The Tarot (1888) by S. L. Mathers - House of White Tarot Museum & Research Library
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The Tarot (1888) by S. L. Mathers

This book, for all of its flaws, is of preeminent importance in the history and development of the Waite-Smith tarot, The Key to the tarotThe Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and the legacy now being fought over by publishers all over the world. In fact, it is so important that a strong case could be made that the term “Waite-Smith tarot” is incorrect and should be replaced by the term “Mathers-Waite-Smith tarot.” Now before we all rush to trademark Samuel L. Mathers’ name (I stoutly refuse to refer to him as “MacGregor” as that is just one of the many lies associated with this deck and its history*) and register domains like “” and sue everyone else into oblivion, we should look closely at what this book is and how it is evidence of his direct involvement with the development of the tarot.


First, here is the simple math:


The Golden Dawn was founded in 1888, which is the same year this book was published. Mathers had a passion for studying the occult, but an even greater passion for power and secrecy. After one of the founding members Dr. William Robert Woodman died, leadership of the GD was passed solely to Dr. William Wynn Wescott, and later Mathers, who had invented the ancient Scottish clan “MacGregor” to give him a public sense of importance amongst his peers. The Waite-Smith tarot was produced 21 years later, long after Mathers had wrested control of the order and indoctrinated all adherents to his belief system regarding the tarot and other occult matters. He had over two decades of teaching initiates his version of the tarot and Kabbalah before Waite published the first English tarot deck. As much I do not like the man, Mathers was responsible for a lot more than simply convincing Art that the suit of Coins was in fact more correctly known as Pentacles. This gives us the modern tarot suit alchemical elemental references of Fire (Wands, but to some scholars Swords), Air (Swords, but to some scholars Wands), Water (Cups), and “all five elements” (Pentacles). It is precisely this brash egocentrism that has caused the trouble with tarot symbolism we have had for over a century now.


Into this world were indoctrinated first Waite (Mathers was Waite’s direct mentor in the Golden dawn before their falling out), and junior member Pamela Colman Smith. Their views on the tarot came from on high (Mathers’ word was law, as he—and coincidentally his insanely hot mess of a wife—were the “only ones” who could possibly communicate directly with the secret chiefs**). Mathers was a small man with grand visions. Having rushed through all 33 degrees of Masonic instruction in four short months he had the skill but not the wisdom to lead a metaphysical order. Prior to the tarot project being undertaken the entire Golden Dawn had disintegrated and reformed as a splintered group, with Mather’s cabal solely under the control of his ideology. Into this world was the modern tarot born; and at the base of all of its ideology we can see the seeds of Mathers’ teachings in this little-known booklet.


** Essentially aliens.


* Wait . . . was he Scottish, or Egyptian or Egyptian or Egyptian? (click to find out!)