Review: The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn (Aeon Books 2022)

I recently acquired the new deck, The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn, and I’ve been fiddling around with it since. I think it’s finally time to see what I think of it!

I’ve intended to write a review of the deck since I got it, but — and this is worth knowing for the future — I don’t like reviewing decks immediately. It’s a bit like reviewing a book without reading it first. Speaking of which, I’ll also be reviewing the book.

Background

So the thing about Golden Dawn decks is that there weren’t really any extant when the order died, or went into hibernation, or changed its name, or whatever we want to call it today. Members were encouraged to make their own. The result is often that there are a few cards here and a few cards there, but nobody ever seems to have saved a proper deck. One thing to keep in mind is that two of the three decks that you probably own are fundamentally Golden Dawn decks: the Waite Smith and the Thoth are both predicated on the information in Liber T, as well as general order esoterica. I’ve written on understanding the Waite-Smith deck as a development of the Golden Dawn deck before.

However, a lot of practitioners wanted a deck that was, at its core, literally what the GD books describe. The first attempt, that I know of anyway, was the Wang deck, supervised to some degree by Israel Regardie. I don’t have a citation for this, so do not take this as gospel truth, but I’ve been told that the Wang deck is as bad as it is (it’s bad; I own a copy, trust me) because Regardie sketched things out and sent those images to Wang. Regardie wasn’t a great artist or anything, and meant for Wang to simply use the images as thumbnails. Wang, suitably awed by Regardie, took them as “holy texts” and simply fleshed them out.

Is that true? I dunno! It seems about right though, as Wang is certainly a good artist, and the deck is certainly terrible.

At any rate, in the 90s the Zalewskis — Pat and Chris Zalewski, the folks behind one of the larger new GD groups — wrote a book, and they had an artist, Skip Dudchous, draw the cards (though the deck credits David Sledzinksi, but the cards are definitely color versions of what’s in the book). But, so far as I can tell, no deck was produced. The book was republished fairly recently, and so now there’s a deck! And it’s in color, not black and white!

The Deck

Here is where you can find the deck should you be interested. It’s published by Aeon Books, and at this time is only available through them. Amazon, for example, lists it as in pre-order status, and with a release date of September 2022. The first thing I should mention, then, is that the experience of buying the deck was not great. Aeon’s website is just fine, that went well. But I did not receive any emails from them. Had I not gotten an email from Paypal with a purchase record, I wouldn’t have necessarily known the purchase had worked at all. But you can log into the site and check your orders. I did so, and it wasn’t too long before my order was listed as having shipped.

They didn’t give me a shipping number either. And this was transatlantic shipping you understand, all while England is kind of burning down what with the, uh, Johnson stuff and all. So I had no idea how long it ought to take to get here. If you’re worried about international shipping and not being able to track things, do not order from them directly.

However, it’s important to note that I did get it, and in excellent condition. So if you’re patient and trust in the system, and you want this deck right now, go ahead and get it from them.

The deck itself is of good stock, and by that I don’t mean they’re so thick that you could eat off them, which is what a lot of people online mean. “Good card stock” means heavy enough not to tear apart or crease and also light enough to shuffle correctly. And I mean a classic riffle shuffle when I say “shuffle correctly.” I will die on this hill if I have to. Card decks are meant to be shuffled, not awkwardly piled up on a table in a style more befitting Mahjong tiles.

The deck does not have gilded edges, thank the many and the mighty gods. See the above point about shuffling: gilded edges are totally pointless and get in the way of an important function of the deck.

The printing and colors are excellent. This is the point where I share a bunch of photos. Here you go.

The creators of the deck take seriously the Golden Dawn ideas about color theory, and stick closely to the colors allowed in each card’s description. This goes so far as to use colored linework instead of black and white, for some figures. It’s pleasing, and I have to say at this point that the deck itself is good. You could probably stop reading here if you wanted. I like it.

It is a little too tall. I mean barely. I can just shuffle it, but it’s a feat, and I have to really bend the cards to get them in position. They’re about as tall as the big Thoth deck, but skinnier, so I can’t do my usual, which is to shuffle sideways. If you don’t riffle, have bigger hands than me, or are comfortable trimming your deck, this is basically not an issue.

One of the gallery images shows an oddity that caught my attention: the Fool card is associated with Uranus. The three cards associated with the Hebrew Mother letters are here associated with the outer planets. That’s not terrible, and frankly the actual card image does not change in any way to reflect this. They just stuck the glyph on in the corner. I don’t know that I agree with those associations, or even that they’re necessary, given the way the outer planets work in astrology.

The other, and probably worse thing, is that they chose to just mislabel the princes. If you don’t know, the labeling of the court cards in the post Golden Dawn tarot tradition is a little obnoxious. Waite went Page > Knight > Queen > King, sticking fairly closely to the Marseille tradition. Crowley went Princess > Prince > Queen > Knight, which is a little weird but it’s clear at least, since there are two young people and two older people. The Golden Dawn did it this way: Princess, Prince, Queen, King. Clear, right? If you read my monthly tarot readings on patreon, you may know that I sometimes just change the name. In fact, I’ve already used this deck and had to do so there. By default, I use the Golden Dawn names, since they’re much clearer. What’s a “page” anyway? I know the answer to this, please don’t assume I need an explanation here.

This deck, the one I’m reviewing now, goes Princess > King > Queen > Knight.

I’m hitting return so you can just see that list with some nice white space around it.

That’s fucking stupid. It also leads into the latter portion of my review: the book.

The Book(s)

The LWB is fine, it’s what every LWB is. No complaints there. The big book is bad. Just, I mean, yeah, do not buy this book. It cost nearly as much as the deck and what’s useful in it you can read elsewhere. What’s unique to it is not helpful.

I wasn’t going to even buy it. But the two things above, the planetary associations with the Mother letter cards as well as the weird King/Prince mixup, made me buy it. I wanted to see some explanation. There isn’t one for the outer planet associations. The book just behaves as though those are standard. Given that the Hermetic Tarot, also drawn from the Liber T descriptions, assigns the outers to the same cards but in a different arrangement, that is not the case.

There is a brief paragraph in the section on the court cards saying that the Princess > King > Queen > Knight arrangement is the correct one, with no evidence. They cite Jack Taylor, verbally, with no textual reference, and go so far as to simply say Regardie was wrong. A second paragraph implies that if the reader really thinks about it (that is to say, is as smart as the authors), then the “dual” names of the two boys in the court will be extremely meaningful. This weird thread of “we’re right everyone else is wrong” is going to come up in the final section too, so hang onto the end of the thread for now.

The other deeply obnoxious part of the book itself is, well, the entries on each card. That’s, as you might guess, most of the book. So the cards have associations that just shouldn’t be there. They are chakras, alchemical stages, multiple gematria formula, and the tribes of Israel.

The chakra thing barely needs to be explained, but here’s a simple version of it: the Golden Dawn tradition doesn’t have any business with chakras. They’re a thing in tantra, and if anyone wants to work with them they need to go find a person in that tradition to take them on. Or at the very least read a book by someone who’s actually in the tradition. The Golden Dawn chakra stuff is all pulled from Leadbeater and the stuff he did under the aegis of the Theosophical Society. It’s crap. The book even pulls the bone-headed move of saying the chakras are energy but also glands. That’s the Grade A horse puckey right there.

The alchemical thing is not, on its own, bad, for a tarot deck. Robert Place has done an excellent job of integrating the two systems in his Alchemical Tarot. I’ve got a copy of the 4th edition; it’s great. This doesn’t do that. First, as with the planetary stuff, the card images are unaffected. The book just tells you that each card points to a stage in the alchemical process. But there’s little rhyme or reason to it. There’s no point. It reads like they didn’t want each entry to be 3/4 of a page long, quite honestly. I grade student papers for a living, I can tell when I’m reading filler.

