The Thoth Tarot: A Follow-Up.

The Star, the Moon, and the Prince of Cups.

I first wrote about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot here, and considering the fact that this post is an example of one of my earliest entries on this blog, I’m actually still quite pleased with it (this is probably because I’d read Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot prior to writing the post, so for once I actually kind of knew what I was talking about).

The Thoth represents the third major “Tarot Tradition” – the classics that form the bedrock of my collection alongside the RWS and TdM. However, because the criteria for what fits the Thoth-pattern are comparatively nit-picky, I can’t really say that I have anything other than the Thoth itself in my collection that truly fits it.

I’m going to leave out all the parts that have to do with Mr. Crowley being an abominable character – you can go ahead and take that for granted. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me one bit, at least, not insofar as my appreciation for his cards and their companion text The Book of Thoth are concerned. They stand on their own merits, and these are actually quite compelling. Truthfully, I find the Thoth to be more powerful than either the RWS or the TdM, and that is a result of both Crowley’s intellectual genius and encyclopedic knowledge of all things esoteric (like him or not, he was what he was) and the downright mind-melting quality of the artwork, courtesy of Freida Harris (my abbreviation for this deck is CHT, by the way, for Crowley-Harris-Thoth).


First published in 1969 (after the deaths of both Crowley and Harris) the Thoth Tarot was born from a creative process that took five years, from 1938 to 1943. It is a treasure trove of occultism condensed into a neat deck of 78 very colorful cards. Like Waite and Smith, Crowley was a member of the Golden Dawn (and not a very popular one – his promotion through the ranks of the order was the cause of such contention that it was a major contributing factor to the order’s eventual dissolution), and the influence of their teachings is unashamedly blatant in the cards (as opposed to Waite’s comparatively veiled symbolism). The flamboyant Crowley obviously did not take his oaths as seriously as his fellows.

Aside from the astonishing artwork, the most visible change Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris made to the Tarot were some title changes to the Major Arcana. As I discussed in the above-linked post about the Thoth, this is largely an attempt to adapt his cards to the changing times (the Procession of the Equinoxes, to put it in astrology-speak) and usher in a new era, or aeon, for humankind, of which the Beast himself was supposedly the prophet (in a way, he did prefigure what we call today the New-Age movement, although new-agers tend to hold somewhat of a watered-down (to put it mildly) view of things compared to Crowley – although, really, who doesn’t). He maintained the astrological attributions that led Waite and the Golden Dawn to switch the order of Justice and Strength, but in the deck he reverted them back to their original numerical order (that is, Justice as 8 and Strength as 11). He did switch the Kabbalistic attributions for two cards from that which were held by the Golden Dawn, but again, he did not let this affect the numerical order of the cards. This switch is a subtle, below-the-surface change, but it is one of the defining characteristics of the Thoth, and is often one of the criteria that prevents a would-be Thoth derivative from truly fitting the Thoth pattern (because his Tarot is so overtly occult, a higher significance is placed on such attributions than it would be on, say, a RWS deck, meaning there is greater leeway in what counts as a RWS compared to what counts as a CHT). But I’ll discuss the change a little more in-depth later. For now, onto the more apparent differences.

It is, I should hardly have to say, a given that the visual design of each card is often very different from its precursors in the TdM tradition (although most of the original symbolism that defines each trump remains relatively intact).

I – The Juggler/Magician becomes the Magus
II – The Popess/High Priestess becomes simply the Priestess
V – retains the title of Hierophant (not really a change from the RWS, but it’s worth noting that the card did not revert to its TdM designation)
VI – retains the title of Lovers, although the imagery recalls the TdM much more closely than does Waite’s
VIII – Justice regains her original position and is renamed Adjustment
X – The Wheel of Fortune is simply called Fortune
XI – Force/Strength becomes Lust
XIV – Temperance becomes Art
XX – Judgement becomes the Aeon, and the imagery is radically changed (this is often the other major criteria that isn’t met with would-be CHT derivatives – the card is usually called the Aeon, but does not include the required image update)
XIX – The World becomes the Universe

Art with its new alchemical symbolism.

Some of these title changes seem to me to be simply based on Crowley’s preference, such as the Magus and the Priestess. Most of them, however, are the result of Crowley’s aforementioned “updates,” made in preparation for the new aeon. Contributing factors include alchemical and Kabbalistic correspondences, which were evidently not clear enough for Crowley in the more traditional models. These changes are fascinating, but I believe they each deserve their own posts (and someday when I’m further along in my study of The Book of Thoth, I’ll be sure to write them).

Now before I move on to the Minor Arcana, I’ll describe the Kabbalistic change mentioned earlier, as promised.

Each trump is assigned a Hebrew letter, which gives it Kabbalistic significance. The English schools of occultism place the letters in their proper order, beginning with the Fool as Aleph (this is different from the French schools, which start the sequence with the Juggler – who they never got around to renaming). This means that the Emperor receives Heh as his letter, and the Star receives Tzaddi as hers. Mr. Crowley, at the behest of his Holy Guardian Angel (a subject for yet another post – in the meantime, just suspend your disbelief as best you can), switched them.

