Arthur Edward Waite (2 October 1857 – 19 May 1942) was a British poet and scholarly mystic who wrote extensively on occult and esoteric matters, and was the co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. As his biographer R. A. Gilbert described him, “Waite’s name has survived because he was the first to attempt a systematic study of the history of western occultism—viewed as a spiritual tradition rather than as aspects of proto-science or as the pathology of religion.”
Waite was born in the United States. Waite’s father, Capt. Charles F. Waite, died when he was very young, and his widowed mother, Emma Lovell, returned to her home country of England, where he was then raised. As they were not well off, Waite was educated at a small private school in North London. When he was 13, he was then educated at St. Charles’ College. When he left school to become a clerk he wrote verse in his spare time. In 1863 Waite’s mother converted to Catholicism. The death of his sister Frederika Waite in 1874 soon attracted him into psychical research. At 21, he began to read regularly in the Library of the British Museum, studying many branches of esotericism.
When Waite was almost 30 he married Ada Lakeman (also called “Lucasta”), and they had one daughter, Sybil. Some time after Lucasta’s death in 1924, Waite married Mary Broadbent Schofield. He spent most of his life in or near London, connected to various publishing houses, and editing a magazine The Unknown World. In 1881 Waite discovered the writings of Eliphas Lévi.
Waite joined the Outer Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in January 1891 after being introduced by E.W. Berridge. In 1893 he withdrew from the Golden Dawn. In 1896 he rejoined the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1899 he entered the Second order of the Golden Dawn. He became a Freemason in 1901, and entered the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia in 1902. In 1903 Waite founded the Independent and Rectified Order R. R. et A. C. This Order was disbanded in 1914. The Golden Dawn was torn by internal feuding until Waite’s departure in 1914; in July 1915 he formed the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, not to be confused with the Societas Rosicruciana. By that time there existed some half-dozen offshoots from the original Golden Dawn, and as a whole it never recovered.
Aleister Crowley, Waite’s foe, referred to him as the villainous “Arthwate” in his novel Moonchild and referred to him in his magazine Equinox. Lovecraft has a villainous wizard in his short story “The Thing on the Doorstep” called Ephraim Waite; according to Robert M. Price, this character was based on Waite.
Author and scholar
Waite was a prolific author and many of his works were well received in academic circles. He wrote occult texts on subjects including divination, esotericism, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and ceremonial magic, Kabbalism and alchemy; he also translated and reissued several important mystical and alchemical works. His works on the Holy Grail, influenced by his friendship with Arthur Machen, were particularly notable. A number of his volumes remain in print, including The Book of Ceremonial Magic (1911), The Holy Kabbalah (1929), A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1921), and his edited translation of Eliphas Levi’s 1896 Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual (1910), having seen reprints in recent years. Waite also wrote two allegorical fantasy novels, Prince Starbeam (1889) and The Quest of the Golden Stairs (1893), and edited Elfin Music, an anthology of poetry based on English fairy folklore.
Waite is best known as the co-creator of the popular and widely used Rider-Waite Tarot deck and author of its companion volume, the Key to the Tarot, republished in expanded form the following year, 1911, as the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, a guide to Tarot reading. The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot was notable for being one of the first tarot decks to illustrate all 78 cards fully, in addition to the 22 major arcana cards. Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the cards for Waite, and the deck was first published in 1909. It remains in publication today.
It is known that the inspiration for this deck was partly provided by Sola-Busca Tarot (Northern Italy, 1491), the first and only fully illustrated Tarot deck up to the time of publication of the Rider-Waite Tarot.