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
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.
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).