I’ll admit, for a very long time, I neither understood nor cared about such esoteric minutae. It was only very recently that it started to make some semblance of sense to me. Mr. Crowley gives his own explanation in the book, but to me, it’s actually quite simple: Heh is the letter of the Divine Feminine element of the Tetragrammation – why on earth should this letter be assigned to the most masculine of the cards? The Star, on the other hand, seems a much better fit. This in and of itself might not mean much, but in the first few pages of the Book of Thoth, Crowley provides a nifty little diagram of the belt of the zodiac along with the Hebrew correspondences. Previously there was a loop around Virgo (the Hermit and the letter Yod) where Justice and Strength were placed, which left the circle unbalanced and led the Golden Dawn to switch the cards around. With Crowley’s new attributions, there is an additional loop around Pisces (the Moon and letter Qoph), on either side of which are placed Aries (the Emperor) and Aquarius (the Star). It brings a pleasing symmetry back to the belt (and, might I add, draws new attention to the connection between the Hermit and the Moon, which delights me but otherwise seems unimportant). The cards can be left in their traditional Marseille order, and these loops just implied.

This is all a bit on the technical side, I suppose, but it is an important part of what sets the Thoth Tarot apart from the rest.


Anyways. On to the Minor Arcana.

The small cards are basically just jazzed-up versions of pips, with stylized suit symbols set in vibrantly symbolic color and geometric schemes and adorned with the appropriate astrological signs. They did get suggestive titles (these based on the Golden Dawn’s titles), such as “Peace” (Two of Swords) and “Ruin” (Ten of Swords). Like Waite, Crowley opted to change the name of the suit of Coins, calling them Disks. Wands, Cups and Swords are still Wands, Cups and Swords.

The court cards are where things really get interesting again (and confusing, so bear with me). Instead of the traditional King, Queen, Knight, and Page, what we have here are the Knight (elemental equivalent of the King, but, as Duquette put it, much sexier on his horse and therefore better suited to seduce his Queen*), Queen on her throne, Prince (elemental equivalent of the traditional Knight) in his chariot, and Princess (equivalent of the Page). These elemental equivalencies are again based on the Golden Dawn, and are actually also reflected in the RWS, although Waite chose to keep the traditional titles derived from the TdM. This will be the subject of yet another post, I think, so suffice it to say that, in the CHT, Knights=Kings and Princes=Knights, and yes, it is a headache.

The King of Wands from the Radiant RWS and the Knight of Wands from the Thoth. Despite all appearances to the contrary, these two are essentially the same card.

So, I think that might be it for the basic pattern of the Thoth Tarot. In some ways, this is the most radical departure from the tradition of the Marseille Tarots yet; in others, though, the Thoth remains truer to the tradition than the Rider does (especially in the order of the Major Arcana and the small cards reminiscent of pips). Again, I really don’t have any Thoth clones in my collection. The closest thing is probably the Sun and Moon Tarot by Vanessa Decort or the Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson, although these cards fail to meet both of the aforementioned criteria (that is, Tzaddi as the Emperor and the redefined imagery for the Aeon).

Because this deck is such a distinctive powerhouse in the world of Tarot, I think I’ll slowly chip away at it with a post for each card (which will undoubtedly take an extremely long time to accomplish, so let it be said now that I’m not going to try to rush myself through it).


*DuQuette, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, chapter 11.

How about that? Only one footnote in this one (of course, I did make quite liberal use of the parenthetical this time around – what can I say? I love me a good digression. Thanks for reading).


The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.

Three trumps from the original Rider pack.

Having discussed the Marseilles Tarots in a previous post, I will now move on to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (abbreviated RWS).* My personal collection contains more of these than any other type of Tarot.

Unlike the Marseilles, which in its time saw numerous variations of the same basic template, the Rider was a unique deck of cards for many years. It is considered among the “traditions” alongside the TdM now though, because several decades following its publication (starting roughly in the 1970s), it inspired countless knock-offs, “clones,” and derivatives. Today it is the most recognizable pattern in the world, with hundreds upon hundreds of “original” decks based on it.


Arthur Edward Waite was a one-time member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as a prolific scholar on occultism. The RWS is the result of his efforts to produce a “rectified” pack of cards.**

Pamela Coleman Smith was a talented artist and also a member of the Golden Dawn. She was commissioned by Waite to help realize his vision for the new Tarot.

Once completed, the cards were first published in 1909 by the Rider company in London, hence the “Rider-Waite-Smith” designation. The same company published Waite’s companion text to the cards, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the following year.


There are two main reasons why this deck was so revolutionary for its time. The first was the publication of the Pictorial Key. This was the first time the creator of a Tarot deck published a companion text for his cards. Wild speculations surrounded the Marseille Tarot, and until modern historical research came into play, no one could prove or disprove any of it. In the 1790s, who could deny Court de Gebelin’s claim that the Tarot descended from the Egyptian High Priests? There was no book from the designer to explain what was meant by the cards or what inspired them. Hell, there wasn’t even a single designer who could lay claim to the cards’ creation.

