My Tarot library includes three books about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (CHT). One of these is Crowley’s own Book of Thoth. The second, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, the subject of this recent review, is a phenomenal study of the cards and their occult workings, and makes a wonderful companion to the intimidating Book of Thoth. It aids significantly in the understanding of both the cards and the book as their creator intended them to be understood. The third is called Tarot: Mirror of the Soul, by Gerd Ziegler, and it is a different sort of book than both the BoT and the considerably more approachable UACTT.
I suspect Mr. Crowley would be very displeased with this book; I, however, really like it, and I’ve found it to be a welcome alternative to the theory-laden books above.
The way I see it, there are probably two sorts of folks who would benefit from this book. The first are the people who would like to work with the CHT, but who are neither interested in the complex occult mambo-jumbo underlying it or the devious man who created it. This book shows that the CHT can work as well as any other Tarot for divination, meditation, or otherwise. Tarot is Tarot is Tarot, and its tough to deny the power of the artwork of this particular one. I can totally understand wanting to use this deck without getting bogged down in the esoteric jargon. At the end of the day, none of that stuff really matters.
The second is the category into which I fall: the occult is fascinating, Crowley’s brand of it is intriguing, and the cards really do mean so much more when you get that stuff, regardless of what I say above. But this is dense subject matter, and sometimes, I just want a break. Sometimes, I’m in the mood to use the CHT, but not in the mood to decipher the Secrets Of The Universe According To Aleister.
This book is perfect for those days.
The main focus of this book is the use of Tarot for introspective guidance (hence the subtitle, Mirror of the Soul). As a general approach to the cards and why they work, this is one of my favorites. It is vaguely mystical in its explanations, but it didn’t strike me as bullshit (a fine line, for sure). There is no history, and no attempt to explain anything about Mr. Crowley or his theories. Just the cards and your self.
The bulk of the book is, not surprisingly, an examination of each card and its symbolism. After a description of the card, there are questions, suggestions, and affirmations, all of which (I think) are helpful when using the cards. The author may or may not know about Crowley’s intentions for these cards – in any case, there are details in some of the cards which he interprets differently than Crowley meant them to be interpreted. Nothing extreme or blasphemous, and the core meanings of each card remain as they should be. It is something I noticed, though, and I figured it warrants mentioning. This book is certainly not intended for a Thoth purist. Another thing I noticed was that every card is given a positive spin, which is not always the case in Crowley’s and DuQuette’s writings. Some cards are nothing but gloom and doom to Crowley, which is incredibly unhelpful for a person in times of spiritual or emotional crisis. The bleak cards are still bleak to Ziegler, but at least he made the effort to line those clouds with silver.
This book also contains a section of Tarot spreads, some of which I use fairly often. There are several layouts in this section, of various designs and degrees of complexity (although there are no crazy-complex spreads here). I don’t know if they are of the author’s invention or if he got them from elsewhere, but I really like most of them either way. Good stuff.
The Tarot is pretty cool. Not only is it a great tool for metaphysical tinkerings and all that, but every deck is a work of art. I have always loved art, and I think that, even if the Tarot was good for nothing else, it is worth appreciating for art’s sake.
This post is almost not fair, because in fact I like the artwork in all of my decks, and in so many more that I don’t even have – and, whether I like a particular deck or not, I have nothing but respect and awe for the artist who can accomplish such a feat. I can’t help but look with fondness upon any Tarot I stumble across, no matter how lowly its place on my subjective personal hierarchy.
But while every deck is an incredible work of art, there are certain decks that, to me, are simply exceptional. I’ve selected six of my favorites for this post.
So, without further ado (and in no particular order):
The Wildwood Tarot (art by Will Worthington). The detail in these images is amazing. They depict creatures and characters in a great, sprawling, mythical forest set in prehistoric Europe. The forest itself feels alive and sentient, and the primitive humans living on its fringes seem to live in harmony with nature, with a healthy respect/fear of it. The art is not photo-realistic by any stretch, and yet it is totally convincing. This Tarot is different from any others – it is completely original.* I don’t really mind when a Tarot breaks from tradition, but if it’s going to, and I’m going to get it, it needs to be very good, and a big part of that for me is the artwork. These cards fit the bill (and then some), and when I use them, I walk through the forest in my imagination, and that’s thanks in no small part to the artist.
