The Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson
Review by Errol McLendon
When Godfrey Dowson created The Hermetic Tarot back in the 70's, he was following a tradition started by the leaders of the Secret Order of the Golden Dawn and one suggested even today as a valuable self-study tool. He retired to seclusion for two years and created a collection of 78 black-and-white drawings combining the traditional card images with astrological, elemental and Cabalistic symbolism. The result is a deck in which each card carries multiple layers of meaning.
I never thought I would buy a black-and-white deck, but the minute I looked at The Devil card, I knew I had to have this one. Dowson not only loaded his cards with symbolism, but had a very wry sense of humor about it all. His cartoon-like depictions deliver the dark messages with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The two figures entrapped on The Devil card are a female with frog feet and a male demon with a knotted tail and snake feet. The Devil himself wears a likable smirk and above his head is a spiked collar straight from the finest bondage shop.
The second reason I nearly passed this deck up is that I am not very fond of cards with meanings written on them, but Mr. Dowson used obtuse phrases which allow for a great deal of interpretation. These phrases are
derived from the teachings of The Golden Dawn; therefore, each name comes with a rich tradition of mystical research and insight. For example, The Devil is subtitled The Lord of the Gates of Matter. New depth is given to The Death card by the backup name of The Child of the Great Transformers. Rather than as a "training wheel" approach, each secondary name leads the reader to understanding the richness in each card.
The overall feeling smacks of 70's rock and folk concert posters with a bit of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams thrown in. I mean this in the most complimentary way. Mr. Dowson has taken a very complex group of
information sources and brought them down to earth. His illustrations reflect his belief in the cards and his personal love of the system.
The main value of this deck is the wealth of information each card carries. Each card could easily be studied for hours and new connections and symbols would continue to reveal themselves to the seeker. A basic knowledge of the Cabala, astrology and the elements is very helpful, but not necessary. The cards can work as a flashcard tool for learning these various disciplines. The way I worked with the cards was to meditate on the images with a good astrology book, Cabalistic reference and symbolism dictionary nearby. Any symbol which I could not immediately identify, I researched. The result of this type of work was that each card yielded multiple meanings which kept reconnecting with each other in a myriad of ways.
Even subtle differences in the pip cards carry a wealth of meaning. For example, the 10 of Pentacles is decorated with 10 pentacles and 10 lotus-like flowers, a glyph for Mercury and for Virgo, The Nine of Pentacles has the same nine pentacles and lotus, the same glyph for Virgo and a Venus glyph, but the identifying characteristic on this card is the presence of thorns. My usual interpretation of the Nine of Pentacles carries a warning of being too satisfied and, as a result, not achieving true potential. The addition of these thorns to this card, gives me a visual image of being stuck in one place.
Technically, the cards are standard playing card size, a fact I am appreciating more and more as I watch my clients struggle to mix decks which are even the slightest bit different from the standard size. The card stock is durable and should last several years under normal usage.
If you feel you may be getting complacent in your readings or you find yourself settled into the "same old safe " deck, reconnect to the layers of meaning in all your decks through this one simple, but brilliant representation of all that Tarot can be.
Hermetic Tarot and booklet by Godfrey Dowson
Publisher: US Games
ISBN #: 0-913866-92-X
Note: This deck is presently out of print. Hopefully, it will eventually be reprinted by US Games.
Errol McLendon is a Certified Tarot Master reading, teaching and living Tarot. Seven years ago, Errol bought his first deck of cards after receiving what he considered to be a very inaccurate reading in New Orleans. The rest is history. Errol is also an actor and director around the Chicago area, as well as a guest artist throughout Texas, Oklahoma and upstate New York. Visit Errol at his website.
Images © 1980 US Games
Review © 2001, 2002 Errol McLendon
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes