Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson
One of the great things about digging through these boxes is that it gives me an opportunity to look through my decks and reconnect with them. Even if I pull out a deck I don’t work with, I take the opportunity to spend a little time looking at the images and reading up on the deck and the author. No matter which deck I pull out, it’s always a pleasure to see how much care and time was spent in the design of it. Today, we are going to look at the Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson. According to the deck’s page on the US Games website, the deck was designed between 1975-77, and was originally released in 1979.
One thing that disappoints me is that very little is known about Godfrey Dowson. He was active as an illustrator in the late 1980s/early 1990s, mostly for video game companies, but he also did book covers for Aquarian Press and Thorson Publishing. He appears to be English and was living in Wales at the time he completed the Hermetic deck. However, there is no mention of him on the internet from 2000 to the present. He may even be dead by now.
First off, take a look at the box I keep it in. I was complaining yesterday about the Bohemian Gothic not being spooky enough. Here, the box itself is plenty spooky. The top of the box pictures the Dance of Death, which is being performed by a group of skeletons. They’re capped by a skull with bat wings, which sits atop a crossed scythe and shovel. The image on the inside of the box is Death in a more traditional form: shrouded, and carrying a scythe. I bought the deck and a few days later a friend unexpectedly gave me the box, so the match seemed appropriate.
I think this is a remarkable deck. It’s striking for a number of reasons. The artwork is all hand drawn in black and white, and the images – as you can see – have a crazy amount of detail to them. It took Dowson two years to complete it, which isn’t surprising given the vividness of the imagery and the completeness of the information he encoded into it. This is much more than a divinatory deck. Dowson included elemental dignities, astrological attributions, kabbalistic relationships, and angelic names in the deck. Much of the inspiration for the deck comes from the Golden Dawn’s Book T. (There are also occasional touches from Thoth. Take a look at the Four of Cups here and compare it to the Thoth card. See?)
When I say this is more than a divinatory deck, I’m referring to its uses as a study aid for Golden Dawn card knowledge, and also as a tool for ritual. In looking at t his deck, it’s clear to me than Dowson spent a lot of time studying Golden Dawn and other materials, and knew them intimately. Because this deck is so heavily influenced by the Golden Dawn and so obvious about it, in a way it pre-dates Waite’s conception of the Tarot. Dowson is very public with the same information Waite either hid, obscured, or otherwise did not include.
Look at the Magician. The card is titled The Magus of Power. In the Rider Waite, the Magician is young, clean shaven, and probably a novice initiate. Dowson’s Magus is older. He’s standing inside a magic circle, surrounded by the elemental signs and the objects of the four suits. There’s a lit candle behind him, and with his wand he’s conjuring the spirit of Mercury. He knows what he’s doing and how to protect himself.
He shines his own light through the
This is – to me – an intimidating deck.
(Someone on the Aeclectic forum said,
“It makes the Thoth look accessible
I’d say that’s a fair statement.) I’m sure it
can be used for divinatory purposes, but
to really exploit it to its full potential you
need to know – at theminimum – astrology, elemental dignities,and kabbalah. The black and white make it somewhat austere. It’s not soft like the Rider Waite, nor is it colorful like the Thoth. The images are powerful and precise in a sense, but they’re not pretty. Some aren’t even pleasant. While yeah, it is intimidating, it’s decks like this I hope to someday master.
This particular edition was printed in the mid-2000s and is easy to find. It set me back a whole $22. The deck comes with a 70 page booklet written by Dowson and Stuart Kaplan. For under 25 bucks that's a lot of esoteric knowledge. A LOT.