Waite and the Lesser Arcana


In his Pictorial Key to the Tarot Waite clearly establishes that the Greater Arcana and the Lesser Arcana are to be regarded after two different orders; the Majors as keys to a philosophy of the Divine, and the Minors as fortune telling or ordinary divination. But did Waite actually believe this was cut and dried? I'm starting to think probably not. I don't think he saw enough evidence to support a theory of the Minors as existing on the same plane as the Majors, so he had to make the distinction; but I don't think he was opposed to the idea.

Here from the PKT Waite establishes the distinction:

"Some who are gifted with reflective and discerning faculties in more than the ordinary sense—and I am not speaking of clairvoyance—may observe that in many of the Lesser Arcana there are vague intimations conveyed by the designs which seem to exceed the stated divinatory values. It is desirable to avoid misconception by specifying definitely that, except in rare instances—and then only by accident—the variations are not to be regarded as suggestions of higher and extradivinatory symbolism. I have said that these Lesser Arcana have not been translated into a language which transcends that of fortune-telling. I should not indeed be disposed to regard them as belonging in their existing forms to another realm than this;"​

"In their existing forms" they don't belong to another realm, but it leaves open the possibly. It's also interesting that he says some of the cards have "vague intimations" indicating they may go beyond divination. This is discussed further in the last paragraph below.

Just above this quote is another rather lengthy one that seems to indicate he's open to the possibility:

"We seem to have passed away utterly from the region of higher meanings illustrated by living pictures [i.e. the Minors in comparison with the Majors]. There was a period, however, when the numbered cards were also pictures, but such devices were sporadic inventions of particular artists and were either conventional designs of the typical or allegorical kind, distinct from what is understood by symbolism, or they were illustrations—shall we say?—of manners, customs and periods. They were, in a word, adornments, and as such they did nothing to raise the significance of the Lesser Arcana to the plane of the Trumps Major; moreover, such variations are exceedingly few. This notwithstanding, there are vague rumors concerning a higher meaning in the minor cards, but nothing has so far transpired, even within the sphere of prudence which belongs to the most occult circles; these, it is true, have certain variants in respect of divinatory values, but I have not heard that in practice they offer better results. Efforts like those of Papus in The Tarot of the Bohemians are strenuous and deserving after their own kind; he, in particular, recognizes the elements of the Divine Immanence in the Trumps Major, and he seeks to follow them through the long series of the lesser cards, as if these represented filtrations of the World of Grace through the World of Fortune; but he only produces an arbitrary scheme of division which he can carry no further, and he has recourse, of necessity, in the end to a common scheme of divination as the substitute for a title to existence on the part of the Lesser Arcana. Now, I am practically in the same position; but I shall make no attempt here to save the situation by drawing on the mystical properties of numbers, as he and others have attempted. I shall recognize at once that the Trumps Major belong to the divine dealings of philosophy, but all that follows to fortune-telling, since it has never yet been translated into another language; the course thus adopted will render to divination, and at need even to gambling, the things that belong to this particular world of skill, and it will set apart for their proper business those matters that are of another order."​

He acknowledges "vague rumors" but doesn't dismiss them outright. He only says they haven't been substantiated "so far." And then he says the Minors haven't "yet" been translated into a language other than fortune-telling. This starts to make one wonder. But there's more. In his 1909 Occult Review article, "The Tarot—A Wheel of Fortune" he says:

"The question remains whether there is an integral connection between the Greater and Lesser Arcana, and if this is the case how to establish their respective offices in higher Tarot symbolism. If, however, their connection is arbitrary, a separation should be effected, the Lesser Arcana being allocated to their proper place in cartomancy and the Trumps Major to their own, which is to seership of another order."​

Here he seems to clearly indicate that for him it's still an open question.

And there's the nagging question of what he meant in his description of the Ace of Cups where he says, "It is an intimation of that which may lie behind the Lesser Arcana." Some have suggested this means the Grail Hallows, or their precursors in folklore, as early types of what would later become the Lesser Arcana. It's possible, but it's not a connection Waite worked seriously on, at least not that I'm aware of. That phrase "lie behind" is however one he uses quite often and he means by it the noumenal, or the unchanging reality that exists behind the phenomenal, which is always shifting and changing. He seems here to be entertaining the idea, though still not totally convinced, that there may be a higher symbolism and meaning coded within the Minors. This could be one of those "accidents" to which he refers.


In The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909 - same year as the deck was first published) Waite has a chapter on the Minor Arcana of the Tarot.

In this chapter, Waite unambiguously says the Tarot suits ARE the Grail Hallows: the Cup, the Lance, the Sword and the Dish from Christ’s Passion. “They are in the antecedents of our playing-cards—the old Talismans of the Tarot.” He describes this realization as a major illumination: “a spark from heaven . . . to open another horizon,” and the connection made as “the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound."

Waite further explains, “the correspondence of certain Tarot symbols with those of the Holy Graal . . . [have a] consequence . . .” that is, an import that he chooses not to discuss in HCHG.

Waite only refers in HCHG to the Lesser Arcana (never the Majors), saying, for instance, that “the Sephirotic attributions [number cards] . . . are especially remarkable . . . [and] certain secret schools have developed their scheme of symbolic interpretation to a very high point.”

In an article, “The Tarot and the Secret Tradition,” in The Occult Review Vol. XXIX, No. 3; March, 1919, Waite explained:
“I have said, now long ago, (1) that there are vague rumours concerning a higher meaning in the minor cards but (2) they have never yet been translated into another language than that of fortune- telling. . . . In any case, the four suits of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles have two strange connexions in folk-lore, to one of which I drew attention briefly in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal. So far as my recollection goes, I have not mentioned the other in any published work. The four Hallows of the Holy Graal are (1) the Graal itself, understood as a Cup or Chalice, being the first Cup of the Eucharist; (2) the Spear, traditionally that of Longinus; (3) the Sword, which was made and broken under strange circumstances of allegory; and (4) the Dish of Plenty, about which the Graal tradition is composed, but it is understood generally as the Paschal Dish. The correspondence of these Hallows or Tokens with the Tarot suits will be noted, and the point is that albeit three out of the four belong to the Christian history of relics they have an antecedent folklore history belonging to the world of Celtic myth. This is a subject which I shall hope to carry farther one of these days.”

In his 1933 revision, The Holy Grail, a part of Waite’s chapter on the Grail and Tarot becomes the summary of Book XI: “The Ritual Hypothesis.” Here Waite speculates on the Grail myths as the basis for ritual pageants that he says he is well-qualified to devise.

As a possible influence, I've just been given a 1898-99 series of talks given in a Golden Dawn temple that refer to the higher meaning of the Minor Arcana and a ceremonial ritual way for reading them. It is Kabbalistically-based (no surprise there). It also refers to drawings of some of the Minor cards that accord with the Golden Dawn deck from the Felkins' Whare Ra Temple in New Zealand showing that these cards were not originated by the Felkins. As I'm able to transcribe the text (and hopefully get some missing pages). I'll post more about these lectures in the future.