Makers of Modern Tarot: Part 2
Splinters and seeds . . . .
From its beginning in 1888, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had grown steadily. And its diverse creative personalities had maintained an uneasy truce.
But like most secret societies, the group was always full of intrigue — and rife with disagreements over matters of interpretation and emphasis. By 1900, several strong factions had developed, and relations were strained to the breaking point.
Though the details of these disagreements would be impossible to summarize, the culminating events can be easily recounted. By the late 1890s, MacGregor Mathers had moved to Paris with his wife Moina (the sister of philosopher Henri Bergson). They were attempting to build an esoteric group there — but the autocratic Mathers still wanted long-distance control over the Golden Dawn lodge in London.
For a while Mathers attempted to retain power by sending letters and envoys, but as his power continued to wane, he took a drastic step. He announced that William Westcott had forged the crucial “Golden Dawn page,” and placed it in the cipher manuscript.
Whether it was an accusation or a revelation, Mathers’ claim began the most dramatic of many upheavals that had marked the group’s existence. Yeats — who was heavily involved in these goings-on, and much disturbed by them — described the penultimate event in a letter to his confidante, Lady Gregory:
I have had a bad time of it lately. I told you that I was putting MacGregor out of the Kabbala. Well last week he sent a mad person — whom we had refused to initiate — to take possession of the rooms and papers of the Society.
The “mad person” was none other than Aleister Crowley, then a young protégé of Mathers. He had, in fact, been a member of the “Outer Order,” and had been initiated into the “Inner Order” of the Golden Dawn by Mathers. But that initiation was not recognized by the Yeats camp.
As a consequence of this disconnect, Crowley staged a peculiar assault on the Golden Dawn’s London office. Dressed in Highland regalia, with a black mask over his face, he attempted to take physical possession of the order’s papers and paraphernalia, and had to be ejected by a constable.
In 1900, Yeats was in his mid-30s, and already well-known as a poet, playwright, and political activist. Crowley, who was ten years younger, had established himself as a wealthy libertine, and was refused initiation by the London group, according to Yeats, because “we did not think a mystical society was intended to be a reformatory.”
But whatever Crowley’s defects of character may have been — and these will be mentioned in a little more detail — he was nevertheless to become one of the most dynamic “alumni” of the Golden Dawn.
The inevitable clash of these very different men (Mathers, Yeats, Crowley) led to the splintering of the Golden Dawn, and, ironically, fostered a period of considerable productivity surrounding the Tarot. From the ruins of the society they had fought over, there arose several new esoteric groups. And since the Tarot had been among the most important and carefully studied subjects of the Golden Dawn’s magical system, several reimagined (“rectified” and “perfected”) decks were eventually produced by fragmented factions of the original order.
By far the most influential of these new Tarots was created by Arthur Edward Waite. Waite had begun his work with the Tarot late in the 19th century, when he translated the works of Papus and Eliphas Levi into English. He joined the Golden Dawn in 1891, but seems to have played little part in the dramatic events that led to the 1900 schism.
Perhaps he had been lying in wait! In 1903 — after the group had been under Yeats’s leadership for a short period — Waite took over control of the London temple, changed the name of the order from “Hermetic” to “Holy,” and replaced the magical emphasis of Mathers with an agenda that focused on mysticism instead.
Yeats and the majority of Golden Dawn members chose to remain with the magical path, and soon founded another order, the Stella Matutina. Though he would keep up an interest in esoteric studies throughout his life, Yeats focused increasingly on his poetry — and in 1923 received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
By contrast to the brilliant Yeats and the wildly colorful Crowley, A. E. Waite was more than a bit stuffy — and not particularly charismatic. He had led a fairly ordinary middle-class life from birth. Yet he proved to be a surprisingly thoughtful scholar, determined to correct the misunderstandings and fanciful speculations that had grown up around the Tarot. His pathbreaking book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, was published in 1910, and effectively denounced several popular pseudo-historical scenarios about the origins of Tarot.
The following profile of Eliphas Levi is a good example of Waite’s more realistic approach, as well as his characteristically turgid style:
In 1860 there arose Eliphas Levi, a brilliant and profound illuminé whom it is impossible to accept, and with whom it is impossible to dispense …. After all, he was only Etteilla a second time in the flesh, endowed in his transmutation with à mouth of gold and a wider casual knowledge. That notwithstanding, he has written the most comprehensive, brilliant, enchanting History of Magic which has ever been drawn into writing in any language.
The Tarot and the de Gébelin hypothesis he took into his heart of hearts, and all occult France and all esoteric Britain, Martinists, half-instructed Kabalists, schools of soi disant theosophy — there, here, and everywhere — have accepted his judgment about it with the same confidence as his interpretations of those great classics of Kabalism which he had skimmed rather than read.