The Shadowscapes Tarot (art by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law). If the Wildwood glimpses into an ancient Fanghorn-type forest, the Shadowscapes crosses the divide and depicts the Otherworld, the Realm of Faerie itself. These cards are straight up fantasy, and the artwork is unbelievable. I only wish the cards were larger so I could better lose myself in them for a while. When I first wrote about these cards, I had little to say except that the artwork is stunning, and in the time since, I still can’t seem to come up with words to match it.
The Mary-El Tarot (art by Marie White). I could take just about any one of the cards from this deck and blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall, and it would seem perfectly natural as an art piece, and the normies out there would be none the wiser about its esoteric source. Furthermore, I could put up several, and I doubt anyone would realize at first look that they not only came from a pack of cards, but that all came from the same artist (assuming her signature on each piece was overlooked). The artist, quite simply, displays a mastery of her craft – that is, painting (oils? I’m not sure what exactly she used, or even if she used the same paints for every card, but it’s all hand-painted nonetheless) – showing proficiency in a very broad range of styles. The art is mythic and highly symbolic, with subtle references to Tarot tradition beautifully rendered in stunning colors.
The Mystical Tarot (art by Giuliano Costa). I haven’t yet posted anything else about this deck (although I did sneak in a photograph of the Six of Swords in my post about the suit of Swords). A review is forthcoming, so I’ll save the bulk of my gushing for that, but suffice it to say that the artwork is, well – it’s a lot of things. Beautiful, for sure, but also surreal, even trippy (yet subtly so), and sometimes just plain weird. The crazy thing is, when something weird catches my eye, I can’t help but focus on it, and at first, I’m a little put off (such weirdness includes the creepy seahorse-creature-things that pervade the suit of Cups – I’m not sure how I feel about them). Yet, the longer I gaze at the card, the less weird it becomes. I can’t really explain it. I get the sense that, while strange to me, such things are perfectly natural in the world depicted, and I find myself sucked right in. I can’t help but like it, although it certainly wouldn’t have the same entrancing effect on me if the art was poorly executed.
Now, I never get a Tarot unless the art agrees with my sense of aesthetics. However, the Mystical Tarot is one of only two decks that I bought solely because I just loved the artwork, the second deck being…
The Sun and Moon Tarot (art by Vanessa Decort). Compared to everything else in this post, the Sun and Moon Tarot might appear very simplistic – I’ve even heard it called childish in some reviews and forums. If you think this, I have two things to say: 1) look again, because there is way more to these cards than meets the eye, and 2) since when is simple so wrong? Sometimes less is more, and even though this Tarot lacks the immaculate detailing of all the others on this list, it is easily one of my favorites in the art category. These images are like dreams. All of the things I’ve read complaints about – the small figures against large landscapes, the faceless characters – are things that I am inexplicably drawn to. Of course, we each have our own tastes, which is great, but I certainly wouldn’t write this one off as a childish or low-brow deck. It is playful, for sure, but that’s deceptive, because underneath is a Tarot with serious implications. But that’s all beside the point of this post, isn’t it, so I’ll just leave it at this: the artwork in these cards is sublime.
The Thoth Tarot (art by Lady Frieda Harris). And so we come to the Thoth. I can’t not include it. I always enjoyed the art of the RWS, and was fascinated by that of the TdM, but the Thoth was the first Tarot with artwork that truly blew me away. You’ll notice that neither the Rider or the Marseilles is on this list. I’ve found a few RWS and TdM derivatives with artwork that transcends the originals. No re-imagining beats the Thoth in this regard. It was unprecedented when it was first published, and it set the bar pretty high for everything that followed. The crazy thing is that these “crowded” pictures are not composed of filler – every line, shape, and color is intentional, with very specific purpose, following a very intricate structure – and the fact that these cards are genuine works of art and not just a muddled hodgepodge of esoteric symbolism is nothing short of amazing.
So those are my favorite examples of Tarot art. The runners up were the Medieval Scapini Tarot and the Aquarian Tarot. The MST was very close, but I had to cut this post off somewhere, or I’d end up just doing all of my cards. The AT, on the other hand, actually contains some of my favorite artwork. Unfortunately, some of my least favorite is in there, too, and I wanted to emphasize both the art of the individual cards and of the deck as a whole, and in my opinion, the AT does not fit the latter criteria; at least, not well enough to make the top tier.
