As I prepare to do a presentation at a regional tarot meeting tomorrow on the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I’ve been organizing my thoughts on exactly what that organization has meant to the modern esoteric tarot. Obviously, much of the foundation comes from the system of correspondences created by Samuel Liddell (“Macgregor”) Mathers and his compatriots, which is documented for the most part in the Order’s “tarot papers” assembled as Liber T, and further amplified by Israel Regardie in his Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. But what does that mean to the average practitioner of tarot divination?
There are many readers who shun esoteric correspondences entirely, preferring to free-associate from the images on the cards along with a grounding in the traditional “book meanings.” My own opinion is that this amounts to “cutting off your nose to spite your face;” there is much that is relevant to practical work in the Golden Dawn material. The assignment to the Minor Arcana of the classical elemental designations (Fire, Water, Air and Earth), although it is often under assault by revisionists, is one of the fundamental building blocks of the entire edifice; astrological planetary and zodiacal associations add color and depth; numerical values derived from the Tree of Life paths and sephiroth bring in the ideas of increasing complexity and solidity accompanying the “descent of Spirit into Matter;” the sequence of Chaldean decans wedded to the “pip” and court cards refines the astrological structure even further, allowing for greater subtlety of interpretation; the “color scales” can be used to elaborate on the connections between elements of the imagery. Although these correspondences don’t have to be brought to bear in a reading every time, they are there when needed to help work out of an interpretive jam.
The Golden Dawn members were required to create their own personal deck as part of grade advancement in the Order, but as far as I know, not a single example has survived intact. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie attempted to reconstitute Mathers’ original with their own collaborative effort, The Golden Dawn Tarot Deck, but the results were not artistically impressive. Chic and Sandra Tabatha Cicero produced their own version, the Golden Dawn Magical Tarot, another rather inept artistic presentation, as did Lon Milo DuQuette with the somewhat crude Tarot of Ceremonial Magick that has underpinnings in Enochian Magic. A more recent entry in the field, The Golden Dawn Temple Tarot by Nick Farrell, Harry Wendrich and Nicola Wendrich is much more accomplished in that regard, but has been criticized for departing too much from the established symbolism. I’m intentionally excluding A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith’s “RWS” deck here because Waite chose to omit almost all of the esoteric cues from the scenic “pip” cards.
Those deck creators who have sought to emulate Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, itself a “second generation” Golden Dawn derivative with a few of “the Master’s” twists, have fared much better. One of the earlier attempts, Anthony Clark’s Magickal Tarot, while not especially imposing as art, is entirely serviceable as a reading deck. The Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson, although black-and-white, is an impressive accomplishment. In the middle of the pack are decks like Liber T, Tarot of Stars Eternal and Navigators of the Mystic SEA (and I’m sure I’m omitting many other worthy examples). One of the most recent and most satisfactory of the “Thoth clones” is the Tabula Mundi, Colores Arcus by M.M. Meleen. Although I don’t own them, there are numerous “also-ran” decks that have dipped into the Thoth well with varying degrees of success. It’s probably fair to say that there are many more worthwhile books on the subject than there are actual decks.
Anyone hoping to emulate the experience of using a true “Golden Dawn” deck has limited options. Personally, as a sucker for evocative artwork, I would go for the Golden Dawn Temple Tarot but keep a large grain of salt handy when using it.