Review by Bonnie Cehovet
The Book Of Thoth, by Aleister Crowley, acts as a companion book for the Thoth Tarot deck, authored by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Frieda Harris. Both the deck and the book have become Tarot classics, and "must haves" for any Tarot reference library.
In Part One, The Theory of Tarot, Crowley addresses the origins of Tarot, the correspondence between Tarot and the Qabalah, and Tarot as it relates to the universe (through devices such as the Naples arrangement, the Tree of Life, the Atu of Tahuti, Tarot and ceremonial magick, Tarot and animism, and the cards of the Tarot as Living Beings). No doubt you have heard some of these terms being bandied about - here you get to study material coming straight from the proverbial horses mouth.
One of the views of Tarot that Crowley held was that Tarot was a pictorial form of the Qabalistic Tree of Life. If you take the time to place the 78 cards of the Tarot in the form of the Tree of Life, this line of thought becomes much clearer, much more graphic than any philosophical discussion would take you. It is worth the time it takes to do this.
In Part Two, The Atu (Keys or Trumps), Crowley directly addresses the Tarot Trumps. Excerpted from the presentation on the Tarot Trump The Fool:
"The "Green Man" of the Spring Festival. "April Fool" The Holy Ghost
This tradition represents the original idea adapted to the understanding of the average peasant. The Green Man is a personification of the mysterious influence that produces the phenomena of spring. It is hard to say why it should be so, but it is so: there is a connection with the ideas of irresponsibility, of wantonness, of idealization, of romance, of starry dreaming.
The Fool stirs within all of us at the return of the Spring, and because we are a little bewildered, a little embarrassed, it has been thought a salutary custom to externalize the subconscious impulse by ceremonial means. It was a way of making confession easy. Of all these festivals it may be said that they are representation in the simplest form, without introspection, of a perfectly natural phenomenon. In particular are to be noted the custom of the Easter Egg and the "Poisson d'avril". (The Saviour Fish is discussed elsewhere in this essay. The precession of the Equinoxes has made Spring begin with the entry of the Sun into Aries the Ram, instead of Pisces the Fishes as was the case in earliest times recorded.) 1
In Part Three, The Court Cards, Crowley addresses the sixteen court cards of the Tarot. There is quite a good discussion of the court cards, elemental attributions and personality types. From the book:
Queen of Wands
The Queen of Wands represents the watery part of Fire, its fluidity and colour. Also, she rules in the Zodiac from the 21st degree of Pisces to the 20th degree of Aries. Her crown is topped with the winged globe and rayed with flame. Her long red golden hair falls down upon her armour of scaled mail. She is seated upon a throne of flame, ordered into geometrical light by her material power. Beneath her throne the surging flames are steady. She bears a wand in her left hand; but it is topped with a cone suggestive of the mysteries of Baccus. She is attended by a couchant leopard upon whose head she lays her hand. Her face expresses the ecstasy of one whose mind is well in-drawn to the mystery born beneath her bosom.
The characteristics of the Queen are adaptability, persistent energy, calm authority which she knows how to use to enhance her attractiveness. She is kindly and generous, but impatient of opposition. She has immense capacity for friendship and for love, but always on her own initiative.
There is as much pride in this card as in the Knight, but it lacks the spontaneous nobility which excuses that error. It is not true pride, but self-complacent vanity and even snobbery.
The other side of her character is that she may have a tendency to brood, come to a wrong decision thereon, and react with great savagery. She may be easily deceived; then she is likely to shew herself stupid, obstinate, tyrannical. She may be quick to take offence, and harbour revenge without good cause. She might turn and snap at her best friends without intelligible excuse. Also, when she misses her bite she breaks her jaw!
In the Yi King, the watery part of Fire is represented by the 17th hexagram, Sui. It indicates reflection upon impulse, and the consequently even flow of action. There is great capacity for lucid conception and steady prosecution of work, but this is only at the bidding, and under the guidance, of some creative mind. There is a tendency to be fickle, even disloyal; the ideas which she obeys make no permanent impression. She will "cleave to the little boy and let go the man of age and experience" or the reverse (lines 2 and 3) without realizing what she is doing. There is liability of fits of melancholy, which she seeks to cure by bouts of intoxication, or by panic-stricken outbursts of ill-considered fury." 2
In Part Four, The Small Cards, Crowley addresses the pips (the Ace's through Tens of the four suits of the Tarot). The cards are first addressed by groups of numbers (i.e. Ace's, Two's etc), and then by suit and number (which helps us to see the story line of each of the suits). From the book:
The Four Aces
The Aces represent the roots of the four elements. They are quire above, and distinct from, the other small cards in the same way Kether is said to be symbolized only by the topmost point of the Yod of Tetragrammaton. In these cards is no real manifestation of the element in its material form. They form a link between the small cards and the Princesses, who rule the heavens around the North Pole. The Meridian is the Great Pyramid, and the Elements rule, going eastward, in the order of Tetragrammaton, FIre, Water, Air and Earth. Thus, roughly, Aces-Princesses Wands cover Asia, Cups the Pacific Ocean, Swords the Americas, Disks Europe and Africa. To make this relationship clear, one may go a little into the symbol of the pentagram, or Shield of David. It represents Spirit ruling the four elements, and is thus a symbol of the Triumph of Man.
The idea of the element of Spirit is very difficult to grasp. The letter Shin, which is the letter of Fire, has to do double duty by representing Spirit as well. Generally speaking, the attributions of Spirit are not clear and simple like those of the other elements. It is very remarkable that the Tablet of Spirit in the Enochian system is the key to all mischief; as, in the Hindu system, Akasha is the Egg of Darkness.
On the other hand, Spirit represents Kether. Perhaps it was never in the mind of the Exempt Adept or Adepts who invented the Tarot to go so far into this matter. The point to remember is that, both in their appearance and their meaning, the Aces are not the elements themselves, but the seeds of those elements." 3
If the main material wasn't enough, there are wonderful illustrations contained throughout the book; a section entitled The Atu: Mnemonics that provides a series of associations for each of the Atu, or Major Arcana; an appendix devoted to the use of Tarot as a divinatory art, containing the Five Operations; and a second appendix which contains some highly usable charts on Tarot and correspondences.
The Book of Thoth is well known for being ambiguous at times. Some things are very clear, some are not. This is a book to be studied, a book to be used as a solid reference source, so the areas where Crowley is unclear, or ambiguous, are simply part of the package: of the book, and of who Crowley was as a person. Crowley is very good at explaining both the esoteric and the exoteric sides of Tarot, using his own personal background of Golden Dawn experience (he does make some corrections to what he considers errors on the part of the Golden Dawn); studies in mythology, Eastern philosophy and Qabalah.
At least a beginning background in the Tarot, Qabalah and astrology will go a long ways towards understanding Crowley's writing. I found this book to be as much about the man as about his teaching. Don't expect to fully understand, or appreciate this book at first glance. This is material that has to be worked with - each time you return, you take away another level of wisdom.
Footnotes: 1. ibid. pages 55-56. 2. ibid. pages 152-153. 3. ibid. page 177.
(c) January 2004
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.