What are your favorites? Feel free to share.
*It’s actually a reboot of the Greenwood Tarot, now out of print and highly sought after by serious collectors. I personally think the Wildwood artwork is the more compelling of the two by a long shot (no disrespect to the Greenwood’s artist).
Here’s a little anecdote about synchronicity, if you’re interested.
Above is a photo of the Sentinel reading I performed on my birthday last week. Notice the Death candle between my rune-bowl and the tree-lantern. I’ve taken to calling it “Candle XIII.”
Candle XIII was a gift from a close friend of mine, received towards the end of the summer. I did not light it; Death is associated with Scorpio, my sign, and I resolved to burn it for the first time on Halloween, my birthday, as I laid down a personal year-end spread. I liked it as a symbol of clearing the old to make way for the new, and as a memento mori on my celebration day – a reminder of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not to mention, it has a certain aesthetic as a Halloween decoration.
When the time came, and the sun had set, and I had a proper birthday-buzz going, I prepared my reading table, selected my significator (the Prince of Cups, again based on zodiacal attribution), and shuffled my cards. I lit the tree-lantern,* Candle XIII, and a third stumpy little candle stub, and turned off all other lights, opting to read only by the eerie glow. I counted out twenty cards and set the rest of the pack to the side. I turned over and placed the cards according to the design of the spread, down to the last one, which was to be the conclusion.
As I was about to turn that card, I was seized by an inexplicable hesitation – something told me this card wasn’t right. I gazed into the flame of Candle XIII, scrying for a pointer.
I don’t normally scry, although I have done it a few times before (usually to natural phenomena rather than a crystal ball or something like that). Scrying is a different class of divination than cartomancy or sortilege, and I tend towards the latter. The same instinct that told me not to turn the card led my eyes to the Death candle’s flame, and I couldn’t have planned or explained it. The air was very still in my darkened room, and the flame was tall and motionless. As I watched, the tip of the flame appeared to fork, like a snake’s tongue, without inducing so much as the slightest flutter. In a motion, I cut the deck and removed a new card for my conclusion.
I guess that’s just the Universe’s way of saying,
*The tree-lantern is my usual card-reading lamp, which I always burn during my ritual weekly readings to help set the mood. I consider it a symbol of my patron, the Hermit, and the tree represents the World Tree at the heart of the cosmos.
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.
The sun shines and the moon reflects. The Magician is a sun god, just as the Priestess is a lunar goddess. Waite says as much himself when he likens the Magician to Apollo (pg. 36, PKT).
The sun and sky gods of antiquity often became associated with the Creator over time. In the last post, I discussed the Magician as demiurge, creator of the physical world, often erroneously thought to be the supreme power in the universe; in the following posts, I’m going to examine an aspect of the Magician that is related in many ways to the idea of creator, but is not, strictly speaking, the same thing. This is essentially summed-up by the Apollo connection: the Magician can be the god of the sun and sky, and though he can also be the creator, he doesn’t have to be, just as Phoebus was the sun god of the ancient Greeks, but not their creator.*
Am I trying to say that, aside from the trickster and demiurge, the Magician is also a solar deity? Well, yes and no. He is, but that’s beside the point. The aspect of the Magician which is the subject of this post is probably the most elusive yet, so please bear with me. As the title suggests, I think this aspect is epitomized in Mr. Crowley’s version of the card, which he opted to call the “Magus”.
A.E. Waite did consider his Magician to be an embodiment of Apollo, and insofar as the High Priestess is Artemis, I’d concur. I couldn’t say whether or not Crowley also agreed with this attribution (his Priestess remains Artemis, so I think on some level he would’ve agreed, but he was also a generally disagreeable person, especially towards Waite, so who knows), but either way, he chose a different classical god to represent the Magus for his Thoth Tarot.
Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, called Hermes by the Greeks, is the face of the first numbered card of Crowley’s deck. Commerce, medicine, science, travelling (both in an astral and mundane sense), and trickery – all of these things and more fall under the domain of Mercury. Is he a creator? Not in the sense that the demiurge is, although he is certainly creative. Is he a sun god, like his half-brother Apollo? No, nor is he overtly associated with the sky, as Zeus is, despite his winged sandals. He is a male like the Magician, but he’s not necessarily the “manliest” of the Greek gods, some of which are very manly indeed. And yes, he is sometimes portrayed as a trickster like the Juggler, although that is far from his primary purpose. Is his gender and his guile enough reason to justify his place at the head of the Tarot pack alongside the likes of Odin, Apollo, Anansi and Jehovah?
At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. Of course, I’ve already written a post about Mercury’s deeper connection to gods like Odin and Anansi, so I don’t really need to get into that here, at least, not yet.** First, I think I should spend some time examining the Magus card itself.
Crowley’s Magus is as different from the Magician as the Magician is different from the Juggler, if not more so. Not only is there no characteristic table in front of him, the Magus is totally naked, except for his winged sandals. The Coin, Wand, Cup, and Sword instead float in the air around him, but they are joined by some additional implements. Behind him rises the caduceus, the winged staff of Mercury, with its intertwining serpents forming the lemniscate above his head (this symbol of infinity being one of the few constants throughout all of this card’s incarnations so far). Finally, a baboon lurks behind the Magus, a companion who has quite an intriguing role to play.
What does all this stuff mean?
Well, the sandals and caduceus illustrate beyond a doubt that this is indeed Mercury. That’s important, and I shall return to examine this point further in the future. As far as the nakedness, I genuinely don’t know. It could just as easily be an artistic liberty taken by Freida Harris as it could be symbolic of something else. Perhaps it’s another nod to his divinity: not only is the Magus naked, but his exposed skin glows with a golden luster that is totally un-human. No matter what we theorize about the Magician’s or the Juggler’s inherent divinity, they are nonetheless portrayed as mortal men. Not so with the Magus.
This immortal quality is implied even further when we consider that the Magus is not only levitating, but seems to exist in some alternate or in-between dimension. He is not in a garden like the Magician. This is right in keeping with Mercury’s ability to jump from one plane of existence to another, a characteristic he shares with folks like Odin and Thoth.
Which brings me to the primate hovering behind the Magus. This is Thoth in animal form, who was sometimes represented in ancient Egypt as a baboon instead of the usual ibis or ibis-headed man.*** Thoth is, obviously enough, of integral importance to the Thoth Tarot on many levels, but in this instance he almost seems to be antagonistic to the Magus’ purpose, making a mockery of Mercury and all he’s trying to accomplish.
Alongside the typical suit symbols, the Magus has in his arsenal a winged egg (called the “orphic egg”, which I briefly discussed in my post about Crowley’s Hermit), what appears to be a bundle of dried leaves or herbs, and a scroll and quill. The scroll and quill again call Thoth to mind, as he is the scribe of the Egyptian gods, and was credited with the invention of writing. Language is one of the Magus’ greatest assets as both trickster and demiurge, and it is his gift to mankind. The baboon, however, is a constant reminder that, no matter how elevated we think we are, humans are still animals at the end of the day, and while language does give us great power, it also limits us, confining our instinctual understanding of our place in the cosmos to restrictive definitions and superficial descriptions. In a way, the moment we developed complex language, freeing ourselves from the bonds of animal slavishness, we also alienated ourselves from a true comprehension of our place in the universe, a comprehension that defies all attempts to be put into words, though we sometimes desperately try. The monkey therefore points and laughs at us, nature’s own little trickster. We cannot escape his taunts, and he is forever in the Magus’ shadow.
Next time, I will address some of the points and questions raised throughout this post: the mythic relationship between this enigmatic figure and the sun and sky gods; how these are connected to language and the gods of wisdom; the significance of Mercury as opposed to some other character; and, eventually, a return to the Juggler to tie it all together.
*The sun god and the sun are two different things, by the way. Helios is the name of the Greek figure (titan or god, it’s not really clear which) who is the sun. Apollo, on the other hand, represents the attributes of the sun, such as warmth and light. Nevertheless, he is very often referred to as the “sun god.” To clear the matter up a bit (mythology can be frustratingly confusing sometimes, I know), Hyperion (a titan) is “eternal light,” Helios (a titan or god, and Hyperion’s son) is the sun, and Apollo (a god, and Zeus’ son) is the light and warmth of the sun. None of these three, incidentally, are creator-gods. The closest thing to demiurge that’s named in this footnote would be Zeus, Apollo’s father; and while he is not a god of the sun in any way, he is the god of the sky.
