Aleister Crowley’s Elusive Esoteric Thoth Tarot
the hermetic order of the golden dawn
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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