The Qabalistic Tarot, 2nd Edition by
Review by Lee Bursten
This book by Robert Wang (creator of the Golden Dawn Tarot Deck and the Jungian Tarot Deck was first published in 1983 by Samuel Weiser, Inc., and has since become a true classic. It explains the complex esoteric system created towards the end of the 19th century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, specifically as it relates to tarot, and proves to be a wonderful introduction to the subject for the intelligent and curious layman, as well as an excellent reference source for the expert occultist. The Golden Dawn (GD) system is particularly important because it forms the basis not only of the most important tarot decks created in the 20th century (i.e., the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and the Crowley Thoth deck), but also of the large majority of modern methods of tarot interpretation. The original edition is now out of print, and Marcus Aurelius Press has, thankfully, released a new edition.
Before examining the merits of the work itself, let me describe the current edition. Unlike the original edition, the second edition is a hardcover. The book is subtitled “A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy,” and this edition does indeed resemble a textbook, with a smooth, glossy paper cover pasted to the book’s hard covers. The book has been newly typeset, and a much superior font is used for the Hebrew letters. There are some changes in capitalization. Editing errors from the first edition have been corrected, and a preface to the new edition has been added. Some of the reference material at the back of the book has been reordered, and there are some differences in the list of recommended books on the subject of skrying. Other than these changes, the text of the book is unchanged from the first edition, and so, if one already has the first edition, I don’t see any pressing need to purchase the second unless one wants to have a nice, clean, new, hardcover copy (and this may be desirable for the many people who own a dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of the first edition). But if you don’t already have the first edition, then this is a great opportunity to own a truly valuable book.
I must note that in the process of typesetting the new edition, a number of typographical errors have crept into the text which weren’t there in the first edition.
The introductory chapters are some of the best parts of the book. Wang makes an interesting case for why it’s important to come to grips with the Golden Dawn system. Personally I have often struggled with the particular GD assignments of the tarot’s Major Arcana cards to paths on the Qabalistic Tree of Life (a major element in the GD’s tarot system). I appreciated the author’s candor when he writes, “frankly, there are several keys which I might assign differently were I starting with no prior conceptions about where the cards should be placed.” However, he does feel that there is much benefit to be derived from a tradition which has evolved over time and in the hands of many people. “I have no quarrel,” he writes, “with those who have virtually turned the Tree of Life upside down with their combinations and permutations of ideas. But to do so mitigates the powerful group effort called ‘tradition,’ and potentially creates a new Path. Expressed another way: It is the agreement over time on the meaning of a set of symbols which makes a system a Path.”
The author goes on to explain the basic esoteric concepts which underlie the GD system, and places the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in a social context, so that the reader can appreciate how it coalesced in Victorian London. I was very glad to see that Wang holds a view of the Order which is admiring and clear-eyed at the same time. The founders of the Order were, in some ways, geniuses at synthesizing disparate occult systems and in creating a template for an esoteric society, but in some ways they were scoundrels who didn’t hesitate to forge documents or engage in vicious politics in order to consolidate their power within the group.
The author also discusses the three esoteric decks which are used to illustrate the book: the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the Thoth, and Wang’s own Golden Dawn deck. Of these three, the Golden Dawn deck is the most explicit manifestation of the GD system and is based on the deck which GD members used as a template for creating their own decks, while the RWS and Thoth decks reflect their creator’s ideas as well as GD ideas. A fourth deck, the exoteric Tarot de Marseilles, is also used for illustrations.
The author then defines Hermetic Qabalah and explains how it derives from and differs from Jewish Kabbalah. He then goes into a very thorough explanation of the Tree of Life and how it acts as a cornerstone for the entire system, and how the Major and Minor Arcana are arranged on it to create the GD set of correspondences. This section is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the GD system.
