A. E. Waite

By: Erik Davis
October 2, 2009


Within the western current of occult mysticism, A. E. WAITE (1857–1942) stands out as a prototype of the modern scholar-practitioner — an initiate and seeker who was nonetheless devoted to mapping and organizing the occult as an object of historical knowledge rather than a field of creative elaboration (or mystification). Born in America but raised in humble circumstances in the UK, Waite was a member of the famous Order of the Golden Dawn (with the motto Sacramentum Regis Abscondere Bonum Est) and, as a mystical Christian always wary of the Order’s more magical leanings, was also instrumental in its demise. His many books helped lay the foundation for the modern understanding of alchemy, Rosicrucianism, black magic, and other zones of arcana, but he made his biggest mark with the Rider Waite Tarot deck he produced with GD initiate Pamela Colman Smith (motto: Quod Tibi id Aliis) at the end of the Belle Epoque. Influenced by Eliphas Levi’s brilliant 19th-century over-reading of the Tarot’s esoteric correspondences, Waite directed Smith to produce a deck “with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols.” The art world didn’t care much for Smith’s charming and potent Art Nouveau cartoons, but popular culture did. Today the Rider-Waite — which was the first to provide images for all 78 cards — remains hands-down the most popular of Tarot decks, and the “archetypal” template for numerous clones.


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