For What It’s Worth

In my book Tarot Hermetica, I made the following observation about the use of esoteric principles and practices in tarot reading:

“Recent years have seen a groundswell of resistance to the theories of esoteric interpretation formulated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its chief architect, Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers, at the end of the 19th Century and carried forward by its most illustrious alumni, Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the principles are antiquated and entirely too rigid for the present crop of mystically-inclined tarot readers who function more at an intuitive “feeling” level than in a structured “knowledge-based” way. As for myself, I’ll just shamelessly paraphrase Bob Seger:

Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill
Today’s tarot ain’t got the same hold
I like the snake-oil the Masters sold”

During a discussion of this subject on the Tarot History Facebook page a couple of years ago, my friend and colleague Dan Pelletier said in reference to the Golden Dawn’s tarot curriculum: “Some guys made a bunch of stuff up, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.” My own perspective is a little more measured. In addition to reading a great deal of Hermetic literature before my tarot days, I’ve been working with the two major masterworks of occult tarot wisdom – Liber T and the Book of Thoth – for 50 years now, and I would amend Dan’s statement by adding that “it works after a fashion, for what its worth.” (I must be getting “MacGregor Mathers Syndrome;” at the conclusion of almost every card definition in Liber T, he made sure to hedge his pronouncements with “according to dignity, for good or ill,” and occasionally “according to their nature” so he couldn’t get pinned down to specifics.)

I was recently attacked rather ferociously in the comments to one of my old posts on the topic of Major Arcana correspondences to the Qabalistic Tree of Life. I didn’t dignify the nasty diatribe by allowing it to remain, but it did point something out that has been obvious since my days in the Aeclectic Tarot “Kabbalah” sub-forum: there isn’t much room in the minds of esoteric traditionalists for any kind of creative innovation or “thinking outside the box” when it comes to long-accepted metaphysical principles.

Personally, I cherry-pick what I find useful from the mass of impressionistic divinatory assumptions presented in those source books and treat the rest as fair game for revisionist interpretation. I’ve never been one to take what I’m presented at face value, a posture I’ve maintained since I first encountered the Bible as a kid. As far as I could see, it was written by “guys who made a bunch of stuff up,” who thought they knew what God might say if He (or She or It) actually condescended to speak with them. In other words, highly imaginative and highly suspect philosophical pondering about the nature of the spiritual Universe, and not much different from what the Hermetic crowd has done with early Hebraic mysticism.

At any rate, I will continue to apply what works for me “after a fashion,” and put the rest under the analytical and critical microscope, adjusting it along the lines that make the most sense from a rational perspective. To be honest, many of the Golden Dawn assignments of the Major Arcana to the Tree of Life and to astrological signs and planets (I’ve also been an astrologer for well over 50 years and think I can speak to this point) don’t stand up to this kind of scrutiny. It might be said that the “bunch of guys” put their pants on the same way I do – one leg at a time – and there is nothing particularly transcendent and untouchable about their thinking.

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