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The Llewellyn Encyclopedia

Review of Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn

This article was written by Donald Michael Kraig, Certified Tarot Grandmaster on March 16, 2009
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Although it doesn’t live up to its name as the Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn, the brilliance of the art and the deck’s adherence to the concepts of the Golden Dawn make this the ultimate deck for doing readings according to the Golden Dawn tradition.


Before discussing the deck itself, I’d like to look at the LWB (Little White Booklet) that accompanies the deck. Because Lo Scarabeo sends decks all over the world, their LWBs are in multiple languages, resulting, unfortunately, in even less information than is found in decks from other publishers. This one, however, uses its limited space very effectively. It doesn’t describe the symbolism on each card (you can look at the card), but does give the divinatory meaning based on the Golden Dawn system. The creative force behind the deck, Giordano Bertia, only gave basic information about the meanings of the cards to artist Patrizio Evangelisti, so on this basis, the deck is a Golden Dawn deck. The LWB also includes an original six-card spread called the "Method of the Rosacroce." It has a unique method of selecting the cards for the layout, but the meaning of the positions for the cards is fairly mundane.

There are several factual errors in the LWB concerning the Golden Dawn and its practices. Berti writes, "There was also a [Tarot] deck of the Order, which today has been all but lost…" Not exactly. Each member was expected to make his or her own version of the Tarot based on the instructions given in the Order. In practice, people looked at the decks of other members, but there was no deck of the order which you could buy if you were a member and which was standardized. Paul Foster Case, an American member of the Golden Dawn who founded his own Order, the Builders of the Adytum, realized that not all people were artists, so he created a black-and-white version of the Tarot. Members of his Order were given instruction for how to color the cards. Thus, Case’s order was half-way between the Golden Dawn practice and simply selling a deck. Case’s deck also was the first to show the Golden Dawn’s association of the Major Arcana cards with the Hebrew alphabet. This had been a Golden Dawn secret and resulted in Case being expelled from the Order.

Berti writes that the Golden Dawn "disbanded in 1900." That is incorrect. The Order had various schisms starting in 1900. There were breakaway groups and the Order changed its name, but it continued long past 1900. After Israel Regardie published his four-volume set of books that revealed the Golden Dawn’s secrets (now available in one volume through Llewellyn), the Order in England eventually disbanded, but continued in other areas. It continues to this day.

In the LWB, Berti claims that the Golden Dawn’s secrets of the Tarot "were divulged by Aleister Crowley in his publication entitled The Equinox of the Gods." This is an error. The Equinox of the Gods was about Crowley’s reception of The Book of the Law. Crowley published the Golden Dawn’s secrets of Tarot in his massive journal, The Equinox.

According to Berti, he did not limit himself to the Golden Dawn teachings. He also added concepts from A.E. Waite and from Crowley. So this would not be an exact Golden Dawn Tarot, but one that is similar to the Golden Dawn Tarot.

The thing about the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot that made it unique is that for the first time it had a fully illustrated Minor Arcana. Until that deck was published in 1909, all Tarot decks were mainly numerical for the Minors. That is, they were closer to a deck of common playing cards than an RWS illustrated Tarot. The Golden Dawn used a numerical Minor Arcana rather than a heavily illustrated one, so this deck, which is fully illustrated, varies from the Golden Dawn original.

Up until the Golden Dawn, it was standard in the Major Arcana to have Justice as card 8 and Strength as card 11. For reasons to complex to describe here, the Golden Dawn changed this to Justice as 11 and Strength as 8 (Crowley made another change for his Thoth Tarot). An odd error showed up in the deck I have. These two cards, Strength and Justice, are mislabeled. That is, the image of Strength (a woman calming a fierce lion) is labeled Justice, number XI. The card with the image of Justice, a woman holding a sword and balance scales, is labeled Strength and numbered VIII. To resolve this there are two extra cards which have the exact same imagery but with the correct labeling.

Now, let’s look at the cards themselves. First, strictly on an art basis, these cards are beautiful. The drawings are wonderful and well formed. The coloring is elegant and expressive. It is more like a modern illustrated novel than most Tarot decks. Some of the images are at what I call "comic book angles." Instead of straight on, you get images from below (such as The Wheel of Fortune) or from above (such as The Devil). To my mind this brings exciting new life to the designs and puts this deck in a completely different category than other Golden Dawn decks.

