The Legacy of the Golden Dawn: Chickens, Eggs, Carts and Horses

A few years ago, as I prepared for a presentation at a regional tarot meeting on the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I strove to organize my thoughts on exactly what that organization has meant to the modern esoteric tarot. Obviously, much of its influential legacy comes from the system of qabalistic, elemental, astrological, alchemical, numerological and chromatic (“color symbolism”) correspondences and the set of example readings created by the Order’s chief adept Samuel Liddell (“Macgregor”) Mathers and his compatriots. That seminal content, drawn to some extent from the previous work of French occultists Eliphas Levi and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (“Etteilla”), was originally documented in the Order’s curriculum of study (assembled as the Liber T “tarot papers”), enriched by Aleister Crowley in The Book of Thoth and later amplified by Israel Regardie in his Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. It has since been retooled by more recent writers but, except for some largely gratuitous tinkering (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), the core of the system remains largely unchanged.

I recently had an interesting but perplexing conversion on one of the Facebook tarot pages regarding the provenance of the tarot material associated with the Order. There is apparently a widespread popular opinion that Liber T was actually written after Crowley’s Book of Thoth and may actually be a plagiarized version of that work. I’ve thoroughly researched the history of the Golden Dawn and can say that this assumption is patently absurd. Macgregor Mathers (augmented by Harriet Felkin’s contribution) penned most of the tarot curriculum, possibly based on folios — the “Cipher Manuscripts” — received posthumously from the Freemason Kenneth R. H. Mackenzie, sometime between 1887 (the first Order’s founding date) and 1897 (the year of its collapse). Crowley — without authorization — published Liber T in its original form in the Autumn 1912 edition of his periodical, The Equinox.

I can’t help but think that people who hold the above opinion have grabbed the chicken, tossed the egg and set off down the road in a cart being pushed by a horse. They are most likely being misled by the fact that, some time after 1973 (when the College of Thelema was formed by Phyllis Seckler), Thelemite Jim Eshelman “expanded and revised” Liber T based on the Thoth model and re-issued it as “Liber Theta.” It probably didn’t help matters that the PDF version that can be downloaded free from the College of Thelema website is labeled “LiberT.pdf,” the Greek theta most likely being unavailable in the font. Liber Theta is reasonably faithful to its Golden Dawn predecessor (as, for the most part, was Crowley) and is in many ways more intelligible, but it is not the same document.

Israel Regardie, a member of the Golden-Dawn-offshoot Stella Matutina, tried to set things straight by publishing (in collaboration with Christopher Hyatt) what he alleged to be the “original” Liber T in his Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, last issued in 1984. But there is expert opinion concluding that Regardie’s publication was almost certainly based on a subsequent version used by the Whare-Ra Temple in New Zealand. Modern tarot writer Benebell Wen posted what she calls the “original Liber T” on her blog site; as far as I can tell, she has made only minor cosmetic tweaks to its contents. But what does all of this mean to the average practitioner of tarot divination?

There are many tarot 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.

Funny thing about esoteric correspondences. Sometimes you don’t need them at all, other times you can get nowhere without at least a cursory nod to them. They’re especially useful when a spread serves up a disjointed mish-mash of contradictory meanings that resists all tactics of intuition, inspiration, imagination and ingenuity. The analytical skill required to seamlessly integrate a range of different, often complex, associations in a single reading is one that amply rewards the time and effort spent on mastering it. Although its assimilation may imply rote “memory work” with little appealing fluidity, in practice it opens up a whole parallel world of unique insights that dovetail with remarkable coherence.

I have a hierarchy of approaches that I use in most situations: “just the cards” and their images, with no additional considerations beyond suit; classical elemental qualities (including “humours” and “temperaments”) that arise from the suits; occult number theories (usually called “numerological” but technically something else); astrological correlations in terms of sign and planet; qabalistic Tree of Life connections, both Hermetic and Hebraic; mythical and literary allusions; and esoteric color symbolism. The context of the question and the nature of the emerging answer help to determine which of these I will jump to, but the first four are fairly standard in my own practice.

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. In The Golden Dawn Tarot Deck, Robert Wang and Israel Regardie attempted to reconstitute Mathers’ original with their own collaborative effort (Wang’s primitive painting and Regardie’s recollection of his lost 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 essential symbolism. I’m intentionally excluding A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith’s “RWS” deck here because Smith (with or without Waite’s blessing) 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.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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