Robert Wang, perhaps best known as the author of Qabalistic Tarot, is also an artist. He created The Golden Dawn Tarot back in 1978 and later the Jungian Tarot in the 90s. There’s a companion book to the deck, An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot published through Weiser also in 1978. You can digitally “check out” or borrow the text at OpenLibrary.org for an hour, which is what I did and will comment on as a supplement to this deck overview.
“Rarely has a tarot deck created more pre-publication interest than this long-awaited Golden Dawn Tarot pack by Dr. Robert Wang, a devoted scholar and researcher of the Secret Order of the Golden Dawn,” wrote Stuart Kaplan about the deck.
With the guidance of Dr. Israel Regardie, poring over old notebooks of members from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Wang created the Golden Dawn Tarot as an esoteric deck intended to reveal, with greater clarity, the Golden Dawn interpretive approach to the cards. This was to be a “missing link” between the Rider-Waite and the Crowley Thoth. Kaplan described Wang’s deck as “an important rare book in the field of tarot.”
Under the Golden Dawn system of correspondences, influenced by Eliphas Levi’s Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum, Key 1: The Magician is assigned to the Hebrew letter Aleph, while The Fool card is, as Wang puts it, “placed in an improbable position between Judgement and The Universe.”
And yet W. Wynn Wescott, one of the founders of the Order of the Golden Dawn, noted that this, too, was a blind. Said Westcott: “The student will do wisely to consult his intuition, if he have no adept instructor, as to the true attribution of” The Magician card, whether it’s Aleph or the Beth Path on the Tree of Life (and if it’s Beth, then that would designate The Fool card as Aleph). Wang describes this confusion as an “intentional misdirection.”
So. Whether Key 0 is assigned to the first letter Aleph, and thus Key 1 is Beth, or if Key 1 is Aleph, and Key 0 is then placed either, per one school of thought, between Key 20 and Key 21, or, alternatively, after Key 21 — becomes a rather magically intentional decision the occult tarot deck creator needs to deliberate on.
I struggled with this issue when I was first designing the blueprints for the black & white First Edition of SKT (also, I opted to go with the Phoenician letter equivalents). My path of reasoning in how I arrived at my final decision: I treated Key 0 as an infinite, transcendent connecting point at the beginning and at the end of the Majors’ sequence. Aleph signifies the oneness of Divinity. So I went with the Aleph designation for my three Key 0s.
Beth, meanwhile, signifies a house, and the optimal architectural construct for a house is the cube, and if we revisit the discussion on the Cube of Space, it’s symbolic of the three becoming the four, where the four elements manifest distinctly. So I felt it better expressed my conception of The Magus as an alchemist with the power and potential to harness the four elements distinctly.
To fully appreciate the depths of thought this deck involves, you need to read the companion guidebook, Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot, or at least I definitely did. It’s in the guidebook that you learn that the Magician is an aspect of Hermes or Tahuti, the High Priestess is an aspect of the goddess Hathor. The Empress is an aspect of Isis, but also of Venus. The triple goddess crown represents the Egyptian trilogy, Isis, Hathor, and Nephthys, crescent, full moon, and gibbous moon. The Emperor is “Ho Nike, the Conqueror . . . the apotheosis of Mars, whether in love or in war.”
About The Lovers card: Wang notes how it is one of the most confusing cards in the tarot pack, i.e., most misinterpreted. It isn’t romantic love, but rather, it’s “the liberating effect of illumination on the individual.” In his deck, Perseus is shown freeing Andromeda from the solid rock of materialism, and from the Dragon of Fear. The Lovers card in tarot is about Divine Union.
Furthermore, Wang ascribes an interpretation to The Lovers that you don’t often see– Key 6 is, according to the LWB, about mediumship and inspiration begotten from mediumistic sources; this is the power of psychic-medium impulse in that named quarternary set of power cards (i.e., The Hierophant, The Magician, The Hermit, and The Lovers, representing the four aspects of occult wisdom).
