You can hear or read something many times and not “get it.” Until that one time when you do. Maybe it was the way it was said. Maybe your brain was poised to receive. Whatever the case, Graham, in her incredible book on the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, helped me understand the importance of Freemasonry’s influence on tarot. I hope you enjoy this excerpt as much as I did.
The Golden Dawn’s structural forefather is Freemasonry. Freemasonry and tarot’s common denominator is a perfectly designed structure. Freemasonry’s elegant organization was a core reason the Golden Dawn existed with ease. Freemasonry provided a workable structure for the group to organize itself, while tarot provided a workable tool to support and examine all esoteric and occult arts. The Golden Dawn peeled away the Masonic symbolism and replaced it with magical symbolism.
Tarot does not contain all occult arts, nor was the Golden Dawn a Masonic organization. Each system was used as a blueprint. The Golden Dawn’s core contingency was a group of artistic, imaginative, and fiercely intellectual people. They approached their work with the utmost seriousness. Their experiments and explorations required discipline and structure. Tarot and Freemasonry provided the dual pillars that would enhance their profound influence on the Western magical tradition. The Golden Dawn’s effects are still felt in modern New Age practices, magical circles, and power of attraction principles.
Freemasonry is a secret society. It contains two specific and separate groups, operative and speculative. Operative masons are the stoneworkers, architects, and builders. These workers organized themselves into trade guilds in feudal Europe. They used secret signs and rituals to safeguard their profession. Masons held highly specialized skills. They were able to move freely through a society full of serfs and peasants. Masons traveled to where the work was. They often spent years constructing grand cathedrals, chapels, and castles.
Masons are in the business of creating sacred space. As builders of holy places and houses of divine presence, it wasn’t surprising the group moved toward spiritual pursuits. They used principles of science and logic and aligned them with spiritual enlightenment. Freemasonry evolved past trade unions and into social clubs engaging in a spiritual practice. The Grand Architect became a metaphor for god. The builder became a metaphor for a man who crafts his life though actions, choices, and deeds.
Speculative Masons are Masonic organizations whose members are not actually builders and stoneworkers. Drive through any sizable American town and you’ll notice a local Freemason lodge. They are usually marked with a Masonic square and compass with a “G” in the center. The “G” stands for Grand Architect. The square and compass, a symbolic circle and cube, contain multiple spiritual lessons. They additionally correlate to the Empress and Emperor cards of the tarot deck. Speculative Masonry spread like wildfire in pre-twentieth-century Europe and America. Members used them as fashionable social clubs. Speculative Masons created a path of moral and spiritual development based on preexisting Masonic rituals. Famous Masons include American founding fathers George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton. Masonic imagery and symbols appear on US currency, most pointedly the pyramid with the all-seeing eye on the American dollar bill.
Initiation served an essential quality of Masonic operation. It played a key role in the Golden Dawn, and it operates in modern tarot usage. Initiation serves the same purpose in any fraternal organization, from indigenous tribes to Greek mystery schools to fraternities. Initiation is a global and cross-cultural practice. The spiritual lessons of these groups were more than stories and parables in a book. They are not taught or orated. It was essential that the lessons be experienced by the practitioner. The individual meets the experience at a personal level, through their unique viewpoint. The process is immersive.
A boy on the threshold of adulthood can’t understand what it means to fend for his life until he actually does it. He is trained, given survival tools, and sent on a multi-day adventure into the wild. His experience occurs alone. He quests to find himself. He returns and is declared a man. Each of us must meet life on our own terms and experience certain key moments for ourselves. We don’t know what it means to fall in love until lightning strikes our heart and we tremble in passion’s wake. A woman can anticipate and imagine childbirth yet never know what contractions feel like until she experiences them. Tarot is initiatory because our experience colors the card’s meanings. Events unfold as each card is encountered. Each of us brings our own unique experience to the cards. Our past/present/future experiences can be held against the cards for further understanding.
Tribal initiations are extreme, external, and physical in nature. Masonic and mystery initiations seek to transform via symbol. It is an interior transformation. The initiate is blindfolded. The blindfold represents darkness and the former life of the initiate. The initiate moves through an ordeal. Down is up and up is down. The ego breaks and the soul is reborn. The blindfold is removed. The initiate sees the world with a new set of eyes. The initiate is accepted by the tribe and recognized as one of their own. The same system is used in fraternities and sororities on college campuses.
Freemasonry and occultism gained momentum among buttoned-down Victorian societies who held strict moral and ethical codes. Their behavior reflects a universal human desire for archetypal, primal experience. Victorians sought the tribal experience inside the parameters of their “proper” and colonialist culture. They embraced the initiatory experience, an essential step for the mystical and magical practitioner, inside their lodges. The Worshipful Grand- master would rattle chains, make strange noises, and create an intense sensory experience for his blindfolded initiate, all the while dressed in a three-piece suit decorated with medals and medallions. The initiatory experience, rooted in indigenous cultures, played out in Masonic halls across Europe and the United States. The fact that millions of European and American men participated in such rituals, even if its aims were social rather than spiritual, is a startling and interesting commentary on human nature’s primal desires.
Masonic grades marked the Mason as he rose to higher levels. The Golden Dawn used these grades, but instead of applying Masonic ideals, they placed occult and magical philosophy inside their systems. The Masonic framework gave them structure. They filled the structure with their own unique blend of magic and mystery. The Masonic structure gave the Golden Dawn the building blocks for their magical organization.
Once the Golden Dawn had an organizational structure for members to adhere to, it was time to organize their work. French occultist Éliphas Lévi predated the Golden Dawn. He inspired Golden Dawn magicians with a stroke of sheer genius. Lévi was the first person to place tarot at the center of occult science. He considered astrology, alchemy, and Kabbalah to be actual sciences worth study, examination, and experimentation. He famously stated, “To practice magic is to be a quack; to know magic is to be a sage.” He means that once an individual understands the true nature of magic and divinity, there is no need to practice spells or incantations. To know true magic is to understand you are infused with magic and energy at every level. Once Lévi placed tarot at the center of all occult sciences, it altered tarot’s usage forever. Lévi believed tarot was “the most perfect instrument of divination.” He believed it was a symbolic synthesis of all earthly and supernatural knowledge. Every magical system could be placed within the context of tarot due to tarot’s sublime structure. It fit together perfectly.