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Arthur Edward Waite

Written and compiled by George Knowles

Arthur Edward Waite while born in America, is better known as an English mystic, occultist and prolific writer on Masonic and esoteric subjects.  A member of the famous occult order, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Waite has had published a number of important books on esoteric matters.  His most lasting legacy however, is not through his books, but via the Tarot deck he created.  Called the Rider Waite Tarot Deck, it is perhaps the most popular tarot deck to have come out of the twentieth century.

Arthur Waite was born in Brooklyn, NY, on the 2nd of October 1857.  His father Charles F. Waite was a Capt in the American Merchant Marine, while his mother Emma Lovell was the English daughter of a wealthy London merchant involved in the East India trade.  Just a year after he was born and while on a voyage from Connecticut to London, Waite’s father died at sea on the 29th September 1858.  Widowed and pregnant at the time, after giving birth to his sister Frederika, Emma and the children returned to London, England.

What is not generally known, is that the children had been born illegitimately, for Emma and Capt Waite had never been legally married, her family had objected to it.  On her return to London and due to her family’s continued ostracism, she was forced to rear her children in the poorer less fashionable suburbs of north and west London.  The rejection of her family also caused her to convert to the Roman Catholic Church, a faith she past on to her son and daughter.

While they were not very well off, Emma did her best to educated Waite, first at small private schools in North London, and then at St. Charles's College, a Roman Catholic school in Baywater.  After leaving school, Waite started work as a clerk and in his spare time wrote poetry and romantic fiction.  Waite spent much of his life in and around London, as a prolific writer he soon became connected with various publishing houses.  His first published work was ‘An Ode to Astronomy’ (1877), after which he published many poems and stories in minor literary journals, later he also edited a small magazine The Unknown World.  In 1886 his first major work on the occult appeared:  The Mysteries of Magic, a Digest of the writings of Eliphas Levi’ (Redway 1886).

After his sister's death in 1874, Waite lost interest in the Roman Catholic Church, but retained a great love for its ritual ceremony, in his later associations with secret Orders; he would utilize various aspects of Roman Catholicism in his own ritual constructions.  Waite then began to explore alternate paths of spirituality and occultism.  He started with Spiritualism, but found it not to his liking and moved on to the Theosophical Society.  This he found fascinating, but disapproved of the anti-Christian bias he found in the works of H. P. Blavatsky, its leading driving force.

By this time Waite was a regularly reader at the Library of the British Museum, studying many branches of esotericism.  It was here that he came across the writings and teachings of Eliphas Levi, and realized where his direction lay.  While he had already written and published numerous poems and romances, he also recognized his shortcomings as a writer of fiction, and therefore decided to concentrate on a career as a critic and compiler on the history and doctrines of occultism.  It was here while studying at the British Museum that he first came into contact with the likes of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, one of the original founders of the ‘Order of the Golden Dawn’, but at the time he didn’t liked him.

In 1883/1884 he married Ada Lakeman 'Lucasta' with whom he had one daughter Sybil Waite.  Later in January 1891, Waite and 'Lucasta' were initiated into the Neophyte grade of the Order of the Golden Dawn.  The initiation took place at the Mathers’ house, Stent Lodge in Dulwich, near to the Horniman Museum were Mathers worked.  However, 'Lucasta' was never enthusiastic and Waite’s attendance and involvement was sporadic.  Waite had always been biased in favor of the path of the Mystic rather than that of the Occultist, so he didn’t always see eye to eye with Mathers and never felt happy in the original Golden Dawn.  However he persisted and by April 1892 had advanced to the 4 = 7 grade of Philosophus.

Circa 1890's

Waite still not feeling happy in the order, left in 1893 only to return again in 1896 and continue working through the grades.  In 1899 he entered the Second Order and began working his way to the top.  However the Order had already started its downward slide, when in 1897 Dr. Westcott as the head of the order in London, was forced to resign and Florence Farr the famous stage actress took over.  Still under the direction of Mathers in Paris, Farr’s relationship with Mathers was strained and she lacked Dr. Westcott’s practical management abilities.  After his leaving, the extensive grade-work and examination system of the Second Order began to deteriorate and the whole London order slipped into decline.

In the meantime to aid his own progress, Waite turned his attention to Freemasonry.  On the 19th September 1901, he was initiated into the Runymede Lodge No. 2430 at Wraysbury, Bucks, and raised on the 10th February 1902 in the St. Marylebone Lodge No. 1305.  This was a good step for Waite to make for many influential people involved in the Grand Lodge who had previously resented his researches, were also high-level members of the Golden Dawn.  Two months later in April 1902, he also joined The Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), which also contained leading members of the Golden Dawn.

After he had been raised, Waite began his quest for higher degrees in earnest, and proceeded to the Holy Royal Arch, being exalted in Metropolitan Chapter No. 1507 on 1 May 1902, following this a week later with his Installation as a Knights Templar at the Consecration of the King Edward VII Preceptory.  Waite had formulated the theory that all esoteric practices and traditions, whether Alchemy, Hebrew Kabbalah, Legends of the Holy Grail, Rosicrucianism, Christian Mysticism or Freemasonry, were secret paths to a direct experience of God.  He was convinced that the symbolism in each of these traditions had a common root and a common end, and that their correct interpretation would lead to a revelation of concealed ways to spiritual illumination. 