A fun exercise, based on what we’re learning from Wang and his discourse on the Golden Dawn Tarot: From your favorite or your workhorse deck, or whatever tarot deck you’re focused on right now, take out and line up Key 1: The Magician, Key 5: The Hierophant, Key 6: The Lovers, and Key 9: The Hermit cards.
These four cards represent the quarternary of power. In a way, how a creator has designed these four cards will reveal to you the spiritual and the psychic capacity of that deck.
Back to the deck at hand. =) Key 7: The Chariot card denotes man’s Higher Self in control of the lower aspects of Mind and Body. Wang echoes Crowley’s point about Key 7– it is “the symbol of the Great Work” and “the sublimation of the Psyche.” This imagery on The Chariot card in occult tarot decks “departs from tradition” (i.e., the historical Marseilles pack), per Levi, where here, it’s to depict a king (Higher Self) in a chariot with a canopy of stars, pulled by two sphinxes, one black (Body) and one white (Mind). Then the setting illustrated in The Chariot card of an occult deck will represent the astral plane.
Other interesting tidbits to add to your tarot journal: The Hanged Man is “the descent of the Spirit into Matter, the incarnation of God in man.”
Wang himself called the Golden Dawn Tarot “the only truly esoteric deck ever to be published.” The premise here was less about his own original art, as you’ll see in his later Jungian Tarot, but rather, to recreate the works of S. L. MacGregor Mathers, as instructed to him by Israel Regardie. The design of this deck is thus attributed to the notes and writings of Mathers, with the original paintings for the deck done by Moina MacGregor Mathers, who was herself an artist from the Slade School of Art in London.
Regardie released most of the Order’s secret teachings in The Golden Dawn (1937-40), and completed the full release of those teachings with the instructions embedded into this deck, the Golden Dawn Tarot, as illustrated by Wang.
In The Golden Dawn Tarot, Wang is using the symbolic framework of the Inner Tradition, formulated by Mathers. Wang stayed true to the original paintings by Mrs. Mathers. The images here are intended to illustrate the energies of the Qabalah, “that body of sacred knowledge which originated with esoteric Judaism” but today, is “viewed in Christian terms.”
Wang’s writings on the tarot card meanings offer insights into relationships between the cards, through the Golden Dawn framework. He writes that The Hierophant is related as a quarternary set to The Magician, The Hermit, and The Lovers, in that all four of these cards represent aspects of occult wisdom. Another relationship to bear note of: The Death card bears a direct kinship to The High Priestess, and is the opposition or polarity to The Moon card.
Key 13: Death also bears a relationship with Key 15: The Devil– “They are two great controlling forces of the Universe, the centrifugal and the centripetal, destructive (Key 13) and reproductive (Key 15).
For Key 20: Judgement, Wang writes that the “uninitiated eye” will think this card represents the Last Judgment, but “its meaning is far more occult and recondite than this, for it is a glyph of the powers of Fire.”
The angel pictured in Key 20 is Archangel Michael, Ruler of Solar Fire. As for the three figures rising from the waters, they are three angels. The one on the left is Samael, Ruler of Volcanic Fire. The one on the right is Anael, Ruler of the Astral Light. The center angel is Arel, Ruler of Latent Heat. These three angelic figures represent the Hebrew letter Shin.
These insights into the deck is why I say if you’re going to get Wang’s Golden Dawn Tarot, then also get a copy of his book An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot, or at the very least check it out from the Open Library and read it once through.
In esoteric tarot, Key 10: Wheel of Fortune and Key 21: The World/Universe are connected. The Wheel features the ROTA wheel while in The World/Universe card, the wheel transmutes and reveals itself as the Great Mother ATOR. One aspect of the Great Mother is the goddess Hathor.
Together, the Wheel of Fortune and The World/Universe synthesize this esoteric aphorism for the student of the tarot to ponder:
- ORAT – the man prays
- ATOR – to the Great Mother
- TARO – who turns
- ROTA – the Wheel of Life and Death
Wang believes that all sacred books are at their essence related to the correspondences of the Qabalah, and so, too, is the tarot. Specifically, this deck is keyed to the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Formation.
