Tarot in the Western Esoteric Traditions

major arcanaThe following post is my research paper for my class on Religious Cults. Focusing on the Tarot and its place within the western esoteric tradition of New Religious Movements.

            To the common person, if they know anything about Tarot they may only know about the fortune telling aspect. The stereotypical “Miss Cleo”, gypsy neo sign corner shop readers scattered across major cities may be what comes to mind for some, maybe even yourself, through exposure by media representations. However, this representation that is held in our collective unconscious is a mere fragment of the spiritual depths that the Tarot holds.

            The Tarot as I will argue throughout this essay, is a component within the New Religious Movements (NRM), specifically the Western Esoteric Traditions (WET). Tarot does not represent a NRM. Instead, is a tool that has been passed around by different western esoteric groups as a centerpiece to their teachings and practices.

            To accomplish this goal I will trace the history of Tarot, the origins and usages throughout history. I will also focus on specific New Religious Movements which have used the Tarot in their movement. These groups include The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Builders of the Adytum and Neo-Paganism. While discussing these groups, we will encounter teachings from different spiritual traditions, including but not limited to Qabalah and Hermeticism.

            To begin our discussion, a brief description of NRM is needed. The term New Religious Movements are used to describe groups, which are viewed as deviant, unconventional and unorthodox within their social context, when compared to established religions. The rise of NRMs is a reaction to dealing with the inadequacies of existing religious institutional structures. The “new” within New Religious Movement does not indicate chronology more so that it describes elements within the movement which are restored, reformed, or revived or to the wisdom that is newly garnered from other religious traditions (Blackmon).

            Tarot is a deck of seventy-eight symbolic cards. The Tarot is structured into two groups. The first group is the Major Arcana, meaning the greater secrets. The majors consist of twenty-two cards, numbered from 0 to 21. The majors are titled with names such as “The Fool”, “The Moon”, The Sun”, “The Wheel of Fortune”, etc.

The remaining fifty-six cards make up the second group, the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana consists of four sub-groups known as suits. Traditionally, these suits are named as Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles. Each suit breaks down once more into another sub-group, the pips and the courts. The pips are the numbered cards, Ace through ten. The courts consist of four cards, the page, knight, queen and king.

The tarot was developed in northern Italy in the early fifteen century as a playing card game. This game that was played with Tarot is the ancestor of our modern bridge game (Place). The cards through various decks included depictions of classical gods and goddess along with Christian virtues, the liberal arts and sciences (Katz). By 1507, Tarot production was heavily focused in the region in and around Marseilles in France. The iconography and structure of Tarot as we see today was set during this time, before then the structure and order was unset and undetermined. It is the Marseilles Tarot, which got the attention of occultists in the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries (Place).

The eighteenth century saw the start of the modern occult revival. In 1781, the first modern work on Tarot by an occultist was written. Court de Gebelin introduced into Tarot his theories on their mystical origins. Gebelin theorized an Egyptian based origin rooted in the teachings of the mythical Hermetic teacher Hermes Trismegistus. He contacted Tarot with the Hebrew Alphabet and the Kabbalah (Place).

Eliphas Levi was another figure of the occult revival in France. Levi was highly influenced by the Polish émigré Joseph Maria Hoene-Wronski. Wronski was well versed in Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Boehme. Wronski urged Levi to pursue magic and occultism (Goodrick-Clark). Building on the occult foundation in Tarot, Levi weaved together the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life’s 22 paths onto the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, creating an esoteric correspondence. Levi’s contributions and influence on the Western Esoteric Traditions is paramount that Aleister Crowley thought himself to be the reincarnation of Levi (Goodrick-Clark).

Through the teachings of the French occultist like Levi, England further developed the occult revival. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is founded in 1888. The Golden Dawn was founded as a secret society with members including some of the most distinguished and talented personalities of the time. Members included W. B. Yeats, Annie Horniman, Florence Farr, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, A. E. Waite, Algernon Blackwood, Arthue Machen (“Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”). The Golden Dawn was founded, co-founded by Dr. William Westcott, a London coroner and Rosicrucian. Westcott studied at the University College of London. He practiced in partnership with his uncle in Somerset until 1879, when he moved to Hendon. It was at this time Westcott began to study Kabbalah, Hermeticism, Alchemy, and Rosicrucianism (Goodrick-Clark).

The Golden Dawn is based on hierarchy and initiation like Masonic lodges, except they allowed the initiation of women. There are ten degrees of initiation based on the ten Sephirots of the Tree of Life taught in Kabbalah. The ten degrees are split into three orders. The first order taught esoteric philosophy based on the Hermetic Qabalah and classical elements. The first order also included the basics of astrology, tarot divination and Geomancy. The second order taught proper magic, including scrying, astral travel and alchemy. The third order included the Secret Chiefs, that directed the activities of the lower two orders (Regardie).