**I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure I’ve created more links on this blog to the “Wise Man and the Trickster” than I have to any other of my posts. If you can’t tell, it details a central theme around which my approach to the cards – and indeed, to myth, magic and divination in general – revolves. Sorry to those who have already read the post, but I can’t even promise that this will be the last time I link it.
***Alternatively, it can represent Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god and friend to the hero Rama. Hanuman is incredibly powerful and especially tricky, although to be honest, I don’t know much else about him at present.
The Book of Days is a hard-bound calendar that I picked up recently. It’s very nice, with thick pages that withstand lots of ink, and it’s decorated with full-color and captioned images from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This book is different than your average one-and-done calendar in another way, too: the days of each month are numbered, but are not assigned a weekday. This means that this particular calendar is not meant for a single year, but rather to keep track of yearly events regardless of what year it actually is. It’s marketed as a perpetual calendar to keep track of all the birthdays, anniversaries, and various other momentous occasions that take place from year to year, but I don’t care about any of that. I got it because I had in mind a better use for it: the Tarot.
I was looking for something like this to replace the crummy old datebook in which I’d previously recorded the suggested dates for each Wildwood Tarot card (if you’re unfamiliar with the Wheel of the Year and how the Wildwood relates, you can check out my post about it here). Using green ink, I went through each page of the calendar and wrote down each card from the WWT on its respective date.
It occurred to me partway through this endeavor that I have at least one other deck with cards that can correspond with dates on a calendar: the Thoth Tarot. Using the astrological attributions for the court and small cards given in DuQuette’s book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (which is far more user-friendly than Crowley’s own book and includes handy charts with exactly the information I needed for this project), I sat down and wrote the cards into their respective dates alongside the Wildwood (using black ink this time to more easily differentiate between the two in my calendar). I’ve yet to tackle the issue of the Major Arcana, although I plan on working through them shortly.
The result is now I have a perpetual Tarot calendar, simultaneously keeping track of the Earthly Wheel of the Year and the Heavenly Wheel of the Zodiac, and there’s still plenty of room left over should I find another Tarot that can similarly relate to a calendar.
Now it’s a simple matter for me to look up the date and find the cards of the day. It’s a fantastic way to get to know my cards on a more intimate level, or to focus my thoughts for each day. With the Wildwood, I’ve experienced great spiritual insight already by using it like a calendar, albeit sporadically, and this will only better facilitate that. I’m interested to begin to use the Thoth in this fashion, as well. And I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it would be interesting to draw a card from a third deck at random (a daily draw) and see how it relates to the WWT and the CHT cards of its day.
Anyway, I just thought I’d share this on here in case anyone else found the idea of a Tarot calendar interesting. Fair warning, though: it’s meticulous work, and it can be somewhat tedious flipping through pages and writing down each card on its date. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, because it’s very easy to screw up. Trust me, I know from experience.
Contrary to popular belief,* a regular pack of 52 playing cards is not a simplified form of the Tarot; rather, the Tarot is a more complex form of the 52 card pack. The Tarot did not come first, and it really isn’t all that ancient, at least, not as ancient as is often claimed.
Playing cards with four suits have been around for ages, since at least 1000 AD, although it is true that they didn’t show up in Europe until a bit closer to the time of the first Tarots.** These (the Tarot, that is) inexplicably popped up in Italy midway through the 1400s. The oldest surviving cards from this period were specially commissioned by noble families and hand painted by skilled artists, and no two of them are the same. It wasn’t until the Tarot had spread to other parts of Europe over the course of a couple centuries that a more or less standard pattern began to emerge.
Today, this pattern is referred to as the Tarot de Marseille, after the French city in which they were originally made. Instead of unique hand painted cards, these packs were mass-produced with woodblock prints, making them accessible to the masses (we don’t know that the Tarot wasn’t available to common folk at the same time the nobles were commissioning their packs, but if they were, they didn’t survive).
