Most famous for his collaboration with artist Pamela Colman Smith, on the Rider Waite Tarot deck, Arthur Edward Waite was born on 2 October 1857 at 1pm in Brooklyn, New York, to international parentage. He had an American father: United States Merchant Marine seaman Captain Charles Frederick Waite and an English mother, Emma Lovell, whose merchant father was linked with the East India Company.
Waite’s spiritual views altered over the years and were considerably broad by the time he worked on the Rider Waite deck in 1909, prior to its publication in 1910. Religious inclinations may have initially evolved from his New England ancestors, who were devout Episcopalians; settling in Connecticut and Boston, several of them entered the legal profession.
Waite’s own work was largely of a literary and spiritual nature and he was closely involved with the Isis-Urania Lodge of the Golden Dawn when first involved with Colman Smith. She had been introduced there by William Butler Yeats, whose leaning was more to the Hermetic and magical than Waite’s Rosicrucian-Christian orientation. It was this more mystical, receptive approach that attracted Colman Smith to Waite’s branch of spirituality, together with a shared awareness of the significance of astrology.
Waite’s instructions, when he commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to paint the Tarot deck images, included that she “follow very carefully the astrological significance of each suit as it is influenced by different zodiacal signs”. The two collaborators also shared in common a family background where travel abroad was a regular theme, part of the basis of a strong Anglo-American link for each of them.
In his 1987-published biography, A E Waite: A Magician of Many Parts, R A Gilbert’s states there was no record of the marriage of Waite’s parents, although online parish register records indicate that a ‘Charles Frederick Wait’ and Emma Lovell were married between April and June 1950 in Kensington – which mirrors Waite’s own claim that they married in St Mary Abbots, Kensington.
Emma often joined Captain Waite on voyages, but he sadly died at sea on a separate trip, when Arthur Edward was just three days short of his first birthday and, coincidentally, his younger sister was about to be born. Notably, when Frederika died in 1874, Waite was so deeply disturbed by his sister’s death that he lost his Catholic faith, turning instead to Spiritualism, then Theosophy and, finally, occultism for answers.
Waite was married twice, initially in Paddington, between January and March 1886 to Ada Alice Lakeman; nicknamed Lucasta, his wife was also somewhat involved in spiritual practices, but never fully warmed to the Golden Dawn. They had just one child (Sybil) and Lucasta died in 1924. We have scarce details of his later marriage to Mary Broadbent Schofield.
What we know most about is Waite’s professional work, as a book editor, translator and writer. He wrote and compiled dozens of books in his time, including works of poetry and romance novels, but is mostly known for the Rider Waite Tarot deck that he conceived and the Celtic Cross Tarot spread that he popularised.
He was nonetheless a prolific occult researcher and critic and a highly experienced practitioner of the mystical and esoteric arts, and his translation work brought the wisdom and workings of an international circuit of occultists to the public eye. He also took pains to explain the differences in practice and approach between the Rosicrucians and Freemasons and regarding acts of grace as opposed to acts of power.
Waite’s preferred term for the occult was ‘The Secret Tradition’ and, whilst he maintained a love of ritual from his background in Catholic liturgy, he favoured the mystical over the magical side of spiritual and alchemical ritual. He preferred the idea of moving towards a profound connection with the divine, over trying to impress others through the strength of any apparent magical powers.
We can see something of how his thinking developed, from the occult works he translated. In 1896 Waite edited Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual, including a section entitled the Book of Hermes, Chapter XXII (originally from the 1855 French-published volume: The Ritual of Transcendent Magic, consisting of descriptions of the Tarot’s Major Arcana cards. That work contains a strong emphasis on Tarot and its cards as ‘keys’ – that is, as ways in to unlocking the door to divine illumination. The Kabbalistic link of the letters of the shortened word, ‘TARO’ are discussed therein, together with the only illustration of a Tarot card - Key VII, The Chariot, which described the vehicle of illumination, via which the prophet Ezekiel could deliver a message from God.
Arthur Edward Waite’s convictions set him apart from many contemporaries who were members of the same secret orders - including the Freemasons, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – particularly those who were interested in performing high, ceremonial magic. Waite was head of the Golden Dawn at one point, but eventually became weary of the Order’s internal conflicts. In 1915 he set up his own organisation: the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, which continued through the rest of his lifetime, focussing on the theory and practices of Christian mysticism.
Waite lacked academic training and was not regarded as a scholar by the academic world of his time. Yet he studied and wrote voraciously and was an avid reader at the British Library, which brought him into contact with various occultists, either through their printed work or in person.
Whilst Waite had a tendency to avoid committing to conclusions in his own writing, he was also considered, by fans, to have accessed real insight into areas such as the world of Kabbalism. His lack of extensive, formal schooling could explain why his written style tends to be hard to penetrate; his writing has been described as diffuse, verbose and full of archaisms. He sustained a lot of criticism from his rivals. Aleister Crowley, in particular, made no secret of his animosity towards Waite, but he did at least acknowledge him as initiating a revival of interest in areas such as Mysticism, Alchemy and Magic – no small contribution.