            With concern to Tarot two men emerge out of the Golden Dawn as being the two pillars of modern Tarot, creating two sets independent visions of Tarot based on the same Golden Dawn background. The first of these men is Arthur Edward Waite (1857 – 1942). Waite was a prominent writer on esoteric subjects including the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, The Book of Ceremonial Magic, The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabbalah and the Mysteries of Magic to name a few.

Waite broke away from the Golden Dawn in 1900 and started his own mystical order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Waite commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to create a Tarot deck based on his instructions. This deck, the Waite-Smith Tarot (1909) became the most world famous tarot deck to date, which virtually all  decks made now use the Waite-Smith as the visual template.

Waite saw the Tarot as a story of mystical and spiritual ascent from the mundane world to the divine realm. Waite used the Tree of Life as the primary map for this ascent and the Tarot cards as the illustrations of the journey (Katz & Goodwin). Working with the Tarot on the paths of the Tree of Life, we ascended through the Tree uniting with the divine as the ultimate end goal. While Waite learned from the Golden Dawn this mapping between Tarot and the Tree of Life, Waite adapted it and formed his own map suited to his mystical rather than the magical perspective of the Golden Dawn (Katz & Goodwin).

The second most influential person in Tarot history, the second pillar after Waite is Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947). Crowley joined the Golden Dawn in 1898 from Cambridge University. Crowley quickly assimilated into the Golden Dawn’s teachings and move up in the ranks fast. However, Crowley was eventually kicked out of the Golden Dawn due to his bisexuality and libertine lifestyle along with having feuds with members, it gave him a bad reputation (“Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”).

Crowley traveled the world between 1900-1903, visiting the Americas, India and China, studying yoga, Tantrism, Buddhism and the I Ching. In 1904, while visiting Egypt, a decent intelligence named Aiwass allegedly dictated to him the Book of the Law, a revelation of Thelema (Divine Will). Aiwass proclaimed the salve religions of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism would give way to unbridled individualism and self-fulfillment (Goodrick-Clark). Crowley was an outlandish personality; he identified himself as the Great Beast in the book of Revelation and gloried in all kinds of antinomian behavior. In his magical rituals he included sexual intercourse with both males and females. Heavy drug use was common practice, to produce the visions of deities, demons and supernatural phenomena.

Crowley joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O), a German para-Masonic magical order. Crowley met fellow initiate Lady Frieda Harris, who would paint his Tarot deck. The deck is known today as the Thoth Tarot. It took Lady Harris five years to complete the deck (DeQuette), compared to Waite and Smith, which completed their deck in under a year (Katz & Goodwin).

Both Waite and Crowley based there Tarot decks on Golden Dawn teachings, however on different levels. Both Waite and Crowley had to draw their own personal tarot deck while in the Golden Dawn as a part of the Fifth Degree. They were given a copy of a deck from the Master Adept. Initiates were sworn to secrecy not to reveal the secrets taught to them (DeQuette). When we examine the Waite-Smith Tarot and Thoth Tarot we are seeing two sides of the same coin, one side veils the secrets to make them obscure (Waite-Smith) while the other was more direct and revealing (Thoth).

In the United States, a group called the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) was founded by Paul Foster Case. Just like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the BOTA focused their spiritual life upon the Hermetic and Kabbalistic tradition (Ellwood & Partin). This is mainly because Case was an initiate of the Golden Dawn in New York. Shortly after being initiated into the Golden Dawn the US head of the order died, Case succeeded him. Turmoil arose in the Order was Case had already written articles on the Tarot revealing secrets of the Order (before he was initiated), Case resigned. In 1920 he founded the BOTA (Ellwood & Partin).

According to the organizations website “The Builders of the Adytum is a religious organization dedicated to spiritual attunement through study, practice and worship in the Tradition of the Western Mysteries. Spiritual aspirants participate through the B.O.T.A. lesson instructions” (“B.O.T.A. Builders of the Adytum”). Adytum is a Greek word for “inner shrine or temple”. Members of the Order aspire to build the inner temple within. They continue their description and say, “Builders of the Adytum is an authentic Mystery School in the Western Tradition. Its teachings are based on the Holy Qabalah and the Sacred Tarot, and have been handed down from one group of initiates to another since ancient times. However, B.O.T.A. does not claim value on the grounds of being old, but because its instructions have met the tests of centuries of practical application” (“B.O.T.A. Builders of the Adytum”). Case created a Tarot deck based in large part upon the Waite-Smith cards, in collaboration with Jessie Burns Parks. The deck was published in 1931. (“Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”).

