"Arthur were wise, therefore, to find, if possible, a science so abstruse and venerable that no one at all understood it, and whose most respected authors wrote in an indecipherable cryptogram. Such a science was found for little Arthur (the future saint!) in Alchemy.
- Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) - Dead Weight1
Arthur Edward Waite (1857-19422)
Arthur Edward Waite was born on October 2, 1857 to Captain Charles F. Waite and Emma Lovell in Brooklyn, NY. Just before his first birthday, his father died at sea, leaving Arthur's (still unmarried) British mother destitute and in a foreign land.
Emma fixed half of the problem by returning to her native England with young Arthur, where they lived in "abject poverty" for many years. This unusual sort of poverty allowed Arthur and his sister Fredrika to attend private schools, and then at the age of thirteen Arthur was sent to St. Charles' College. After school, Waite went to work as a clerk, where he began what would become a career in writing.
Then, in 1874, Arthur's sister died. This single event may be the only reason anyone knows who Arthur is today, as it was the catalyst for his becoming interested in magical3 and mystical research. After his sister's death he became disenchanted with Catholicism and began to study spirituality in earnest. In the late 1870's, Arthur was nearly a fixture at the Library of the British Museum.
A young and curious Aleister Crowley read Waite's The Book of Black Magic and Pacts in 1887 and subsequently contacted the author for guidance. Waite suggested Crowley peruse Karl Von Eckartshausen's theosophical text The Cloud Upon The Sanctuary, which was the catalyst for Crowley becoming interested in the fraternal magical orders of England.
In 1888, Arthur married Ada Lakeman, also known as Lucasta in magical circles. Then, during his esoteric studies in the British Museum, he naturally met S. L. MacGregor Mathers. This acquaintanceship led Arthur and his wife to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1891.
Waite's skeptical and often critical approach to the popular occultism of the day led to many disagreements with the leaders of the Golden Dawn. After a couple of years, he left the Order, but returned in 1896 and eventually took over as the Grand Master of the temple in 1903 and renamed it to the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn4.
It is unfortunate that a large part of the legacy Waite has left is one of ridicule. He brought some of it on himself, to be sure, but it doesn't take much reading of literature from the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to realize that almost all of the popular authors of the time disliked him for one reason or another.
Many mocked him for his writing style. He was a very prolific author who would never use a small word when a large and/or obscure one would do. In addition to doing this in his myriad references on the occult, where it was more forgivable, he also did this in his fiction and poetry, rendering them nearly unreadable. Others, such as William Butler Yeats, disliked him for his tendency toward Christian mysticism over more "pure" magical ideas. Crowley hated him for both, and was his most vocal--and high profile--opponent for much of the remainder of both of their lives.
Waite joined various fraternal orders aside from the Golden Dawn throughout his life, in a quest that only a cynic could call anything but a search for truth. He joined Runymede Lodge, a Masonic temple, in 1901 and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, a Rosicrucian temple, in 1902. He rose high in both of these orders, eventually becoming Master of Runymede Lodge in 1910.
He continued to write about various occult topics, including, sometimes, the secret rites of the various orders he belonged to, winning him more detractors in the process.
Waite is probably best remembered in popular circles for the design and interpretation of the Rider-Waite-Smith (commonly called the Rider-Waite deck) tarot deck, which was released in 1910. Illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith, and published by Rider & Co., of London, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is the most popular tarot deck ever published, and has become even more widely spread since it's re-release in 1971 thanks to the efforts of Waite's only child, his daughter, Sybil.
The deck was notable in that it had symbolic illustrations for all 78 cards. Previous to this, only the 22 major arcana cards were typically illustrated. With this move he set a major trend in the somewhat limited field of tarot card design, as most decks since then have also been fully illustrated.
Waite also wrote the Key to the Tarot--later republished as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot--a companion volume to the cards. This book remains one of the most popular and widely-read interpretations of the tarot, even in this age with hundreds of books on the topic.
Decline and Departure
Waite was always known for his eccentric behavior, but in his later years he apparently became much more bizarre, which was likely caused by his taking up heavy drinking later in life.
He continued to write, speak, and remain involved in various fraternal orders for a time, but then left Rosicrucianism in 1914, and his various Masonic affiliations were all given up by 1937. He succumbed to death on May 19, 1942 and is buried in the churchyard at Bishopsbourne in Kent.
1 A scathing mock-eulogy published while Waite was still alive
2 There are an incredible number of net-sources which claim that Waite died in 1947--not coincidentally the year Crowley died. He did in fact die on May 19, 1942. I was unable to discover the origin of the misinformation, but it's possible that Crowley and Waite have been inexorably intertwined by people who don't check their facts closely.
3 I use the normal spelling of magic as opposed to Crowley's et. al. "magick" primarily because Waite himself never used that spelling.
4 Some sources cite the renamed GD as the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, but in actuality, this was a mocking name used by some to denigrate Waite regarding his preference for mysticism over magic.
A. E. Waite - Shadows of Life and Thought
A. E. Waite - The Real History of the Rosicrucians
A. E. Waite - Pictorial Key to the Tarot