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How Did a Victorian Magical Society Change the World of Tarot?

By Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pamela Colman Smith. By Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What would Tarot be without the Golden Dawn, that band of Victorian mystics who loved and fought in equal measure?  Individually, the society’s members, who ranged from the poet W.B. Yeats to the occultist Aleister Crowley, accomplished great things.  When they joined forces, their collaborations led to innovations and inspirations which resonate throughout the world of Tarot to this day.

But this was a two-way street. The Golden Dawn proposed that ancient wisdom was hidden within the Tarot. [Tweet this!] So the study of the cards was an important part of the society’s mystical inquiries.

The Golden Dawn was a magical order that was founded in the late 19th century and splintered in the early 20th.  Its lingering influence extends far beyond Tarot – into Gardnerian Wicca, Thelema, and other spiritual traditions.

However, the Golden Dawn’s best known legacy is perhaps the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck.  This Tarot, published in 1910, shines with the art of Pamela Colman Smith, who graphically translated the esoteric card meanings of fellow Golden Dawn member, A.E. Waite, into exoteric images on both Major and Minor Arcanas.

Today, a Minor Arcana illustrated with scenes of people in action seems standard, at least in North America.  But picture a world without it, where decks are modeled only after the Tarot de Marseilles (TdM).  Imagine Minor Arcana that look like ordinary playing cards and are decorated solely with the symbols of their suit – wands, cups, coins, and swords – where there is no happy family beneath a rainbow of cups, no bound woman trapped amidst eight standing swords.

If the latter illustrations sound familiar, it’s because Colman Smith’s scenes and symbols appear in different styles and permutations in hundreds of Tarot decks today.  Though the Sola Busca deck from the 15th century can stake claim to being the first with scenes on its Minor Arcana, the RWS deck has surpassed the Sola Busca in terms of fond reinventions throughout a universe of clones.

However, the word “clone” is too unkind a word to describe the colorful and sometimes brilliant homages to the RWS Tarot, which has inspired decks to tickle every reader’s fancy.  From the Tarot of Dreams to the Halloween Tarot to the Touchstone Tarot, we can wander through a rich world of varied imagery, and understand it because even if we haven’t memorized Waite’s definitions, we can grasp the stories these pictures tell.  The Tarot visions of Pamela Colman Smith leave us scope to dig into our own histories, myths, and meanings to interpret the cards.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the pre-Golden Dawn, TdM-style decks, and I will defend the right of any Tarot reader to declare its clean lines of cups, staves, swords, and coins to be the gold standard in Minor Arcana.  But life without RWS clones?  Unthinkable!

However, Waite and Smith were not the only Golden Dawn alumni to leave their footprints on the Tarot world.  Paul Foster Case, an American member of the Golden Dawn, split from the society to found the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) and to “correct” the RWS Major Arcana, revealing what he believed to be deliberately hidden secrets or misleading symbols.

In 1947 Case also unveiled to the masses the Golden Dawn’s Hebrew alphabet correspondences to the Tarot Cards in his book, “The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages,” publicly linking Tarot and the Qabalah.  In a very “American” and democratic move, Case made his teachings available to the masses via correspondence course.  The BOTA course is still available today and Case’s teachings retain their relevancy for those interested in the esoteric meanings of the cards.

Case, like Aleister Crowley, another ex-member of the Golden Dawn, returned his Minor Arcana to the simpler style of the Tarot de Marseilles and other European decks. Crowley, however, took things a step further in the vibrant Thoth deck he created with Lady Frieda Harris.

Though still rooted in Golden Dawn teachings, in the Thoth deck Crowley and Harris not only fashioned their own universe of Major Arcana images, but also broke with the Golden Dawn tradition of numbering Justice 11 and Strength 8.  Crowley and Harris reversed the placement of Strength and Justice, bringing them back in line with older Tarots, while retaining the cards’ Golden Dawn astrological correspondences (respectively, Leo and Libra).  Crowley also switched two Hebrew letter correspondences for the Emperor and Star cards, which has the effect of changing the placement of these cards upon the Qabalistic Tree of Life.

A master like Crowley knew when to break the rules (though it could be argued he went overboard at times).  However, the rules had to exist to break them, and the phenomenal task of developing the original Golden Dawn Tarot correspondences can only be imagined.  These correspondences remain perhaps the society’s most significant and lasting contribution.

Described in Book T by MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Golden Dawn, the society’s Tarot correspondences meld Kaballah with Hermeticism, and are a synthesis of Renaissance magic, French occultism, and teachings Mathers claimed were received from spiritual guides.  The RWS, Thoth, and BOTA decks – alongside countless of their so-called “clones” – are based upon these correspondences.

The concept of correspondences, while not necessary to a good Tarot reading, can certainly enhance it.  Stuck on Temperance?  Remembering that it’s associated with sporty yet philosophical Sagittarius can be just the trigger needed to relate it to the client and her situation.  The Tower giving you trouble?  Knowing its Hebrew letter association (Peh) means “mouth,” can remind us of the destruction words can cause.  Having such associations rattling around in a reader’s conscious or subconscious mind can add new dimensions to a reading.

In spite of the numerous Tarot decks the Golden Dawn has influenced, it’s important to remember that the society was not a group of Tarot readers.  They were magicians dedicated to connecting with the divine, and with their own sacred selves.  The use of Tarot and its symbols was just one method along that path.

Israeli Regardie, a past Golden Dawn member, perhaps put it best when he wrote in What You Should Know About the Golden Dawn, “symbols are of the utmost importance in the Qabalistic and magical scheme, for it is by their intervention and use that we are able to enter into the life of other parts of our consciousness, and through them into the consciousness of the universe about us.”  Perhaps this is the Golden Dawn’s greatest contribution to the world of Tarot.  The Golden Dawn took Tarot beyond fortune telling, and into the realm of self-empowerment and self-enlightenment.

In America today, this “psychological” approach to Tarot reading is quietly gaining ground.  Before telling the client what the reader “sees,” many readers now ask their clients what the symbols in the cards mean to them, exploring the client’s private stories, hopes, and fears through her personal reactions to the cards.  Some readers rely upon this style entirely, calling themselves Tarot consultants or coaches, and expanding the usage of and market for Tarot reading.

What’s also striking about the Golden Dawn is that we know about it at all.  The Golden Dawn was, after all, a secret society.  Fortunately for us, neither Waite, Case nor Crowley were terribly particular upon that point once they had left the order, believing that it was more important to share their knowledge than keep their oaths to the fracturing Golden Dawn.  They went on to found their own occult schools and societies, spreading their interpretations of the teachings of the Golden Dawn far and wide.  Today we can download Golden Dawn manuscripts off the Internet, purchase Golden Dawn-inspired Tarots, and listen to podcasts about the Golden Dawn’s astrological and Qabalistic correspondences.  Many of us do this as a matter of course in our Tarot studies, frequently unaware of the origins of these Tarot materials.

Tarot without the Golden Dawn?

Unthinkable.

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