The gematria is weird. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Which, I mean, I guess that’s fair? Gematria is always like that, especially when it’s applied to anything other than a language written in letters that properly correspond to numbers. Hebrew and Greek, for instance, directly relate letters and numbers. English doesn’t do that. But I lost count of how many cards are secretly associated with The Hermit because one of the gematria methods boiled them all down to 9. If that many cards are going to the same place, that means the system probably doesn’t work for tarot.

the tribes of Israel thing is just unexplained. Maybe that’s a thing people do with tarot cards! If so, this book won’t tell you where it comes from. They also won’t explain how it applies. The entries seriously just go into a new paragraph, say “the tribe is X, because [Bible quotation]” and then new paragraph, new topic. It’s likely due to the astrological associations ascribed to each tribe, but there’s no clear indication of what the reader should be doing with this information.

The final section of the book is on diviniation methodology and some ritual information. It’s fine, for what it is, though even there some things come across as both unnecessary and bad. For instance, in telling the reader how to select a significator card for querents, they say this:

  • Knights (Kings) are men over 40
  • Kings (Princes) are men under 40
  • Queens are women over 40 who have children
  • Princesses are women under 40 who do not have children

You perhaps the see problem already. A: why doesn’t it matter if men have children or not? B, even within the sexist logic this makes no sense. Not all women over 40 have children. I guess if you’re 42 and don’t have kids you don’t get to have a tarot reading. Also, if you’re under 40 and do have kids, you can’t get a reading either.

So, on the level of a simple explanatory book, it’s not good. It’s full of fluff, random unexplained bits, and it’s very expensive. It even just gets the astrology wrong sometimes, as when it says that the final decan of Virgo is ruled by Venus. It’s not. It’s ruled by Mercury. It is often wrong with decanic rulership. It uses two different schemes of decan rulership, one for the pips and one for the court cards. That’s not standard Golden Dawn practice. Even then, though, the decanic rulers in the court cards are often still wrong.

What about the Other Golden Dawn Deck?

In the book, the Zalewskis complain about the Wang deck, as I did above. However, they make no mention of the Golden Dawn Magical Tarot (formerly published as the Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot). This deck is by the Ciceros, and I’m guessing, as an outsider, that there’s some kind of pissing match going on between the Ciceros and the Zalewskis. Because not only do the Zalewskis studiously not mention the other deck, they erroneously claim to have produced the only deck to follow the Golden Dawn color schemes correctly. The Ciceros did so. I was wondering if the problem was that the Cicero deck was published after the Zalewski book. The Cicero deck (as opposed to a book by a similar name, which came earlier) seems to have first appeared in 2001.

The Zalewski book was first printed in the 90s. That seems to be our answer! But, and this is in some ways worse to me than simply missing it. This is a reprint. They reprinted the book. The book existed, and then the Cicero deck and book came out (from a major publisher no less), and then they reprinted this book and didn’t change this. Which leads me to suspect they didn’t change anything in the interim.

So it comes to this: should you get the Cicero deck? It comes with a book, which is much more genuinely helpful, and the entire package costs what either the Zalewski book or deck would cost you. Well, I own both, so I can provide you with a few comparison shots.

As you can see, the Zalewski deck is larger and more traditional in composition. While they’re more attractive, the pips look a good deal like those in the Wang deck. The Cicero cards, on the other hand, look a bit more like the Thoth cards, as there’s a zesty contemporary vibe to the art. They are small though — the image itself is slightly smaller than a normal poker card, which is what the middle cards are there, for comparison.

I think the Zalewski deck is probably better for divining, just because they’re bigger and somewhat more vibrant. The deck is worth the money Aeon is charging, every penny of it. I can’t speak to any ritual work, as I’ve only used the Cicero deck in that capacity as of yet.

So, in the end, this is the thing: if you like the Zalewski deck and can get by without the book, get it. If you need the fancy book, I’d suggest skipping them both and getting the Cicero deck. Of course, I own and like both, so what do I know? In the end, the question is about the book and deck. In the end, the thing seems to be that the Zalewskis don’t appear to think that they should teach in their book, only catalog information. Even then, sometimes the information is wrong or badly sourced. But the deck itself is beautiful and extremely useful.

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