Transforming Tarot: 1925-1950

Tarot travels to the City of Angels . . .

Tracing the history of Tarot so far, we have looked at three stages: the “Historical Tarot,” from around 1450 to 1750, the “Esoteric Tarot,” from 1750 to 1880, and “The Makers of Modern Tarot,” 1880 to 1925.

A Quick Recap

During the Historical period, the Tarot trumps appeared mysteriously in Italy and were memorialized in sets of small paintings and on printed paper cards. Somewhere along the way, the twenty-two trumps had been combined with a four-suited playing-card deck, and the resulting Tarot was used in various games, played throughout Europe.

During the Esoteric period, gentleman scholars proposed interpretations of the otherwise unexplained Tarot images, based on occult philosophies — at first, a fanciful version of Egyptian mythology, and later, an adaptation of Jewish mysticism. Over time certain basic ideas (such as a correspondence between the Tarot trumps and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life) were elaborated by a wide-ranging cast of characters, and a new group of interconnections included alchemy, astrology, and ritual magick.

From about 1880 to 1925, the making of Modern Tarot emanated mainly from The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a self-described secret society that gave rise to the careers of several prominent occultists and prompted the creation of two influential books — accompanied by designs for two very popular decks: the Rider-Smith and the Crowley-Harris. Both were based on core occult concepts, but they differed greatly in concept and style.

The Golden Dawn, especially through the participation of poet William Butler Yeats, also established a connection between Tarot, literature, and creative imagination that would become increasingly important.


From the perspective of Tarot history, the first and second halves of the 20th century break apart sharply — but there are connective threads that run through both periods. I’ve chosen 1925 as a point of shift from the original development of esoteric Tarot, because by that time the energy and ideas that had spread from the Golden Dawn were mostly dissipated.

The next major shift would occur in the 1950s. But before that came a transitional period in which Tarot was “Americanized” in several ways. To explore that influence, we travel to California, America’s furthest frontier.

California, of course, has long been a mecca for seekers of all sorts, so it should not be surprising that a chapter in the history of the esoteric Tarot unfolded there during the 1920s and 1930s. In those decades, an energetic assortment of occult groups arrived or arose in Los Angeles, and from this apparently unorganized confluence of events, there developed a thriving center of Tarot studies.

Though less attention is generally paid to this period in Tarot history, there was something important happening.

A Transitional Timeline

  • 1927. . . Case’s The Tarot published

  • 1928 . . . Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages published

  • 1929 . . . Hall-Knapp deck published

  • 1931 . . . BOTA deck published

  • 1933 . . . BOTA headquarters moved to Los Angeles

  • 1934 . . . Church of Light founded

  • 1934 . . . Philosophical Research Society founded

  • 1936 . . . Church of Light deck published

  • 1938 . . . Regardie begins publishing Golden Dawn papers

C. C. Zain

Elbert Benjamine (1882–1951) was an initiate of the mystical Brotherhood of Light, which claims to receive its teachings from discarnate “Masters.” In 1909, Benjamine — who had been studying on the “Inner Plane” with these Masters for nine years — felt he had been instructed to prepare a complete course of occult instruction. He began this task after moving to Los Angeles in 1915, and finished in 1934, two years after he founded the Church of Light.

The material was published in twenty-two volumes as a correspondence course, organized chiefly around astrology and employing a distinctive system of Kabbalistic correspondences. Sacred Tarot is one volume in that series. Generally speaking, the Church of Light followed the Brotherhood of Light material quite closely, but the two entities differed in one important respect: the Brotherhood was a traditional secret society, organized by levels and initiations, while the Church was a public organization that held open meetings and offered a correspondence course by mail.

Benjamine, who published under the name C. C. Zain for numerological reasons, created a Tarot deck advertised as “The Brotherhood of Light Egyptian Tarot Cards.” The design, which was closely based on a French deck issued in 1896 by Falconnier, was originally printed in black and white.

Zain’s Church of Light materials were out of the mainstream of Tarot development in that they continued and added to the idea of the Tarot’s Egyptian origin. Zain elaborated on the story of initiations under the Pyramid, and offered a new background for the old tale, tracing it back to the remote civilizations of Atlantis and Mu. But since his account of the Tarot’s nature and origins was based on “revealed” teachings, the value of Zain’s contribution to our understanding of Tarot must depend on one’s belief in the Brotherhood of Light and the information given by its Masters.

