The Elusive Tarot of the Golden Dawn – A Small Part of a Solution
In his introduction to The Golden Dawn Companion Dr. R.A. Gilbert states, “Much remains to be discovered about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and many questions concerning the minutiae of its history… remain to be answered.” Nearly thirty years have passed since this observation was made and yet, despite many exciting discoveries during the period, it remains as valid today as it was in 1986 when the Companion was published. Indeed, as Dr. Gilbert also notes in this regard, the Golden Dawn does not and “will not willingly yield up its remaining secrets”.
One such secret, which has stubbornly resisted numerous attempts to provide a satisfactory answer, is the question as to the nature of the particular images of the Tarot used by the original Golden Dawn Order before it collapsed into schismatic fragments. Of the twenty-two cards in the so-called Major Arcana only nine have been positively identified and this is solely because their images and descriptions appear in the Order rituals. But what of the remaining thirteen?
Prima facie, this might seem to be not merely a relatively simple task but also an unnecessary one for surely, it might be said, there are already numerous books on the Golden Dawn Tarot in addition to the published decks produced by the Golden Dawn members A.E. Waite, R.W. Felkin, Paul Foster Case, and Aleister Crowley. And since their day there has been a proliferation of modern decks purporting to be “Golden Dawn’ which are based on an interpretation of their predecessors and on study of the Order material concerning the Tarot. Unfortunately none of the information derived from any of these sources enables us to form a clear, still less authoritative, view of how the thirteen cards were seen by the founders of the Order. Indeed, although the decks of the four Golden Dawn members share common imagery in many respects, they also differ significantly in many others. And the reason for such variation is the surprising fact that, aside from the rituals, no description is provided of the Major Arcana in any of the several Order papers which constitute the ‘official’ curriculum of the Order regarding the Tarot. It must be emphasized that the Tarot deck commonly assumed by many writers on the Golden Dawn to be the Order pack is not – this has never been published and, with the exception of the nine
cards which appear in the rituals, the remaining thirteen cards are entirely the personal work of Felkin and his wife, albeit often based on publicly available information.
The formal curriculum up to the Second Order Grade of Zelator Adeptus Minor (ZAM) consists of just one manuscript issued to the Outer Order Grade of ‘Practicus’, and several documents provided to the ZAM, collectively known as “Book ‘T’”. What is remarkable about ‘Book T’ is that whereas fairly detailed descriptions are provided of the imagery involved in the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana none is given for the 22 Major cards. Several references to the Trump cards do occur in these papers but these relate entirely to their various attributions and associated meanings, and give no substantial clue as to what is actually depicted.
Clearly, it is because of this apparent silence of the Golden Dawn founders on the Major Arcana that both modern commentators on the Order and the Tarot, and modern occultists alike, have either concluded that there was no precise conception of how the elusive thirteen cards should look or that the packs created by Dr. R.W. Felkin and A.E. Waite are largely in accordance with such a conception. This is, of course, an entirely reasonable and logical approach, especially when combined with a study of the sources known to be available to the founders of the Order, which included descriptions of the cards within the works of the nineteenth century mage Eliphas Levi and the various European decks then extant.
One might assume, therefore, that this is as far as the subject can be taken and that significant variations between the decks of Waite and Felkin are either the result of personal whim or informed knowledge on which we are unable to judge today. This is decidedly not the case, however, for I have located one original Golden Dawn paper which until now has completely overlooked by every historian and enthusiast of the Order, including Dr. Gilbert and Ellic Howe, author of the seminal The Magicians of the Golden Dawn. This typed manuscript provides a skeletal outline of the imagery of all 22 Major Arcana as well as throwing some light on several other manuscripts and puzzles relating to the Tarot.
Entitled “Tarot Trumps” (and transcribed below), it is absolutely certain that the paper was written by a member of the Golden Dawn sometime before 1900 and not by any member or Chief of the Stella Matutina. It has been suggested by Pat Zalewski, the acclaimed author of many books on the Golden Dawn, and with whom I have shared this paper, that it could be the work of one of the two founders, William W. Westcott.
“These are so skeletonic that they seem to follow the pattern of Westcott when he
drafted up something and sent it to Mathers [co-founder S. M. L. MacGregor Mathers]
to extrapolate. Because all the trumps are considered it had to be someone who was
planning a great deal and I think it fits more Westcott than Mathers whom I suspect was
the original author of the GD/AO 6=5 [ritual], which he most likely gave to Mathers to
do his extrapolation on, but something he never did for one reason or another. This is
The astute reader will observe several subtle differences between even the nine known Tarot cards, which appear both in the rituals, and the so-called “Cipher Manuscripts” (from which the rituals were supposedly written) and the equivalent brief descriptions which appear here. A full analysis of these differences and similarities, in the context of the historical sources antecedent to the Golden Dawn, must await another occasion. However, one description of particular significance should be mentioned. In the Golden Dawn document Book T the Tarot card number called “Hanged Man” is also referred to as the “Drowned Man”. Within the published GD material no explanation is provided of the intriguing reference to the “Drowned Man” but it is a card which greatly exercised the thought of both A.E. Waite and Dr. R.W. Felkin around the period (1906) when they were drawing up ideas for writing their respective rituals for the Grade of Adeptus Major (6=5) in which the card appears.
Those familiar with the beautiful Major Arcana which the artist John Brahms Trinick produced under Waite’s direction for his F.R.C. Order will recall that the card, known as the ‘Drowned Giant’ depicts a ‘drowned’, and crowned, man lying underwater within a swastika shape. Crucially, Waite states in his 6=5 ritual (published in the Falcon edition of Israel Regardie’s “The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic”) that “the drowned giant is depicted as reposing on the rocky bed of the ocean with the rainbow at his feet”. It is manifestly obvious
that Waite has taken this description, including the reference to ‘the Ark’, directly from this “Tarot Trumps” paper.
The skeletal description is capable of yielding even more valuable historical information, however, for it states that the card “should be held sideways” and the rough sketch shows the usual style of Hanged Man but placed on its side. Within the Golden Dawn 6=5 ritual, which was completely unknown to Waite, we find the following description of this Tarot card: “’The Hanged Man’, would be more commonly called – ‘The Drowned Giant’, and its position horizontal rather than perpendicular. In this position [an oblong box placed horizontally is shown], the lower side of the Key represents the Bed of the Waters, and the upper side the Keel of the Ark of Noah, flowing above the Drowned Figure”. In this context it should be noted that only one copy of the Golden Dawn 6=5 ritual is known to have survived and was located within a collection of Dr. W.E. Carnegie Dickson who received many original and rare Golden Dawn papers from Mathers’ successor, J.W. Brodie Innes. Thus, the skeletal description, almost certainly written before 1900, also provides invaluable confirmation that the 6=5 ritual was itself the genuine Golden Dawn ritual for this Grade, and not a document produced for Mathers’ Alpha et Omega Order, formed after the collapse of the Golden Dawn.
Serious students of the Golden Dawn Tarot are also urged to compare these brief descriptions with those which appear in the 6=5 paper entitled “The Order of the Ritual of the Heptagram – Part II – Of the Tarot Trumps” which has been published in Pat Zalewski’s “Inner Order Teachings of the Golden Dawn”. The original of this paper, like the 6=5 Ritual, was also part of Dickson’s collection [much of the collection came to me and which I made available to Pat Zalewski and others]. It will be observed that in places several of the skeletal descriptions also support the Heptagram paper which has been curiously neglected by Tarot scholars.
The above is merely a brief overview of this important discovery and a more in-depth study and comparison is required. In the transcription below I have attempted to capture the typing idiosyncrasies of the original. All of the round brackets appear in the original but the square
brackets contain my comment and a description of the very rough sketches which sometimes accompany the text.
“Spirit of Ether”
0 Aleph Fool
Man like the Greek Mercury – bounding up from the earth – the animal from behind him dragging him down. Caduceus of [Mercury] over his shoulder – represents spiritual power restrained by material conditions.
(Animal has him by the Heel)
“Magus of Power”
1 Beth. MAGICIAN
Magician with Altar and Z-A-M lesser implements before him – invoking.
“Priestess of the Silver Star”
2 Gimel HIGH PRIESTESS
Priestess – between two G.D. Pillars like Hegemone (Red Black Lamen and Collar)
“Daughter of the Mighty Ones”
3 Daleth EMPRESS
Seated – Winged Empress with Dove – ( 7 Pointed Crown and Heptagram on Sceptre)
“Son of the Morning Chief among the Mighty
4 Heh EMPEROR
Crowned Warrior – Lightening on Shield. Thunder Cloud beneath feet.
“Magus of the Eternal Gods”.
5 Vav HIEROPHANT
Osiris between two columns 2 or 4 Kneeling figures and an altar before him. (Bull, Apis, Sign of OSIRIS ) (Nevis of RA) A Triple barred [presumed diagram missing] like that on which Nehushtan is twined.
4 figures ( 4 Letters of Name – King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Osiris – in middle above).
6 Zain [final] THE LOVERS
Angel sends down radiant light upon two figures which balance on either side – the two figures partly light partly dark varying –
mediumship of a central figure – oracle of the mighty Gods (the Good and Evil woman, man between)
(Children of the Voice Divine, the Oracle of the Mighty Gods)
7 Cheth CHARIOT
Sea horses of Neptune – Triumphal figure (not Neptune)
(“Child of the Powers of the Waters Lord of the Triumph of Life”)
8 Teth STRENGTH
Winged head dress – queenly figure seated – Hand resting on a lion – Coercing it. (Holding lion by Chain Collar Lion dragging away) “Daughter of the Flaming Sword Leader of the Lion”
9 Yod HERMIT
White head – light streaming on to it like a tonsure. Holds Globular Lantern. (Sphere of Tiphareth) “Magus of the Voice of Light, the Prophet of the Gods”
10 Lamed JUSTICE
Like the Card in use “Justice” Daughter of the Lords of truth, the holder of the Balance”
11 Kaph WHEEL OF FORTUNE[A rough penciled diagram of a 12 spoked wheel with the Signs of the Zodiac outside the circle. ‘Ashteroth’ is written at the bottom around the outside of the wheel)
“Lord of the Forces of Life” Wheel of 12 – Spokes – 4 Sphinxes made of Signs of Zodiac.
