The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination by Arthur E. Waite
Review by Nina Lee Braden

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

In 1910, Arthur Edward Waite published The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination. Waite's book is important to tarot studies, but Waite's book is not particularly useful or helpful for most tarot students. Without question, Waite was a scholar of immense ability. His knowledge of mysticism, magic, and occultism was extensive. However, today's student is hampered in reading him because of several reasons. First, Waite took his vows of initiation very seriously. He therefore will often obliquely state his message so that only other initiates can decipher his meaning. Second, Waite's style of writing is rather ponderous and elaborate, as the following sentence illustrates:

"The suggestion that divination by cards had behind it the unexpected warrants of ancient hidden science, and that the root of the whole subject was in the wonder and mystery of Egypt, reflected thereon almost a divine dignity; out of the purlieus of occult practices cartomancy emerged into fashion and assumed for the moment almost pontifical vestures" (48).

Third, although Waite's book describes and explains the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, either he wrote his text before Smith finished the illustrations or he did not look carefully at her illustrations. There are places where his descriptions and her illustrations do not match.

This said, Waite's book is extremely valuable for gaining insights into his deck, into the Golden Dawn, and into the state of occult scholarship circa 1910. Waite's book is also useful for its annotated bibliography. Although most of the works that he mentions are extremely rare, it is insightful to read his opinions of these works. In addition to a section on the history of tarot, explanations of the individual cards, and the bibliography, Waite's Pictorial Key also contains a section on choosing a significator and on using the classic Celtic Cross spread. In fact, many modern books will use Waite's exact phraseology in describing this spread. The overall importance and impact of Waite's book cannot be over-estimated. However, the average tarot reader or student would be better served by other, more contemporary, books.

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
ISBN#: 0877282188

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.


Review 1999, 2003 Nina Lee Braden
Page 2003 Diane Wilkes