The Marseille Tarot is just a deck of playing cards at the end of the day. The Rider Tarot, by contrast, is not. We know what the creator intended them to represent, because he wrote a book about it.***

The second thing that sets this deck apart from its predecessors is Smith’s illustrated Minor Arcana. Instead of the simple pips that grace the TdM, she designed scenic interpretations of all 40 small cards. This is an artistic feat in itself, and is all the more impressive considering it was virtually unheard of at the time.****

These scenes are supposed to depict the meanings of the cards as they are used in divination, based on sources such as Etteilla and the Golden Dawn’s occult correspondences. There are criticisms about the validity or accuracy of these pictures, but that is a subject for a different post.*****

Cards from the suit of Swords, from the Radiant Rider-Waite. Easily the most distressing cards in the Minor Arcana.

Today, the Rider Tarot surpasses the TdM as the most widely copied template for Tarot decks. The most obvious indication that a deck is a RWS or one of its derivatives is the illustrated Minor Arcana. Just because a Tarot has an illustrated Minor Arcana does not mean it’s an RWS, although odds are it was at least inspired in part by it. Smith’s drawings are fairly distinctive. Her version of the Ten of Swords, for example, depicts a man dead and facedown on the ground with ten swords plunged into his back. A deck inspired by the Rider will stay more or less consistent with Smith’s work, although the style may reflect a particular artist or theme. The Rider pack shows an idealized medieval world. A Rider derivative with a cat theme (which does exist) would show similar scenery and circumstances, except instead of people in tunics and armor and funny hats, there would be cats (having not seen these Cat Tarots except on the shelf at the store, I can’t attest to whether or not the Ten of Swords is as violent as Smith’s depiction. I’d wager that it probably isn’t). Some RWS derivatives are more clever in their interpretations of Smith’s work than others.

The suits are the same as the traditional Italian with the exception of Coins, which Waite opted to rename “Pentacles” to reflect his occult leanings. The Pentacles are, of course, still coins, except each is inscribed with a pentagram instead of the trefoil or fleur-de-lis  designs found on the TdM Coins. The court cards are essentially the same as the TdM, as well, except of course for Smith’s art in place of the woodblock prints.

While the Minor Arcana is more wildly different than that of the Marseille with its pips, Waite did dictate some significant changes to the Major Arcana, as well. Many of these changes actually had their basis in the Golden Dawn’s Tarot. What almost certainly started as a Tarot based on the TdM was redesigned to accommodate their occult correspondences, but it was the RWS that brought these changes to the mainstream:

I – the Juggler was renamed and redesigned as the Magician

II – the Popess was renamed the High Priestess

V – the Pope was renamed the Hierophant

VI – the Lover became the Lovers and was drastically redesigned

VIII – Fortitude was renamed Strength

XI – Justice swapped places with Strength

The Universal Waite and the CBD TdM.

Above are the most noticeable changes Waite made, although each card of the Major Arcana was adjusted from the TdM (some more than others). Furthermore, they were designed with specific occult doctrines in mind, and this informed much of the artistic liberties taken with the Rider Tarot. In the TdM, the Chariot is just that – a chariot drawn by a pair of horses and driven by a crowned warrior wielding a scepter. In the RWS, the Chariot is drawn by a pair of sphinxes, one black and one white, and the charioteer is adorned with all manner of symbolic accoutrements, from his head to his waist.

It is important to understand that the Rider Tarot didn’t just appear from the ether. It, like the TdM before it, was the culmination of many, many years of artistic tradition. And, unlike the TdM, it was also the culmination of many, many years of occult tradition, as well. Once de Gebelin and Etteilla opened their can of worms, the Tarot and the occult would forever be intertwined, like the snakes around the caduceus. Integral to the design of the RWS is the (often veiled) Kabbalistic, astrological, and alchemical symbolism of the Golden Dawn, as well as motifs culled from Waite’s personal fascination with Christian mysticism and the Grail Legends. Much of this goes unnoticed by the modern novice fortune-teller, but it’s all there.

To the trained eye, the French and Italian roots are still discernible in the RWS, but by 1910 the Tarot had taken on a life of its own. After 1910, the Tarot would branch out even more. Just do a google search on the Tarot, and you’ll see what I mean. No longer confined to the stuffy lodges of occult secret societies or the gambling tables of smoky taverns, the Tarot is now a worldwide popular phenomenon, and this is largely thanks to Waite, Smith, and the Rider company of London (although as a stuffy member of some of those stuffy lodges, it’s unlikely that Waite ever foresaw his esoteric Tarot exploding into popular culture like it did).


In conclusion, a Tarot is of the RWS pattern if it meets all or most of these criteria: illustrated small cards (especially if the illustrations are directly inspired by Smith’s work), Pentacles instead of Coins, Strength as 8 and Justice as 11, and the Magician instead of the Juggler (as well as the other trumps having less of a Renaissance morality drama vibe and more of a secret Hermetic society vibe).

The Mystical Tarot by Giuliano Costa is one of my absolute favorite RWS derivatives. Compare the Wheel of Fortune here (far left) with Smith’s Wheel of Fortune at the top of this post. Costa’s art is a stunning tribute to the original.

*Besides Rider-Waite-Smith, these cards are also often called Smith-Waite, Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite, or simply Rider (or, less often, simply Waite or Smith). I prefer either the full RWS or just Rider.

**Waite was not even remotely the first to rectify the symbolism of the Tarot, although he was probably the most successful in creating a lasting change in the popular imagination.

***The Pictorial Key is anything but clear – in many instances, Waite deliberately obscured the truth behind his designs. This is somewhat understandable, however, when one considers the oaths of secrecy required by organizations such as the Golden Dawn. His book nonetheless exists, which was a novelty for its time, and can still be pointed to as evidence for Waite’s intentions.

****There does exist a very early Tarot called the Sola Busca, which also has illustrated small cards. In fact, a handful of them appear to have been a direct inspiration for Smith, a connection which seems all the more plausible when one considers that the Sola Busca was on display at a museum in London while Smith and Waite were working on the cards. The Sola Busca remains, however, an anomaly and a curiosity relegated to the fringes of the Tarot world. While Smith almost certainly drew inspiration from these very strange cards, she still revolutionized the Tarot with her illustrations. It is, after all, the RWS, and not the Sola Busca, that is ingrained in the popular imagination.

*****The Rider deserves at least an entire post of its own detailing its actual occult background – and perhaps some more in-depth biographical info about its creators – but as this is meant to be a post about the pattern which is the basis of many other decks having little or nothing to do with said background, I figured I’d better wait (no pun intended) for such a lengthy digression. Footnotes abound as it is.

The Tarot de Marseille.

Facsimiles of assorted Marseille Tarot trumps by Nicholas Conver, designs circa 1790s.

I mentioned in a recent post that I intend on re-reviewing the Tarot decks in my collection. I would like to do each deck on an individual basis, but before I embark on this undertaking, I think it would be appropriate to first discuss a couple “patterns” of decks. These are considered by most to represent the mainstream traditions of Tarot cards, and my collection contains a few examples of each.

In a nutshell, I want to talk a bit about these traditions before delving into specific versions, which will serve the dual purpose of covering what might otherwise be redundant information in each review, as well as glossing over some basics that I think everyone who has more than a passing interest in the Tarot should know.

To begin, I’ll chat about the Marseille Tarots, but first, I’ll rewind a touch and set the stage for them by briefly mentioning Tarot as it existed previously.

The first decks of cards that can accurately be called “Tarots” first appeared in Italy sometime in the 1400s, ostensibly derived from simpler packs of playing cards with four suits. Historical records suggest that, like their ancestors, these were intended for gaming, although the allegorical images which graced the trumps may certainly have held some kind of deeper significance, educational, commemorative, religious or otherwise.* These cards (at least, those which have survived to the present) are quite lavish and were commissioned by nobles.

A reproduction of some early Tarot cards, showing the Fool, Knight of Coins, and Three of Wands (from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot).


Among these early packs, there appears to have been a general consensus about the structure, although differences abound. For example, the number and order of the trumps, as well as their pictorial content, was not constant, nor even was the number of the court cards. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that a more or less standard pattern emerged.

This standardization was the result of two things: one, the printing press had made mass production possible – and perhaps more importantly, economically preferable – and cards for the laity produced by woodcuts with colored stencils became the norm. Two, for some reason or another, the French city of Marseille became the center of production for Tarot cards (although there were certainly packs being produced elsewhere).

The Marseille Tarot (or TdM, as I like to abbreviate them on this blog, for Tarot de Marseille) thus emerged as the standard pattern which persists even to this day. There are several variations of the basic Marseilles template. Each master card maker had his own particular rendition, but the only real differences between them are in the minute details.


The TdM occupies a vital place in the history of the Tarot. On one hand, it represents the culmination of a couple centuries of artistic evolution; on the other, it represents the point of departure for future development of the Tarot.

It was Marseille cards that, in the mid-to-late 1700s, were in the hands of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla, and which served to inspire them in their occult theorizing and pseudo-historical pontificating about the Tarot’s supposed origins. All of the Tarots subsequently designed are therefore derived from the TdM. It is, in the words of the late Yoav Ben-Dov, “accepted … as the genuine model of the traditional cards.”**


There are several features which are characteristic of Marseille cards. Perhaps most obviously in this post-RWS day and age are the Minor Arcana (that is, the suits of the small cards), which are illustrated only with pips, or symbols of the suits. The Ten of Coins, for example, features ten coins and some decorative foliage, and nothing else. They are rather plain and clearly reminiscent of their precursors in regular playing cards. The suit symbols themselves are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins. These symbols are the Italian versions of the suits, a reminder of their peninsular origins. Other countries have since developed their own suit symbols (the French symbols being most common in playing cards today, especially in America), but the Marseille Tarots have always maintained the Italian.