“The deck of seventy-eight cards is actually a book of symbols expressing concepts about the nature of the universe, and man’s relationship to that universe.” Wang then quotes from Dion Fortune: “The universe is really a thought-form projected from the mind of God.” The tarot is a picture book of that thought-form.
The 158-page companion book delves into detailed descriptions of what’s pictured on each card. The Ace of Wands, for instance, depicts a “radiant Angelic Hand” where the Club has “three branches in the colours and with the Sigils of the Scales.” The flames symbolize the ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life. All four Aces in the Golden Dawn Tarot depict the Angelic Hand.
The pip cards repeat the motif of Angelic Hands. (heavenly spirits). “Four white Angelic Hands radiating,” he writes about the 8 of Wands, for example. “A white rayed angelic hand holding a branch of a rose-tree” in the 3 of Pentacles. And so on. In every pip card, divine hands, and only the hands, are revealed, presenting to you the respective suit relics.
While I appreciate that the pip cards are drawn per the specifications of Mathers and in the Golden Dawn tradition, the compositions are a bit flat and lack visual interest.
The illustration work here is somewhat reminiscent of Lon Milo DuQuette’s Tarot of Ceremonial Magick to the extent that both are rendered in what might academically be referred to as a naive art style. Wang’s technical skill in art improves dramatically later on in his career with The Jungian Tarot.
Wang notes that the Golden Dawn system of tarot divination doesn’t involve reading reversed cards, and instead, was a system “dependent upon neighboring cards in a spread for accurate interpretation.”
Thus, this deck is not intended to be read with reversals. “Ill-dignified,” as he uses the term, does not mean a reversed card in a spread; it means weakening, obstructing, or destructive influences arising from that card.
The card back design features the phrase “Konx Om Pax,” attributed to Mathers, which means “Light in Extension.” Golden Dawn members believed this was a secret, coded phrase uttered during one of the initiation rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries. “Khabs am Pekht,” as inscribed on the card back, is the Egyptian equivalent to the phrase.
The rest of the symbolism on the card back, I get, was intended to express religiosity from many different cultural vantage points, but might end up being more triggering than inspiring.
There is a lot I do like about this deck, like the intricacy of symbolism and the color correspondences. If you’re working through Regardie’s The Golden Dawn plus Wang’s Qabalistic Tarot, then this is a great study deck to pair with your reading.
Divination with tarot is, per Wang’s perspective as influenced by Golden Dawn ideology, a low form of magical art, and represents the most mundane use of the cards. Rather, the tarot’s highest form is to convey divine teachings, and to connect humanity to the godhead. A deck like the Golden Dawn Tarot wasn’t created for the purposes of reading for Betty to see what Bob thinks of her, but rather, to facilitate a transcendental experience where Betty communes with her higher angels.
“The Tarot is a system of enlightenment, a system whose ultimate aim is assisting the individual in understanding his relationship to the cosmos. It is not a game; it is not primarily for fortune-telling.” From An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot by Robert Wang (Weiser Books, 1978).
In that companion text, Wang goes on to quote from Paul Foster Case, at one point the head of the Order of the Golden Dawn prior to B.O.T.A.:
“The Tarot is a textbook of occult teachings. It is intended for the use of serious students who are in search of spiritual enlightenment, and who are willing to devote a reasonable amount of time and thought to the discovery of the deeper meaning of life. . . . Those who seek to find in the tarot an easy method of spiritual development will be disappointed. . . . The Tarot is not a plaything, nor is it only a pack of cards designed for purposes of fortune-telling, although this use of it has preserved it for serious students through the vicissitudes of time and change.
“Two main purposes are served by the Tarot. First, it preserves and transmits an esoteric teaching. Secondly, it evokes specific intellectual and emotional responses from the inner consciousness of the student who has been taught to look at it.” (Case, in Highlights of the Tarot, 1931).
