Someone asked about the varieties of astrological correspondences among the Tarot Major Arcana cards on a tarot forum: “I assume that the Tarot of Marseilles is a totally different tradition than the Golden Dawn?”

This is my attempt to give an overview of how the astro-alpha-numeric correspondences used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded in 1888 ) came to be formulated. The creators of the Golden Dawn (GD) tarot system were familiar with the French tradition (Marseilles), but deviated markedly from it in creating their own tarot lineage.

Part of the “secret” material taught in the GD were their unique attributions for the Tarot, which formed the basis for their levels of initiation. Centering on the 1880s, the Tarot was treated as a puzzle, and both French and British ceremonial magicians were racing to solve it. At the heart of this race was discovering the “real” correspondences among the Hebrew letters, astrological signs & planets, and numbers. Tarot author Christine Payne-Towler in The Underground Stream coined the term “astro-alpha-numeric correspondences” to cover these.

In the late 18th c. le Comte de Mellet in de Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif suggested one solution—linking the last card with the first Hebrew letter (World=Aleph).

French magician Eliphas Lévi, working in the mid-1800s, came up with his own solution based on the fact that the Hebrew letters ARE the numbers (Magician = 1 = Aleph). Furthermore, a Kabbalistic document, the Sepher Yetzirah, relates these directly with the astrological signs (the planets were not so explicitly related – creating all kinds of controversy). Writers like Paul Christian, Oswald Wirth, Papus, and members of the Brotherhood of Luxor (and the later Brotherhood of Light) continued along these lines.

The Golden Dawn had yet another solution. Before he died, Lévi and a British Freemason and occultist, Kenneth MacKenzie, met in Paris. Lévi showed MacKenzie a deck he had designed (but which disappeared after his death) and they discussed this Hebrew letter “puzzle.” MacKenzie was not satisfied with Lévi’s attributes and worked on his own solution to the puzzle (“I work it with the aid of astrology”), but he died before he could publish it. He wrote one of the founders of the GD (Westcott) that it was too ‘dangerous’ to be revealed to the masses:

“I am not disposed to communicate the Tarot System indiscriminately although I am acquainted with it. To do so would put a most dangerous weapon into the hands of persons less scrupulous than I am.”

As soon as MacKenzie died, William Westcott bought a box of papers from MacKenzie’s widow. With two other “chiefs” (all who belonged to various Masonic and Rosicrucian societies) he started up the GD, using as its basis a manuscript written in cipher describing a series of rituals (translated and worked up by MacGregor Mathers). These rituals were based on initiation grades from the 18th c. German “New and Gold Rosicrucians,” combined with the GD correspondences as given in the cipher manuscript (two books have since been published reproducing the manuscript and discussing it in depth). Although there is no absolute “proof” that MacKenzie wrote the cipher manuscript, the evidence is pretty strong.

Both Aleister Crowley and Paul Foster Case (American member of the GD) made some minor changes to the MacKenzie/GD alpha-astro-numeric correspondences – Crowley switched positions of the Emperor and Star, and Case replaced the three “elemental” cards with the more recently discovered outer planets.

A. E. Waite always declared he was dissatisfied with the correspondences, but used them in his own GD-based rite, until, in the 1920s, he finally created a revised set of Major Arcana, changing their order to fit with mystical rituals he devised for his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. A few of the black-and-white versions of these cards that are so different from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are illustrated in Dummett & Decker’s A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970 and in K. Frank Jensen’s The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot.