The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination
With 78 plates, illustrating the Greater and Lesser Arcana, from designs by Pamela Colman Smith

Arthur Edward Waite's monograph on the Tarot, published 1911, following the creation of his famous Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The book contains black and white illustrations of every card, as you may well expect for a pictorial key. However, you don't often associate the occult with picture books, so why the aforementioned 78 plates?

The pictures, in this case, are just as important as the text. Waite broke with tradition by giving every card in his deck an illustration (note that another fully illustrated deck predates Waite's, but it was not the norm). Being the sort of guy he was, each illustration was packed with meaning, every person, place, or thing a symbol serving as a visual mnemonic. He was an opinionated man, and his choice of symbols was both exacting and often idiosyncratic.

The Pictorial Key is thorough, begining with a history of the Tarot and a description of the traditional symbolism associated with each card (yes, all 78, though he glosses over the Minor Arcana). He discusses several theories of the card's origins, and dismisses the Egypt theory as nonsense (unfortunately, you still hear that one presented as fact by certain New Agers). He also believes to be spurious the attribution of the Major Arcana to various letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He's surprisingly skeptical for a mystic/occultist writing about the Tarot, I'd have to say.

The majority of the book, however, describes the various interpretations associated with every card, in both long and short form. The illustrations are all accompanied by pages explaining the reasoning behind them. Waite was heavily influenced by the French magician Eliphas Levi, although he doesn't always agree with him (for example, he thinks Levi missed the mark on the Hermit card by interpreting it as a symbol of occult isolation).

After the various explanations (and there are plenty of them — the man is thorough), Waite describes several Tarot layouts. Indeed, the famous Celtic cross layout was popularized by this book. Waite claims the layout to be ancient, but as far as anyone can tell, it made its debut here. Also mentioned are a 35 card layout and an "alternative method" involving six piles of seven cards each.

Finally, there's the bibliography, which surprisingly makes interesting reading in and of itself. Instead of a boring list of citations, Waite gives paragraph-long reviews as a service to the curious Tarot student. Waite is, as always, skeptical and opinionated — he calls one book "really without value" and notes that another is interesting "rather in the fact of its existance than its intrinsic importance".


Some door knob named L. W. de Laurence copied The Pictorial Key word for word and published it without attributing it to Waite. It was entitled The Illustrated Key to the Tarot: The Veil of Divination, Illustrating the Greater and Lesser Arcana and was published in 1918. I once saw a copy (no, not a first edition!) laying around a used bookstore. They also had The Pictorial Key, so I got to compare them. Aside from the text, Laurence's illustrations were of lower quality. Specifically, solidly inked areas were replaced with hatching and some of the lines were sloppier.

Some sources say the Key was published in 1910?

An earlier version of this book was published in 1910 and bundled with packs of Waite's cards. That version wasn't illustrated, and was entitled simply, The Key to the Tarot. I can't say if the two are identical in terms of text, unfortunately.

Full text of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot available @

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