French, Italian, and German suit signs.

The artistic style of the TdM is also instantly recognizable. As previously mentioned, the cards were produced by woodcuts, with heavy black lines and lots of white space, and the color palate was relatively limited. Red, yellow, blue, green and a fleshy-pink tone are usually all there is. To modern sensibilities, the TdM may appear simplistic, even somewhat crude, but is no less beautiful for it. Even TdM-based cards produced today tend to maintain this aesthetic.

There are four court or face cards in each suit (16 altogether), and these are designated Page, Knight, Queen and King. Pages are pictured standing, Knights on horseback, and Queens and Kings seated on thrones. Each holds the emblem of his or her suit (except the Knight of Coins, which usually depicts the Coin floating over his head, while he holds some sort of cudgel).

Various court cards from the Conver-Ben-Dov TdM and their respective counterparts in modern playing cards.

The Major Arcana, or the extra suit of trumps, numbers 22. These are numbered and titled as follows:

I – The Juggler
II – The Popess
III – The Empress
IIII – The Emperor
V – The Pope
VI – The Lover
VII – The Chariot
VIII – Justice
VIIII – The Hermit
X – The Wheel of Fortune
XI – Fortitude or Force
XII – The Hanged Man
XIII – (Untitled)
XIIII – Temperance
XV – The Devil
XVI – The Tower
XVII – The Star
XVIII – The Moon
XVIIII – The Sun
XX – The Last Judgement
XXI – The World
(Unnumbered) – The Fool

(This is all certainly common knowledge for most readers of my blog, but I want to be thorough)

Card XIII from the Universal Tarot of Marseille.

Two cards in particular stand out in the Marseille tradition: The Fool, because it is without a numerical designation (in the TdM, the Fool is not labeled “0” as it is in other packs), and card XIII, because it is without a title (it is usually called “Death” in other packs).

All of these figures are clearly derived from earlier models, especially the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (which is the oldest extant deck of cards that can be dated with certainty). There are, however, subtle differences in much of the imagery, and the Visconti cards had neither titles or numbers.*** Though it was antiquated by the 1700s, this imagery was current when the Tarot first appeared, and like the suit signs, is left over from its early days as a courtly pastime during the Italian Renaissance. Though it seemed strange and otherworldly to the occultists who inherited the Tarot tradition (and indeed, still does today), there is really nothing out of the ordinary given its historical context.****

The total number of cards in a Marseille-pattern Tarot is thus 78, and it is a rare pack indeed that was produced afterward with a different number. It is the structure (four small suits and one trump suit) with its characteristic imagery combined with a distinctive artistic style that defines a Marseille-pattern Tarot. As the progenitor of “modern” packs, it should come as no surprise that much which makes a Marseille is also inherent in other, less traditional packs. It is usually the artwork and the order/names of the trumps, therefore, that sets the TdM apart from other packs which are otherwise structured the same.


That, I think, is it for my general overview of the Tarot de Marseille. A lot of the information presented here was already covered in various posts found here, but again, I want to be as thorough as possible. The next mainstream Tarot tradition that I will cover will be the Rider-Waite-Smith.

Stay tuned.



*Such significance, however tempting it may be to suggest otherwise, is entirely speculative.

**Ben-Dov, Tarot: The Open Reading, page 18.

***Not to mention, the Visconti is also missing two of its trumps: the Devil and the Tower. This is almost certainly the result of loss or destruction since the 1400s, rather than a deliberate omission, although who really knows.

****There are a couple of exceptions, however. Particularly perplexing are the Popess (a position which never existed in the church) and the Hanged Man.

New Beginnings.

Before I commence with any new reviews, I think I’ll provide a bit of backstory. Aside from the tenuous internet connection and business I mentioned yesterday, I also began with a rather hefty undertaking, and subsequently back-pedaled a bit.

You see, about the same time as I was experiencing the severe self-doubt mentioned previously, I was planning a move, and was faced with the fact that it would be very, very impractical to move my entire library.

All of my other beloved books aside, this means that I will need to cull my selection of Tarot books. After much deliberation, I decided on bringing a handful of the more esoteric books in my possession, figuring that, if I only have (let’s say) five books to read for (let’s say) a year, these five books had better keep me occupied for the duration. What better than the incredibly dense stuff? You know, the sort of book that contains within each chapter (in some cases, each paragraph) material requiring a week’s worth of pondering and meditation to digest.

Ok, I might be exaggerating, but perhaps not as much as you’d think. In any case, three books in particular came to mind: the anonymously composed Meditations on the Tarot, Oswald Wirth’s The Tarot of the Magicians, and Mr. Crowley’s Book of Thoth.* The latter two are (to my mind) representative of the French and English schools of Tarot-related occultism, respectively, and the Meditations are, well, something else entirely.**

As I was putting myself back together in the wake of my aforementioned little breakdown, I decided that there is no better time than the present to begin reading the heavy stuff, despite the fact that the move is still a couple months off.