The Golden Dawn Tarot “must be viewed as a pedagogical tool, intended to lead to a deep-rooted understanding of the human condition.” Echoing what Waite has written about the cards, the tarot is a book of symbols and of seed ideas.
Yet that’s not to say you can’t use this deck for everyday readings. It still operates quite well. To that “low form,” if you’re using the Golden Dawn Tarot for divination, work with multi-card spreads– the more the merrier. The go-to spread Wang recommends is fifteen cards. Once all cards have been set, the first order of interpretation is to assess elemental proportions. What suit among the Minors dominates in the spread?
A dominance of Wands could indicate quarreling, competition, and opposition. A majority of Cups is a positive sign of joy, pleasure, and merriment. A majority of Swords is bad altogether–trouble, sadness, sickness, even death. And a majority of Pentacles will indicate matters relating to money and business.
Wang included an interesting aside in the companion text to this deck. He points out that the 1910 deck by Arthur Edward Waite and his artist Pamela Colman Smith, known as the Rider deck, intentionally obfuscated the true esoteric order of the courts as “a blind.” In the RWS, the royal family is the King, Queen, Knight, and Page, but the true esoteric family, per the Golden Dawn, is King, Queen, Prince, and Princess, he writes. Waite’s court order was “a perversion of the occult principle.”
Court card interpretation per the LWB is the old Eden Gray fortune-telling school of thought. So, for instance, the Princess of Wands is “a young woman with gold or red hair and blue eyes.” Full stop. Prince of Wands? “A young man with yellow hair and blue or grey eyes.” Full stop. Queen of Wands, same physical description, but older. King– same, but older. Maybe the King of Wands might have hazel eyes.
Queen of Swords? She has grey hair and light brown eyes. Prince of Swords? Dark hair and dark eyes. Not to be confused with the King of Pentacles, who also has dark hair and dark eyes… wait, also Prince of Pentacles, “young man with dark brown hair and dark eyes.”
It’s only in the companion guidebook that he gets into the esoteric significance of the courts.
For instance, the Knights (Kings) correspond to the four elemental mythic creatures– the Knight of Wands rules over the salamanders, the Knight of Cups rules over the undines and the nymphs, Knight of Swords over the sylphs and slyphides, and the Knight of Pentacles over the gnomes. Queens are the feminine counterpart sovereign over the four beasts, i.e., queen who rules over the salamanders, queen of the undines, etc.
The Golden Dawn Tarot is one of those decks that I’ll take out from time to time to study the imagery, and to consider this particular perspective of the tarot. It’s not a deck I read with. It’s not my go-to deck for spiritual or psychic development, though I recognize that it’s probably, on its own merits, a great one for those purposes.
If you collect Golden Dawn based tarot decks like the Ciceros’ Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot, Tarot of Ceremonial Magick, Godfrey Dowson’s Hermetic Tarot, or even a GD-offshoot deck like the B.O.T.A. Tarot, then Robert Wang’s Golden Dawn Tarot will be a welcomed addition.
|B.O.T.A. Tarot||1931||Paul Foster Case & Jessie Burns Park|
|The Golden Dawn Tarot||1978||Robert Wang (w/ Israel Regardie)|
|The Hermetic Tarot||1980||Godfrey Dowson|
|Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot||1991||Chic Cicero & Sandra Tabatha Cicero|
|Tarot of Ceremonial Magick||1997||Lon Milo DuQuette & Constance DuQuette|
|The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn||2022||Pat Zalewski & David Sledzinski|
3 thoughts on “The Golden Dawn Tarot by Robert Wang”
I have this set of cards and the book, I think I must have bought them just after they first came out. I remember opening them and being quite shocked at the light emanating from the cards and how the images stood out, although they are, as you say, flat. The brilliance of the light has not faded with time. I have only ever brought them out on special occasions. What was written about The Lovers card has always been my understanding of its true meaning and in many ways describes the relationship between tarot as representative of our true inner goals and desires and ourselves, so the deck is the eternal lover in much the same way as it is our beloved. What a lovely review you have written,
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