Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo Duquette sets out to help the reader do exactly as the title says, and it does it well. Certainly, I continue to learn more about the Thoth every time I take it out to use, but prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing, and can’t imagine how else I might have progressed. I could see from the outset that this was an especially complex pack of cards, but beyond that my eyes were closed. This book opened them to a whole new world.
My first introduction to the Golden Dawn brand of the occult was in a book called Portable Magic, which I’ll write about in more depth at some other time. It was an excellent introduction, looking back, providing me with a base familiarization of Kabbalah and astrology. These are vital subjects to know if you plan on delving seriously into the world of the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based Tarot. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (henceforth abbreviated UACTT) examines these things and more, in far greater detail, while still remaining perfectly accessible to a novice. While Portable Magic made a fine primer, it wasn’t until I read UACTT that I could honestly say I began to comprehend the occult Tarot.
Of course, Mr. Crowley’s Tarot isn’t precisely the same as the Golden Dawn’s, but as a one-time member, he certainly derived much of his Tarot from their template. To understand his version of the occult, you must first understand theirs. DuQuette’s book addresses this, and is split into two parts: an introduction aptly titled “Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning to Study Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot”, which takes up about a third of the book, followed by “The Cards”, which is, obviously enough, about the actual deck.
In the first part, we learn about Mr. Crowley the person, the Golden Dawn, Lady Frieda Harris and the nature of her work on the cards, Crowley’s notions about the “Aeon”, the Rose Cross on the card backs and all its secrets, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, color symbolism, and the “Holy Guardian Angel” that each of us has according to the teachings of Mathers and the Golden Dawn. All of this is essential background information, required if one hopes to really understand the Thoth Tarot as its creator intended it (don’t try to take it all in at once and hope to internalize it, though. Multiple readings are recommended). I was exposed to so much occult stuff at once while reading these pages for the first time that I thought my face might melt off. It is well written, conversational, entertaining, and incredibly informative. Interspersed throughout are quotes from Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris, some of which are quite entertaining themselves. The author, who is clearly very knowledgeable, makes light of a rather heavy and confusing subject, and he attempts to dispel common misgivings about Crowley, the occult, and the Thoth Tarot as he goes, although whether or not he did a good job there I couldn’t say, as I really had no misgivings myself when I approached the deck.
Before dealing with the cards proper, DuQuette starts the second part with a discussion of general Tarot structure, followed by the astrological and Kabbalistic attributions of the Major Arcana, highlighting the differences between the Thoth and the Golden Dawn model. Each Major Arcana card is then examined in fair detail (about two or three pages per card).
Then we are introduced to the Minor Arcana, and the four Aces are explained, followed by the Court Cards, and then the small cards, complete with convenient charts for astrological correspondences. Every single card, Major and Minor, is prefaced with its Golden Dawn title, any relevant astrology, a brief description of the original Golden Dawn card, any relevant Kabbalah, colors used, and a quote, all laid out for quick reference.
After the chapters about the cards, we get a run-through of Mr. Crowley’s method of divination, and a list of all the cards in the pack alongside their intended divinatory meanings. The final chapter is a glossary of Thelemic and Tarot terms.
Not only did I learn (a lot) from UACTT, it was fun to read. DuQuette writes with a sense of humor, and that’s very refreshing, particularly when reading about a subject as dense as this. Another thing about this book that I appreciate is, despite its thickness, it has very convenient lists and charts of anything you might need in a pinch. UACTT combines the joy of reading a good long book with the ease of use of a simple guide (well, you’ll still have to flip through many pages to find the “convenient” stuff, as they are not all in one place, but I think it’s worth the trade-off).
Now, if one really wants the authentic Thoth Tarot experience, he or she needs to acquire a copy of the Book of Thoth, which is the official companion to the cards, penned by Mr. Crowley himself. This book, however, is anything but accessible to the average reader. UACTT works as a middle man, if you will, between the student of the Thoth Tarot and its infamous creator. I would very strongly recommend this book as a prerequisite to Crowley’s own, unless you’ve got very big intellectual britches.