So I picked up the Book of Thoth and began reading.

And what a book it is. in the following week or so, I read and re-read all the sections that make up “Part One: The Theory of the Tarot.” I even understood some of it. It was a rewarding experience in itself, but it left me pondering some grander things that Crowley took for granted. I decided to search my library for what other resources I had on, in particular, the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. As such an integral part of Crowley’s brand of occultism, I figured I ought to get to know it a little better. It’s a subject I’ve always found too daunting up until now.

First I read the relevant material (and a little more besides) from Duquette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. Fascinating and informative, as usual. Then I decided to read Magic: An Occult Primer by David Conway. This book has little (nothing, really, aside from two mentions and a footnote) to say about the Tarot. As a primer, it only glosses over much of the theory that I was interested in, although it was nonetheless very informative. Magic is, above all else, a guide for those who aspire to be practicing ritual magicians.

Well, I figured, maybe that is for me, after all, but it’s something of a digression from my original intent in reading these things. At any rate, interesting though it all is, I don’t have the time, space, or resources to put into the undertaking of ceremonial magic as set forth by Conway.

I have yet another book that briefly discusses the Tree of Life, and this one is also in the context of both the Tarot and ritual magic.*** Portable Magic by Donald Tyson is hence what I am currently reading (as of this writing, I’m about halfway through it).

So that’s where I’m at right now. In the coming weeks, I plan on working with some of the exercises set forth in both Tyson’s and Conway’s books to train my mind for a more active approach to magic and the Tarot. Once I’ve finished with Portable Magic and worked with its methods a bit, I will review it here.

I will then get to work again on the Book of Thoth.

So, again, if it takes a while for me to write about my progress in my occult Tarot studies, this is why. Well, this, my busy schedule, and my irregular internet connection.

Happy studies!



*In addition to the above-mentioned three, I also chose Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, because it is both a fascinating and comparatively reliable history as well as a thorough manual for Tarot cartomancy, and Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero because it is a wonderful study on the more mythical aspects of the Major Arcana, which is a subject near and dear to my heart. Both of these books are fairly dense themselves, but compared to Crowley, Wirth, and the Dear Unknown Friend, they are leisurely strolls in the park.

**I’m still unsure how to characterize this book, because in the years I’ve owned it, I’ve only read the first chapter. I’ve re-read it again once or twice, but have not yet moved on. Suffice it to say it is a deeply religious and mystical text. Not exactly light reading.

***There are several other books in my Tarot library that touch on the Tree of Life, but I do hope to move on with the Book of Thoth sooner rather than later.


Technically, all Tarot divination falls under the umbrella term “cartomancy,” which refers to divination or fortune-telling with playing cards. According to wikipedia, Tarot reading is actually the most common form of cartomancy today, at least in the English-speaking world. But throughout history, and in other parts of the world, it was/is as common or even more so to use regular playing cards for these purposes.

When I hear the word “cartomancy,” I picture regular playing cards with French suits (that is, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs/Trefoils, and Spades). It’s kind of odd if you think about it, since Tarot is what I do. But long before I was aware of the existence of the Tarot cards, I was familiar with the concept of cartomancy, and so naturally the word is associated in my mind with the only sort of playing cards I knew about at the time. Not that I could perform any kind of cartomancy in those days. But the possibility of reading playing cards always intrigued me, and even as a youth I would sometimes flip through my deck of Bicycle cards, my imagination running wild while I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me, if only I knew how to decipher them.


The strange thing is, I almost never participate in card games. I know the basic rules to games like Blackjack and Poker, and I’m usually fairly quick to pick up on trick-taking games if I play along. I’ll play solitaire on the computer at work if I get bored enough, and I know a few card-based drinking games from my college days.

But when asked to play a card game, with our without alcohol, my initial instinct is to decline. I honestly don’t know why, aside from general social anxiety. I’ve always been fascinated with cards, yet never really cared to play games with them (not that I wouldn’t have fun when I did). Once I started learning to read Tarot, my inexplicable attraction to cards began to make a little more sense. They’re not a game at all, but a book to be read, and that’s what I liked about them.


So I learned to read the Tarot cards. It took me some time, but I think, all things considered, I learned fairly quickly. I learned first with the help of the illustrated pips from the RWS, but eventually I internalized enough of the essence of each card that I could read the simple TdM pips as well. I struck me one day that I could therefore read regular playing cards, too.

This was when I honestly felt like a “cartomancer” for the first time, even though I’d been practicing cartomancy all along. Because of my longtime association of the word with the French suits, I tend to consider “cartomancy” in narrower terms than it’s actually defined (hence my use of the word to designate “traditional” methods of fortune-telling, best suited for TdM-type decks, in this post).

There are many traditional methods of cartomancy with standard cards. I don’t know any of them. When I read playing cards, I’m pulling from the Tarot for my interpretations. Of course, reading from the 52-card deck isn’t exactly the same as reading from the 78-card Tarot. But I’ll discuss that next time.



Relating to the Tarot: Patrons.