How close are they to the instructions for designing a Golden Dawn deck? The Major Arcana is amazingly close. There are a few missing symbols, but this Major Arcana is really going to do the job. The high priestess is a powerful woman in the midst of controlling powerful energies as she casts a spell. The horses of The Chariot are in full gallop, almost falling over themselves pulling the chariot. The charioteer can barely control them. The lion in the Strength card looks like he could tear your arm off and eat you for lunch without even panting. The Devil shows an odd-looking creature, Levi’s image but from above, revealing that he has both womanly breasts and a penis. Yes, this deck does have full frontal nudity, so if that would offend you, be warned.

So the Majors are magnificent and close enough to use as a modern version of the Golden Dawn Tarot. What about the Minors? The big difference, of course, is that they are far more illustrated than any other Golden Dawn deck. The art matches the Majors, so it is powerful, evocative, and beautiful.

If you look at the Golden Dawn manuscripts, you’ll see that although the descriptions of the Minors are minimal, they do give some basic ideas. Aces have hands coming out of a cloud holding the symbol of the suit. That’s the extent of the description for most of the Minors. Take those brief descriptions, look at the meaning of the card and throw in a person or two and you have the Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn One card that is completely unique and that I really liked is the six of Wands, meaning "victory following a long struggle." It shows a scene of celebration. The six wands are part of a victorious headpiece. The point of view is personal, and you are about to be crowned with the headpiece, drawing you deeply into the card.

So, it should be clear to you that I really like this deck. It’s beautiful. It’s extremely well drawn, better than any other Golden Dawn oriented deck. It’s an absolute delight to give general purpose readings with. The drawings are very realistic.

And that, I’m afraid, is the problem. Although it sounds contradictory, for magickal uses it is too realistic. It doesn’t allow you to bring in your own visualizations. Instead of triggering your imagination, it limits you to the artist’s brilliant visuals.

In the Golden Dawn initiation rituals, there are two versions of the Temperance card that are used. The Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn only includes the most common visual.

To sum up, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to say this deck has anything to do with Golden Dawn initiation. It’s missing some symbolism and an entire image. It’s also too realistic for pathworking and other magickal uses. So if you are interested in the Golden Dawn magickal system, or the Order, this deck just doesn’t work. I would suggest using one of the other Golden Dawn oriented decks that has been published. However, if all you want to do is give readings following the Golden Dawn system, this is simply the finest deck of its kind ever published.

This deck won’t be among those I use for pathworking or magick, but it will definitely be the one I use for doing Golden Dawn style divinations.

Name of deck: Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
ISBN: 0-7387-1387-2
Artist’s name: Patrizio Evangelisti
Brief biography of artists: Patrizio is a comics artist.
Name of accompanying booklet: Initiatory Tarots of the Golden Dawn
Number of pages of booklet: 64, 14 in English
Author of booklet: Giordano Berti
Brief biography of author: Giordano is an expert in the history of Tarot and all things esoteric. He has designed many decks, has written many books, and serves as a consultant for Lo Scarabeo.
Available in a boxed kit?: Yes
What are the extras in the kit?: A red satin bag for the cards
Magical Uses: None. It’s too realistic to allow the unconscious to soar.
Reading Uses: Excellent for all general divination, especially in the Golden Dawn manner.
Theme: Golden Dawn
Does it follow Rider-Waite-Smith Standard?: Somewhat—It blends the RWS, Golden Dawn and the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot
Does it have alternate names for Major Arcana cards?: Following the Golden Dawn tradition, the RWS card The World is named The Universe.
Does it have alternate names for Minor Arcana suits?: No
Does it have alternate names for Court Cards?: It uses Princess, Prince, Queen Knight. The Golden Dawn instructions for this are a bit confused, and other Golden Dawn decks use Princess, Prince, Queen, King, but because of the Golden Dawn instructions, this is perfectly acceptable and is described in the Little White Booklet (LWB).
Why was deck created?: To express "a new vision that is…coherent with the tradition of the G[olden] D[awn] and with the needs of the contemporary public."

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