Without the magical workings of its members, modern day Tarot would probably not exist.
In order to understand thoroughly the Golden Dawn’s influence on Tarot, it is necessary to gain more insight into this illustrious group.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888 in England by William Wynn Westcott, William Robert Woodman and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, who were all Freemasons.
A remarkable aspect of this organisation was that it was one of the first to admit men and women as equal. As a result, some of its most influential members were women: Moina Mathers, Florence Farr, Dion Fortune, Annie Horniman and Maud Gonne.
These women were free-spirited, and thanks to personal wealth and benefactors lived unconventional lifestyles in Victorian times, when the main occupation of a woman was to be a wife and mother. Women of the Golden Dawn, by Mary K. Greer, provides a fascinating insight into their lives and works.
The Golden Dawn was headed by MacGregor Mathers, who was mainly responsible for its structure and rituals as well as creating a whole system of magic.
He spent most of his time researching in the British Library. His fondness for medieval scripts and old magical texts led him to write most of the Golden Dawn’s material, drawing his inspiration from Egyptian, Greek and Jewish magic.
MacGregor Mathers also came across the writings of Eliphas Lévi, a Frenchman, who dedicated most of his work to magic and the Kabbalah.
Lévi tried to make connections between Western magic and occult philosophy; he researched medieval and renaissance writings, Egyptian images, mythology and Hebrew.
He also developed a Kabbalistic system, which was fully integrated into the Tarot. Lévi greatly influenced Mathers and the magical teachings of the Golden Dawn.
MacGregor Mathers’ legacy is the fusion of all the material he researched into a working coherent system. It is known as the Western Mystery Tradition, which includes Kabbalah, Tarot, Egyptian Mysteries, Enochian Magic, Alchemy and the Four Elements.
The Golden Dawn was not founded to be based on any religious beliefs. Its purpose was to provide spiritual development and enlightenment, searching for the truth and experiencing the magical side of reality rather than just settling for belief.
In practice, Golden Dawn magic incorporates ritual, meditation and development of psychic abilities, using the symbols, gods and wisdom of all religions in order to express a single divine energy. Often, Golden Dawn members would gather and perform past life regressions and attempt to interpret visions and dreams.
The hierarchical structure was based on the ten degrees of the Sephiroth from the Kabbalah. Members would advance from each level by sitting exams and partaking in elaborate rituals, which took place in specially designed temples set up throughout England.
In order to pass the exams, members had to prove their knowledge of astrology, Tarot, Kabbalah, divination, Hebrew letters symbolism and other esoteric disciplines.
The rituals were quite theatrical; high-ranking members dressed up as Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (notably Osiris and Isis), the initiate was led blindfolded into the temple, and several incantations, prayers, spells and invocations took place, before the ritual was over.
Right from the start, the Golden Dawn shrouded itself in secrecy. Members took an oath not to reveal its teachings, which ultimately may have protected them from persecution.
By using the word ‘occult’ (which simply means ‘hidden’), the organisation could have been mistakenly accused of black magic or Devil worship.
The Golden Dawn maintained that by working through its rituals, teachings and travelling the psychic pathways described by the Tarot, it is possible to reach a state of divine enlightenment, even acquire great power.
This may have been the main reason to keep the Order a secret, so misuse of its knowledge could be prevented.
At the pinnacle of its existence, the Golden Dawn had some influential people within its ranks, amongst them Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite, who both went on to develop the two most famous Tarot decks of the 20th Century: the Thoth Deck (Crowley with artist Frieda Harris, first published 1969) and the Rider-Waite-Smith (Waite with artist Pamela Coleman-Smith, first published 1909).
By the year 1900, arguments amongst Golden Dawn members led to rifts within the group. MacGregor Mathers was expelled from the Order, when he accused Wynn Wescott of having faked some documents. He left for Paris with his wife Moina in 1892, where he founded a splinter group.
W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet, took over from Mathers, but in 1903 A. E. Waite took control and moved the Order into a Christian direction, renaming it ‘The Holy Order of the Golden Dawn’.
But due to dwindling membership and apathy, Waite had to close the Order in 1914. By then, a number of groups had dispersed across Britain, to Paris and even Chicago.
Today, many occult groups claim to have originated from the Golden Dawn, and its teachings are still researched and practised today.