I didn’t come up with the idea of Tarot patrons. It’s an idea that is significantly less widespread than significators (at least, as far as I can tell), although I think they go hand-in-hand when it comes to identifying on a more personal level with your cards. The first place I came across it was a on fellow Tarot blog. Since reading about it there, though, the patron has become an essential component of how I understand the cards and my relation to them, which is why I recommended my friends select their own patrons as a follow-up to the selection of their significators.

While the significator was an exercise aimed specifically at getting familiar with the court cards, the patron is all about the Major Arcana.* In many respects, the patron and the significator are very similar. If nothing else, you should identify with them both. But there is a difference. The difference between a significator and a patron is essentially that of the Courts versus the Majors: the former represents actual people, while the latter represents something altogether higher.

I like to think of it like this:

The Tarot, as I have stressed before, is akin to a book. More particularly, a book containing myths, such as Hesiod’s Theogony or Snorri’s Edda. If the Tarot is the story, the significator is the hero archetype, or the protagonist. His or her divine beneficiary would then be the Tarot patron. Thus we have gods and heroes, the characters of our very own personal myths and legends.

For example, during the seige of Troy, Menelaus at one point challenged Paris to a duel. Paris engaged and was ultimately bested. At the last moment, however, Paris was saved when he was shrouded in mist and teleported to safety by Aphrodite. If Paris chose for his significator the Page of Cups, Aphrodite would be his patron (or matron, as the case may be), and she’d probably be the Empress.**

You don’t have to believe in any god to participate in the patron exercise. In this case, consider “god” a metaphor to represent whatever it is you consider an ideal. The patron is a guiding voice, something you strive to emulate. In particular, the patron should express your relationship with the Tarot, although it certainly does not have to be limited to that.


So, how should you go about selecting the patron? If you know anything about the cards and their meanings, then you should be able to select the card or cards which best illustrate your worldview with little difficulty (or, perhaps, a lot of difficulty, depending on how sure of yourself you are). But these posts are aimed at the beginner, so I’ll suggest this approach: which one do you like the best? Which picture strikes you? Everyone has a favorite, and in my experience, a person’s favorite Major and their “patron” often turn out to be one and the same.

For example, my patron is the Hermit, which should come as no surprise to any regular reader of this blog. Not only did the Hermit introduce me to the Tarot, but he represents my approach to the cards, and indeed, much of my spiritual philosophy.

You should pick one card for your patron. Having made that decision, though, I think there is nothing wrong with going back and selecting others as you see fit. The Hermit is my patron, and would be my only patron if I were to select only one. But a more complete understanding of my relationship with the cards requires at least one more: the Magician. I can continue with more, but at the end of the day, it is these two figures that I think best defines my relationship with the Tarot.


Now, there is something to be said about the Major Arcana as a sequence. Regardless of which card is your patron, it is imperative to incorporate them all into your worldview. The patron serves only to introduce us to the pantheon. He or she may look upon us in favor, and so we would naturally be inclined towards that figure. But they are all an aspect of a greater whole, and that includes your patron as much as it does your least favorite card. In fact, your least favorite card can suggest as much about you as does your favorite, but that’s a subject for another time.


Perhaps the idea of the patron is not as well-known as the significator because the concept it represents is a bit more abstract. I hope I did a satisfactory job of explaining what a patron card should represent. Once you’ve selected both your significators and your patrons, you should begin to have a handle on how you personally connect with your cards. As I said in the previous post, these exercises are not meant for getting better at using the cards. In fact, while the significator can be used in divination, the patron has almost nothing to do with the actual practice. It’s an idea, something to hold in the back of your mind while you are divining. As Jack of Wands asks in his blog post I linked above: “Under whose auspices do you read Tarot?” It is a question worth asking of anyone who uses the cards, I think, and it is in that spirit that I pose this exercise.

My Patrons and my Significators.


*Technically, you could use a Major Arcana as your significator. I’ve done it before. But just for fun, let’s try and stay within the parameters I’ve set for these exercises, at least for now.

**Paul Huson’s DFW Tarot assigns famous names from antiquity to the court cards based on popular renaissance attributions. The Page of Cups is Paris, according to his sources, hence my assumption that he might select this card as his significator. The Empress-Aphrodite correlation needs no further explanation, I hope.

Relating to the Tarot: Significators.


This post is, in a sense, a continuation of the series of posts for the Tarot beginner I’ve called the “Basics“, the most recent of which deals with getting started using the cards (it’s really just a dip of the toes in the shallow end, but you gotta start somewhere, and there’s only so much objective advice I can give; click here to read it).

Learning all 78 cards of the Tarot when you are a complete novice can seem a daunting task, and I believe that finding ways to personally relate with your cards will, if not alleviate the challenge, at least make it more immediately interesting.

When I succeeded in introducing my friends and fellow Council members to the Tarot, I devised two (not remotely original) exercises to help them identify personally with their cards (and to help me know who I’m looking at when they turn up in my own readings). These exercises are not necessarily designed to help anyone learn divinatory meanings or anything like that. They are designed rather to connect the reader with his or her cards while simultaneously allowing for the opportunity to see how that person views him or herself. I like to think of it as giving the deck an opportunity to “learn” about who you are while you learn about it. The first of these exercises is to select your significators.