Following this is the meat of the book, where Wang goes through the tarot deck card by card. This isn’t just your standard card-by-card analysis as found in many books. Instead, the author uses the tarot deck as a framework for an extended meditation on tarot, Qabalah, and esoteric philosophy in general. The Minor Arcana are explored in order by number, in other words, all the Aces, then all the Twos, etc. Preceding each new number is a wide-ranging discussion of the corresponding Sephira (sphere on the Tree of Life). Then the individual cards are discussed, often referencing specific visual details on the four decks used for illustration.
The discussion on the Major cards is preceded by a chapter which discusses the Qabalistic, elemental, astrological, geometric, and other patterns which relate to the assignment of Majors to paths on the Tree. Then each card is discussed, focusing on how each card can be seen as an illustration of the path between two Sephiroth. Here again, much esoteric philosophy and wisdom can be found in these passages.
Finally, there are short sections on skrying and divination. The 15-card Golden Dawn spread is given, and a list of the GD’s divinatory meanings for each card. These are useful as a reference, but would be rather confusing for a beginner, because the GD’s divinatory meanings often don’t make much sense in terms of their own concepts of the cards. But this really isn’t a book about divination, and I think a beginner would probably want to consult other books to gain advice about the process of reading the cards. At the end of the book are tables listing colors, sounds, angels, and divine names.
Wang has a talent for expressing complex and difficult-to-grasp ideas in a concise and accessible manner. His voice is a reliable guide through the esoteric thickets. While the tone is generally serious, once in a while there is a flash of humor to refresh the reader. All the same, there are times when the book is rough going, as the author himself acknowledges: “Let me say, finally, that this book has been extremely difficult to write, and I doubt that it will be much easier to read, although I have done my best to simplify abstract concepts wherever possible.” Sometimes, when a paragraph seems impenetrable, a few more readings of that paragraph will clear things up. At other times, it’s best just to keep going, because you’ll often find something which makes the previous paragraph understandable.
However, there are a few passages which I’ve read over and over and simply could not get a handle on, as in the following:
“Four color scales, one for each World, are accepted by the Hermetic Qabalah: The King, Queen, Emperor and Empress, answering respectively to the sequence of the Worlds and the Tetragrammaton. The notion of color is pivotal to the study of Tarot, and painting the Four Worlds in their appropriate colors will provide special insights about the cards. The Golden Dawn Tarot, as published, includes the traditional Tree of Life used for practical work. Here are shown the colors of the Atziluth Paths, and the Sephiroth colors of Briah. There must always be a balance of masculine and feminine in representation involving the Tree, and this is accomplished by combining the two scales in one glyph.”
There is simply not enough information given the reader to be able to make sense of this. How do the King, Queen, Emperor and Empress relate to color scales? What is the correlation, hinted at in the fourth sentence, between Atziluth and Briah (two of the Four Worlds) on the one hand and Paths and Sephiroth on the other? What are the “two scales” mentioned in the final sentence? Here the author has become too concise. He seems to be using a sort of esoteric shorthand, but the reader isn’t given the key to decipher it.
But such passages are the exception. Overall, I found the writing to be quite accessible.
Since this book was published in 1983, there have been some other books to which I would also direct the interested reader, although I would still recommend The Qabalistic Tarot as the best overall treatment available. The others are:
Anyone interested in tarot will find any of these books, and particularly The Qabalistic Tarot, invaluable for understanding the Golden Dawn’s contribution to tarot theory and interpretation. We have reason to be grateful to Robert Wang and his publishers at Marcus Aurelius Press for once again making this seminal work available to the public.
The Qabalistic Tarot, 2nd Edition, is available only at the website of Marcus Aurelius Press.
The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy, 2nd Edition by Robert Wang
Published by Marcus Aurelius Press, Inc.
Lee Bursten is the creator and author of the Gay Tarot, and is writing the accompanying text for Ciro Marchetti's new deck, the Tarot of Dreams. He has written many tarot deck reviews for the Tarot Passages website, and has served as a professional tarot reader and forum moderator for the Aeclectic website.
Review © 2004 Lee Bursten
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes