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Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot

DuQuette demystifies the complexities of the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot. A recommended read for Thoth beginners and advanced users alike.

By Lon Milo DuQuette

Book - Published by Weiser Books


Review by Steven Ehrlick

I will commence my review of Lon Milo DuQuette's excellent book on the Thoth Tarot, Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot: An authoritative examination of the world's most fascinating and magical tarot cards - by suggesting that everyone who uses the Thoth deck do themselves a favour and buy this book. Why? Glad you asked. This isn't the best book for gleaning new card interpretations for divination purposes nor does it shed light on new spreads or delve extensively into the history of Tarot. But it does do what the title promises. Read this book and your understanding of the Thoth deck will expand no matter how familiar you are with the Thoth deck. Why is the book so good.....?

1. It's funny. Huh, funny you say. What could be funny about the Thoth deck. Well, as it turns out, very little. But Mr. DuQuette is self-deprecating and personable and he takes on contentious issues with tongue usually firmly in cheek. Example: Part One is entitled: Little Bits Of Things You Should Know Before Beginning to Study Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. His point of view is avuncular and non-threatening and he makes slogging through the tough stuff a lot easier than most authors would be capable of doing. 2

. He (gasp) humanizes Crowley. Somewhat reluctantly assuming the role of apologist, DuQuette tells the other side of the story. He makes a compelling case on Crowley's behalf, highlighting A.C.ís contributions as an occult scholar and purveyor of a new era in human spirituality. DuQuette manages to get the reader past all of the rhetoric and knee-jerk reaction to Crowley and just tells it like it is.

3. DuQuette has a remarkable talent for taking extremely esoteric Hermetic knowledge and distilling it for the layperson. I now finally understand, albeit on a basic level, what the heck all those astrological symbols and planets mean and why they make appearances on specific cards. Also, it was news to me that the Court cards (other than the Princesses) rule 3 minor cards and that one of those three cards is not from the suit of that particular Court card. The book not only got me more excited about the Thoth deck, it also surreptitiously ignited in me an interest in Astrology, an area of study that I have had heretofore only a passing interest in. I finally know the difference between a Cardinal sign and a Mutable sign and this book isn't really about astrology!

4. The chapter on the Rose Cross is worth the price of admission. Here I've been staring at the back of the Thoth deck for a year and a half and had no idea what I was looking at. I was so fascinated with this cross (there's an excellent reproduction of the actual rose cross on the inside back cover) that I found a picture of it on the 'net and downloaded it.

5. This book greatly enhanced my understanding of the Tree of Life and its relationship to the Tarot which nicely augmented the information I had recently absorbed from Kliegman's book, Tarot and the Tree of Life.

6. Each chapter begins with excerpts of Lady Harris's letters to Crowley and vice versa that are charming, informative and benignly voyeuristic. There is a wit and combativeness to Lady Harris's correspondence that has the affect of humanizing Crowley.

Now the book did disappoint on occasion. In the card descriptions, there is an inconsistency that I sometimes found disconcerting. With some cards, DuQuette goes on at length describing the symbolism contained therein, but in others, he becomes anecdotal and kind of forgets to describe the card symbolism for us (see Seven of Cups). There were cards that he just didn't seem to want to tell his readers too much about. But when he likes a card, you know it! As for divination, he lets Crowley speak for himself, excerpting the writings of Crowley. And as interesting as it was to learn that three of the Court cards rule three of the pips (the exception being the Princesses who acts as the throne for the Ace) he does not adequately explain what it means for a Court card to rule a minor. I was left on my own to assume what that means. For instance, the Queen of Pentacles rules the 10 of Wands. What does that mean, exactly, and should it be taken into consideration when the 10 of Wands comes up in a reading? I wish he had spent some time on the subject but alas, he did not.

This book is a must for Thoth users. Donít let my own ignorance scare away advanced Tarot practitioners. This is a serious book and valuable to beginner and expert alike. As importantly, if you have been turned off by what you think you know about this deck and its creator, read this book and see if you feel the same way afterwards.

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

I looked forward to reading Lon Milo DuQuette's work of the Thoth Tarot from the very moment that I started hearing the buzz about it on the various Tarot sites and e-lists. The day that I walked into my local mailing center and was handed a stack of packages, and realized that I was holding one from Red Wheel/Weiser, instant joy literally overwhelmed me! I live in a small town - the people at the mailing center know me, so they understood the look of rapture on my face, and the fact that I was all but dancing around in the center of their business!

I came to this work not because I felt an intense need to study the Thoth Tarot - but because I love all that Tarot is and can be. Having read a sampling of Lon Milo DuQuette's work (including "The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford ", I knew that here was a gentleman that could address the subject of Tarot with humor and wisdom at the same time. Here was a person whose work could be quarantined to encourage the personal and spiritual growth of any student that chose to work with it.

I am one of those people who have never studied the Thoth Tarot - in any way, shape or form. I have followed intensely the on-line discussions, and have allowed the deck to intimidate me more than a bit. Note that I said the deck intimidated me - for some reason Crowley himself, with all of his "unique" ways, never intimidated me. Perhaps I just saw him as being "human", but his work as being in some way "super-human".

At any rate - I am entering the world of the Thoth Tarot backwards - studying the book that explains the work before I study the deck or Crowley's words. Part of what makes this OK with me is that I realize that I was not ready to study the Thoth Tarot, and all of its eccentricities, until now. I put in my time, as it were. I studied numerology, some astrology, a little Gematria, some symbolism and as much Qabalah as I could cram into my brain. I am not at such a total loss now when reading Crowley's work - and I have some idea where to reference that which I truly do not understand.

I need to order another copy of this book right away - because I know this one will literally be worn out from use - as a study guide as well as a reference book. Which leads me to the only two gripes that I have about the book - the copy that I have seems to have some issues with the binding (which is the only way that I know how to put it - it is not coming apart, but the manner in which it is bound together does not look as well as it could), and there are several proofing errors - such as flagrantly misspelled words (top of page 22). Hopefully in later print runs these things will be corrected.

"In reference to your books - I suppose you know that most of them would be easier for a beginner written in Sanscrit and that anyone reading them would go off their heads. Therefore the wise (like myself) take them in snappy bits and only when they are feeling strong.

Lady Frieda Harris in a letter to Aleister Crowley , 1939. 1

The wise will perhaps start their journey into this work by studying the front cover, reading the back cover, then looking inside the front and back covers. With this book, this is where the real "Aha!" experience takes place. Inside the front and back covers are the most marvelous full color graphics! Inside the front cover are graphics of the "Stele of Revealing" (front and back), and a graphic of the back of the "Thoth Tarot" deck. The "Stele of Revealing" has a wonderful connection with the formation of Crowley's work "Liber AL vel legis (The Book Of The Law)". There is an engaging story in the book (Chapter 5, pages 20-25) about how this connection lead Crowley into taking the information channeled by his wife, Rose, seriously, which in turn acted as a catalyst for a series of psychic and magical events leading to "The Book Of The Law" And what student of the western mysteries is not familiar with : "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."

The graphic inside the back cover covers almost the entire cover, and is a reproduction of the Hermetic Rose Cross, complete with planetary and alchemical symbols. One could spend a great deal of time studying this alone!

Now, we move on to the book itself! Part One is pure DuQuette: "Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning To Study Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot." Little bits of things like the formula for repelling telemarketers! Little bits of things like seeing Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris as people with their own separate lives that somehow grew so very entwined (the best work I have seen of this nature since Mary Greer's "Women Of The Golden Dawn"). See how "Mad Bob" was instrumental in getting Mr. DuQuette to take a serious look at Crowley and his work. Look at Crowley's connection with Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame). Read about the metaphysical leanings of the Third Reich, and how Crowley's (anonymous) writing in a newsletter got the United States into the war on the side of Britain.

DuQuette also does a more than wonderful job of clearing up the esoteric background of the Thoth deck, which is instrumental in understanding this deck as more than great artwork. He covers sense of math and geometry that Lady Frieda Harris had to have to make this deck work. He covers the background of "The Book Of The Law", coming up with the following conclusions re Crowley:

* He was a passionate and adventurous spiritual seeker, bound from early manhood by severe personal oaths to gain supreme enlightenment; * He was a master poet, adept in the art of transforming abstract concepts into the imagery of language; * He was (as much as any man of his day) intimately acquainted with the gods, religions and mythologies of both the East and West. This familiarity gave him a rich vocabulary of words and images understandable to people of many cultures and religions.

And, most important,

* He was alive at the very moment a great shift of human consciousness was about to dramatically change the world; * He was sensitive enough to perceive this change and had the language skills to communicate it; * He was willing to suffer condemnation, ridicule, financial ruin, personal tragedy, and professional vilification to tell the world about it. 2

DuQuette goes into the background of the core of the Thoth Tarot, into such things as the revised court cards (Knight, Queen, Prince Princess, as opposed to the previously accepted King, Queen, Prince, Princess), and the renaming of four of the major trump cards: Justice becomes Adjustment; Strength becomes Lust; Temperance becomes Art and Judgment becomes The Aeon.

There is an in depth discussion of the Qabalistic "backbone" of the Thoth Tarot, and a highly understandable version of the unfolding of the cubic stone into the Golden Cross. It is magical in the highest to see how the petals of the rose become representations of the 22 Trumps, and the order in which they unfold.

The sections on the Aces, and how they act to "house" the four court cards for each suit is so very clear - one wonders why they were not able to "get it" before. (Hmmm Well, if we refer directly back to Crowley's work, it is pretty easy to see where we either got lost or sidetracked!)

There are several very good tables and graphs in this book, including one on the connection between the suits, the elements, the Aces and the Court Cards (pages 50-51); the Tree of Life (page 59); the Tree of Life & the Abyss (page 62); the numbers and the Tree of Life (page 64); colors and the trumps (pages 67-68); and a wonderful section comparing the Thoth and Golden Dawn Tarot's using the 22 Hebrew letters, the Hebrew letter sequence, the trump title and the traditional trump number (page 88).

