Sacred Texts  Tarot  Tarot Reading  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite, ill. by Pamela Colman Smith [1911], at


The Outer Method of the Oracles

§ 1

Distinction between the Greater and Lesser Arcana

IN respect of their usual presentation, the bridge between the Greater and Lesser Arcana is supplied by the court cards--King, Queen, Knight and Squire or Page; but their utter distinction from the Trumps Major is shewn by their conventional character. Let the reader compare them with symbols like the Fool, the High Priestess, the Hierophant, or--almost without exception--with any in the previous sequence, and he will discern my meaning. There is no especial idea connected on the surface with the ordinary court cards; they are a bridge of conventions, which form a transition to the simple pretexts of the counters and denaries of the numbers following. We seem to have passed away utterly from the region of higher meanings illustrated by living pictures. There in 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 rumours 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 ol the Bohemians are strenuous and deserving after their own kind; be, 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. In this free introduction to the subject in hand, it is only necessary to add that the difference between the fifty-six Lesser Arcana and ordinary playing-cards is not only essentially slight, because the substitution of Cups for Hearts, and so forth, constitutes an accidental variation, but because the presence of a Knight in each of the four suits was characteristic at one time of many ordinary packs, when this personage usually replaced the Queen. In the rectified Tarot which illustrates the present handbook, all numbered cards of the Lesser Arcana--the Aces only excepted--are furnished with figures or pictures to illustrate-but without exhausting--the divinatory meanings attached thereto.

Some who are gifted with reflective and discerning faculties in more than the ordinary sense--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; but the field of divinatory possibilities is inexhaustible, by the hypothesis of the art, and the combined systems of cartomancy have indicated only the bare heads of significance attaching to the emblems in use. When the pictures in the present case go beyond the conventional meanings they should be taken as hints of possible developments along the same lines; and this is one of the reasons why the pictorial devices here attached to the four denaries will prove a great help to intuition. The mere numerical powers and bare words of the meanings are insufficient by themselves; but the pictures are like doors which open into unexpected chambers, or like a turn in the open road with a wide prospect beyond.

Next: Section 2 The Lesser Arcana