In 1910 Waite was installed as the Master of Runymede Lodge, and while he pursued his other interests, he always remained a loyal member, contributed to its lectures and regularly attended its meetings.  That is until 1920, when he moved from London to Ramsgate in Kent.  By which time his association with Craft Masonry had faded, as he released his memberships with other fraternities, though he remained a member of his Mother Lodge until his death.

By 1903, the original Order of the Golden Dawn had been racked by feuds, schisms and scandals, and the order as it had been finally split up into separate and independent groups.  Those who remained loyal to Mathers formed the “Order of the Alpha et Omega Temple”, while Waite took over as head of the original Isis-Urania Temple.  Many of the remaining Golden Dawn members stayed with Waite’s group, which he renamed the Order of the Independent and Rectified Rite.  

Circa 1910

However many of the old group didn’t like the new Order, for Waite did not care for magic and replaced it with mysticism.  This led to another schism and the more magically inclined members including Dr. Robert William Felkin and John William Brodie-Innes, left to form the “Order of the Stella Matutina”.  The new Order struggled on for a few years but continued to be dogged by dissidents; further feuds followed until Waite dissolved the Order in 1914.

He replaced it the following year with the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, making clear in its constitution it’s independence from all other Orders.  One clause stated that:  “The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross has no concern whatsoever in occult or psychical research, it is a Quest of Grace and not a Quest of Power”.  Another clause stated:  “The Independent and Rectified Rite with its dependencies, if any, in so far as now in activity, and the Stella Matutina Temple together with its dependencies, are not in communication with the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and cannot be Visited or Joined”.

Circa 1921

The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross as did many of the other factions created after the demise of the Golden Dawn, gradually lost its momentum and faded into history.  After the demise of the Fellowship, it was rumored that his marriage to ‘Lucasta’ had deteriorated, and that he had taken up and was living with his secretary in Penywern Road, Earl's Court, London.  She it turns out was an ex–member of the Isis-Urania Temple whose motto was Vigilate, which was most appropriate for other rumors circulated that he had taken to drink.  She appears to have doted on him hand and foot, and helped him through a difficult time.  In 1920, Waite moved from London to Ramsgate in Kent, there to concentrate on his writings.  After the death of 'Lucasta's' in 1924, he married Mary Broadbent Schofield (Una Salus).

Circa 1932

Waite died on the 19th of May 1943 and was buried in the churchyard at Bishopsbourne in Kent, where he spent most of his later years.  Despite his prolific contributions to the rituals and lectures that make up the history of Freemasonry, he was accorded just a brief, three-paragraph obituary in The Freemasons' Chronicle (vol. 135, p. 178, 6 June 1942).  In it he was merely characterized as a poet and writer on Freemasonry.  Waite’s grave is now obscured by a thick growth of deadly nightshade, an appropriate parallel to the blight that has fallen on his reputation.

A prolific writer of over seventy books, lectures, rituals and contributions to many journals and magazines, Waite’s lasting legacy is not through his writing, but through his creation of the Rider Waite Tarot Deck.  In the early 1900's as head of the reconstructed Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, Waite had just completed his book ‘The Key to the Tarot’ and needed someone to illustrate it.  One of his members was an accomplished artist Pamela Colman Smith; he commissioned and directed her in the design of a beautiful set of cards.  The main innovation being the illustration of all cards, not just the Major arcana but the Minor cards too, and in such a way as to be pictorially suggestive of their divinatory meanings.  He also made popular the spread known as the Celtic Cross, which was then taught in the First Order of the Golden Dawn.

Of his writings and scholarly pursuits, Waite produced translations of Eliphas Levi and Papus, as well as re-issues of mystical and alchemical works such as those of Thomas Vaughan.  Some of his main works include: 

The Mysteries of Magic (1886)

Handbook of Cartomancy (1889)

The Occult Sciences (Keagan Paul – 1891)

Devil-Worship in France (Redway 1896)

Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1901)

Studies in Mysticism (1906)

A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry (1921)

Emblematic Freemasonry (1925)

The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry (1937)

His autobiographical Shadows of Life and Thought (1938)

Other books include:  Book of Ceremonial Magic, Book of the Holy Grail, Quest of the Golden Stairs, Belle and the Dragon, Unknown World, Works of Thomas Vaughan, The Way of Divine Union, Strange Houses of Sleep, Azoth or the Star in the East, Book of Spells, Collected Poems of Arthur Edward Waite, The Golden Dawn Tarot, Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, Hidden Church of the Holy Grail, Raymond Lully: Illuminated Doctor, Alchemist and Christian Mystic, Secret Doctrine in Israel, Three Famous Mystics, Turba Philosophorum, Understanding the Tarot Deck, and The Way of Divine Union.

Finally, during his life, Waite may well have developed from a poor background and poor education, into a snobbish man of distinction, contemptuous and critical of his contemporaries, he certainly ruffled a few feathers during his time.  But isn’t that the trait of many a great man?  Despite dedicating much of his life to Freemasonry, few if any masons in England would seem to think so.  Not so in America, were a large collection of his writings, lectures and letters, have been collected and stored for prosperity in the Iowa Grand Lodge Library, Ceder Rapids. USA.

End.

 Sources

To be added

First published on the 24th November 2004, 15:09:45 © George Knowles

 

 

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In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar.  For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following:  Birch /  Rowan / Ash /  Alder /  Willow /  Hawthorn /  Oak /  Holly /  Hazel /  Vine /  Ivy /  Reed /  ElderAlso see:  The Willow Tree (Folk Music)

 

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