The Hermetic Tarot, by Godfrey Dowson, is a black-and-white deck inspired by the traditions of the (in)famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s a lovely, thoughtfully dawn, symbolically rich Tarot deck reminiscent of the Thoth, and indeed, I think readers who are comfortable (or at least roughly familiar) with the Thoth deck will have a much easier time of the Hermetic Tarot.
This is by no means a beginner’s deck. Each card is loaded up a dozen different ways with elemental, astrological, and Kabbalistic (or Qabalistic, or whatever) correspondences, as well as some deep-cut symbolism that takes a lot of study and contemplation to understand. Just take a look at Key 0, the Foolish Man (pictured below, on the right). This card is no simple RWS fool-walking-off-a-cliff. He’s holding a poppy in one hand, a symbol of forgetfulness. The elemental symbol for air hovers above one shoulder, and the astrological glyph for Uranus* is emerging from the waves crashing over the edge of the cliff. The Fool’s knapsack rests at his feet, instead of over his shoulder, and the way it’s bundled up, it looks like a pomegranate (the symbol of transcendence and wisdom traditionally associated with the High Priestess). His dog has become a wolf, and a crocodile lies waiting for him should he step out into the waves. All in all, the Foolish Man doesn’t look very foolish. In fact, he looks kind of somber.
And so it is throughout the deck. This Tarot deck is not easy to read with. It’s deeply rewarding, and beautifully drawn, but it is not for the faint of heart, and I cannot emphasize that fact enough. The imagery of the Hermetic Tarot is not designed for intuitive reading. It’s meant for heavy-duty book study, the kind that requires frequent trips to the library over a period of months or even years. This is a deck that expects readers to sit down with each individual card and actually study the symbolism, at great depth, before applying it in a reading.
Below are some further examples of what I’m talking about here. The Lovers is drastically changed from what RWS or TdM readers will be familiar with; here, we have the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. The Wheel of Fortune has some serious planetary symbolism going on. And the Last Judgment, as it’s named in this card… Well, it’s downright apocalyptic. We not only have the raised spirits of the dead, but djinn and harpies and a caduceus, banners and coffins and smoke and what appears to be a solar eclipse. Heavy stuff.
Note that each card is marked with a Hebrew letter, an astrological glyph, and (in some cases, though not all) the name of an angel written in Hebrew. On the Lovers, for example, we have אמבריאל (Ambriel), the geomantic intelligence associated with the Zodiac sign Gemini in Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777. Each card is also given a title for invocation/evocation purposes. Some make sense (the Wheel of Fortune is the “Lord of the Forces of Life”) and others, not so much (the Emperor is the “Son of the Morning”**), but all are traditional Golden Dawn correspondences.
It’s not hard to figure out why this deck was called “hermetic”.
The Minors are very similar to the Minor Arcana from the Thoth Tarot, which could either be very helpful or very frustrating depending on your Tarot background. Check out these examples:
Note that once again, symbolism abounds. Each card of the Minor Arcana is marked with the planet and Zodiac sign that rule it, as well as with the names of a pair of angels assigned to it using some complicated astrological whoo-daddy involving the 72 names of God in the Jewish tradition. (It’s really hard to review this deck for an audience that might not be familiar with all this mystical ghushmarush, because I don’t know how causally I can mention things like the fact that God has 72 names in Judaism. Consult Wikipedia for more information.) For readers who don’t want to concern themselves with all that and who just want to try to read the cards, there are also some visual cues to aid in the reading process (note the crossed swords on the Two of Swords, the “Lord of Peace Restored”). But even those will take some time to get to know. I would really recommend this deck for more intellectual, systemically-minded readers, and not so much for intuitive psychics.
The Courts in this deck are stunning, and once again are directly inspired by the Golden Dawn tradition (which is to say that they resemble the Thoth more closely than the RWS). They are titled, in descending order, Knights (Fire), Queens (Water), Kings (Air), and Princesses (Earth). The important thing for RWS readers to note here is that the Knights in RWS are called Kings here, and vice versa. Once again, the Court cards are all marked with astrological symbols, although this time it’s a more complicated marking involving decanates (as opposed to just one sign per card).
Ah, me, but this deck is lovely. Challenging, for sure, but lovely nonetheless. I just love that Hanged Man.
Because of the wealth of Kabbalistic symbolism embedded in this deck, it would be an excellent choice for anyone wanting to undertake serious Kabbalistic study. Similarly, these cards would be very useful to any reader looking to blend Tarot and ceremonial magick (particularly Rosicrucian, Judeo-Christian, or otherwise angel-y forms thereof). I, personally, will probably not end up doing the whole magick bit, because it’s just not my cup of tea, although I do use the Golden Dawn invo/evocations associated with each card in the work I do at my Tarot altar.
This is really, really, really not a beginner’s deck. Please don’t buy this as your first-ever Tarot deck, or you will hate Tarot forever. But for intermediate or advanced readers–those who already know and use things like astrological correspondences in Tarot, or who are looking to learn–I think this deck will be a lovely way to push boundaries and stretch for a larger understanding of the systems that hold Tarot together. It’s also a lovely complement to the Thoth deck. For anyone willing to take the plunge, I think the Hermetic Tarot is a fantastic investment. But purchase this deck knowing that it will take time and study before you can use it well.
*The original GD astrological attributions of the cards are based on a classical seven-planet system of astrology, which doesn’t include Uranus. In the original system, the Fool is assigned to an element (air), rather than to a planet. Modern astrologers have reassigned it to fit into the ten-planet system most commonly used now, which includes Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
**This title always makes me think of the Judeo-Christian Lucifer figure, whose name means “bringer of light” and who was also commonly known as the “morning star” because of some early mythical ties to the planet Venus. But maybe that’s just me.