Makers of Modern Tarot: Part 1
Complicated beginnings . . .
On March 1, 1888, an event took place that was to influence greatly the course of Western esoteric studies — and the whole future of Tarot.
That significant moment marked the founding of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group that drew into its creative maelstrom not only curious would-be magicians, but also serious scholars, along with many poets and artists interested in symbolism — among them the poet William Butler Yeats (a Nobel laureate),Annie Horniman (founder of the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and painter Gerald Kelly (later president of the Royal Academy).
In Yeats’s introduction to A Vision, the book in which he explained his complex theory of history and imagination, the poet described his own impressions of the atmosphere within which the Golden Dawn arose:
We all, so far as I can remember, differed from ordinary students of philosophy or religion through our belief that truth cannot be discovered but may be revealed, and that if a man do not lose faith, and if he go through certain preparations, revelation will find him at the fitting moment…. I look back to it [the Golden Dawn period] as a time when we were full of a phantasy that had been handed down for generations, and now an interpretation, now an enlargement of the folklore of the villages. That phantasy did not explain the world to our intellects, which were after all very modern, but it recalled certain forgotten methods and chiefly how — to so suspend the will that the mind became automatic and a possible vehicle for spiritual beings . . . .
The story of the birth of the Golden Dawn society is legendary in occult circles. It begins in 1887 with the discovery, in a second-hand book stall, of a manuscript written in cipher and appearing to be about seventy-five years old.
The discoverer was the Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, a member of the Societas Rosicrociana in Anglia, a group which affected to integrate the English Masonic tradition with European Rosicrucianism. He passed the manuscript along to two other members of the Soc. Ros. (as it is often written) — a Dr. Woodman, and Dr. Wynn Westcott.
The cipher manuscript turned out to contain (or so it seemed) a page referring to a continental secret order called “Golden Dawn,” and providing information for contacting a German woman, Frau Sprengel, who was among the leaders of that group. According to his own account, Dr. Westcott reached Frau Sprengel and received permission to start an English branch of the order as soon as three people were “initiated,” so that the requisite ruling group could be formed.
As the story goes, Westcott was also given instructions for the organization of the order. In addition to a council of three, the Golden Dawn was to have both inner and outer groups, each composed of several degrees; members would proceed to different levels of the order by passing examinations and participating in initiation ceremonies.
Westcott followed this plan, and soon the Golden Dawn was off to a flourishing start. But while it is true that the Golden Dawn group thrived almost immediately, attracting a potent clientele, the truth about its origins seems to have been different from the story put forth by Westcott.
In the first place, although the cipher manuscript contained some pages watermarked 1809, it seems almost certain the document itself had actually been written sometime in the 1880s, by an unknown continental adept. The manuscript probably was found in a bookstall by Rev. Woodford, and it probably was believed by Westcott to be genuine.
But all this is largely irrelevant, since the only part of the manuscript that was important in the development of the Golden Dawn turned out to be the single page which concerned the formation of the group — and that very page seems likely to have been added by Dr. Westcott after the manuscript was received from Rev. Woodford. 
Westcott was apparently anxious to form an esoteric group which (unlike the Masons and the Soc. Ros.) would admit women as well as men. He may also have been motivated by the desire to offer a more Western-oriented alternative to Madame Blavatsky’s newly formed — and already popular — Theosophical Society.
In any event, Westcott presumably felt that some kind of charter connecting his new organization with the old esoteric tradition was needed. So he created an altogether fictitious link to a group that had never even existed.
But the bogus beginnings of the Golden Dawn have little to do with the significance of the group in occult history, since the magical order that evolved under the name “Golden Dawn” turned out to be very, very different from the rather picturesque social group Westcott apparently set out to create.
The reason for this wide and important divergence can be summed up in one name: Mathers.
It all started off in a seemingly ordinary way. Dr. Westcott had been closely associated with a Kenneth Mackenzie, one of the founders of the Soc. Ros. Mackenzie had been introduced to the Tarot by Eliphas Levi, on one of his several trips to England. This Tarot connection led Westcott and his fellow founders into contact with Samuel Liddell Mathers, who had written a short tract on divination with the Tarot.
Mathers quickly became not just a member, but the driving force and chief theorist of the Golden Dawn. Eccentric, authoritarian, and — as it turned out — more than a little unwise, Mathers was nevertheless gifted with exceptional charisma and creative power. Kathleen Raines, in Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn, tells us that Mathers made an impression on the young Yeats even before the two had met:
[Yeats] used to see [Mathers] in the British Museum reading-room where he copied manuscripts on magical ceremonial and doctrines (Yeats must at this time have been working on Blake): “a man of thirty-six or thirty-seven, in a brown velveteen coat, with a gaunt resolute face, and who seemed, before I heard his name, or knew the nature of his studies, a figure of romance.”
“It was through him mainly,” Yeats has written in The Trembling of the Vail, “that I began certain studies and experiences that were to convince me that images well up before the mind’s eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory.”
Mathers — who had changed his first name to MacGregor as a gesture of Celtic pride — wrote much of the Golden Dawn’s ritual material, along with many of the “Knowledge Papers” that set forth the magical doctrines of the order. And in the process he introduced a new element to traditional occultism.
