Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes-Barlow
Review by Chris Asselin


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As I began reading this book, I found myself thinking about all the different books I have read on the topic of Tarot, and which ones affected me.  While there are a large number of books on tarot, I admit that very little material has actually made a large impression on the essence of how I view and use the tarot.  I guess I was ready for something new.  Indeed.


My first impression of this book was that its intended audience was those with an advanced relationship with tarot, as well as one acquainted with such topics as Qabala, the Golden Dawn, Crowley, Magick, and Gematria.  I was wrong.


While I find some of these topics to be foreign and of little importance to me, this book will most certainly be there for me in the future, to add depth to what I have already learned, should I choose to begin a study of those topics.  Because of this, I believe the book can appeal to a larger number of people who are at different stages.

I actually ‘read around’ any material which was above my current level of understanding. That does not in any way downplay or negate what I have learned from this book; it only means that some of its relevance for me now is low.


So why should I share with you the fact that I didn’t understand all the material in their book?  Why write a review for a book that contains material I don’t understand? The answer to this question eluded me for about two weeks, but I have captured it in this: I wholeheartedly believed from the outset of reading this book that parts of this book could be relevant to me, and other tarot readers, regardless of their knowledge of such topics.  I didn’t want other readers to look at the book and do what I almost did--think it was material that was out of their league, and not read it. So I am speaking for them with this review.


The author told me that, regarding readers of differing levels, he believes that previous knowledge of those topics would help in understanding the book, but he also hopes to inspire students to look into them and see how they can apply them in practical readings, rather than theoretically.


So, my advice here is to read the material that is appropriate for you and your interests, and "where" you are now.  Go in and out of the book as necessary.


Now that that's settled, what is this book all about?  The title on the back of the book sums it up very well.  "Combines a unique new method of reading the cards with an exciting examination of the magick behind the Tarot."  'Nuff said.


And it is in the first half of that title that I see what this book has done for me, given me "... a unique new method of reading the cards ..."   I can hear a Monty Python troupe member in my head saying, "And now for something completely different".


The intent of this book was to present the Golden Dawn's Opening Of The Key Spread (based on the material on the author's website),  in which the cards are cut into four piles, the piles are turned over, the top card analyzed, then the cards within the piles are spread out into a horseshoe shaped string to be analyzed using the various techniques covered in this book.  A string you ask?  Yes, a string.  No card positions or individual meanings like one would traditionally see in a spread.  You will be looking at how the cards talk and interact with each other within the string. The author has used this spread professionally for many years.


Techniques used within a string include the Top Card, # of Cards, Centre Card or Centre Pair, Major/Minor/Court Balance, Three or Four Of A Kind, Tree Of Life, Reversals, & Elemental Imbalances.


Using the techniques covered in this book, Hughes-Barlow shows the reader a more 'wholistic' way of reading cards, using detailed explanations and examples. While I've never believed that 'no card is an island', trying to view the whole spread as an organism, with interplay and effect between cards, putting this into practice is not necessarily easy.  This book (and spread) tells the reader how to do this--by breaking the process down, and analyzing each piece. Realize too, that by reading this book, you will not instantly acquire the techniques taught in this book ready at your use.  It will take some time to incorporate them into how you read and achieve some degree of comfort with them.


Very early in the book, I was already feeling incredibly energized by the techniques I was learning and putting into practice.  None of them were familiar to me prior to reading the book, but other readers may have some familiarity with them.  The author says that "although the techniques are described as 'basic', do not underestimate their power." I was very quickly looking at the cards in a way that I had never done before.


I was impressed by the manner in which the author explains through example.  Throughout six of the chapters, you will see the same string of cards being analyzed.  Each technique is explained using the same string.  This gave me a better feel for how these techniques are used as I could "see" them in action.


The structure of the book is different from what I have come to expect from other tarot books.  Each chapter begins with a commentary on two paired Major cards and their associated Minors and/or Court Cards.  Following that beginning, there is a topic to each chapter (See list below, including Appendices)


Chapter Overview:

Chapter One:  The Opening Of The Key Spread

Chapter Two:  Overview of Reading The Cards

Chapter Three:  Pairing The Cards

Chapter Four:  Elemental Dignities

Chapter Five:  Card Counting:  Golden Dawn Tarot Sutras

Chapter Six:  Unaspected Cards

Chapter Seven:  Love Relationships

Chapter Eight:  Performing Reading For The Public

Chapter Nine:  The Visionary Experiences Of The Shaman

Chapter Ten:  Sex Magic

Chapter Eleven:  The Spirits Of The Tarot

Appendix One:  Meditations

Appendix Two:  The 22 Mercurial Spirits of Liber 231

Appendix Three:  The Qliphot and The Tarot

Appendix Four:  Self Initiation and The Neophyte Spread


The topic of Elemental Dignities is explained well in this book.  The author thoroughly explains the rules of using Elemental Dignities and gives many examples and explanations of interpreting the different permutations of the elements interacting with each other.  Furthermore, the author offers more on Elemental Dignities for those who are comfortable with Elemental Dignities and feel the "need to be stretched".  This is another example where the reader can come back to material in the book as they advance themselves.


Chapter Eight, “Performing Readings For The Public,” is a chapter which I personally appreciated.  Hughes-Barlow gives good, friendly advice dealing with public and conducting readings.  This includes a practical opinion on topic of fees. 


Because there is so much material concentrated in this book, if the author has been less than clear on explanations, it could have been a difficult read.  Thankfully, this was not the case and I found myself being able to focus on learning and using the techniques rather than having to wade through complicated a “how-to” guide.


This work is one to be kept close at hand, and not filed away in your book cupboard.  The author has presented something fresh to me.  I doubt I'll ever look at the cards the same.


Tarot and the Magus: Opening the Key to the Divination, Magick and the Holy Guardian Angel by Paul Hughes-Barlow
Publisher: Aeon Books
ISBN #: 1 904658 02 4


Chris Asselin is a confirmed Tarotholic living in Toronto Canada with his partner Tony, and two cats.  Chris bought his first deck almost 15 years ago, and the rest is history.  He is both a member of the American Tarot Association and the Canadian Tarot Network, and recently acquired his Certified Tarot Reader level with the latter.

Review © 2004 Chris Asselin
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes