Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 17, Vol. 2. Autumnal Equinox 2009

Creating a Golden Dawn Tarot

by Nick Farrell

One of the stranger aspects of the hold that the Golden Dawn (GD) has over the Western Mystery Tradition is its use of Tarot. Many groups that derived from the Golden Dawn, such as Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) and Dion Fortunes' Inner Light made extensive use of Tarot and many of the ideas behind the classic Tarot deck come from the Golden Dawn's attributions.  I say this is strange because the Golden Dawn never actually built its own Tarot deck.

GD members were presented with images of some of the Major Arcana Tarot keys in the Outer Order and in the Inner Order were given details of the court cards and Minor Arcana. But until the Rider-Waite deck was released there was nothing close to the Golden Dawn symbolism around. This meant that when a Golden Dawn adept was supposed to be using the tarot cards as an important part of their Inner Order work they had to use more traditional decks.

In the Outer Order the tarot keys were presented as line drawings only and were not coloured. The reason for this was that the colour attributions of the Golden Dawn were considered Inner Order only and not for the uninitiated.

Responding to this call, Robert Felkin approached Golden Dawn chief, Wynn Westcott to flesh out a more complete pack. Westcott worked on the Court Cards but seems to have provided Felkin with an outline for what was left of the Major Keys. Felkin worked the cards into his own Stella Matutina (SM) order and in particular Whare Ra in New Zealand. It is the instructions for this set which Israel Regardie was trained to use in the Bristol temple and was mostly used by Robert Wang. Regardie's personal cards are shown in his The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic.[1]

Despite my contacts with some of the older members of Whare Ra I have not found a coloured deck amongst them. Some of this seems to be because in the 1960s many members of Whare Ra joined Builders of the Adytum and replaced their Golden Dawn sets with Paul Foster Case's version and colour scheme. The only versions I have seen of the original deck were on small pieces of yellow card and were simple crude line drawings. It is easy to see on this basis why Whare Ra adepts junked their Golden Dawn cards in favour of BOTA versions.

The first complete Golden Dawn deck was designed by Robert Wang with help from Israel Regardie. This was the first to show a system of colouring and was mostly based on the Stella Matutina  model. Tabatha Cicero's Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot was the next to follow and used another system of colouring and symbolism. Tabatha also used some attributions and imagery which was not from the SM deck but based on her own research.

Both decks have something to offer the Golden Dawn student, but there was a feeling within the Horus Hathor temple that it would be a statement of our own egregore if we created a tarot deck which featured some of our ideas. Initially the idea was that we would create our own Tarot icons for the initiations but the idea grew.

I was lucky to work with the talented magical artist Harry Wendrich and his wife Nicola, who run the Wendrich art studio in Wales[2]. Both are magicians. To make this work, we had to create a Tarot deck which was true to the outline used in the original Golden Dawn. The various rituals give specific instructions about what these cards should look like and I was not keen to depart from these descriptions because it would mean making changes to the ritual. >However where something was not described we would lean towards the SM deck unless we could come up with a better idea. Again we wanted to cover the same symbols of the SM deck but look at them in a more modern way. We also wanted to use the full colour system of the Golden Dawn.

The first goal was to create a set of Major Arcana for the elemental grades so that we could initiate people onto a set that came from within our own group mind. We listed what had to go into the card from the ritual and then any ideas that I had about the card. Harry would then meditate on these symbols and see what ideas he had and what would actually work on paper.

For example the 2=9 ritual says:

Within the oval formed of 72 circles is a female form, nude save for a scarf that floats around her. She is crowned with the lunar crescent of Isis and hold in her hands two wands. Her legs form a cross. She is the bride of the Apocalypse, the Kabbalistic Queen of the Canticles, the Egyptian Isis or Great Feminine Kerubic Angel Sandalphon on the left had of the Mercy Seat of the Ark.

