If you want to understand what motivates the “secret teachings of the Tarot” as characterized by the mid-to-late-20th century approach to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, it helps to look not only at the Anglo-American creators of that deck (Waite & Smith) but also at the hugh, but unacknowledged, influence of the uniquely-American New Thought movement and particularly William Walker Atkinson.
Those who have watched the video The Secret or read any of the works on the “Law of Attraction” by Abraham/Hicks and many, many others, may not be aware that this “think-and-grown-rich” concept is a direct descendant (with relatively little updating) of the 19th century American New Thought movement. It began, some say, with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), a practitioner of mesmerism or mental healing, and forms the basic tenets of the Unity Church and the Church of Religious Science. One of its branches drew heavily upon Theosophy and helped popularize Hindu yogic practices in the U.S.
One of the most prolific authors in the New Thought movement was William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932), editor of New Thought magazine, and author of Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World (1906) in which can be found the basic tenets found in The Secret, including the use of positive thinking and affirmations. Atkinson used many pseudonyms, including Yogi Ramacharaka whose work Mystic Christianity features a chapter on “The Secret Doctrine” in which he quotes from Eliphas Levi and A.E. Waite. Here he reveals the mystical side of the “Secret”—that there is an Inner Teaching—from which organized religion has departed. This hidden spiritual message is
“the constant Mystic Message regarding the existence of the Spirit within the soul of each individual—that Something Within, to which all can turn, in time of pain and trouble—that Guide and Monitor which stands ever-ready to counsel, advise and direct if one opens himself to the Voice.”
Atkinson, through his hundreds of books and articles, taught that the “Key to the Mysteries” were methods to be used to listen to the still, silent voice within. He believed that “The Truth is the same, no matter under what name it is taught or who teaches it.” So, under his various pseudonyms, he presented it in the form of mystic christianity, hindu yogic practices, and hermetic wisdom, culminating in a book called The Kybalion by “Three Initiates,” outlining the seven Hermetic principles making up the “Law of Attraction,” which may in turn have been based on the Hermetic writings of Anna Kingsford who inspired the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
What’s interesting to us as tarot readers is the close ties that Atkinson’s brand of New Thought has to Tarot. The trail actually begins with Quimby’s belief in mesmerism, something in which Antoine Court de Gébelin also firmly believed (dying during a treatment by Mesmer himself). Then there is the obvious influence that Eliphas Lévi and A.E. Waite had on Atkinson who began as a mental healer and ended up as a promulgator of Hermetic and Rosicrucian Wisdom. Atkinson was also “Magus Incognito” who wrote The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians, which includes a set of “seven cosmic principles” almost identical to those in The Kybalion. (Under the names Swami Bhakta Vishita and Swami Panchadasi, he wrote extensively on divination and seership.)
A couple of people found themselves drawn to Atkinson through their shared interests, culminating in several works. Both L.W. de Laurence (best remembered for plagarizing Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and the RWS deck) and Paul Foster Case (founder of the Builders of the Adytum) moved to Chicago and collaborated with Atkinson (Psychomancy and Crystal Gazing was co-written with de Laurence). A well-established rumor has it that Case was one of the “Three Initiates” who wrote The Kybalion, using its principles as the basis of his Tarot correspondence course. Those who look for New Thought methods in this course will find them aplenty.
The whole concept of Vibration, made popular (if hackneyed) through the Hippie term “vibes,” is descriptive of the mental resonance experienced by those who use the Tarot, and especially by those who see the Tarot as a tool for deliberately making one’s life better rather than simply mirroring or predicting character and events. A reading of the above mentioned works will convince anyone of the direct connection between the modern American approach to Tarot and the New Thought movement.
Atkinson’s Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World is available here.
Added: Just found this comment by P.F.Case from his 1936 newsletter The Wheel of Life, in which he gave a list of “fellow builders” whose work he recommended to seekers: “Pioneers in the New Thought, like Helen Wilmans, William Walker Atkinson, Elizabeth Towns, Henry Wood and Judge Troward have all made valuable contributions.” Other recommendations include scientists such as Einstein and Jung; Manly Hall, Alice Bailey, and Marc Edmund Jones (astrologer).
The New Thought movement also deeply influenced the tarot perspective of Eden Gray, author of a series of books that made tarot reading readily accessible to the American youth of the 1960s and 70s (and are still popular today). See my bio of Eden Gray here.