Godfrey Dowson’s Hermetic Tarot Revisited

The Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson was one of my earliest deck reviews on this blog, back in 2013. And it wasn’t even really a deck review. I don’t know what that was other than a little bit too cringe for me to try to reread now. Anyway, let’s revisit the deck and add this posting to our cluster of Golden Dawn deck discussions.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was active for only about fifteen years, and yet consider the scope and breadth of their influence in Western occultism, especially in the world of tarot. Even fun, flighty, not-at-all-occult mass produced pop tarot decks are unintentionally influenced by the Golden Dawn.

Crowley first published a description of the Order’s card designs in The Equinox in 1912, riling MacGregor Mathers to the point of litigation to try and stop Crowley’s publication. Then around World War II, Israel Regardie published the Golden Dawn card descriptions again, and provided oversight to both Robert Wang and the Ciceros in their subsequent GD decks. The LWB introduces Dowson’s deck as one more Golden Dawn based tarot deck in the line of succession since the Order dissipated.

Dowson’s pen and ink drawings for the Hermetic Tarot were done between 1975 and 1977, with the deck published by U.S. Games in 1980. Stuart Kaplan co-wrote the LWB that comes with the cards. Kaplan remarks about the Hermetic Tarot that it is a “compelling reconstructed version of the tarot that undoubtedly will take its place as one of the most important esoteric tarot decks published during the twentieth century.”

Like the Golden Dawn decks preceding it, Aleph is assigned to Key 0, the Spirit of Ether, which Dowson corresponds with the modern planet Pluto (whereas the majority view today assigns Uranus to The Fool card). In the LWB, Key 0: The Fool corresponds astrologically with either Pluto or Uranus, while Key XX: The Last Judgment is either Uranus or Pluto.

The LWB that comes with this deck may be just a stapled little white booklet, but it packs a punch. Key III: The Empress is personified by the Daughter of the Might Ones, which Dowson connects in his imagery to Aphrodite – Urania. The black eagle in front of her connects her to the alchemical white eagle front and center on The Emperor. Compare that mythological association to Regardie’s notes, which connects The Empress to an aspect of Isis.

Key XI: Justice is personified by the Daughter of the Lord of Truth and, according to Regardie, an aspect of Nephthys, twin sister of Isis, clothed in green. (See Regardie’s The Golden Dawn, Book 8: Divination, “The Tarot Trumps.”)

If the Hermetic Tarot was in color, and colored per GD correspondences, you’d see the green that connects The Empress to Justice, where both feminine figures are robed in green, though The Empress should wear a more emerald green while Lady Justice is in a cooler-toned green.

Key 3 and Key 11 from SKT Revelation Edition

You’ll see that I worked with Israel Regardie’s color instructions in SKT The Revelation. Anyway all that is to say that the 48-page LWB gives you enough to start in terms of helping you to understand what’s depicted on the cards. Of course if you then want to do divinatory readings with this deck or go more in-depth with your ritual work, you’ll need supplemental texts. I’ll talk about what I think are a couple of good ones at the end of this review.

Like Wang and the Ciceros, Key 6: The Lovers card depicts Andromedia chained to a rock, attacked by a dragon rising out of the waters. Perseus comes to her rescue, sword in hand. The secondary key title here is Children of the Voice Divine. Key 6 is assigned Gemini, though “it is important to study this card along with Key XIV: Temperance (Sagittarius) . . . The Lovers also pertains to Sagittarius – the Archer – hence the bow and arrow at the upper center.”

Dowson’s illustration of The Chariot card is very much modeled after the Thoth. Here, “at the center of the card is the Holy Grail. The card depicts the chariot of Heremes drawn by two sphinxes. Jachin signifying love and Boaz signifying power.”

Key 8 is Strength (or Fortitude) and Key 11 is Justice in this deck. Fortitude is personified by the Daughter of the Flaming Sword. The female figure over the lion represents the Higher Self’s mastery over the Lower Self. Meanwhile, per the notes in the LWB, the shield depicts a lion that is uncontrolled, in contrast to the maiden and the lion. This is the shield of indomitable energy.

You can also see most of Key 9: The Hermit in the above photo. The magical lamp, a description of which you can find in Eliphas Levi’s works, is pictured above the Moses-like figure, who is cloaked in a hood and mantle. “The lamp burns without wick or fuel. It is lit only bh the lux of the universal fluidic agent.” The bottom foreground features the cosmic egg and an ear of wheat, “dormant for years, but ready to nurture to life at the opportune time.” The snake here symbolizes “Wisdom sought.”

The Devil card depicts Pan, and the inverted pentagram is a symbol of dark forces. In The Blasted Tower, Lord of the Hosts of the Mighty, the old is destroyed to clear way for the new. An outline of the Tree of Life appears at either side of the blasted Tower.

While the human figure is inverted in The Hanged Man, so is the ankh, and since both are aligned, it is the viewer who is “upside down,” though we presume ourselves to be right side up. The serpent depicted on the hanging man’s leg represents both The Creator and The Destroyer. You’ll see the serpent motif in the Death card, and again symbolizing both Creator and Destroyer.

Like DuQuette’s Tarot of Ceremonial Magick, Dowson is heavily influenced by Crowley’s writings, and you can see that here in Key 12. Like DuQuette’s deck, Enochian magic is also integrated into some of the symbolism in Hermetic Tarot– the background grid on Key 12 looks like a blanked version of the four Watchtower Qudrangles from Israel Regardie’s Book 9: The Angelic Tablets in The Golden Dawn.

The arms are outstretched to form an equilateral triangle, giving the symbol of the Triangle surmounted by the Cross, a representation of light descending into darkness to redeem the shadow. (See Crowley’s Book of Thoth.) Crowley makes reference to a Rose and the Cross for Key 12, and here you see the Rosy Cross.

