantastic presentations and one hypothetical reconstruction which is suggestive in its symbolism. The wheel has seven radii; in the eighteenth century the ascending and descending animals were really of nondescript character, one of them having a human head. At the summit was another monster with the body of an indeterminate beast, wings on shoulders and a crown on head. It carried two wands in its claws. These are replaced in the reconstruction by a Hermanubis rising with the wheel, a Sphinx couchant at the summit and a Typhon on the descending side. Here is another instance of an invention in support of a hypothesis; but if the latter be set aside the grouping is symbolically correct and can pass as such.

11. Justice. That the Tarot, though it is of all reasonable antiquity, is not of time immemorial, is shewn by this card, which could have been presented in a much more archaic manner. Those, however, who have gifts of discernment in matters of this kind will not need to be told that age is in no sense of the essence of the consideration; the Rite of Closing the Lodge in the Third Craft Grade of Masonry may belong to the late eighteenth century, but the fact signifies nothing; it is still the summary of all the instituted and official Mysteries. The female figure of the eleventh card is said to be Astræa, who personified the same virtue and is represented by the same symbols. This goddess notwithstanding, and notwithstanding the vulgarian Cupid, the Tarot is not of Roman mythology, or of Greek either. Its presentation of justice is supposed to be one of the four cardinal virtues included in the sequence of Greater Arcana; but, as it so happens, the fourth emblem is wanting, and it became necessary for the commentators to discover it at all costs. They did what it was possible to do, and yet the laws of research have never succeeded in extricating the missing Persephone under the form of Prudence. Court de Gebelin attempted to solve the difficulty by a tour de force, and believed that he had extracted what he wanted from the symbol of the Hanged Man--wherein he deceived himself. The Tarot has, therefore, its justice, its Temperance also and its Fortitude, but--owing to a curious omission--it does not offer us any type of Prudence, though it may be admitted that, in some respects, the isolation of the Hermit, pursuing a solitary path by the light of his own lamp, gives, to those who can receive it, a certain high counsel in respect of the via prudentiæ.

12. The Hanged Man. This is the symbol which is supposed to represent Prudence, and Éliphas Lévi says, in his most shallow and plausible manner, that it is the adept bound by his engagements. The figure of a man is suspended head-downwards from a gibbet, to which he is attached by a rope about one of his ankles. The arms are bound behind him, and one leg is crossed over the other. According to another, and indeed the prevailing interpretation, he signifies sacrifice, but all current meanings attributed to this card are cartomancists' intuitions, apart from any real value on the symbolical side. The fortune-tellers of the eighteenth century who circulated Tarots, depict a semi-feminine youth in jerkin, poised erect on one foot and loosely attached to a short stake driven into the ground.

13. Death. The method of presentation is almost invariable, and embodies a bourgeois form of symbolism. The scene is the field of life, and amidst ordinary rank vegetation there are living arms and heads protruding from the ground. One of the heads is crowned, and a skeleton with a great scythe is in the act of mowing it. The transparent and unescapable meaning is death, but the alternatives allocated to the symbol are change and transformation. Other heads have been swept from their place previously, but it is, in its current and patent meaning, more especially a card of the death of Kings. In the exotic sense it has been said to signify the ascent of the spirit in the divine spheres, creation and destruction, perpetual movement, and so forth.

14. Temperance. The winged figure of a female--who, in opposition to all doctrine concerning the hierarchy of angels, is usually allocated to this order of ministering spirits--is pouring liquid from one pitcher to another. In his last work on the Tarot, Dr. Papus abandons the traditional form and depicts a woman wearing an Egyptian head-dress. The first thing which seems clear on the surface is that the entire symbol has no especial connexion with Temperance, and the fact that this designation has always obtained for the card offers a very obvious instance of a meaning behind meaning, which is the title in chief to consideration in respect of the Tarot as a whole.

15. The Devil. In the eighteenth century this card seems to have been rather a symbol of merely animal impudicity. Except for a fantastic head-dress, the chief figure is entirely naked; it has bat-like wings, and the hands and feet are represented by the claws of a bird. In the right hand there is a sceptre terminating in a sign which has been thought to represent fire. The figure as a whole is not particularly evil; it has no tail, and the commentators who have said that the claws are those of a harpy have spoken at random. There is no better ground for the alternative suggestion that they are eagle's claws. Attached, by a cord depending from their collars, to the pedestal on which the figure is mounted, are two small demons, presumably male and female. These are tailed, but not winged. Since 1856 the influence of Éliphas Lévi and his doctrine of occultism has changed the face of this card, and it now appears as a pseudo-Baphometic figure with the head of a goat and a great torch between the horns; it is seated instead of erect, and in place of the generative organs there is the Hermetic caduceus. In Le Tarot Divinatoire of Papus the small demons are replaced by naked human beings, male and female ' who are yoked only to each other. The author may be felicitated on this improved symbolism.