The wands are the directing forces of the positive and negative currents and the seven pointed Heptagram or star alludes to the seven palaces of Assiah, the Crossed legs to the symbol of the four letters of the Name. The surmounting crescent alike receives the influences of Geburah and Gedulah. She is a synthesis of the 32nd Path united Malkuth to Yesod. The oval of 72 smaller circles refers to the Schemhamporesh, or the 72 lettered name of the Deity. The 12 larger circles form the Zodiac and at the angels are the four Kerubim.[3]

The card is important because it is represents both the beginning and end of the path of esoteric work. I had been increasingly interested in the Golden Dawn teaching of the Sphere of Sensation and realised when looking at the various versions of the card that what was being depicted was the perfected adept. This adept stood between the pillars of manifestation, just as the candidate did in the 0=0 ritual. This is a crucial part of the 0=0 because it is the point where they are overshadowed by their Higher Self. I suggested we change her wands so that she was holding small versions of the black and white pillars. They remain a directing force of positive and negative energy, but take on the duel symbolism. While we were suggesting that part of the 0=0 rite, the Golden Hexagram representing the Higher Self, should be represented as being between the pillars. This is similar to the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram where the operator says “Between the columns is the six rayed star.” Next I suggested that the oval represented by the Schemhamporesh was the boundary of a perfected Sphere of Sensation. As a symbol the card could be seen as a microcosmic vision of a perfected person dancing within the constraints of matter, or it could be seen as macrocosmic vision of the Goddess of Nature with the Higher Self in her womb giving birth to higher life.

I wanted her to appear cosmic and so suggested that she be dancing with a spiral-armed Galaxy behind her.

I turned my notes over to Harry who meditated on the symbols and he suggested making her dance on a cube of Saturn, for which the path is attributed. He also came up with the idea of using Celtic knotwork instead of spheres from the Schemhamporesh spheres. He felt that Celtic knotwork represented the flow of energy better. He also placed the hexagram in the womb of the Goddess on the basis that she was nurturing the Higher Self into manifestation. Instead of traditional astrological signs, Harry liked the idea of star patterns, which went well with the idea of her being a star goddess.

One 'official' thing that did get changed, which makes it slightly different from the ritual, was instead of a seven pointed star, she has a crown of seven stars. This was the sort of mistake which was born of creativity I was following the symbolism of her being the Bride of the Apocalypse, as being Nature and Venus. Once Harry had painted seven stars above her crown I felt it was a good idea to stay.

Other things that flowed their way into the mix was the veil shaped like the Hebrew letter Kaph, which is an idea I nicked from Paul Foster Case's Builders of the Adytum  tarot. When we finished it was agreed to frame each card with the colour of the path in the Queen Scale to assist people who meditate on the cards. This idea was copied again from BOTA .

Colouring of the card also required a moving away from Whare Ra's system. According to Pat and Chris Zalewski[4] the colours which should be used for Key 21 were darkest indigo blue, soft black, blue black, black rayed blue and the complementaries of these. However I felt that this would also miss some important uses of colour in the card. For example the Schemhamporesh knotwork, the colours of the Zodiac spheres, the Golden hexagram would end up as a very dark wash of Saturnian colours. While being a purist approach might highlight one teaching, it would bury other. For example the dancer in blue and black would look too much like a corpse than a vibrant archetype of nature. As far as colours were concerned we would lean towards the official ones, but if a more important symbol required a different colour we would use it.

The final result was a card which might have looked similar, but was not the same from any other deck that went before it.

We followed Tabatha's idea of creating two different versions of the Temperance card[5]. This is important for the ritual use of the deck, where both the 'old' and the 'new' versions are shown even if it is less useful from the aspect of divination.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the Horus Hathor deck and the other Golden Dawn tarots is the Fool card. Although various Golden Dawn paperwork made references to the traditional Fool as walking off a cliff, the Whare Ra deck came up with a much more esoteric symbol. It used a baby, holding a wolf by a chain, while it picked fruit from a tree. While we liked this idea we were also drawn to the more traditional image too. Thus we decided to integrate the symbols. Our fool is climbing a cliff. Below is manifestation and he is reaching across an abyss to reach for fruit. Obviously this is a stupid thing as his quest for knowledge will result in him falling.

The card can be read as a soul before it comes into manifestation, or after the path is completed. The fool's intellectual knowledge, in the form of outer order course work, is rejected and discarded in his search for real knowledge found by picking the fruit. The wolf is still there, but rather than it being tamed, as the Whare Ra deck suggests, or an annoying dog, as the Rider Waite deck hints, it has been made into a skin for the spiritual man which the Fool represents. In other words, the animal personality, and the intellect, has a use, but at this stage of the persons development, the Higher Self is so integrated and in control that the personality is simply a garment.

Harry thought that this gave the Fool card a more shamanic feel, and certainly the idea of a more primitive form of magic is suggested here. If you look at why Shamans wore such skins then the reason is at one with the idea of this card.

Another Major Arcana key which will be transformed is that of the Hierophant. I feel that the Golden Dawn was trying to say something important when they changed the name of this key from The Pope. By linking the card in with the officers of the 0=0 ritual they were moving it away from its traditional symbolism of the Papacy. Rather than making a complete transformation, they changed the name but kept much of the symbolism associated with the Pope including his tiara and Crook. In our version the transformation to the Hierophant will be complete and he will have his wand, and Egyptian head-dress. Other cards linked to officers from the 0=0 ritual will also have their imaginary strengthened. The Devil has the Hiereus banner, the Justice Card is more obviously the Hegemon, and the Hermit, the Kerux.

Both Harry and I felt it important to express the idea of energy in the cards. This becomes seen in the Sun and the Tower cards. The rituals describe a wall in the Sun card before which the children dance. This wall is supposed to be the beginning of a new universe born out of the death of the old one in the Tower key. Harry made the wall out of geometric shapes and placed the children as dancing in rays of light. This is a marked contrast to the grey bricks which are destroyed by the tower and suggest that the pattern that an adept builds is more abstract and refined than the one built by normal people. When Harry draw the Tower card he made the ball from which the lightning flash comes out of the same geometric shapes, suggesting that the cosmic pattern is replacing the pattern made by humanity.

In the cards which are presented to the candidate in the elemental grades, characters standing in grade signs are depicted. For example the child in the Judgement card is standing in the grade sign of the 2=9 which is the grade they are when they enter the 3=8 initiation. Likewise Hecate is depicted in the Moon card, which is presented in the 4=8 ritual, in the grade sign of the 3=8. The idea is that the cards should be wired into the initiation rite.

While Harry worked on the Major Arcana Nicola started work on the Minor keys. The Golden Dawn Book 'T' gave very good descriptions of the Tarot cards but stopped short on the colour scheme. Each card represented one of the four elements so the logical sequence would be fire would be red; water, blue; air, yellow and earth black. However the GD did not just see the elements as being physical representations. They represented each of the four worlds of the kabbalists. Fire was the world of Atzaluth while Earth was Assiah. Each card was also allocated a sphere on the Tree of Life. The Aces were attributed to Kether; the twos, Chockmah; threes to Binah, for example.

The GD also allocated its colour scale to each of the four levels. The King Scale was Atzaluth, the Queen was Briah. The elements seemed to be represented by the weapons of each suit while the colour scheme of the back should be the colour in the appropriate scale of the sphere on the tree of life. So the six of wands would be rose, the six of swords, gold, the six of cups pink, and the six of disks tawny yellow. We used the same colour in the frame of the card.

The decans were an important part of the Golden Dawn tarot with the sign of the planet at the top and the sign of the zodiac at the bottom. There has been a bit of confusion about the GD attributions to the decans because often they don't appear to be connected to the title of the card. Why should Venus in Aquarius mean “defeat” for example. Astrologically Venus in Aquarius people are off beat and independent. There is nothing to indicate a defeat to the extent suggested by the five of swords. However with decans on the tarot card it is important to see the energies in a slightly different way. It is the energy of Aquarius expressed through the planet Venus in the sphere of Geburah. In other words the Aquarian energy is focused through the passive lens of Venus. Venus is passion, love and active and is not going to have much in common with the aloof and mental Aquarian. If you focus Aquarian energies through a Venusian lens the good parts of the Aquarian ray such as its intellectualism will be warmed up by the fires of passion and castrated. When this neutered energy is expressed in Geboric conflict it will be the same feeling you get when you have lost a battle. Let us look at another one.

