Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot: An Esoteric Primer


By: Claire Fletcher | Feb. 19, 2019

There may be more divination card decks on the market than kombucha flavors, and they just keep coming — animal, mineral, and vegetable (really) themes with everything in between — angels, a Spanish “Días de las Muertes” (Day of the Dead) deck, and a “Crystal Unicorn” tarot. There’s even a “Mystical Manga” deck. But all were preceded by 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot, the product of  500 years of tarot history and Crowley’s vision.

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Tarot History

The 14th century Italian aristocracy played a card game, “tarocchi,” using the oldest known cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck. Cards such as the fool, death, the sun, and justice, may have been derived from Venetian carnivale characters.

In 1789, a tarocchi-derived fortune-telling deck emerged, with 22 major and 56 minor arcana cards divided into coins, cups, swords, and wands suits representing the four elements — earth, water, fire, and air. Twenty-two trump cards correspond to the 22 paths on the kabbalistic tree of life. The oracle deck was linked to the Egyptian god Thoth, adding to the tarot’s air of mystery. The cards, their suits, and major arcana were also linked to gypsies, a disparaging name for the Romani people, who many believed were from Egypt (since disproven).

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

A fin de siècle fascination with occult subjects in literature and art grew throughout Europe into the early 20th century. Secret societies orders appeared, including The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric occult society. The Golden Dawn emerged in England and spread throughout Europe, with Crowley as a member of the London temple in 1898 — he fell out with the Golden Dawn in 1902, but was inspired to direct an esoteric order of his own.

“Crowley had been interested in Tarot since his involvement with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; indeed, one of the tasks of Golden Dawn membership was to create one’s own tarot deck based on traditional images and magical, qabalistic, and astrological information,” according to Lon Milo Duquette, author of the definitive Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot.

Rider Waite tarot cards on the table

The Rider Waite Major Arcana Cards

Interest in the symbols with their layered meanings in the classic tarot was not exclusive to the Golden Dawn — the Waite-Smith deck, created by Golden Dawn member A.E. Waite, and  illustrated by Pamela Colman “Pixie” Smith, was designed for commercial distribution.

“Waite and Pixie Smith were both Golden Dawn initiates, but Waite did not ask Smith to represent qabalistic and esoteric symbolism on the cards which were always intended to be marketed to the uninitiated. The images on Waite-Smith court cards and small cards were not qabalistically based at all, but drawn from visions Smith received while listening to readings from the Grail Romances,” said Duquette.  The Waite-Smith deck evolved into the Rider Waite deck, now published by U.S. Games Systems. A version of the earlier Visconti-Sforza deck is also available.

Book of the Law and the Ordo Templis Orienti

In 1904, after leaving the Golden Dawn, Crowley travelled to Egypt. He reported that while there, he received a channeled text called “The Book of the Law.” At the heart of this text was the message, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law; love is the law, love under will.

More visions came in 1909 during trips to Mexico and the Sahara Desert — Crowley used the experiences as inspiration for a series of initiations, similar to the Golden Dawn, but with an urgency based on Crowley’s belief that humanity was poised on the brink of profound evolutionary change.

In 1910, Crowley joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). Two years later he was the head of the OTO in Great Britain and Ireland. Eventually, as the “Outer Head of the Order” until his death in 1947, he integrated principles from his Book of the Law into ODO curriculums and raison d’etre.

Crowley’s Thoth Tarot

In roughly 1938, Crowley’s student, Lady Frieda Harris, suggested a re-imagined tarot based on the Book of the Law. She volunteered to produce all the art for the major and minor arcanas, saying she was directed to do so by her holy guardian angel. For the next several years, the two collaborated on the deck with Harris working tirelessly to translate Crowley’s vision to paint and canvas. According to Duquette, she had studied Rudolf Steiner’s concept of projective geometry with two of his students, and expressed those ideas in her compositions.