16. The Tower struck by Lightning. Its alternative titles are: Castle of Plutus, God's House and the Tower of Babel. In the last case, the figures falling therefrom are held to be Nimrod and his minister. It is assuredly a card of confusion, and the design corresponds, broadly speaking, to any of the designations except Maison Dieu, unless we are to understand that the House of God has been abandoned and the veil of the temple rent. It is a little surprising that the device has not so far been allocated to the destruction Of Solomon's Temple, when the lightning would symbolize the fire and sword with which that edifice was visited by the King of the Chaldees.

17. The Star, Dog-Star, or Sirius, also called fantastically the Star of the Magi. Grouped about it are seven minor luminaries, and beneath it is a naked female figure, with her left knee upon the earth and her right foot upon the water. She is in the act of pouring fluids from two vessels. A bird is perched on a tree near her; for this a butterfly on a rose has been substituted in some later cards. So also the Star has been called that of Hope. This is one of the cards which Court de Gebelin describes as wholly Egyptian-that is to say, in his own reverie.

18. The Moon. Some eighteenth-century cards shew the luminary on its waning side; in the debased edition of Etteilla, it is the moon at night in her plenitude, set in a heaven of stars; of recent years the moon is shewn on the side of her increase. In nearly all presentations she is shining brightly and shedding the moisture of fertilizing dew in great drops. Beneath there are two towers, between which a path winds to the verge of the horizon. Two dogs, or alternatively a wolf and dog, are baying at the moon, and in the foreground there is water, through which a crayfish moves towards the land.

19. The Sun. The luminary is distinguished in older cards by chief rays that are waved and salient alternately and by secondary salient rays. It appears to shed its influence on earth not only by light and heat, but--like the moon--by drops of dew. Court de Gebelin termed these tears of gold and of pearl, just as he identified the lunar dew with the tears of Isis. Beneath the dog-star there is a wall suggesting an enclosure-as it might be, a walled garden-wherein are two children, either naked or lightly clothed, facing a water, and gambolling, or running hand in hand. Éliphas Lévi says that these are sometimes replaced by a spinner unwinding destinies, and otherwise by a much better symbol-a naked child mounted on a white horse and displaying a scarlet standard.

20. The Last judgment. I have spoken of this symbol already, the form of which is essentially invariable, even in the Etteilla set. An angel sounds his trumpet per sepulchra regionum, and the dead arise. It matters little that Etteilla omits the angel, or that Dr. Papus substitutes a ridiculous figure, which is, however, in consonance with the general motive of that Tarot set which accompanies his latest work. Before rejecting the transparent interpretation of the symbolism which is conveyed by the name of the card and by the picture which it presents to the eye, we should feel very sure of our ground. On the surface, at least, it is and can be only the resurrection of that triad--father, mother, child-whom we have met with already in the eighth card. M. Bourgeat hazards the suggestion that esoterically it is the symbol of evolution--of which it carries none of the signs. Others say that it signifies renewal, which is obvious enough; that it is the triad of human life; that it is the "generative force of the earth... and eternal life." Court de Gebelin makes himself impossible as usual, and points out that if the grave-stones were removed it could be accepted as a symbol of creation.

21--which, however, in most of the arrangements is the cipher card, number nothing--The Fool, Mate, or Unwise Man. Court de Gebelin places it at the head of the whole series as the zero or negative which is presupposed by numeration, and as this is a simpler so also it is a better arrangement. It has been abandoned because in later times the cards have been attributed to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and there has been apparently some difficulty about allocating the zero symbol satisfactorily in a sequence of letters all of which signify numbers. In the present reference of the card to the letter Shin, which corresponds to 200, the difficulty or the unreason remains. The truth is that the real arrangement of the cards has never transpired. The Fool carries a wallet; he is looking over his shoulder and does not know that he is on the brink of a precipice; but a dog or other animal--some call it a tiger--is attacking him from behind, and he is hurried to his destruction unawares. Etteilla has given a justifiable variation of this card--as generally understood--in the form of a court jester, with cap, bells and motley garb. The other descriptions say that the wallet contains the bearer's follies and vices, which seems bourgeois and arbitrary.

22. The World, the Universe, or Time. The four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel's vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism, are grouped about an elliptic garland, as if it were a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things; within this garland there is the figure of a woman, whom the wind has girt about the loins with a light scarf, and this is all her vesture. She is in the act of dancing, and has a wand in either hand. It is eloquent as an image of the swirl of the sensitive life, of joy attained in the body, of the soul's intoxication in the earthly paradise, but still guarded by the Divine Watchers, as if by the powers and the graces of the Holy Name, Tetragammaton, JVHV--those four ineffable letters which are sometimes attributed to the mystical beasts. Éliphas Lévi calls the garland a crown, and reports that the figure represents Truth. Dr. Papus connects it with the Absolute and the realization of the Great Work; for yet others it is a symbol of humanity and the eternal reward of a life that has been spent well. It should be noted that in the four quarters of the garland there are four flowers distinctively marked. According to P. Christian, the garland should be formed of roses, and this is the kind of chain which Éliphas Lévi says is less easily broken than a chain of iron. Perhaps by antithesis, but for the same reason, the iron crown of Peter may he more lightly on the heads of sovereign pontiffs than the crown of gold on kings.

Next: Section 3: Class II. The Four Suites