The center seal in the Wheel, in white, is the Seal of Ezekiel, and when this card appears in a reading upright, it’s an omen of good fortune; when it appears ill-dignified or in reverse, it is an omen of bad luck. According to Golden Dawn texts (see, e.g., Regardie), the Wheel is the revolution of experience and progress, and therefore on this tarot card, the key icons is the zodiac wheel. The GD interpretation of Key 10 features the “Plutonian cynocephalus (i.e., a jackal-like creature) below, and the Sphinx above.” Here again we see some departure from GD tradition.

The art style here gives me strong M.M. Meleen vibes, doesn’t it? There’s really no disputing that the artwork here is impressive and among the best of the Golden Dawn deck options. I’m also reminded a bit of the art style in Nemo’s Book of Azathoth Tarot. In other words, awesome.

The level of detail and ornamentation that the Minor Arcana cards get into here surpass some of the earlier Golden Dawn decks we looked at, for sure. Yet I wouldn’t call these scenic per se, at least not the way the RWS Minors are scenic.

The compositions are abstract, highly conceptual, at a crossroads between optical art and surrealism, with ornamental elements reminiscent of Art Nouveau.

The courts are ranked: Knights (corresponding to the element Fire), Queens (Water), Kings (Air), and Princesses (Earth), where the Knights represent the Yod force of the Tetragrammaton. According to the LWB, they are the Fathers.

My brain is now mush from talking about so many different GD decks in such close proximity to one another, so I can’t remember the exact source now (but I feel like I mentioned it in the review I’m referencing, so if you’ve been following this series, you’ll be able to pinpoint the author)– the RWS King (Fire), Queen (Water), Knight (Air), and Page (Earth) court rankings was allegedly a blind that Waite put on his deck to conceal certain occult knowledge. Crowley, among others after Waite, removed that blind to show the true identities of these divine beings.

You can make of that what you will. I think I’m just too indoctrinated from having worked with King, Queen, Knight, and Page for so long that for the rest of this lifetime, I guess I’m just going to have to operate the tarot with Waite’s blinds on. =) …shrug

After the Knights are the Queens, representing the first Heh force of the Tetragrammaton YHVH, and signify the Mothers. Per Israel Regardie, the four Queens are supposed to be “seated upon Thrones” and “clothed in armour,” symbolizing steady but unshaken forces. While Dowson diverged from that, all four queens here either appear to be wearing armor or express a warrior spirit.

I love it when a Queen of Swords gives off strong Judith vibes, and we certainly have that here.

The Kings are subordinate to the Queens, representing the Vau force of YHVH, and the sons of the knights and queens. They’re called Kings (in the Thoth, they’re the Princes) because they are the true heirs to sovereignty.

And then we have the Princesses, corresponding with the Pages, and the second Heh force of the Tetragrammaton. Echoing Crowley in his Book of Thoth, here Dowson writes about the Princesses: “This is original energy in its completion and crystallization.” The Princesses, writes Regardie, are the four “figures of Amazons standing firmly by themselves.” And in many of the Golden Dawn decks, it would appear, that’s interpreted pictorially as topless women.

The 72 pip cards (Twos through Tens) feature the 72 Shem HaMephorash, or angelic hidden names of the Divine, and using a translation table, I attempted to figure out the English translations of the names to see if they correspond with Regardie’s tables, but I confess I had some trouble. That it’s handwritten and being a language I have no familiarity in meant it was a major challenge for me to decipher.

There’s a table here on Uri Raz’s Tarot Site that gives the First and Second Angel Names in Hebrew corresponding to the tarot pips, if you have the Hermetic Tarot and would like to give it a try.

The English translations for the angel names are provided in the LWB. The Five of Swords, for instance, invokes Aniel and Chaamiah. All the detailing in the art is symbolic. Here, the Five of Swords corresponds with the decan ruler Venus in Aquarius. The swan and dove pertain to Venus, and the pheasant and hawk to Aquarius. The torn rose with the petals falling symbolizes the energy of defeat.

From Book “T”: The Tarot (in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn)

Fun tidbit: “The true astrological year was begun by the Golden Dawn with the star Regulus at 0 degrees Leo, rather than the more common 0 degrees Aries.” Thus, the 5 of Wands leads the Minor Arcana. You’ll see this in Book “T” The Tarot in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn books.

Look at those disks in the Suit of Pentacles. At least to me, they almost appear to be an optical illusion, and I think I see them spinning. Then I read the LWB. Dowson intended for the disks to look like they’re spinning. For the Nine of Pentacles, he writes, “The pentacles are gently turning, suggesting the gradual exhaustion of the original whirling energy.” But then in the Ten of Pentacles, those disks are not moving. “Although the pentacles are not turning [in the Ten of Pentacles, Lord of Wealth], they still imply the great and final solidification of energy.”

As far as I know, there is currently no in-depth guidebook for the Hermetic Tarot, but any of the guidebooks we discussed– Wang’s Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot or Chic and Tabatha Ciceros’ The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot: Keys to the Rituals, Symbolism, Magic & Divination would be great companion guides for working with Dowson’s deck. M. M. Meleen’s Book M: Liber Mundi would be great, too. Sure, the card descriptions aren’t going to transfer, because the artists have gone in different stylistic and symbolic directions, but the interpretative approach is aligned enough for any of these texts to be instructive. And of course, there’s Crowley’s Book of Thoth.

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

 

4 thoughts on “Godfrey Dowson’s Hermetic Tarot Revisited

  1. Pingback: A Study of Golden Dawn Decks and the Western Tradition of Occult Tarot – benebell wen

  2. Pingback: Oracle of Dr. John Dee by John Matthews and Wil Kinghan – benebell wen

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