In his book on the Thoth tarot, Duquette writes, “When we ask what makes the Thoth Tarot unique, the first and most obvious answer is the artwork. However difficult it may be to grasp the mathematical subtleties of projective geometry, we see it thrillingly  manifested in Harris’s use of lines, nets, arcs, swirls, twists and angles combined to visually redefine the fabric of space.”

The paintings, laden with symbols and references to kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, numerology, magickal correspondances, and The Book of the Law, were finished in 1943, and used to illustrate the first edition of Crowley’s “The Book of Thoth.” Crowley died in 1947, and Harris in 1952 — neither would see the paintings published as tarot cards. The Thoth Tarot deck would not be commercially published until 1969.

Duquette skillfully explores the similarities and differences between Crowley’s Thoth tarot and Golden Dawn tarot attributes. In his book he has published comparative charts illustrating complex relationships between the two systems, specifically those of the 22 trump cards, or major arcana.

The Fool

The rich symbolism in the Thoth deck, and comparisons of Crowley’s archetypes to their corresponding major arcana cards, has been accomplished in Duquette’s book. That said, a look at the fool card, the alpha and omega of any version of the major arcana, is an example of the contrast of traditional interpretation to Crowley’s vision.

The fool is one of the most complex symbols in Western esoterica, from mythology to standard playing cards, and Crowley held his own views on this symbol.

L. Rider Waite Tarot Fool  R. Thoth Tarot Fool

The fool archetype can appear as the madman, the beggar, and the vagabond. He is usually in ragged clothing, often carries a staff, and is also portrayed with the classic jester’s hat with bells. He is first cousin to the archetypal Trickster — in fact, he often fills that role.

One source characterizes the fool as sacred, saying, “Holy fools subvert prevailing orthodoxy to point to the truth which lies beyond immediate conformity.” In other words, the fool points to the emperor’s new clothes as nakedness — he is the guileless child, and innocence is a prime characteristic of our fool. He disrupts anything safe or politically correct, exposing convention as hypocritical and counterfeit.   

The fool is the clown and the court jester. In literature he appears as Shakespeare’s Puck in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and in cinema, as Marx brother Harpo Marx, of whom Crowley was aware. Duquette writes, “Harpo was the archetypal fool — the girl-chasing clown who made fools of straightlaced, uptight characters — he did it without saying a word. Harpo was silent like the mythological characters from whom the fool is constructed; Harpocrates, the Greek god of innocence, and Dionysus, silent when asked by king Pentheus, “What is Truth?” Duquette notes finding images of Harpo Marx in Crowley’s own notes.

The Rider Waite fool is gazing into the sky above, about to step off a cliff — a little dog tries to warn him. The tarot fool is traditionally interpreted an indication of new beginnings, spontaneous action, leaps of faith, and innocence or naivete. When the card appears reversed, it indicates bad decisions or choices.

Crowley’s Thoth tarot Fool throws off simplistic meanings, presenting himself as a composite of several powerful symbols. Duquette writes, “He is the pagan Green Man of spring; Parsifal, the pure fool who wins the holy grail; Hoor-Pa-Kraat, the innocent Egyptian lord of silence treading on the back of the crocodile god Selbek, the Devourer.”

Duquette also notes that Harris’s portrayal is a “Cornucopia of sacred images, many of which reveal themselves only after long meditation (and the aid of a magnifying glass).” Harris’s fool is accompanied by a dove of innocence, or as Duquette suggests, the holy spirit. A butterfly references transformation. A vulture, shown in part above the butterfly, represents Maut, the Egyptian vulture goddess. Duquette interprets a winged globe as a symbol of Mercury, and quotes Crowley himself; “The whole picture is a glyph of the creative light.”

Every composition of the Thoth deck is multi-layered with meaning — some clear, others obscure or cryptic, based on Crowley’s interpretations. Every color, line, gesture, and object carries a symbolic message. As dive into Crowley’s Thoth deck is an immersive study of the occult, hermeticism, gematria, the Kabbalah’s tree of life, astrology, mythological gods and goddesses, and ritual magick.

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