There is no single version of the Marseille Tarot; it is a pattern, with several variations, and no one can say with even remote certainty who (if any sole individual) invented it. But, ever since this pattern emerged in France, there has been relatively little alteration in the basic structure of the pack. Even the most outrageously avant-garde decks published today can be traced back to these cards.
In other words, the Tarot de Marseille is the closest we can get to the original modern Tarot. For this reason, there are many, many folks out there who prefer this version of the cards over the multitudes of others currently available (especially in Europe – we’ll get to the preferred deck in America shortly).
The biggest difference between the Marseille Tarot and a typical 52 card pack is, not surprisingly, the 22 Major Arcana. These picture cards are an addition to the Minor Arcana, functioning as trumps for gaming purposes, although it’s difficult to believe these suggestive pictures aren’t meant to hold some deeper significance (even if we do know they aren’t “occult”). In Marseille packs, the Minor Arcana are nothing more than pip cards – cards that are illustrated only by the suit symbols – and while the suits are somewhat different than regular playing cards depending on the country of origin (for example, Wands are the Italian version of the suit, and the version which remained with the Tarot, as opposed to the French Diamonds or the German Acorns), they are still the same in essence. For example, the 10 of Wands shows only ten wands arranged on the card, and nothing else, except perhaps some decorative foliage.
The next big step in the evolution of the Tarot didn’t come until the late 1700s,with a French chap known to posterity as Etteilla. His actual name was Alliette (what a clever pseudonym, I know), and, believe it or not, he was the first person recorded to have used the Tarot exclusively for divination and the occult. He even designed his own pack of Tarot cards specifically for this purpose, with all new Major Arcana (which did not catch on), and a system of divinatory meanings for the Minor Arcana (which did catch on). Prior to him, the cards were only documented in the annals of history as devices for gaming and gambling (although fortune-telling with regular playing cards was not uncommon in his day, so it’s not unthinkable that the Tarot may also have been casually used for this as well, even before Etteilla). Regardless of what future Tarot masters would eventually say about him,*** his work represents a pivotal moment in the history of Tarot.
Within the next century after Etteilla, there emerged a whirlwind of occult theories attempting to connect the Tarot to various esoteric doctrines such as Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology (it was during this time that the erroneous “history” which remains popular to Tarot users today was first established by another Frenchman and contemporary of Etteilla named Court de Gebelin – there are some who claim he actually beat Etteilla to the punch with the idea of occult Tarot). Despite the fact that everyone seemed, all of the sudden, to agree that the Tarot must be the direct descendant of a great and secret magical tradition, no one could seem to agree on the correct way to associate the cards with this secret tradition.****
And so there was de Gebelin, there was Papus, there was Levi, and there was Wirth, among others; but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn‘s occult system of Tarot correspondences – which remains to this day the most widely accepted system – was established. Founded by S.L.M. MacGregor Mathers (another pseudonym, by the way – and his isn’t the only in this paragraph), this secret order was home to both of the next two integral characters in our drama of the history of Tarot.
The first of these two characters is Arthur Edward Waite. In 1910, he, with the help of artist and fellow Golden Dawn-er Pamela Coleman Smith, published a new and revolutionary Tarot deck, called the Rider deck, after the British company which first published it. The Rider-Waite pack was revolutionary primarily because Smith did not use typical pips for her Minor Arcana, but rather illustrated every single one of these 56 cards with a scene depicting either her or Waite’s (it’s not clear which) interpretation of the divinatory meaning of each card. The Major Arcana were re-designed, as well, although for the most part, these are still reminiscent of their Marseille counterparts. This pack of cards is easily the most prevalent in North America today, if not the world, and I would go so far as to say that maybe seven or eight out of ten decks now available are nothing more than elaborately themed Rider packs.
The second of these two Golden Dawn characters is Aleister Crowley (his first name wasn’t really Aleister – something about the Tarot seems to inspire its students to take on false monikers…). Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous occultist of the 20th century, dubbed “the wickedest man alive” by the media of his time.***** There are certainly reasons for this, but that should not get in the way of an honest appreciation for his version of the Tarot.