Nevill Drury, a thoughtful commentator on occult matters, describes the innovation this way in his book Inner Visions:
It had been common until Mathers’s time for occultists and magicians to work single, specific systems. We can turn to Cornelius Agrippa’s alchemical treatises, Edward Kelley’s skiving in trance … Francis Barrett’s idiosyncratic magical system, The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer (1801). We find Papus concerned primarily with the origins of Tantric symbolism, Robert Fludd, medievalist par excellence, infatuated with Rosicrucian imagery, and Thomas Vaughan engaged in a form of Tantric alchemy.
Mathers [by contrast] proposed that the Western magician should investigate all the cosmologies of his cultural tradition. In 1887 he published the first English translation of Knorr Von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata . . . . He was later to preoccupy himself in translating a number of key magical documents which might otherwise have been doomed to obscurity in museum archives.
The significance of this wide range of interests was that the magical rituals of the Golden Dawn — in whose shaping and formation Mathers played a major role — came to draw on every major mythology in Western culture.
Under Mathers’s leadership, the Golden Dawn created and implemented a modern magical system, which brought together in a coherent way many different systems: Kabbalah, Tarot, alchemy, astrology, and numerology, along with visionary experience and ritual magic.
Members of the Golden Dawn were effortful practitioners of the esoteric arts, working their way through a series of increasingly complex and mysterious initiations by studying magical lore, taking part in rituals, seeking spiritual visions, keeping elaborate journals — and meditating on the Tarot images.
In the Golden Dawn system, the Tarot was given a complete esoteric context, which it had never had before. It was linked into the whole network of correlations Mathers had drawn from a variety of traditions. And even more important, it was used in creative ways by the aspiring adepts.
Each member had to copy his (or her — nearly half of the three hundred members were women) own deck from a master copy. As there were no precise instructions about how this was to be done, the result was a wide variety of highly personalized decks.
The trumps (also called “keys”) were then meant to be used as gateways through the personal imagination, into immaterial realms of being.
Nevill Drury explains that the trumps were also assigned to different levels or “grades” in the society, and were used in rituals and initiations. In the fourth level, for example, the symbolic element was water, the Tarot key was The Moon, and the initiatory rite included figures masked in such moon-related guises as the goddess Isis, incanting on the meaning of the Tarot Moon:
“Before you on the Altar is the 18th Key of the Tarot: . . . it represents the Moon . . . . The moon is in its increase . . . and from it proceed sixteen principal and sixteen secondary rays, which together make 32 the number of the Paths of Yetzirah.
“She is the moon at the feet of the Woman of the Revelation, ruling equally over the cold Natures and the passive Elements of Earth and Water. The four Hebrew yods refer to the four letters of the Holy Name, re-constituting the destroyed world from the waters . . . . The Dogs are the Jackals of the Egyptian Anubis, guarding the Gates of the East and of the West, shown by the two towers, between which lies the path of all the heavenly bodies, ever rising in the East and setting in the West . . . .”
This kind of ceremonial activity — which may well seem naive from our contemporary point of view — represented in its time the attempts of some very creative people to actually enter into the world of the symbolic imagination.
It’s important to put their efforts into context, recalling that they took place when technology and “modernity” seemed to be draining all the mystery and spiritual potency out of cultural life. Many people were looking for some way of restoring connections between the material and immaterial worlds — not just through abstract knowledge, but through action.
Accordingly, experimentation was gathering energy in art, in music, in literature — and within just a few years, art critics would be horrified by cubism, and audiences would rebel against Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
Occultism was neither more nor less bizarre (or crazy) than those other forms of creative experimentation. But radical creativity is often psychologically and socially dangerous — leading to chaotic relationships, emotional imbalance, and all sorts of excessive behavior.
So despite their lofty goals and hard work, members of the Golden Dawn were about to become embroiled in a seriocomic schism.
 Yeats’s involvement with the Golden Dawn was especially important, for he saved — often with annotations — all the notebooks, letters, and other memorabilia which he gathered in his association with the group. These materials provide some excellent insights into the workings of the group and its influences on the creative imagination. And although Yeats rarely spoke openly of the order or its practices, and made few references to the Tarot, it is known that he and his wife, a medium whose automatic writing became an important source in the development of Yeats’s philosophy, made use of the Tarot in their occult researches.
 Occult historian Ellic Howe used Golden Dawn papers and members’ correspondence to deduce the probable truth about Westcott’s deception. Israel Regardie, a member of the Golden Dawn in its later days, wrote extensively about the order, and though he did not feel that Howe’s interpretation was necessarily correct, he agreed there was much evidence to support it. Mary K. Greer provides much detail concerning these events in her exceptional book Women of the Golden Dawn.
 The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott, exercised a tremendous influence over the growth and dissemination of occult and metaphysical ideas until well into the 1920s. In spite of much internal strife and many schisms, as well as numerous instances of fraudulent and/or ridiculous behavior by its leaders, the T.S. attracted the interest of intellectuals and progressives searching for a new source of spiritual direction. The most lasting accomplishment of the Theosophical Society (which continues its activities today) was the introduction of Eastern philosophy and occultism into Western metaphysical speculation.