Zain did, however, add something of general importance to the development of Tarot interpretation by stressing the connections between Tarot and astrology. Although correlations between the two occult systems had already been drawn in the Golden Dawn and elsewhere, Zain added much practical detail. The Church of Light Tarot designs include astrological symbols on each card, for use both in meditation and in divination.

Manley Palmer Hall

The second important figure to arrive in Los Angeles was a charismatic young Canadian named Manley Palmer Hall (1901–1990). He moved there with his family as a teenager, and soon established himself as something of a star in the newly emerging spiritual culture of southern California.

Hall, who had no connection with traditional organizations like the Golden Dawn, was self-taught in esoteric matters. But he had a gift for synthesizing ideas and sources, along with an ability to present them persuasively. Hall’s early lectures attracted the support of a wealthy patron, enabling him to travel abroad and begin building a collection of sacred texts and rare books that became the foundation of his work.

The result of Hall’s early research was An Encyclopaedic Outline of Masonic, HermeticQabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Published in 1928, this oversized, heavily illustrated work attracted even more attention to Hall’s teaching — and the following year, he published a Tarot deck drawn by J. A. Knapp and based on the designs of Oswald Wirth.

Soon after, Knapp published his own deck, with a commentary written by Hall. But there was no explanation given in either case for the most interesting feature of the Knapp deck: the “meditation symbols” Hall had added to each card.

In this deck, every trump card has a small crest bearing this type of symbol — a swan, for example, in the upper left comer of Strength. For each of the minor arcana suits a different shape (the ankh for Swords, the mandorla for Cups, the triangle for Batons, and the cube for Coins) is used to frame the symbols. And there are a number of variations. On the Queen of Cups, for example, a lotus appears in the mandorla, and on the Seven of Batons, the triangle contains a single feather.

In 1934, Hall founded the Philosophic Research Society — which turned out to be the most durable result of the efforts begun in this decade. He went on to become a prolific author who wrote on a wide range of occult subjects, and his work generally displayed qualities of common sense and critical thinking which are not always found in occult research.

Although Tarot played a relatively small part in Hall’s work, his attempts to make esoteric teachings a more legitimate area of study paved the way for serious Tarot scholarship.

Paul Foster Case

In Tarot terms, Paul Foster Case (1884–1954) is perhaps the best-known figure of the Los Angeles group — and he was closest in spirit to the original ideas of the Golden Dawn. As a teenager, Case became interested in stage magic, and worked with playing cards. Then a chance question about their origin started him on a course of research that led to the Tarot, and to a Golden Dawn-offshoot, where he was initiated in 1918 and rapidly moved into a leadership position in the Chicago chapter.

His relationship with the group deteriorated over time, in part because Moina Mathers, widow of founder MacGregor Mathers, disagreed with some of Case’s ideas. Eventually he resigned, and created a new correspondence course called The School of Ageless Wisdom — which in turn became the foundation for his own mystical society, Builders of the Adytum, or BOTA. (“Adytum” is the Greek word for an inner temple or sanctuary.)

In 1927 Case — now living in Boston — published the booklet A Brief Analysis of the Tarot, and followed up in 1931 with a BOTA deck intended to rectify errors and intentional deceptions (“blinds”) in A. E. Waite’s Tarot deck.

Case’s deck used slightly modernized versions of the Waite designs, but gave them in black outline so that the user could color in the cards personally. This idea, of course, was a streamlined version of the original Golden Dawn practice, in which each adept had to draw his or her own cards.

And like other influential decks derived from Golden Dawn roots, the BOTA deck was illustrated by a woman — painter Jessie Burns Parke.

In 1933, Case left the East Coast and moved his BOTA headquarters to Los Angeles, where he established a colorfully decorated “Temple of Tarot and Holy Qabalah.” The following year he published The Book of Tokens: 22 Meditations on the Ageless Wisdom.

Case was responsible if not for inventing, then at least for popularizing yet another myth of the origins of the Tarot. In his book Brief Analysis, Case gave this account:

According to an occult tradition, in which I am inclined to place confidence, the actual date of [the Tarot’s] invention was about the year 1200 A.D. The inventors, this tradition avers, were a group of adepts who met at stated intervals in the city of Fez, in Morocco. After the destruction of Alexandria, Fez became the literary and scientific capital of the world. Thither, from all parts of the globe, came wise men of all nations, speaking all tongues. Their conferences were made difficult by differences in language and philosophical terminology. So they hit upon the device of embodying the most important of their doctrines in a book of pictures, whose combinations should depend on the occult harmony of numbers.

