Eden Gray: A New Age Icon

I thought I was going to have to do some prodigious legwork to write this essay, but Mary Greer saved me the trouble with her informative blog article on Eden Gray. Read hers first, since summarizing her excellent research for my own purposes would be pointless:

Eden Gray’s Fool’s Journey

There was little in the way of popular literature on the tarot — esoteric or otherwise — when I first encountered the cards. Although the Aquarian was the first deck I held in my hand (an Army friend had it sent to Germany in 1970), I didn’t begin my studies until 1972 with the Thoth deck and its companion volume, The Book of Thoth. I had no idea I was jumping in at the deep end of the pool with no clue how to swim; it was available so I latched onto it as part of my general interest in occult subjects at that time. Shortly after, I picked up Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot (PKT), but I was so thoroughly immersed in the Thoth that I didn’t buy a Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck until nearly four decades later. Although Crowley’s writing was certainly arcane and enormously difficult for a novice, I found Waite’s to be turgidly Victorian and almost absurdly vague in places (I have since re-read it to slightly better effect). Trying to blend the two with the goal of using the Thoth for divination turned out to be an exercise in futility, since Crowley’s published thought was of a much higher order than Waite was willing (although he was perfectly able) to reveal to the uninitiated in his own tarot book.

Enter Eden Gray, whose 1960 book The Tarot Revealed demystified Waite’s seminal work in a way that could be easily digested and, more importantly, brought to bear with little personal tailoring or abridgement when reading the cards. Where Waite was willing to acknowledge conflicting or unconvincing testimony whenever he found it, Gray confidently plowed through any and all ambiguity to deliver an eminently useful text. While she didn’t directly attempt to “denature” Crowley’s intoxicating brand of occult “firewater” as she did with Waite’s similarly cryptic obscurities (I think there may be a quotable notion there: “The Tarot Revealed is a denatured Pictorial Key“), there was enough commonality with Crowley’s outlook that I was able to make headway in deciphering the deeper meaning in the Thoth cards in a way that could be turned into potent narrative story-telling. (I call her my “lifeboat on the Sea of Thoth.”) Although those with a more thorough grounding in the RWS system assure me it isn’t so, I am of the opinion that Waite never entirely committed himself to the prosaic scenic representation of his ideas produced by artist Pamela Colman Smith, who seemed to have a free hand in that regard. For her part, Gray tried to bridge the gap by pruning away some of the less coherent associations between the PKT text and the images on the cards.

Eden Gray published two more books on the tarot, 1970’s Complete Guide to the Tarot, and Mastering the Tarot from 1971. For what it’s worth, I found neither of them as compelling as her first effort. She set out to integrate two subjects that would have been better left to those with a more comprehensive understanding of (and appreciation for) the Golden Dawn’s baseline material: astrology and the Tree of Life. She seemed to consider the GD groundwork in both areas to be flawed (and, in my own estimation, it doesn’t always bear up under critical scrutiny), so in one case she collaborated with a New York astrologer who had her own ideas and in the other she attempted to reinvent the tarot-trumps-to-Tree of Life alignment, with weakly-substantiated results. (I spent a good deal of time trying to penetrate her thinking on the second subject, but eventually just created my own version that makes much more esoteric sense to me.) The Tarot Revealed I keep constantly on my desk along with The Book of Thoth, and dip into it even before consulting the PKT when looking for inspiration on the RWS imagery. Mastering the Tarot is there too but it is almost never opened, and the Complete Guide is tucked away on a bookshelf.

Before closing, I should mention that Eden Gray was responsible for two epiphanies I had early on in my tarot divination practice. First and perhaps most to the point, Waite’s version of the Celtic Cross with its Catholic “Sign of the Cross” structure never made a favorable impression on me. I objected to its lack of an obvious temporal flow in the “cross”section that purports to show the development of the question over time; its use of “Significator facing” in determining how to assign the recent past and near future positions; its redundancy in denoting the “person” (aka querent) in the layout; and its conflating of “hopes and fears” into a single card.

Gray eliminated the Sign of the Cross, replacing it with a model that resembles the diurnal motion of the Sun across the sky; thus, using a horoscopic map of the heavens, the “midnight” (North) position at the bottom relates to the distant past, the “dawn” (East) position at the left reveals the recent past, the “noon” (South) position above illuminates the present (my own premise), and the “sunset” (West) position at the right shows the near future. Gray also dumped the notion of Significator facing, invariably proceeding clockwise from the bottom position. The superiority of this rotational concept was apparent, and I was delighted to see Anthony Louis arrive at the same conclusion years later in Tarot Beyond the Basics. As an astrologer, I find this a much more accommodating way to explain the timing element of the “cross” sequence of the spread.

In addition to this innovation, Gray addressed two of my other concerns in one fell swoop. With exquisite insight, she decoupled “hopes” from “fears” in the ninth position and scrapped Waite’s unnecessary designation of the seventh position as “Himself” (after all, that’s what the Significator is for), moving “fears” there instead. While I have since fine-tuned her approach (for example, I now describe the seventh position as the “psychic basement” that generates all self-defeating attitudes and behaviors, and have added “aspirations” to the ninth position to show not only what you hope will happen but what you’re actually willing to work for), I still find it more satisfying than Waite’s offering (or any other design I’ve encountered since then).

Finally, in The Tarot Revealed, Gray floated the idea of not asking the querent to reveal his or her specific question to the reader, optionally letting the cards “speak their piece” with no preconceptions or bias (conscious or otherwise) from the reader’s perspective. This is essentially the same tack taken by the Golden Dawn and later by Aleister Crowley with the Opening of the Key spread: “tell the querent why he has come” according to the location of the Significator in one of the elemental sub-packs. I’ve used this convention to good effect for the last 48 years, and have only recently begun asking my sitters to identify a suit-based “topic area” at the beginning of a reading (which has more than a little to do with the time constraints present in a public reading situation.)

While there has been an outpouring of later tarot books (some of which resemble “fast food” more than substantive contributions to the canon), I’m pleased to see that Eden Gray’s work — and especially The Tarot Revealed — is still in print. Hopefully, Mary Greer’s (and my own less prominent) recognition will lead a new generation of enthusiasts to its pages.

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