It could fairly be said that Waite’s approach to the Tarot set the tone for much of what has been thought and written about the subject ever since. The Tarot, asserted Waite, “has no history prior to the fourteenth century,” and he gave this view of its nature:
The Tarot embodies symbolical presentations of universal ideas, behind which lie all the implicits of the human mind, and it is in this sense that they contain secret doctrine, which is the realization by the few of truths imbedded in the consciousness of all, though they have not passed into express recognition by ordinary men.
The theory is that this doctrine has always existed — that is to say, has been excogitated in the consciousness of an elect minority; that it has been perpetuated in secrecy from one to another and has been recorded in secret literatures, like those of Alchemy and Kabalism; that it is contained also in those Instituted Mysteries of which Rosicrucianism offers an example near to our hand in the past, and Craft Masonry’ a living summary, or general memorial, for those who can interpret its real meaning.
One of Waite’s especially significant contributions to the interpretation of the Tarot was his recognition of the importance of alchemy, in addition to the Kabbalah, as a means of understanding the symbolism of the Tarot. Both the Rosicrucian tradition and the Golden Dawn rituals made much use of the symbolism of alchemy, which revolves around the nature of the elements and the fusion of male/female polarities.
Alchemical work — which has been practiced in various cultures for many centuries — can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, it was concerned with the physical process of transmuting base metals into higher ones: lead into gold. That aspect of alchemy contributed much to the development of modern chemistry.
But alchemy can also be seen as a psycho-spiritual process, in which the adept aims to purify the inner self and attain higher levels of consciousness. Waite, in keeping with his general inclination toward mysticism, viewed alchemy in this way, as a spiritual undertaking. Although he did not present the idea of “alchemical Tarot” in explicit detail, his knowledge of alchemy (he translated a number of Renaissance alchemical texts and wrote several books on the subject which are now regarded as classics) certainly influenced strongly the development of his Tarot interpretations.
Waite’s book was illustrated with a new set of Tarot images, for which he created the basic designs. They were executed by Pamela Colman Smith — an American artist who has only recently begun to receive credit for her significant contributions to the character of the deck.
The Waite-Smith images, published as a deck by Rider and Company in 1910, featured an innovation that was to influence most subsequently designed decks: the use of story-like pictures on the minor arcana pip cards, illustrating the divinatory meanings assigned to them. Partly for this reason, and partly because of its colorful, accessible style, the Waite-Colman deck is still the most popular Tarot in existence, and Waite’s book has never been out of print.
More than half a century would pass before another came even close to that level of influence.
And during that time Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “great beast,” acquired an even more highly-charged reputation. He pursued “sex-magick,” engaged his detractors in long-distance battles carried out by sorcery, and claimed to have been Eliphas Levi in a former life. (He really had been born on the day Levi died.)
Crowley’s genius for self-promotion, along with his disdain for ordinary rules, often landed him in the tabloids. And though his financial resources seem to have fluctuated sharply, he was somehow able (along with various lovers and acolytes) to travel widely and start various occult enterprises. Along the way, he painted, climbed mountains, wrote prolifically, and took a variety of drugs.
But despite his intentionally bizarre lifestyle, Crowley was a perceptive and imaginative student of esoteric philosophies. And together with artist Lady Frieda Harris, he created one of the most beautiful, unusual, and influential of all Tarot decks.
Illustrations for the deck were originally published in 1944—just three years before Crowley died, at the age of 72. They appeared in a limited edition of Crowley’s masterwork on the Tarot, The Book of Thoth. In choosing that title, Crowley probably intended to be ironic, for it seems likely that he viewed himself not as explicating a centuries-old work, but rather as actually writing — for the first time — the long-promised “book” of Thoth/Hermes.
The Thoth illustrations were not published as a deck of cards until 1969 — but in the intervening years, Crowley’s approach to the Tarot gained a great deal of underground influence. Like Waite, he rejected any Egyptian connection, and in fact, stated clearly that “the origin of the Tarot is quite irrelevant, even if it were certain.”
But he retained the idea of a Kabbalistic connection. According to Crowley, the Tarot should be understood as “a pictorial representation of the Forces of Nature as conceived by the Ancients according to a conventional symbolism.” This “ancient scheme of the Elements, Planets and Zodiacal Signs, was summarized by the Qabalists in their Tree of Life,” Crowley wrote, and so the Tarot was “beyond doubt a deliberate attempt to represent, in pictorial form, the doctrines of the Qabalah.”
Based on this hypothesis, Crowley developed an expanded — and somewhat idiosyncratic — blend of Kabbalism, Eastern mysticism, and Western mythology to illuminate the Tarot. This synthetic vision makes The Book of Thoth a work that is by no means trustworthy, but nevertheless provocative and rich with associations.
From Waite to Crowley, the Golden Dawn aftermath played out over more than three decades, in ways that strongly shaped the evolution of modern tarot. But they were not the only influencers. During the period between the two World Wars, there were several important Tarot-related developments that did not originate from the Golden Dawn legacy.
Their stories come next.