Case’s approach to the Tarot was forward-looking in its day, and quite refreshing, for though he developed the Kabbalistic associations of the trumps, he also discussed the psychological dimensions of the cards — bringing to bear both Freudian and Jungian insights — and introduced an open, personal approach to the cards that might be seen as especially American in nature.

Study the picture [Case advised], and find words to express its meaning in a formula of autosuggestion. Your own words are best, and have the most power.

Israel Regardie

Last to arrive in Los Angeles was Israel Regardie (1907–1985). Born in London, to conservative Jewish parents, Regardie took an early interest in esoteric philosophy and magic. After his family moved to Washington, D.C., he spent a great deal of time doing research in the Library of Congress.

Sometime around 1925, Regardie found a book by Aleister Crowley, whom he contacted in hopes of becoming a student. Crowley hired the young man as a secretary, and Regardie spent the next period of his life in Europe. The two men became estranged early in the 1930s, and Regardie rejected Crowley’s later teachings, but he remained an admirer of Crowley’s intellect.

In 1932, Regardie wrote two books about magical practice and Kabbalah, and was soon admitted to the Stella Matutina, one of the two most durable survivors of the original Golden Dawn. The other was Alpha et Omega, to which Paul Foster Case had belonged.

However Regardie soon began to feel that the leadership of Stella Matutina was in decline — motivated more by personal ambition than by commitment to the aims of the order. He resigned from the group, after concluding that the teachings of the Golden Dawn would best be preserved by making them available to a wider audience.

So after returning to America in 1937, he began publishing the Golden Dawn’s internal papers — revealing for the first time to an open audience their complete magical system, with details of the order’s rituals and practices.

Since Regardie only came into the Golden Dawn in the 1920s, well after its most creative period was finished, we cannot get a true picture of the group from his experience, or the materials he published — but there is a good deal of interesting information about their use of Tarot.

Not surprisingly, Regardie was criticized by many for his decision, and he distanced himself from esoteric groups. Instead, he became a chiropractor and studied psychology, including not only conventional psychoanalysis but also the unconventional theories of Wilhelm Reich. After World War II began, he enlisted in the military and served for three years.

After all this, Regardie finally arrived in Southern California, where he set up practice as a licensed chiropractor and lay psychotherapist. It was only later in life that he made his most direct contribution to Tarot, so now we move on to the 1950s, and the aftereffects of the California transition.

Bridges to the Future

In the mid-1950s, angered by what he considered an unfair depiction of Crowley in John Symonds’s biography The Great Beast, Regardie began to issue — through the up-and-coming occultist publishing house Llewellyn — new, annotated editions of Crowley’s works. He also published works of his own on alchemy, magic, the Golden Dawn, and Tarot.

Regardie had copied his own set of Golden Dawn cards as a teenager in 1923, by which time significant changes had been made in the design of the cards, and in the doctrines and practices of the order. But he later attempted to reconstruct, as closely as possible, the original symbolism. A deck based on these images was published in 1977 as the Golden Dawn Tarot, drawn by Robert Wang.

As far as Tarot goes, that’s where we leave off with Regardie. He was the only one of the California quartet who did not start his own organization, or publish his own deck. However he was the most influential of them all in terms of melding esoteric concepts with exoteric disciplines. And he remained active well into the 1980s.

By contrast, Paul Foster Case and C. C. Zain died in the early 1950s — but the groups they founded are still active. B.O.T.A. was headed for a time by Case’s secretary, Ann Davies, who became a popular speaker. The organization holds regular meetings in its original building, and has established regional groups in the U.S., as well as outposts in South America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia.

Zain’s Church of Light had a less stable course, marked by several schisms and a move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. However they have developed an active online presence, including online classes, Zoom meetings, and their own astrology software.

Throughout his life, Manly P. Hall was by far the most publicly engaged of the California quartet — and the most far-reaching in his agenda. He extended his study of the world’s “wisdom literature” to include sacred texts from every tradition, focusing especially on Indian philosophy and Tibetan Buddhism. During a highly active period in the 1940s, he drew large audiences for lectures on “The Secret Destiny of America,” and built out the Philosophical Research Society’s Los Angeles compound — which was designated by the city in 1994 as an Historical Cultural Monument. One part of the PSR compound houses the extensive library he compiled during a long life of travel and research.

The later history of the PSR is interesting in itself — and as often happens in organizations that depend on a single personality, there were unhappy events. But the foundation built by Hall survived, and created a surprisingly robust connection between the analog days of the Golden Dawn and the digital world of today.

Which brings us next to the hinge of the 20th century, and the beginning of a radically new Tarot chapter.