AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay captures three previous posts that I’ve attempted to distill into a single piece of writing. I’ve left a small amount of redundancy in the text for the purpose of continuity.
One doesn’t really review Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth (BoT), his exquisitely (and often excruciatingly) erudite companion volume to the magnificent deck of tarot cards he and Freida Harris bestowed upon the world. One stands back at a safe distance, squints sagely at it, maybe scratches one’s addled pate, and tries to think of something profound to say. Much of it simply defies normal language. I was first seduced by it (“reading it” is much too prosaic a concept) around 1972, and it has been a constant source of study, reference and inspiration ever since. I bought a new hardcover copy not long ago (the tattered one I burned page-by-page in a ritual bonfire on the Summer Solstice). As a lifelong user of the Thoth deck and the Book of Thoth (48 years and counting), I was able to condense my impressions of the new edition of the book into a few paragraphs for the curious neophyte. Those who are well-versed in Crowley’s masterpiece may quibble that I left quite a bit out, but my purpose was to create a brief overview that gives the overall flavor.
The book is separated into four major parts — inconsistently titled Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part IV — plus two lettered Appendices and a List of Illustrations. An introductory “Bibliographical Note” (commonly believed to be written by Crowley himself and not the credited “Soror I.W.E” [Martha Kuntzle, who died from senility in a “home for aged teachers” in 1942, two years before the book was first published]) succinctly lays out his intention for the deck, which was to “reproduce the whole of his Magical Mind pictorially on the skeleton of the ancient Qabalistic tradition.” He then attempts to explain what he accomplished in the text.
Part One, titled “The Theory of the Tarot” is a ramble through Crowley’s mental library (and a dusty annex or two) of putative facts, opinions and theories regarding the structural, historical, philosophical and mystical underpinnings of the tarot. It offers an interesting overview but is not something that will be revisited often.
Part Two, “The ATU (Keys or Trumps)” is a card-by-card examination of the 22 Major Arcana, in which Crowley goes to great lengths to impart as much incidental but parallel wisdom as he can from other venerable systems of mystical thought. This is highly valuable material (especially compared to what A.E. Waite, his contemporary and favorite whipping boy, divulged more vaguely in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot), right up to the coda titled “APPENDIX,” in which Crowley waxes a little too esoterically lyrical and arcane for my taste. The latter is chock-full of interesting ideas but getting the meat out of it can be some very heavy intellectual lifting. It’s a large part of what makes the BoT a lifetime study.
Part Three, “The Court Cards” is far and away one of the best expositions of the sixteen royal personages of the tarot that I’ve come across in over four decades of working with them, if only for its thorough analysis of what Crowley calls their “moral characteristics.” It lends itself just as effectively to defining the psychological attributes of the querent as it does to those of other people potentially involved in the querent’s situation. Each thumbnail also gets a description of the I Ching (“Yi King”) correspondence from Crowley’s personal system. This section receives a lot of browsing. I went so far as to comb through the BoT and extract every useful keyword and phrase I could find, capturing them in a comprehensive table.
Part IV, “The Small Cards” is arguably the most important and useful part of the book for practical purposes. It embraces Crowley’s understanding of Qabalistic number theory and astrological associations as embodied in the Tree of Life to excellent effect. Although it is basically constructed around the Golden Dawn system of esoteric correspondences, Crowley’s unique narrative flair makes it a much more lively and compelling read than Liber T. I spend a lot of time here; sometimes I dip into it for a quick reference and find myself reading whole paragraphs for the pleasure of its language.
After several pages of black-and-white plates of all the cards, Appendix A (“The Behaviour of the Tarot: Its Use in the Art of Divination”) includes Crowley’s spin on the Golden Dawn’s signature spread, the “Opening of the Key” (trust me, you’ll want to take Paul Foster Case’s version to heart instead) and a brief but insightful keyword section on the trumps, logically titled “General Characteristics of the Trumps as They Appear in Use.” I should also mention that all of the color plates from the 1969 Weiser paperback edition are here, but scattered throughout the volume instead of being gathered together near the front.
Appendix B (untitled) provides a set of Tree of Life and planetary number diagrams, along with tables of color scales, planetary dignities and a few miscellaneous items that are probably best viewed in total in Crowley’s 777.