            The rise of the New Age movement in America in the 1960’s and 70’s brought a revival to old spiritualities in a new modern context. The New Age movement does not establish anything “new” but instead restores old or forgotten wisdom. Dutch historian of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff gives a definition for the New Age. The New Age can be defined as a millenarian movement, oriented toward the imminent coming of the Age of Aquarius (Lewis and Petersen).

With the rise of the New Age alternative religions or spirituality has become more popular the ever. The return of Nature Based religions like Wiccan and Paganism has grown and gained grounds in the public arena. In April of 2015 Rep. Liz Bennett, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids Iowa invited Deborah Maynard, a Wiccan from her district, to address lawmakers by leading the invocation (prayer) at the start of the assembly. (“Wiccan To Give Invocation At Iowa House Of Representatives”).

Paganism along with Wicca are revivalistic religious traditions that attempt to reconstruct ancient Egyptian, Greek, Latvian, Celtic, or other traditions (Lewis and Petersen). Paganism postulates a wholly or partly immanent divinity within the natural world (pantheism/panentheism) as well as multiple manifestations of divinity (polytheism). Paganism is seen as a reaction to the crisis of modernity with roots in the industrial revolution in England. The Romantic poets of eighteenth and nineteenth century reacted to industrialization by venerating ancient Greek culture and religion. They projected the values they felt were lacking in modern society (Lewis and Petersen).

For most of the history of Western Esoteric Traditions has preserved by the initiatory orders like the Golden Dawn, OTO or Freemasons which remained relativity Christian in orientation. The rise of Paganism has reclaimed its ancient wisdom once more which is rooted in the Hellenistic period and earlier.

Within the Wiccan and Pagan traditions, divination is common practice. This is rooted in the ancient practices of cultures like the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Celtics. Divination is a magical practice in which a person can communicate with a deity. Modern day followers of Wiccan or Paganism practice Tarot and use it as a tool for spiritual guidance and self-knowing.

As mentioned above, the view that Paganism is a reaction to the crisis of modernity, and venerating the ancient cultures by viewing them as having values we are missing today. Tarot fills a spiritual void, which for many they feel is lacking in traditional religion, specifically the lack of communion with the divine that is found in the Abrahamic faiths. Traditionally, a follower of the faith is expected to pray to God, a one-way communication. You are no expected to get a response back. However, with the ancients and with the modern pagan a reply from the gods is expected and often reported by followers. Tarot is a tool that can facilitate the communication between human and divine. The closeness between human and divine is central to the Pagan worldview, the divine is not transcendent and removed from the person. Divinity for a pagan is to be experienced not an abstract idea to be believed in. Tarot fits perfectly within the Pagan worldview system.

In the modern day, thanks to the Internet people are no longer bounded to secret societies like the Golden Dawn or the BOTA to learn the mysteries of Kabbalah and Hermetic teachings. You no longer need to subscribe to groups and follow rules. Instead, today’s people can take the Tarot and apply it to their own belief systems. Today the Western Esoteric Traditions are much like a spiritual buffet for anyone to come and pick what they like and skip the things they do not like. This eclectic approach allows Tarot to become a useful tool adaptable to any form of spiritual goals the practitioner may have.

In conclusion, the Western Esoteric Traditions for many years have incorporated the Tarot as a fundamental component to understanding the cosmos. The tarot has been developed into a tool for self-development and spiritual actualization as a means to find union with the Divine realm. This can be seen with initiatory orders as well as modern spiritualities like Paganism and Wicca. Tarot runs deep with the New Religious Movements and still does to this day.

Works Cited

“B.O.T.A. Builders of the Adytum.” B.O.T.A. Builders of the Adytum. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2015.

Blackmon, Tiffany. “What are NRMs?” Religious Cults. American Public University. n.d. Lecture.

DuQuette, Lon M. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. Boston: Weiser Books, 2003. Print.

Ellwood, Robert S, and Harry Partin. Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Print.

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

“Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.” N.p., Web. 20 June 2015.

“Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.” The MYSTICA.ORG. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2015.

Katz, Marcus. Tarosophy: Tarot to Engage Life, Not Escape It. Brisbane: Salamander and Sons, 2011. Print.

Katz, Marcus, and Tali Goodwin. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: The True Story of the World’s Most Popular Tarot. N.p., 2015. Print.

Lewis, James R, and Jesper A. Petersen. Controversial New Religions. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Place, Robert M. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005. Print.

Regardie, Israel. The Golden Dawn: An Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Order of the Golden Dawn. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1971. Print.

“Wiccan To Give Invocation At Iowa House Of Representatives.” The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2015.




The recipient of Tarosophist of the Year 2011, Angelo Nasios is a rising voice in the tarot community. Angelo is known for his popular YouTube channel in which he produces educational tarot videos. Tarot: Unlocking the Arcana, Angelo’s first book will be released by Schiffer Publishing.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me: