This is the ninth and final episode of the first Infinite Fire webinar series to have been prepared in collaboration with the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP). In this webinar, Dr. Marco Pasi focussed on the famous British poet, mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), a major figure in the study and practice of Western esotericism. Waite began his career as a poet, then went on to compose rituals for the Orders he founded or was affiliated with. He also edited ancient texts, and provided translation of works by well-known occult authors. As a historian of the occult, he published numerous volumes on the subject. Because he was a prolific author, it is not surprising to find he had a great influence on the esoteric ‘Zeitgeist’ of his time.
Many of Waite’s manuscripts and published works are present in the Ritman Library’s collection. Arguably, the Waite collection of the Ritman Library may be regarded as the most important collection in the world. A great part of the Waite collection was acquired by the library through the collection of Robert A. Gilbert, a major scholar and bookseller. We are grateful to Marco Pasi for devoting his final webinar to Waite and share with us some preliminary findings about the collection.
Waite wrote numerous historical studies and covered almost all of the Western esoteric domains as we know them today, ranging from the Grail legends, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, Masonic symbolism and rituals to ceremonial magic and occult laws. He also approached his chosen field of study with critical acumen, attempting to verify whether the claims made by authors were reliable or not. As Marco Pasi points out, it could be argued that as such Waite laid the basis for the scholarly study of Western esotericism and may therefore be seen as a forerunner in the field. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), for instance, praised Waite for the way he presented Kabbalah to a non-specialist audience.
Waite also developed a fascination for the French occultist and ceremonial magician Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), who had, just as he an ambiguous relation with the Catholic church. Waite translated a number of works by Eliphas Lévi, including the anthology The Mysteries of Magic – a Digest of the Writings of Eliphas Lévi (1907).
When in 1874 Waite’s sister died, he found consolation in spiritualism and began attending seances. He also joined the Theosophical Society and became increasingly involved in esoteric circles. Around this time his career as a poet also took off, resulting in the publications of some of his poems in journals and other works, such as A Soul’s Comedy (1887).
As a poet, Waite never really acquired lasting fame, though he was liked at the time and sold well as a poet. The British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947), his ‘arch enemy’ (who called him ‘a pompous peasant’), even expressed his appreciation for Waite’s poetical artworks. Waite also began working as an editor and translated and edited many texts dealing with Western esoteric topics.
For more about Waite’s poetry, his occult works, life events and other remarkable facts, see below for Marco Pasi’s detailed exposition of the life and work of A.E. Waite:
This was the ninth and final episode of our first Infinite Fire Webinar Series, stay tuned for a second series coming up after the summer holidays!