Why would Saturn in Pisces have the title “Abandoned Success?” Astrologically Saturn is not happy in Pisces, but ironically many Pisces love order because they fear what happens if they lose control. But the picture changes completely when you think of the energies of Pisces being focused through the constricting lens of Saturn. All the emotion and deep spiritual essence which makes Pisces energy useful is catalogued and robbed of its soul by Saturn. But what energy does come through unchecked is the Piscean tendency towards melancholy and the desire to run away. In the intellectual Hod this leads a person to see their deepest beliefs become stale, and lead to a desire to move away from thought processes which might have been good and useful.

In the Horus Hathor Deck we decided to put the divine name of the appropriate sephiroth onto the card. This is to aid in meditation and pathworkings and further empowers the card magically. Although we were tempted to put the name of the two Schemhamporesh angels on the card too there was simply not enough room.

What surprised me when Nicola showed me the cards was how vibrant the colours turned out and the clarity of the images is a tribute to her artwork.

At time of going to press we are yet to create our first court cards. We left these last mostly because I have been researching them and am not yet happy with the results. Some of this is the fault of the Golden Dawn's Book T which created opposing instructions.

Firstly there are the titles. You have Knight, Queen, King and Knave in one section and then you have King, Queen, Prince and Princess in another.

In the description of the cards in one section of Book T makes the statement that “The four Kings, or figures mounted on steeds...”... and “the Princes are seated in Chariots” which is later countered by the description of the “Knight of Wands... a winged warrior riding upon a black horse” and King of Wands “A kingly figure seated on a chariot”. Then in another section the 'King' is referred to by the mystic title 'Prince of the Chariot of Fire'.

Different Golden Dawn teachers have used different systems. The Zalewski's and Crowley put the King in a Chariot, Tabatha Cicero and Wang puts the Prince on a Chariot.

Wang says the reason for this is because of a mystery.

“There appears to be a contradiction. The King is called a Knight, the Prince is called the King and the Princess is called a Knave. Essentially Mathers was pointing to the way the older writers attributed (the Tetragrammaton) to the Court cards. But the principle show was one of the great secrets of the Golden Dawn....”[6]

In an idea which looks like it is borrowed from Crowley's Book of Thoth, Wang says that the King, mounted on a horse is the first Young Knight. He becomes the King and marries the daughter of the old King. He is the vital principle as it pours forth into existance. The Queen is his consort and the perfect balance. From their union come the Prince who is himself the new King and the immediate ruler over what we know of as existence. The Princes forms a union with the prince which brings about the activity of the King whereby he returns to being the young knight. Wang admits that this sounds surrealistic and demonstrates how difficult it can be to express anything in our language.

Wang claims that only Crowley got it right. However in my view Crowley's idea is too complicated and does not actually reveal anything other than the fact that he clearly had a thing about sleeping with his mother.

The Knight is not the primal root of the element. That job in Tarot is firmly that of the aces which are shown in the hands of the court cards. In Tiphareth the Prince receives his elemental power from Kether down the path ruled by the High Priestess, so it arrives with at the same primal level that the King and the Queen receives. Symbolically he is the son of the King and Queen so is therefore freer to express the elemental force than his mum and dad who have the responsibilities of their senior office.

Having been around Golden Dawn documents for a while, I think there is a much easier way of looking at the contradiction. Many people believe that the Golden Dawn ideas were written in stone and that there is something like a perfect version. Where there were inconsistencies, these were termed 'blinds'. But GD texts were often reviewed by the authors and adapted. Over the period of years that the GD existed manuscripts were often reworked. Any one who writes a manuscript will tell you that the more times it is worked on the more likely you are to have mistakes. The original idea is often lost, but resurfaces later in the work. This is the case in Book T. Mathers and Westcott started with an idea changed their minds but the original idea was not edited out from the earlier part of the text.

