A Review of the Hermetic Tarot

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.

Hermetic fool
Left, the (subtly non-reversible) card backs. Right, the Foolish Man.

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.

Hermetic Major Arcana
Left to right, the Lovers, the Wheel of Fortune, the Last Judgment. Sorry about the return of glare and blurry photography. It’s been raining all day here in New York, and I had no choice but to make use of my apartment’s terribly artificial lighting.

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:

Hermetic Minor Arcana
Six of Wands, Eight of Cups, Two of Swords.

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.

Hermetic Courts
Knight of Wands, Queen of Cups, King of Swords, Page of Pentacles. The photo turned out awfully. There’s a reason no one pays me to do these reviews.

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.

Hermetic favorite cards
The Hierophant, the Hanged Man, Death.

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.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “A Review of the Hermetic Tarot

  1. I use the Thoth Tarot and I love it. It’s one of my favorite decks, after all. The Hermetic Tarot seems to me a combination of Robert Place’s Alchemical Tarot with the Thoth. The images are a combination and blending of both decks with symbols and elements of both. This is a great introduction to the deck and another fine post. I’m almost tempted to get it, were it not for all the other decks I’d like to get before this one. 🙂

    Like

  2. Goodness your site has so many great posts. I must say this is a great review and I wish I had read it years ago when I purchased my first ever tarot deck, this one. I simply saw it and knew I had to have it. I had no previous knowledge of tarot and let me tell you what you mentioned, “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,” is completely true. I have read resources, just recently I downloaded Liber 7777 and a couple other golden dawn sources, still, after years of picking up the deck and putting it back down, I don’t know the deck as I’d like to. I don’t frequently use it in readings because it is too powerful, dense and just not for everyday. At least not for me with the limited knowledge I have of it. I am still learning and I look forward to the day in which I’ll be able to use it wit ease. Nonetheless, I love this deck dearly, it was my first deck and it has a special place in my heart. This deck opened the world of tarot for me.

    Like

    1. I have to say, I am terribly impressed that you didn’t quit Tarot after jumping into it head-first with this deck. Learning the correspondences for such a heavy esoteric deck is rewarding but incredibly time-intensive; Liber 777 is a great resource, as are some basic Qabalah books like DuQuette’s Chicken Qabalah or Regardie’s Garden of Pomegranates. In my personal study, I also drew up an Excel spreadsheet with all of the key information arranged in a way that made sense to me.

      All of that aside, this deck is absolutely lovely, and is well worth the work it requires. When it comes to esoteric Tarot, the Hermetic Tarot is a definite winner.

      Like

      1. To be honest, I did put the deck aside for long periods of time. It was just too much sometimes. But I was and still am entranced and in love with tarot and all its significations so that spurred me on to continue and also to buy simpler decks to use in the meantime.

        Like

  3. Honestly, I didn’t do much research on this deck before I got it, or at all, actually. It /was/ my first deck, and I will tell you that I connect with it much better than any other cards I’ve used. The others just feel novelty to me? lol

    Like

    1. Learning to read with the Hermetic Tarot is like learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. It can absolutely be done (and everything else feels soft-core if that’s how you start out), but usually I’ll recommend that newbies start with something easier if it’s available to them.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s