A British scholar and historian of occultism and mysticism. Waite was born on October 2, 1857, in Brooklyn, New York, and brought to London, England, by his family when he was an infant. He was educated in Roman Catholic schools. As a boy, he cherished an affection for “penny dreadfuls,” the romantic popular pulp literature of the day.
Waite grew up during the first European renaissance of occultism which stretched from the end of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War I, and his personal friends included Arthur Machen, William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley.
For some twenty years he edited anonymously its monthly “Re-view of Periodical Literature.” During this period he acquired a knowledge of the major current developments in occultism all over the world.
He was also a Freemason and authority on Masonic writings. He was responsible for the first British publication of many important occult and mystical texts. He translated and publicized the writings of occultist Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse Louis Constant).
In 1891 Waite joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn but quit in less than a year believing his time was better spent studying and translating alchemical texts. He developed a negative attitude toward all magical ritual and believed that rituals differed primarily in the amount of black magic they contained.
Waite became a devoted mystic and in the wake of the collapse of the Golden Dawn in 1915, he founded the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He believed that suitably constructed rituals, which he endeavored to write, that had a dramatic form but were of a religious (devotional) rather than magical (manipulative) format, could assist the mystical quest.
Through the twentieth century, Waite was known for his work with Pamela Coleman-Smith in the production of a deck of tarot cards (the Waite deck) and his commentary on the tarot, The Key to the Tarot (1910). Both the deck and the book remain popular in spite of the numerous new divinatory tarot decks that have been produced in the late twentieth century as expressions of the Wiccan and New Age movements.
Waite died May 19, 1942.