If you’re new to the BoT and have no prior exposure to Crowley’s other work, you’re almost certainly better off reading Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot first, and you might also want to tackle Robert Wang’s Qabalistic Tarot as a prerequisite. You’ll thank me later.
By all reliable accounts, Aleister Crowley was not a nice man. Yet he fathered one of the enduring icons of modern tarot — the Thoth deck — along with its remarkable companion volume. A revisionist attempt is afoot to give the lion’s share of the credit for the excellence of the deck to its artist, Lady Frieda Harris, in the same way U.S. Games recently did for Pamela Colman Smith’s contribution to the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck by sneakily renaming it the “Smith-Waite Centennial Edition” (although, in my opinion, Smith hijacked much of Waite’s deliberately veiled esoteric intent by substituting her own less exalted vision). In either case, that assumption amounts to a serious error of judgment. A careful read of the written correspondence between Harris and Crowley reveals just how much she was under the sway of his intellectual oversight. In Waite’s case, it often seems like he and Smith weren’t on the same page, and he may not have been paying close enough attention to her maverick input (or perhaps, being dismissive of divination himself, he simply didn’t care).
I’ve studied and divined with the Thoth deck for nearly five decades. It is truly the gold standard of esoteric tarot decks, often imitated but never equaled. While there are RWS clones that best the original, this has never been convincingly accomplished with the Thoth. (Although M.M. Meleen’s Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus edition comes very close, and deserves to be considered second among equals.) Harris may have brought her exquisite Synthetic Projective Geometry to the table, but — admittedly having “little or no previous knowledge of the Tarot” — she would have had nothing in the way of philosophical substance to hang it on without Crowley’s masterful direction. Trying to read with the Thoth deck in a purely intuitive way without recourse to the BoT is like trying to walk backward on one leg in the fog with your eyes closed. It can be done, of course, but the way is fraught with uncertainty unless one simply gives up and retreats to the RWS canon. The book may be discouragingly difficult in places, but it is absolutely essential to a full appreciation of the deck.
If I were to pick one feature of the Thoth that I most admire, it would be the highly evocative Minor Arcana cards. Unlike the humble narrative vignettes that muddle the deeper meaning in the RWS minor cards, the Thoth minors are at most only “semi-scenic” (to steal a phrase from tarot blogger Le Fanu, they portray “slabs of atmosphere rather than things happening”), but their profound, expressive use of pattern, color and mood speaks volumes for those readers with the finely-honed discrimination to decode it. They are the clearest evidence that Crowley’s original intent to overhaul and not simply reject the “tradition of the Medieval Editors” was not completely lost in the translation. Once it’s understood that they are closer in style to the Tarot de Marseille (which can be demonstrated by a card-by-card comparison), and benefit from an overlay of esoteric symbolism (number and element, astrological sign and planet, color theory, qabalistic notation, etc.), they read like a dream. The elegant artistic flourishes supplied by Harris are the icing on the cake in what I consider to be “glorified pip” cards.
Nearly as impressive are the court cards, especially when coupled with the verbal portraits provided by Crowley in Part Three of the BoT. His vivid depictions of the “moral characteristics” of each member of the tarot court provide the closest thing to a definitive psychological profile of each personality type that I have encountered to date.
The Major Arcana cards are truly the “spiritual entree” of Crowley’s conceptual banquet. At a macroscopic level, they largely hew to traditional imagery, but the pervasive influence of his seminal Book of the Law is everywhere to be seen in the details. His goal of emptying “the whole of his Magical Mind pictorially” into the deck is achieved in fine form when the philosophical, metaphysical and scientific reflections recorded in Parts One and Two of the BoT are brought into the equation. Taken together, this rich stew of ideas and images makes for absorbing contemplation.
