Symbols of the Rider Waite Tarot vs. the Brotherhood of Light Tarot
Tarot symbols and interpretations vary by deck. When comparing the most common Rider Waite Tarot deck with the Brotherhood of Light Tarot (Egyptian Tarot), it becomes clear that not only are the tarot symbols drastically different, but the names of each card changes between decks.
What is the reasoning behind the variation of symbols between the Rider Waite Tarot and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot decks?
Christian Symbolism vs. Egyptian Symbolism
The main difference between the Rider Waite Tarot and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot is the “means” to enlightenment. Each deck represents divergent modes of conscious reflection and spiritual outcomes. The goal of the Christian is to manifest a consciousness that leads to sublimation of the individual ego and an embracement of communal “collectivism”, while the focus of the alchemist is to obtain adeptship or “individuation”, thus establishing mastership over individual consciousness that leads to perfection and the revelation of the “collective unconscious” aka divine consciousness.
A querent who makes use of the Rider Waite Tarot may feel lost when interpreting the Brotherhood of Light Tarot (Egyptian Tarot), as the unconscious attachments to each set of symbols varies greatly. The reasoning behind this can be expressed in the contrasting “goals” provided by the “spiritual journey” or spiritual path of each, which ultimately leads to differing outcomes.
The History of the Rider Waite Tarot and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot (Egyptian Tarot)
Tarot symbols or “arcana” are archetypes of the unconscious mind that date back to the ancient mystery religions of Egypt. With this information, it’s much easier to deduce the origins of tarot symbols backing each deck of cards.
The Rider Waite Tarot Origins
The Rider Waite Tarot was the first deck of cards to be developed and widely accepted into practice. It is perhaps the most common set of tarot (in the English speaking world) that exists today and remains a “go-to” for most beginners into the arts of divination. The symbols that appear within the Rider Wait Tarot can be easily learned and read by anyone who is familiar with Christian symbolism and beliefs, and this is perhaps the main reason these symbols or arcana appear as such. Although tarot cards date as far back the Renaissance, the Rider Waite Tarot deck was published by the Rider Company in 1910.
This deck was developed by the mystic and poet Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) and illustrated under his direction by artist Pamela Colman Smith aka “Pixie”.
The symbols found in the Rider Waite Tarot deck reflect the same images that appear in previous decks, yet the prominence of Christian symbols was actually reduced in the case of the “Pope” or Major Arcanum V being substituted with the new name “The Hierophant” and a few other changes made across various cards in the deck. Rather than applying the simplistic designs of the Minor Arcana as seen in a traditional deck of cards (hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades meaning cups, pentacles, wands, and swords, respectively), Pixie expanded the symbols for each minor card with vivid imagery.
These symbols were developed with the help of ceremonial magician and former student of the Roman Catholic priesthood Alphonse Louis Constant aka “Alphas Levi”.
Who was Arthur Edward Waite?
It is important to note, A.E. Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1891 before withdrawing to join the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn and eventually entering Freemasonry in 1901 and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia in 1902. The main differences between the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Freemasonry were that the former accepted women into their ranks, and Waite continued this tradition.
Waite then founded the Independent and Rectified Order R.R. et A.C. which was disbanded, as he went on to establish his own Order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.
The purpose of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross was to establish a solely Christian Order that diverged from traditional Freemasonry and the false history or ego-centric magic of the previous Orders, accepting women initiates and focusing on teachings of Western Esoteric Traditions, such as Kabbalistic symbolism, Rosicrucianism, and spiritual alchemy. The bulk of members were Freemasons and theosophists, and by 1929, the Order was comprised of more women initiates than men.
Waite gained nicknames such as “Arthwate” and “Dead Waite” by his foe Aleister Crowley and “Ephraim Waite” who was a villainous wizard appearing in the novel “The Thing on the Doorstep” by occultist H.P. Lovecraft.
The Brotherhood of Light Tarot Origins
The Egyptian Tarot are a raw form of the Major and Minor Arcana in comparison to the Rider Waite Deck. The Brotherhood of Light Tarot (Egyptian Tarot) was developed in conjunction with the text The Sacred Tarot by C.C. Zain and to be used by the The Church of Light, and this set of tarot first appeared in 1936. This tarot deck was developed by the Church of Light and illustrated by Gloria Beresford. The symbolism found in the Egyptian Tarot deck depicts the arcana of the ancient Egyptian initiates of mystery schools, and aligns much more precisely with the teachings of ancient alchemy or “magic”.
One major indicator of this is the use of the “red man” and “white woman”, which can be seen displayed throughout the Major Arcana.
A stark contrast between the Egyptian Tarot and the Rider Waite Tarot exists with the lack of illustrative imagery across the Minor Arcana, as each appears instead merely as the four suits varying by number–cups, coins, scepters, swords–alongside other symbols. For this reason, the symbolism of the Brotherhood of Light (Egyptian) Tarot may be much more difficult to read and master for someone who is already familiar with the Rider Waite Tarot or traditional tarot decks.
A distinct difference between a traditional deck of tarot, infused with Christian symbolism, and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot is that each card of the deck also adds more insight into the ancient arcanum connected with the card by displaying the astrological parallel (the 12 zodiac, the decante constellations and corresponding planets) and numerological significance in the form of geometric symbols, Roman numerals, and letters of the Roman, Hebrew and Egyptian alphabets.
The Brotherhood of Light Tarot was first printed in black and white, but eventually colors were added in 2009 to bring the symbolism to life for ease of interpretation.