What happened next is that people, such as Crowley and Wang, came along and found reasons for the contradiction rather than deciding that it was simply a mistake. The Crowley/Wang reasoning then gets built into the GD body of teaching.

Obviously everyone can point to Book T to claim legitimacy so when we came up with our Court Cards we have to work out what we think really important.

Firstly the issue of titles was decided for me by the fact that the GD said the Kings on Chocmah, the Queens on Binah, the Princes on Tiphareth, and the Princesses on Malkuth.  The Kings were said to be Abba and the Queens Aima.   So the King is father and the Queen is mother.  The Golden Dawn's colour scale is also called in order King, Queen, Prince and Princess.  Book T does mention that the term Knight or Prince is acceptable.  Obviously Knight is connected to the traditional Tarot deck as is the term 'knave'; however the world 'Prince' and 'Princess' works better with the Golden Dawn colour scales and the polarity of a modern deck.

Let us look at the problem of the horse and the chariot. To get the answer to this we have to look at the symbols involved. The use of the horse made the chariot in warfare obsolete. Chariots were too slow, difficult to turn, and had limited fighting power.  However its use as a ceremonial ride of emperors continued until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1450AD.  The Chariot is a symbol of the state with the King holding the reigns. It is a symbol which is repeated in the Tarot key the Chariot. So therefore the Kings have to be in Chariots and the Princes, as servants of the King, have to be on horses.    

Before moving from this point we have to question if it stuffs up the symbols that are placed on the cards.  It works with Westcott's Whare Ra cards too.

As far as colour is concerned, the court cards are much more elemental than 'pip' cards.  Therefore we will be using the elemental colours of reds and their complementaries for fire.  There will be some exceptions to this rule.   The elemental weapons will still remain in their consistent colours and when Book T specifies a particular colour we will use it, For example the Prince of Wands supposed to be riding a black horse.

I am also keen to get some Enochian symbolism into the court cards.  The Court cards are a vital part of the GD Enochian system because of their Kerubic nature.  The GD attributed them to both the Tablet of Equilibrium and the Kerubic squares on the Enochian tablets.  Therefore some symbolism relating to Enochian should be the key to unlocking these energies when pathworking into the Enochian letters which is an important part of the work of the Zelator Adeptus Minor.  At present I am thinking working the Enochian letters attributed to each court card from the Tablet of Equilibrium in to the picture.   

 Creating a Golden Dawn Tarot has been an interesting process for me. My first esoteric school was Paul Foster-Case's Builders of the Adytum where what I thought was the Golden Dawn tarot teachings was expanded to its highest degree.  However working with Harry and Nicola I found that there were many things that Case taught that, if they worked at all, did not connect within a GD framework.  In other situations, such as the attribution of the Higher Self to the Hierophant Key, Case needed the Golden Dawn symbolism to make it work.  So in the creation of these cards I have had to review all the knowledge I though I knew about the Tarot and start from scratch.  In doing so I have uncovered a stream of teaching which I didn't expect to find.  When the cards are completed I will be writing a book to go with the deck and much of this information will find its way into it.

While I think that claims that the esoteric use of the Tarot go back beyond the 18th century are bogus, there is certainly something about the symbolism, which the GD developed which aids in the magical development of a person and provides access to a wealth of esoteric teaching. 



[1] Israel Regardie, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic (Scottsdale, AZ: New Falcon Press, 1984), 10-12.


[3] Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn (St. Paul: MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 1993), 159-60.

[4] Pat and Chris Zalewski, The Magican Tarot of the Golden Dawn (London, England: Aeon Press, 2008), 201.

[5] Tabatha Cicero, The Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2000).

[6] Robert Wang, An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot, (Willingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1978), 38-39.