Occult Profiles: A. E. Waite

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson

"For myself, it was a curious experience in more ways than one, and perhaps especially because it was so patent throughout that I could have told the Worshipful Master all that he was communicating to me. My Initiation was nothing therefore but a means to an end: I awaited the Grades beyond" So said Arthur Edward Waite after being made a Freemason on September 19th, 1901 in St. Mary Lebone Lodge No.1305. 

Waite, as I will refer to him in this paper, was a prolific collector of degrees, a soul looking for a way back to the source through the Mystic Quest--and also, a buffoon. Before the reader begins to degrade me for those words, I ask for the common courtesy of reading the entire article, you may yet agree with me.

Waite was born in October of 1857 to unwed parents in Brooklyn, New York. Shortly after he was born, he gained a sister as well. His father was a merchant shipper who died at an early age, condemning Waite, his sister, and mother to a life of squaller. Waite's mother was from a wealthy family, but because she had children out of wedlock, her family was not keen on supporting her. Somehow, he still had a decent enough education, having attended a private school in the North of London and later at thirteen years of age, he attended St. Charles College. While that sounds impressive, it shouldn't be thought that he was some kind of genius. This was simply the way of things in those times. 

When Waite reached the age of 17, he lost his sister, Frederika, which threw open the gates of the esoteric. His faith up to this point had been in Roman-Catholocism, but no longer. At this time, Waite was, as many men of his day and social stature were--a clerk. It's an often-used title, and it is indeed vague. When amassing records from the British Library, we find that Waite was active in research there quite often beginning in his 21st year of life. And just 3 years later, Waite makes an astonishing discovery, the writings of Eliphas Levi, a prominent French occultist and 'ceremonial magician.' 

In 1887, Waite got married to Ada Lakeman, and later they have a daughter together. In Arthur's studies, he came across the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD). Befriending a homeopathic London based doctor, E.W. Berridge, he joined the Order in 1891. At this time, the two orders of the HOGD were in existence; Waite had joined the Outer Order. It appears as if he removed himself from this Order after just two years. Three years later, in 1886, he joins again. 

Three years later, in 1889, Waite joins the Second Order of the HOGD, and two years after that, he becomes a Freemason. It is interesting to note that a Masonic organization like the self-styled Rosicrucian Order [SRIA] begets the HOGD out of a need for practical occultism, which gains members who are not Freemasons and then who go on to become Freemasons. And, if you're A.E. Waite, you then join the SRIA (Societas Rosicruciana In Anglia). The Ouroboros of initiation is pretty intense. Joining the SRIA is an amusing thing for him to have done considering his own commentary on the organization. In the final chapter of a book on Rosicrucianism, he wrote the following,
"The most notable circumstance connected with this society is the complete ignorance which seems to have prevailed amongst its members generally concerning everything connected with Rosicrucianism."
Freemasonry was also not outside the bounds for an attack. He wrote the following on the gentle Craft, 
"...it [being] singularly devoid of prejudices and singularly unaffected by the crazes of the time It preaches a natural morality and has so little interest in mysticism that it daily misinterprets and practically despises its own mystical symbols.
It seems appropriate to say that Waite searched everywhere for an organization that would give him the confirmation bias he so needed. He collected degrees and orders faster than a Grand Lodge festival day. He even received honors of being connected with Martinism by way of the mail--He literally sent his obligation in by mail, and the return letter gave him the title he was looking for and implied permission to start a London based version of Martinism (1887). Curious, isn't it? 

Like so many occultists in his day, Waite founded his own Order in 1903. It was called the ‘Independent and Rectified Order R. R. et A. C.’ and was disbanded a little more than ten years later. The actions of Waite caused much internal strife within these organizations, HOGD, SRICA, his Rectified Order, and eventually, in 1914, he left many of them. Again, it's unclear why he did this...speculation rules the day, but most likely, it is due to his failure to be elected to the high office of Celebrant in the SRIA. But, Waite wasn't done. He then formed the ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’, one more Rosicrucian type order within the London area. If we examine the various records, there are eight other 'Rosicrucian orders' at that time. The first meeting of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross was on July 9th, 1915, at a hotel. The organization was styled similarly to the HOGD with Inner and outer Orders.

Shortly before this Rosicrucian / Golden Dawn debacle, in 1910, Waite had been installed as Master of Runneymede Lodge. A peculiar episode was a celebration he held as Master of the Lodge, where he conferred some strange rites on his brethren present --’the Great Mystery of the Vault of the Adepts-under dispensation from the Unknown Superior of the Sodality of the Shades'. Sounds legit. If you felt the earth move just now, it's because you just channeled my eye roll. 

Waite had become prolific in his writings, by 1915 having published works on alchemy, ceremonial magic, divination, general esotericism, and more. He was a regular old genius when it came to these things. In fact, even today, some of his works are still considered the gold standard. Books like Eliphas Levis's Transcendental Magic, it's Doctrine, and Ritual was not only translated to English by Waite but also edited--no small feat. This version of the text is still in print today. 