Mr. Crowley designed his cards with the help of painter Lady Frieda Harris during the 1940s, but they were not published until 1969, after both of their deaths. The artwork is stunning, and Crowley incorporated a dizzying amount of esoteric knowledge into his Tarot. Unlike Waite, who did his best to disguise the Golden Dawn’s secret symbolism in his cards, Crowley had no reservations about creating a blatantly occult pack. What is perhaps most notable about it, though, is that it deviated somewhat from the Golden Dawn’s theories to match Crowley’s own, and was designed with this in mind to be the harbinger of a new age of spiritual enlightenment for humanity. The Thoth Tarot, as Crowley called his deck, has since become one of the most popular Tarot decks ever created – truly a new deck for a new era.
Sometime during the 1970s, the Tarot began to experience a popular revival that continues strong to this day. A simple google search will reveal that there are now many, many variations of the cards out there. Virtually anybody can find a pack with a theme that suits his or her tastes, and the amount of sources now available on the Tarot is unprecedented. While there are some new original packs (and old ones, too – Waite certainly wasn’t the first to publish his own cards, only the most popular), the vast majority of these new decks are essentially just re-drawn Rider packs. A few variations of the Marseille and Thoth decks are also out there, but the Rider is definitely the most popular version of the Tarot to be re-fitted with new themes (almost undoubtedly because of the illustrated pips, which so many people take for granted without realizing that, historically speaking, are an anomaly). And, thanks to modern research, we no longer have to rely entirely on the speculations of 18th and 19th century occultists about the history of these cards.
In some ways, the actual story is less interesting than the fabricated one. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Tarot really was handed down through the generations by ancient Egyptian mystics? Personally, I enjoy the flavor this false history adds to the aura of the Tarot, because it illustrates the power these cards have over the imagination, but I am a firm believer in the importance of real, researched history. After all, the fact that we now know that the cards were originally created for gaming rather than magic or fortune-telling has done absolutely nothing to diminish its allure. Nor should it.
So there you have it: my brief overview of the history of the Tarot. I have tried to keep my digressions to a minimum, which is difficult for me with a post like this one. Obviously, I’ve been less than thorough (this is just the basics, after all), and have resorted to some broad generalizations to get the main points across; and I admit to focusing more on certain things rather than some other, equally interesting things, namely the three versions of the cards that represent the cornerstones of my personal collection. I have consciously chosen these three patterns – the Marseille, Rider, and Thoth – as the cornerstones for my collection, however, precisely because they represent what are generally considered to be the “classics” among the Tarot community, and so I think the extra attention is justified.
For those of you interested in professional and detailed treatments of Tarot history, you can find the books which influenced this post here.
History is all well and good, but what does it mean if you can’t use the cards?
*Actually, there are several misconceptions that I want to address in this post that I don’t think are as prevalent now as they seemed to have been 50 years or so ago, but a Tarot novice can still find these misconceptions presented more or less as fact in an astonishing number of sources. Many of these sources are still valuable for their interpretations of the cards, which is why I believe they are still circulating, but what passes for “history” in them is sometimes laughable.
**Which, by the way, were not called “Tarot” at the time. The word Tarot was first used in France as a name for the game played with the cards. Before then, the name depended on where the cards were – for example, Tarocchi in Italy. Now of course, at least in the English-speaking world, Tarot is the universal term used regardless of where or when the specific cards originated. The etymology of words like Tarot and Tarocchi remains obscure, although theories abound.
***Wirth, Waite, and Crowley would all come to deride Etteilla as a misguided goof (at best), and not one of them would admit the undeniable influence he had on the evolution of the Tarot. Etteilla’s presumptions about the Major Arcana notwithstanding, not a single one of these “Tarot masters” could be remembered as such without his preliminary contributions.
****Despite remarkable (and I mean remarkable) coincidences, there is no actual evidence whatsoever that the Tarot is the result of anything other than the natural evolution of a Renaissance-era card game that just happened to catch on. But it can be argued that “coincidence” is only another term for what Jung dubbed “synchronicity”, a concept that is essential to the current understanding of the Tarot as a tool for divination and spiritual development. All’s well that ends well, right?
*****Yes, Mr. Crowley was in many ways an appalling character. However, it should be noted that for all his “wickedness”, he did put his occult energies to use during WWII antagonizing Hitler (who also reportedly believed in the occult). Whether his efforts were actually effective or not is irrelevant. The dude rooted against the Nazis, and that’s gotta count for something.