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Something strange in the AO Tarot

I was going through my pile of NISI AO manuscripts to help a friend with a research project and I found something a little surprising.

In amongst the knowledge papers was a list of the titles of tarot cards and their numbering (see picture). It is important to realise that this was post Golden Dawn and Samuel Mathers was fully entitled to break with tradition. However, he was extremely pleased with his contribution to the Golden Dawn tarot and particularly the numbering and allocations to the paths.

Given that these paths are now considered standard, it seems a little odd that Mathers’ AO appeared to go back on them and returned to the traditional system.

There are some other interesting things on this list, including the alternative title for the Judgement card as “The Angel” and the more traditional “Fortitude” for “Strength.”

But the flipping of Justice and Strength is the biggest eye opener. Given that this was a knowledge paper, it would have meant that all the AO students would have copied it and had to memorise it.
One does wonder if Mathers had started to use “blinds” in the outer order so that his students would effectively have been knobbled from using his knowledge until they had been around long enough for him to trust him.   If that was the case he would have had to have given them a corrected numbering later, or maybe he had simply abandoned his old theory.   

Still, it is surprising that this reversion back to the traditional numering and the flipping of Strength and Justice by the AO has not been noticed before.

14 thoughts on “Something strange in the AO Tarot

  1. This one is another puzzle since the idea of the flip in the first place was based on the numerical association of the Hebrew letters for its order. I would have bet the farm that Mathers would have left it the numerical way.I guess the way to find out is check the AO knowledge lecture where the tarot associations is given from the Slater collection. Frankly Nick I would be astonished if he did change it.

  2. Completely disagree – the majority of historical decks have this ordering (Justice 8, Strength 11). I’m personally of the belief that the flip was actually to map the lion imagery of Strength (older decks have a woman cleaving a pillar in two with her hand as the illustration) to Leo and so to avoid the utterly convoluted hot mess that Crowley came up with in Book of Thoth. There are no documents describing this, so I can’t say that it’s anything other than a moderately arguable hypothesis. For now…

  3. I am with you on that Pat. If Mathers bought in this knowledge paper it could not have been universal. Paul Foster Case used the GD numbering and he was a member of the late AO. Although it is possible that Case got it from Crowley or Book T (which gave the correct numbering). All I can think is that he did not want the outer order to see the correct numbering until they saw Book T. In which case we are looking at another aspect of Mathers’ dumbing down his outer order.
    Conspiracy… I agree that it was traditional, but Mathers was incredibly proud of HIS system (even though it appeared in the Cipher manuscripts). It is a bit like Steve Jobs dumping his Mac and going back to a PC. Yeah it might work (even Case thought the traditional system had merits) but going backwards and rejecting your own ideas is not something that either Jobs or Mathers is famous for. I don’t like Crowley’s innovations to the Tarot either as they seem a bit of intellectual masturbation rather than being practical.

  4. Page 18 of the ZAM Paper on the Astronomical Tarot in the Slater Collection (copy date Feb 26, 1922)lists the normal arrangement with “Fortitude” coming after the Chariot and Justice following the Wheel of Fortune.

    Could there be a more mundane explanation, such as a copying mistake? Especially if somebody is in the middle of comparing or researching different versions?

  5. I did think of a copying error but it would be a hell of coincidence that it happens to follow “tradition” just only part of Mathers tradition (the fool as zero). This NISI book is just the Knowledge papers so it is not a research document as such. Like I said I am flagging it. If it was part of the AO in London then it is surprising. But if the Slater collection got the order wrong too, perhaps the AO didnt care that much. 🙂

  6. Don’t you mean “and the more traditional “Fortitude” for “Strength” instead of “and the more traditional “Fortitude” for “Justice”?

  7. I don’t think it’s a copying mistake because this switch back to original numbering of cards is also found in the AO 6=5 Initiation. The Astrological associations however are kept, which now places Libra before Leo in the Zodiacal sequence. We know Crowley did this switch as well…perhaps it was due to what he saw in Paris. We also know Mathers used Papus’s ‘Tarot des Bohémiens’ as part of his teachings in Paris, and Papus uses this earlier numbering. I have no explanation for this, just wanted to make a few pointers.


  8. Thanks Martin, that is news to me. I am just surprised that no one has ever mentioned that the AO had a slightly different set of correspondences when it came to the Tarot before. So the original outer order paper was not a blind, but what Mathers was actually using. However for some reason the AO did not change book T from the original. This was copied by Paul Case for his BOTA who never got to the 6=5 to see the original attribution AO restored.
    You would think that someone would have noticed all this by now. It might be because until Tabby published her 6=5 and Nisi was made available in Mathers Last Secret and King over the Water few was the real AO material and was just assuming their contents would be the same as the original Golden Dawn. There must be more than one “AO group” which claims that it teaches AO material to its members when it is actually teaching Golden Dawn material and putting AO on top of it. With the real deal now out there I guess its chiefs are having to study Nisi and Mathers’ Last Secret otherwise they will keep making the same mistake.
    I did wonder about Papus as a key to some of these changes. Mathers did order his troops to copy out Tarot des Bohémiens and a copy of it was in Nisi and it was clear he respected the man. He might have had enough influence to get Mathers to change his tarot attributions. However as you point out, using the traditional names with the astrological titles makes things a bit of a mess. This is not one of Mathers’ better innovations. It looks like I will have to go through the rest of Nisi to see if any “obvious” papers have changes like this one.

  9. Hi Nick,
    While I’m in no position to offer any explanations (as I don’t have any), I’d like to highlight few folios from Cipher Manuscript.
    In Folio No 35 Strength has VIII written next to it and Justice has XI but in the ‘Key’ column it’s XI for Strength and VIII for Justice.
    The same again in Folio No 38: while Justice has Libra and ל assigned to it and Strength has Leo and ט, they are numbered VIII and XI respectively.
    Then, in Folios 39&40 we read: “VIII Justice=ל and Libra and XI Strength=ט and Leo which causeth a transposit for these are cognate symbols. But at one time the Sword of Justice was the Egyptian knife symbol of the sickle of Leo while the Scales meant the Sun having quitted the balance point of highest declination. So the female and the lion gave the idea of Venus, lady of Libra representing the fire of Vulcan (Saturn in Libra) exalted. But earliest was the lion goddess to Leo and Ma to Libra with her scales, and this is better. Also Libra was given to Horus at one time.”
    Oh, and if I remember correctly, “The Angel” is just what this card used to be called, the same as “The Arrow” for the Tower, etc.

    Best wishes,

  10. I guess it appears to me that Mathers went creative for a while, but not for long, if Slater and Case’s AO are anything to go by.

  11. Just a thought: Pat, didn’t you say in ‘The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn’ that allegedly Mathers never manage to produce a full deck of tarot cards? If so, I guess it would make sense – they’d use correct attributes and Hebrew letters, but since the traditional decks were all they had, they had to stick to the ‘old’ numeration. I know I might be talking out of my hat, but it makes sense to me.


  12. Hi

    Well they could have changed the numbers on the published cards and adjusted to what they wanted. It would have been an easy task. I do not know about the use of the word ‘alleged’ as I think there is no real dispute on that issue. I brought this up with Regardie and he told me that Dion Fortune made the same comment back in the early 1930’s and with Case. Both made the point to him there was none.

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