While some celebrate his writing by claiming that academics praise his works, there is really no evidence to support this. On the contrary, Waites's writings were often rude, arrogant, and written in a way that was condescending to his contemporaries. His books were full of the worst kinds of errors. No, not grammar--historical and factual errors. Grammar Police may be triggered. Sorry, guys. 

The Grand Lodge of Iowa, in 1916, contacted Waite and awarded a strange title, ’Past Senior Grand Warden’. One doesn't make much of this, although Waite certainly must have because he uses it on the first page of his book, A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. Some years later, Ada, his wife, dies, and in 1924, he remarries. Of his new wife, Mary Broadbent Schofield, not much is written. 

Waite had been genuinely dedicated to the study of the occult. So much so that in addition to writing and publishing, he even founded a study group. The ‘Masonic Study Society’ was founded by him in 1921. Going through some research on Waite, one finds reference to a strange and out of place, yet exciting tidbit. The great and prolific writer, Reverend Joseph Fort Newton, author of the acclaimed book, The Builders, is said to have been quite fond of Waite. 

No article on Waite can be complete without mentioning his one overwhelming gift to the world, his Tarot deck. Based on the Italian Tarot deck Sola Busco (1490/91), he produced his styled deck, which was one of the first of its kind and would become one of the most recognized contemporary decks ever produced. It contained not only the Major Arcana (Trump Cards) but all of the cards, 78 in total. The artwork for them was completed by Pamela Coleman Smith and published by the Rider Publishing Company. Today, the deck is mostly referred to as the Rider-Waite deck. It is this author's opinion that this is a tragedy. The lesser-used name Smith-Waite deck is what should be used. It was Pamela's artwork that made these cards readable, accessible, and useable. To her, I think we are all indebted, just as much as to Waite.

The deck was published in 1910 by the company I mentioned earlier - the Rider Publishing Company. Today, that company is attached to none other than Penguin, which is attached to Random House. On a personal note, I picked up my first Tarot deck--a Smith-Waite deck, at a Goodwill for $7.99...a steal. Speaking of money, Waite then in 1911 produced a companion book for his Tarot deck called, a Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Again, it should be noted that the publishing of this pack, was the defining moment in the Tarot for ages to come. 

Men like Paul Foster Case (Founder of BOTA) based entire systems on the Tarot and became known far and wide as the foremost expert on it as used as a tool for psychological work, introspection, and contemplative work in general. Dr. Paul Clark, founder of Fraternity of the Hidden Light, and former member of BOTA, writes in his biography of Paul Case, the close relationship and correspondences between Waite and Case. It's fascinating reading. When Paul Case eventually publishes his own Tarot deck, it was considered to be similar to the Smith-Waite Deck, but without the 'errors' made by Waite. 

There is so much I can write about Waite--so much has been written. I do it a discredit to retell much of what has been already stated, but it's my hope that this short and fascinating look at him will prompt the reader to dive deeper. 

Waite had joined the Royal Arch, the Knights Templar, CBCS, he traveled all over the world to collect strange and wild degrees--one such degree, “The Grand Rite of the 47th” in Sweden. He was original in thought but rude in his critiques. If you didn't agree with him, you were an idiot. If he reviewed your work, you were an idiot. Only he knew the true doctrine of anything, and his pompous, arrogant attitude was and is contemptible. You love to hate him. 

In 1942, Waite transitioned, and his obituary was published in the Freemasons Chronicle. In three paragraphs, his works and life are laid out in a way that doesn't quite praise him but instead, simply acknowledges him. He was indeed a prolific individual but, as with everyone we've covered, had faults. 

Earlier in this short essay, I mentioned that Waite had favor with the Reverend Joseph Fort Newton. Newton wrote of Waite, 
“Brother Waite warns us against the dark alleys that lead nowhere and the false lights that lure to ruin, and he protests against those who would open the Pandora's Box of the Occult on the altar of Masonry. After a long study of occultism, magic, omens, talismans, and the like, he has come to draw a sharp line between the occult and the mystical, and therein he is wise.” 
Of course, Waite was probably okay with all that occultism and traveling down the dark alleys...as long as he was your guide, and you worshipped at the altar of his own pen. 

Waite offers us some beautiful readings and perspectives and deserves our attention. If we read his works, it's important to recognize his bias toward his own thoughts. To be conscious of his superiority complex. But also to open our minds to the possibilities of his most outrageous claims no matter how mysterious.


There are other claims that Waite initially joined Runneymede Lodge No. 2430 in Wraysbury, England. This is true, to the end that the lodge which was performing the ritual was doing so as a courtesy for Runneymede Lodge. 

-Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, UGLE in Volume 99 for the year 1986. [pp. 6-20.] Minor typographical errors corrected, 2002/04/08.
-Gilbert, R. A. "The Masonic Career of A. E. Waite". Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. QCCC Correspondence Circle Limited. Archived from the original on September 5th, 2010. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
-Waite, A. E., Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs, London: Selwyn and Blount, 1938

RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 2nd N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatrewhich focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.

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