Golden Dawn Magical Tarot | Deck Review

The Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot book, the backs of the GD Magical Tarot deck, and the High Priestess

by Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero
Llewellyn, 2020 (1991)

In The Original Rider Waite: Key to the Tarot, A.E. Waite goes to great lengths to tell his reader what he’s not telling us. He will give us a key to his ‘rectified’ Tarot and ‘to tell the unadorned truth concerning them, so far as this is possible in the outer circles’ because ‘As regards the sequence of symbols, their ultimate and highest meaning lies deeper than the common language of picture or hieroglyph. It will be understood by those who have received some part of the secret tradition.’[1] That’s not us, he assumes, but he’ll give us some guidance on how to use the cards anyway. Today it all seems a little over-protective, but Waite could never have known how accessible the materials written for Golden Dawn initiates would become.

Israel Regardie

The organisation itself struggled, not least, I’m sure, because of so many powerhouse types under the same roof. Israel Regardie, who later worked very closely with Aleister Crowley, was worried that the whole Golden Dawn system of ceremonial magic would be lost if the organisation disbanded permanently and so in 1938, he started recording and publishing all their secrets for posterity. There is no reason to doubt that if he hadn’t done this, we would know a lot less about the Golden Dawn. But more than that, Regardie created an environment where it was accepted to share this occult knowledge publicly, on the assumption that if someone was determined enough to work out what was going on, they deserved to know. Whether or not it was intentional, it fits nicely with Aleister Crowley’s Aeon of Horus, where there are no more secrets for a select few to benefit at the expense of the many.

Even so, I still felt a little as though I was peeking through a book I shouldn’t have been, as I read the latter section of Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot: Keys to the Rituals, Symbolism, Magic & Divination, the guide book that accompanies the Golden Dawn Magical Tarot. Note that the book specifies ‘ritual tarot’ and the deck itself ‘magical tarot’ – that is exactly what they are: a book of ritual and a deck of magical tools.

Back of the box

The cards of the Golden Dawn Magical Tarot are designed to include the deeper Hermetic symbolism of the Tarot that A.E. Waite toned down or left out. For this reason, the images at first sight can look pretty incomprehensible. But don’t worry! The guidebook explains in detail what every character, gesture, colour, and symbol means.

For example, take Judgement: ‘to the uninitiated eye it apparently represents the Last Judgement with an angel blowing a trumpet and the Dead rising from their tombs’.[2] Well that is certainly what I thought it was. And to be honest, I also thought it was a slightly heavy handed image, and so specifically Christian that it took a lot of explaining to work it back into a more generally spiritual Tarot reading. After having looked at the explanation here, though, I see how it not only works for Tarot, but works as spiritual guidance for someone working with the Tree of Life. That is one of the ‘secrets’ of the Golden Dawn and their famous Tarot deck – the cards are tools to help someone studying, working to improve their understanding of the world around and above us. The ‘meaning’ of the Judgement card in a reading ends up being pretty much the same, but the way you get there is very different.

The Sun and the 9 of Cups

The first part of the guide book is a whistle-stop tour of what you need to get started working with Qabalah and the Tree of Life. It’s wonderfully dense and direct. If you’re coming to it all for the first time, it might be helpful to take one section at a time and find answers to any questions online before moving on to the next. Let yourself luxuriate in it because it’s an amazing collection of wisdom. It’s like the Book of Thoth, but for the Rider Waite Smith deck.

The middle part of the guide book describes all the stunningly beautiful Tarot cards – although it feels a little pointless to say that they’re beautiful because they look the way they do for very specific reasons (even so: beautiful!) – and then the last section, ‘Ritual Work and Divination’ is for magic and Tarot. This is the practical section which describes a bit of the ceremonial magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and how we can use it with Tarot. What I like about this section is that the authors manage to avoid talking down to the reader, even though they are clearly aware that their readers may not be sophisticated magicians. They might even be beginning magicians. So alternatives are offered and guidance included so you have an idea of which approach is best for you. There are a couple of spreads to try, including the Golden Dawn’s famous five-stage ‘Opening of the Key’, and some exercises too, e.g. the ‘Personal Tarot Formula’ where you figure out the main obstacle in your life and how best to resolve it. It offered me some brilliant insight.

The Fool and the King of Pentacles

My own personal interest in the Golden Dawn’s Hermetic teachings come from wanting to know more about the Thoth Tarot, and Aleister Crowley who started out his official occult life as a card-carrying member. The rituals that are included in the book are ones that Crowley writes about too, and some of them are perfectly adaptable to non-Qabalistic work, e.g. the Relaxation Ritual and Ritual Bath sound lovely. No mysticism needed. I feel very privileged to have come across this deck and to be able to benefit from all the years of wisdom and practice that the authors are sharing with us so openly and with such clearly good intentions.

[1] A.E. Waite, The Original Rider Waite: Key to the Tarot (Penguin, 1999), p. 5.

[2] Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero, Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot (Llewellyn, 2020), p. 70).