Now, I’ve already written at least two posts that center around the idea of significators, so I don’t think I really need to go too in-depth here with explanations about what a significator is or how it might be used in a reading. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a significator, click here for an introduction, and here for a little context on how I like to use them for divining.

This exercise deals only with Court cards, so separate these from your deck before continuing. Because the Court is often the most difficult part of the Tarot to understand, I think doing this exercise first out of the two has the added benefit of getting familiar with them early on.

The essence of the exercise is simple enough to explain: select any and all of the court cards that you feel you identify with.

It is, of course, a little more complex than that in practice, because there are many ways of choosing which cards you identify with. The simplest and most straightforward of these is simple intuition and aesthetics. What cards just strike you? Which ones look most appealing to you? You can pick significators in this fashion with absolutely zero other knowledge of the cards.

Another very popular method is selecting your significator based on its zodiacal attributions, and while I think this method is perfectly valid (and indeed, is how I came to choose the Knight of Cups as one of my own), it requires a bit of knowledge or study on the part of the chooser. There are also divergent ways of assigning astrological correspondences with the Tarot, which adds another layer of confusion to the mix. The methods of the Golden Dawn are probably the most prevalent, and they are the ones that I use.

Aside from astrology and aesthetics, there are many other ways to choose. I highly recommend Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary Greer and Tom Little as a starting point. Among other things, this book elaborates on MBTI personalities associated with each card, career types, elemental dignities, and the admittedly outdated physical characteristics traditionally attributed to them. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they’re all valid. Whatever makes most sense to you is what I’d recommend you go with.

However you feel compelled to continue, choose at least one card to represent yourself. I suggest considering what sorts of issues you can imagine approaching the Tarot with, and come up with a separate significator for each of them (work, relationships, spirituality, etc.).

Once you’ve selected as many significators as you feel is apt, take some time to consider why you picked these cards, what roles they fulfill, and how they might relate to each other; consider the ways in which you are these characters.

For example, when I choose a significator, I almost always choose a knight for rank and either pentacles or cups for suit.* Occasionally, I’ll choose wands or a page or king; it is very rare that I choose a queen, and rarer still that I choose from among the suit of swords. There are many conclusions that can be drawn about my character and my perceptions about both myself and the world around me based only on this information.


If you follow any Tarot forums or other Tarot blogs, there is a very good chance you’ve not heard many positive opinions on the significator. This drives me up a wall, because I consciously try not to totally trash ideas that I don’t agree with when it comes to the Tarot, and it bothers me (though it doesn’t surprise me) that so many people do not do the same. Tarot is an incredibly open-ended method of fortune-telling (or whatever else you might do with it), and no two people approach it in the same way – there is no wrong way. There are, however, a lot of people lurking out there in cyberspace who would like you to think they know everything there is to know, and that there is a wrong way – namely, any way that doesn’t match theirs. Don’t fall for it. Do it your own way, and the first suggestion I have for you in that vein is to try any suggestion you are offered while you are still learning what works for you.

It is true that the significator is not an essential component of divination – the success or failure of the spread should not depend on whether or not you’ve specified to the cards ahead of time which one of them represents you.** With that being said, though, many spreads exist that require or at least suggest the use of a significator, and I see no reason not to comply in those instances. What harm is there in that? (there are arguments that there are problems with it, but I’ve found these problems to be of negligible consequence to the validity of a reading)

But all this back and forth among the online Tarot community about the use of the significator in divination is missing the point, I think. If you don’t think it’s necessary to use a significator while reading a spread, by all means, don’t use one. But, if you are reading this post, and you are a complete Tarot newbie, I urge you to at least try this exercise. It is a very useful way to begin building a more personal relationship with your cards. Even if you’re not new to the Tarot, it’s a good way to get to know the court cards in a new deck, or even an old one if the courts give you trouble. This post is not necessarily an exercise to determine how you will read from now on; it’s rather an exercise in the theory of significators and how they might apply to your readings. Whether or not you continue to use them after choosing them is entirely up to you.

Yes, I know these cards are not the same thing. I use them both.

Given what I’ve written about the subject of significators in the past (linked above), this post might be a little redundant in places. However, I think the next post about Tarot familiarization exercises (the Tarot Patron) will make a bit more sense with this one to build on.


*I should say “at the time of this writing,” because my suit and rank affiliations are liable to change, as are anyone else’s. As a pentacles sort of man, though, I think it’s safe to say that any changes in this area are going to be a very long time in coming. The point of this footnote, though, is that you should not feel constrained to whatever significators you choose. Nothing is permanent, least of all in the fluid world of Tarot-reading.

**Or the querent, if you’re reading for someone else. Having the querent select a significator, even if he or she has no knowledge of Tarot, can be handy because it gives you a bit of insight into them before the reading has even really started.