At Top – Woman headed, Lion bodied Sphinx holding Scales. Descending – Goat headed centaur with Scorpion tail (or a Scorpion man or horse as has been found on Assyrian boundary stones)
At foot – Virgin’s head with fish’s body – Clothed in leopard skin -woman to the waist-
Ascending – Human headed bull of Assyria tail like a bird –
Behind the Wheel a shadowy Angel figure affirming the Higher – Ashtaroth written below on the lowest part of the wheel.
“Lord of the Forces of Life”
12 Mem HANGED MAN
A drowned giant in the shape of [a penciled stick man lying horizontally down with legs in a swastika shape] Swastica Cross –
Between the rocky bed of the ocean and the bottom of Ark – full face, legs crossed, – rainbow at feet – Should be held sideways-
(a penciled rough drawing of usual style of Hanged Man but lying on its side, with the crossed legs to the left and the face of head showing, to the right).
“Spirit of the Mighty Waters”
13 Nun DEATH
Skeleton reaping fresh Vegetation coming from corrupted bodies.
Extremities are 4 elements and [penciled drawing of Spirit Wheel] two
Heads -is crowned (penciled drawing of Tav Cross in three triangular
Arms shape) form top of scythe – Cross of Life.
Seed behind skeleton – unborn – nameless one –
In front Scorpion – ruthless destruction Snake – deception.
Good and Evil. Eagle – Divine nature receiving life – Harmony from Chaos
“Child of the Great Transformers” Lord of the Gates of Death
14 Samech TEMPERANCE
Angel. 5 Star crown and Halo of Light – Wings Pours together fiery water and watery fire.
“Daughter of the Reconcilers, the Bringers forth of Life”
15 Ayin DEVIL
Goat headed demon stands on Cube left hand down Torch [drawn symbols for Sun and Capricorn) Circle is centre of Cube 2 small demons male under Torch Female under Horn of Water hold cords attached to Circle in their hands. bat wings – hairy body. Sexual.
Pentagram of light over head two Pents. Under feet invern pent on
Face. “Lord of the Gates of Matter, Child of the forces of time.”
16 Samech TOWER “Lord of the Hosts of the Mighty”
the Power of the tread destroying the columns of darkness.
establishes itself in the 3 [a pencil line crosses out the 3] holes rent in
the wall. The Kings of Edom fall at [‘at’ is crossed out in pencil, and ‘out’ is written in]
crown and [‘and’ is crossed out] men. Right hand – Light. Left hand – Darkness.
17 Tzaddi THE STAR
Star has 7 and 14 Rays – Heptad multiplied by Triad – 21 – Eheich Sirius – Star of ISIS – SOTHIS
Woman – Synthesis of ISIS Neptune Athor Amiah and Binah
Great Supernal Mother pouring on Earth Waters of Creation which unite And form a river at her feet influence of Chokmah – binah and restored world.
Bird of Hermes on Tree of Knowledge.
“Daughter of the Firmament, the Dweller between the Waters”.
Tree of Life on opposite side. [ drawn ‘Mars symbol’] over woman’s head.
Heptagram on her head (drawn Venus sign] over bird of Hermes
Venus Mars Mercury
Aquarius Firmament dividing & Containing the Waters
18 Qoph MOON
Moon on Side of increase. 4 Yods [drawn symbol for Yod) falling 32
rays – path of yetzirah. Jackals of Aunbri’s guarding Gates of East and
West, one standing one lying down [two penciled, roughly drawn stick figures of jackals]
Crayfish or Scarabeus.
Two Towers. Stream from horizon.
“Ruler of Flux and Reflux, the Child of the Sons of the Mighty”
19. Resh SUN. “ Lord of the Fire of the World”. 12 Rays waved & salient alternately.
36 Secondary Rays
72 Tertiary “ “
7 [gap here] on each side falling
Portions of Circular wall
Children on water and earth.[Note: rough penciled drawing of two figures before part of circular wall. The two seem to be gripping right hands.
20. Shin Judgment
Angel crowned with Sun. Surrounded by Rainbow in which leap Seraphim. Trumpet – influence of Spirit descending from Binah banner Ect [rough penciled drawing of banner with cross]
Pluto emerging from Volcanic rock.
ISIS Full face NEPTHYS profile coming from Water.
HORUS rises from Cubic Tomb in [rough drawing of stick figure holding up hands in 2=9 sign] Centre
7 Yods [Yods are drawn] descend in rays of light from rainbow Yod Yod Yod Yod Yod Yod Yod [Yods are drawn i.e. a group of 4 and a group of 3]
“Spirit of Primal Fire”
21 Tav UNIVERSE
wreath of 12 big and 72 small circles. Woman, scarf,
legs crossed Wands in hands, one down one up, luna crescent on head. Heptagram in woman
“The Great one of the Night and Time”.
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