I’m feeling a bit mystical today and got thinking that, with enough dedicated study and reflection, the Thoth deck is uniquely positioned to be “all things to all people” in the world of tarot divination. It has one foot in the New Age (and often strides nimbly past that metaphysical sink-hole, which is why it still holds so much appeal for esoteric theorists), the other foot in the Tarot de Marseille “pips,” its head in the multiverse of philosophical and scientific thought and its ass parked squarely in the qabalistic Tree of Life. I’ve been using it for so long that I often forget how versatile it is, kind of like the divinatory equivalent of the alkahest or “universal solvent” of Paracelsus, capable of rendering any problem into its constituent parts; if I have a particularly knotty question I will bring it to the Thoth, which never fails to inform and enlighten. I see it as the ripe fruit on the vine that Crowley planted with his original precept, “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion.” If you have the time and are inclined to some serious pondering, I stumbled upon this blog post that offers glimpses into ways that might be useful in unpacking the intricacies of Crowley’s arcane viewpoint into a coherent interpretive methodology. (Although its goal is more ritualistic than divinatory and it treads some deep waters, its steps strike me as nicely attuned to that objective.)
The focused individual work this demands is the perfect antidote to the “how-to” books aimed at reducing the Thoth deck and its companion Book of Thoth into the mental equivalent of pabulum for easy digestion. I have yet to apply it and haven’t explored Alfred Vitale’s supporting paper, but it looks promising.
To further my perception of the Thoth as an interpretive “universal solvent,” I thought I would strike while the iron is hot. The best place to chase down this notion is with Frieda Harris’s wonderfully evocative Minor Arcana cards, and one of the best examples I can think of is the 8 of Cups. When using the RWS deck, I sometimes interpret Smith’s card as the “poisoned well;” the man in the image has looked in the cups and come away dejected, having found nothing to his liking in them. But I never would have made that connection if I hadn’t encountered the Thoth version, which is a veritable quagmire of slimy unpleasantness. It builds on Crowley’s idea that the Sevens and Eights are doubly disadvantaged by being “off the middle pillar and very low down on the Tree.” To this I’ve added the observation that the Eights are an expression of the mental volatility of Mercury (the planetary correspondence of Hod), and their unbalanced state gives rise to the presence of anxiety or tension. In the suit of Cups, I get the impression of conflicted emotions warring with one another, like the old Clash song, Should I Stay or Should I Go? (“If I go there will be trouble/And if I stay it will be double”). Where the RWS example guides the mind down a narrow narrative path (the morose man, the forbidding rocky ascent, the peculiar Moon), the viscerally dour Thoth card is much more broadly applicable, suggesting “standing in quicksand” in whatever context the question evokes. I find this sense of anxiety to a greater or lesser extent in all of the Thoth Eights, even the benign 8 of Disks in which I see an overweening fastidiousness that borders on the anally compulsive.
With the court cards, Crowley’s elaboration of the “moral characteristics” of each personality type stands as an unparalleled example of the psychological depth he and Harris managed to imbue in the standard conceptual model. Their inspiration dovetails neatly with my three-fold approach to interpreting the court cards: as other people involved in or with an interest in the queren’t circumstances; as attitudes or behaviors the querent should either adopt or avoid in facing the situation; or as the personification of external forces at work in the matter. These thumbnails go so far beyond the more pedestrian vision of Waite as to seem like visitors from an alternate universe. They are so valuable for this purpose that the effort I put into tabulating all of Crowley’s keywords and phrases was time well spent.
With the Major Arcana (aka “trump”) cards, the heart of the matter lies in assiduous reading and profound contemplation of Crowley’s card-specific text. (For the purpose of divination, I can’t recommend the material in the Appendix quite as wholeheartedly.) Once their unique Thelemic trappings are accounted for, the images themselves are not all that resistant to traditional interpretation. The Hanged Man is a good example; although the common meaning of “sacrifice” is still present, Crowley makes it clear that he’s talking about a process of initiation, which has more positive, universal implications than simply being “hung out to dry” by events. In fact, when reading the card I seldom see it as “sacrifice,” but more as an opportunity to explore uncharted psychic territory.
I don’t know if I’ve convinced anyone with these random examples, but to me the Thoth deck is the apotheosis that overshadows and subsumes all others within its breathtaking sweep. Assuming we can successfully work our way through Crowley’s intimidating persona and sometimes baffling erudition, it’s the closest thing we have to a metaphysical “electron microscope” for rendering an unwieldy problem into its constituent elements in order to better analyze and understand their interplay. On top of that, it’s a bare-knuckles slugger rather than the charming apology for esoteric profundity that is the RWS. The best single-word descriptor for it is the one I used above: “visceral.”