Pictorial Key to the Tarot

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, subtitled Understanding The Tarot Deck: Arthur Waite's Famous Pictorial Keys and Explanations gives Waite's insight and background for the Rider-Waite Tarot cards.

By Arthur E. Waite · Book · Published by Weiser Books

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

This is a 1999 edition of The Pictorial Key To The Tarot, originally published in 1909. The "Pictorial Key To The Tarot" is the classic reference book showcasing the Tarot deck designed by Arthur Edward Waite, with illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith. While not disputing the wealth of knowledge and wonderful illustrations in this book, I am glad that I did not have this as a reference when I was first learning Tarot. To have gleaned much of this knowledge from other sources first was, for me, a good thing. As a student, I don't know how much of this material I would have believed, and how much I would have "passed" on. And the lines would have probably crossed on both.

The promotional blurb on the back of the book states: "This is the only Tarot of interest to the general reader." Quoting Waite: "It is the Gateway to the truth." In the introduction, Waite is quoted as saying that the four symbols of the Holy Grail are the same as the suites in Tarot: the Cup, the Lance, the Dish and the Sword. He references the reason for these secrets being also kept in the Tarot as being kept in certain secret records in Europe. That rates a big "hmmmmmmm" in my book.

Waite writes as if he is relaying the Gospel, and the reader only needs to heed his words. Once past that, there is some wonderful material here. Some of Waite's background is gone into - his membership in the Order of the Golden Dawn, his interest in all things mystical (the Holy Grail, Kabballah, magic, theosophy, occultism, Rosicrucianism), and his creation of his Tarot deck as a means of conveying the secret tradition of the ancient mysteries.

There is an interesting background given for Pamela Colman Smith - a lady with a deep interest in the arts, a set designer, and a fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. It gets more interesting when we read tidbits such a Waite's claim that he had to "spoon-feed" Smith concepts for The Priestess, The Fool and The Hanged Man.

In her introduction, Gertrude Moakley has Waite advising us that the meaning of the Tarot is not occult, but mystical, and that we are to allow the "highest" meaning of each card to come to us, and then allow the separate meanings to combine until all flows in harmony.

Before going into a discussion of the cards themselves, Waite presents his view of the history of Tarot. While interesting, I did find it hard to follow. My feeling here is that he did a better job with the cards themselves than he did with the background that he created for them.

Waite then goes on to discuss what he sees Tarot as being - a system embodying universal truths. He goes into an incredible rip on Papus and his Tarot of the Bohemians, calling it a work done with great zeal but little insight. This he follows with his own reasoning for the sequence and intention behind the twenty-two major cards. The next section delves into the Major Arcana, showing black and white illustrations of each card, along with a written description and explanation of the symbols contained within each card. This is followed by an equally good section of illustrations and descriptions of the minor arcana.This is followed by sections on the Major Arcana (expounding on their divinitory meanings, upright and reversed) and a section on the Minor Arcana, and their upright and reversed meanings.

There is an additional, quite interesting section on the significance of multiple cards in a reading (3 fours, 4 sixes etc). The remainder of the book is devoted to presenting a Celtic Cross spread, and to a short explanation of how the game of Tarot is played.

This book is well worth reading (and keeping as a reference to the Rider-Waite deck and Waite's views on Tarot). The cards and their meanings are presented well, as is the section on the symbolism retained in the cards. Quite an interesting peek into the mind of A.E. Waite!

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer.

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