What exactly is the Church of Light?
The Church of Light is a non-profit organization dedicated to spiritual religion, altruism, and Hermetic Tradition.
The organization was originally established in 1932 as an extension of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. The purpose of the Church of Light was to reestablish the symbolism and teachings of Hermetic Cosmology, the Science of the Soul, and the Religion of the Stars in the physical World. One of the main differences between the teachings of the Christian religion (and the Rider Waite Tarot) and the Church of Light (and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot) is that the latter focuses on the progress of the individual consciousness to increase Happiness, Usefulness, and Spirituality along the life path. Its teachings manifest on the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual planes.
The explanation by the Church of Light describes the practice of astrology as the “Golden Key” and that of the tarot as the “Silver Key”.
The Hermetic Brotherhood of Light was a fraternity founded by Hermann Fichtuld (Freemason and alchemist) in the 1750s in which focused on teachings of Alchemy, Astrology, and Theurgy and descended from the German Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross–a Rosicrucian society inducting members that were expected to have achieved the level of Master Mason and be in good standing with the organization. The structure of the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross would be utilized by both the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglica, and later, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Alchemy was the central focus as was the “perfect and true preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone” based on a 1710 book by Sigmund Richter aka “Sincerus Renatus”.
How to Read the Rider Waite Tarot vs. the Brotherhood of Light Tarot
When confronting matters of the physical reality, I consult the Rider Waite Tarot. When dealing with matters of the divine or things of a spiritual nature, I use the Brotherhood of Light Tarot. The reason behind this is that the Rider Waite Tarot deck lacks the “depth” of the internal process of “individuation” outlined in the Brotherhood of Light Tarot. Being mainly comprised of Christian symbols, the Rider Waite Tarot does not free one from the confines of the collective, but instead, encourages spirituality within a collective organization or established systems of spiritual attainment where all must agree on the benefit of the outcome for the sake of the whole.
On the other hand, the goal of the Brotherhood of Light Tarot is to free one from the collective mindset to obtain “wholeness”–an event in which Carl Jung (analytical psychologist) wrote in his work Mysterium Coniunctionis as being the only true means to obtain spiritual adeptship, knowledge of the nature of the divine, or an understanding of the collective unconscious through the betterment of self via the personal consciousness, which can be put into practice in everyday life through the act of physical, mental, and spiritual manifestation.
Interpreting the Rider Waite Tarot relies on an understanding of the suits, which can be considered the same for the Brotherhood of Light Tarot–cups meaning emotion/intuition, coins/pentacles meaning physical production/material attainments, wands/scepters meaning creative actions/insights, and swords meaning communications/invisible influences, which also correspond to the four elements water, earth, fire, and air, respectively. These elements most often represent the four elements of conscious thought outlined in the quaternio/quaternity of the alchemists. Each of the Minor Arcana correspond to events of the Major Arcana and must be studied and learned individually.
One major difference that can be seen across decks is the ordering of the Major Arcana of the Rider Waite Tarot and the Brotherhood of Light Tarot (Arcanum VIII and Arcanum XI are swapped where Strength becomes “The Balance” and Justice becomes “The Enchantress”), but the most definite variation comes from the individual naming of each archetypal symbol–for instance, “Temperance” (Arcanum XIV) becomes “The Alchemist”, and temperance becomes the mode of the alchemist rather than a virtue of the divine (as it is illustrated on the Rider Waite tarot card by an angel in the Rider Waite Tarot).
Yet, the ordering and symbols illustrated by the Rider Waite Tarot are to be interpreted through Christian doctrine (with organized religious influences combined with Hermetic symbolism) and the alchemical “Great Work” (from the origins of the Emerald Tablet and Hermes Trismegistus). The Brotherhood of Light Tarot can be read by various seekers (as the book stretches past 400 pages) and provides explanations for the significance of each symbol found on a card to include Number, Astrology, Human Function, Alchemy, the Bible, Masonry, Magic, Initiation, and Occult Science.
Carl Jung describes the difference between the rites and beliefs of Christians and the magnum opus of the alchemist with simplicity when mentioning the goal of Christianity as the descent followed by the ascent whereas alchemy reverses this process with, first, the ascent followed by the descent.
Therefore, the ultimate goal of the Christian is ascension into heaven (or individual salvation – seemingly much more egotistical than it appears on the surface for being widely considered a non ego-centric belief), while the alchemist ascends (to the height of the collective unconscious) to then descend back to the personal consciousness with the knowledge of the ascent to share with the World.
In this way, the Christian’s goal is never fully obtained in the physical world, and thus cannot be put into practice through the art of manifestation. For me, the Christian goal seems very much out of reach, as the misinterpretation of “heaven” as a literal location is a prominent belief in modern practice (“behold, the kingdom of God is within you”). It is much more passive in that it does not “influence” the reality, but merely “reacts” to the events presented along the life path.
The alchemist obtains the knowledge and means to influence the physical, mental, and spiritual reality, thus does not merely react but interacts with the unfolding of the life’s path through the act of conscious manifestation. This is considered a dangerous idea to the beliefs of Christianity, as the individual is left with the means to influence the face of the World outside the guidance of organized religion.
When reading the Brotherhood of Light Tarot it’s important to understand the three planes of reality, as each plane is read using a different interpretation. These varying interpretations are even listed within Zain’s book The Sacred Tarot.
Jung, C. G., Ascent and Descent, Mysterium Coniunctionus: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, 2nd ed., trans. by R. F. C Hull, (New York: Princeton University Press, 1970), 217.