There is a nicely done explanation of the concept of the Holy Guardian Angel, the union of microcosm (the number five) and macrocosm (the number six) that awakens us spiritually and, as DuQuette so eloquently put it, "Allows us to play with a full deck." 3

Part Two deals with the cards themselves. I have included examples here of the Major Arcana, The Pips, and the Court cards. Mr. Duquette has done an excellent job of presenting an in-depth discussion of each card - not of his interpretation of the card, but of the metaphysical and magical backgrounds Crowley attributed to each. From the book:

ATU II The High Priestess

The Priestess of the Silver Star

Planetary Trump of the Moon

Original design: A crowned priestess sits before the veil of Isis between the pillars of Seth. She is reading intently in an open book.

Hebrew Letter: Gimel (camel)

Tree of Life: Path 13, joining (1) Kether Crown to (6) Tipareth - Beauty.

Colors: Blue; Silver, Cold Pale Blue, and Silver, rayed Sky Blue

Purity is to live only to the highest; and the highest is All: be thou as Artemis to Pan!

Read thou in The Book Of The Law, and break through the veil of the virgin.

~~~~~

The Moon, partaking as she does of the highest and the lowest, and filling all the space between, is the most universal of the Planets.

It may seem curious that the Priestess represents the Moon, but ATU XVIII, the Moon, represents the zodiac sign of Pisces. We will see what Crowley has to say about that when we discuss the Moon. Here, let's be satisfied to know that the Priestess represents the Moon in her higher aspect - the aspect that joins the human to the divine. The Moon in ATU XVIII is - well - something else.

As the only middle-pillar path that spans the Abys, the position of the High Priestess on the Tree of Life is unique. She links the ultimate Father of Kether to the Son of Tipareth, and, in doing so, joins the supernal triad to the rest of the Tree. "In this card," Crowley points out, "is the one link between the archetypal and formative worlds." The Abyss she traverses is, quite literally, the desert of the soul, and like the desert camel, she is the only vehicle capable of crossing that terrible wasteland.

The principle deities connected with this card are those who, by tradition, represent the lunar goddess, the virgin goddess, huntress, and, most importantly, the powers and mysteries of woman as the initiatrix. If you look carefully, you will see that her bow is actually a three-stringed harp "for she is a huntress, and hunts by enchantment".

This card is a textbook display of the graphic principles of synthetic projective geometry. The arms of the Priestess sweep upward, pulling and distorting the webbed network of space and light, forming the crescent bowl of a magnificent Moon-colored cup. The pillars on either side of her are obscured by the diagonal webbing and somewhat difficult to see, but it is important to be conscious of their presence when meditating on the composition of the card. Harris has brilliantly executed Crowley's description as the most spiritual form of Isis the eternal virgin; the Artemis of the Greeks. She is clothed only in the luminous veil of light. It is important for high initiation to regard Light not as the perfect manifestation of the Eternal Spirit, but rather as veil which hides the Spirit. It does so all the more effectively because its incomparably dazzling brilliance. Thus she is light and the body of light. She is the Truth behind the Veil of Light. She is the soul of light.

The HIgh Priestess is the initiatrix. Initiation means "beginning". The objects that appear at the bottom of the card are not lunar symbols per se. The camel is, of course, indicative of the Hebrew letter Gimel (the Hebrew letter attributed to the High Priestess), but the other objects, the crystals and seeds, are suggestive of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the beginning of life. 4

~~~~~

Ace of Disks

With the Princess of the DIscs as its throne, the Ace of Discs rules its Aries-Taurus-Gemini quadrant above the North Pole, and the area of Europe and Africa.

Original Title: The Root of the Powers of the Earth.

Golden Dawn model: A hand appears from clouds at the bottom of the card holding the branch of a rose tree surmounted by a large disc composed of five concentric circles. The center is white, is adorned with a red Greek cross, and radiates twelve white rays that reach to the inner edge of the disc. Above this is a circled Maltese Cross with two white wings.

Color: White, flecked Gold

~~~~~

Steal not this book for fear of shame! The Ace of Discs - the Author's name.

To represent the root of the element earth and the material world Assiah, Lady Harris gives us the ultimate coin if the realm centered upon money-green layers of the vegatal embellishments that historically have adorned the world's paper currency.

A tarot tradition dating back to sixteenth-century Italy (where decks of cards were stamped and taxed by local authorities) dictates that the creator of the deck place his or her mark or signature on the Two or the Ace of Disks. Crowley was obviously aware of this tradition, and I think we can be confidant that he supervised its execution very carefully. The Ace of Disks is nothing less than Crowley's own magical signature. His motto, TO MET A OPHERION to Mega Therion, Greek for the Great Beast, is displayed on the perimeter of the disk, and his personal seal is placed in the very center of all.

A decagon fits snugly within the outer ring and seems to create ten facets that reach toward the center and curiously end at the points of two five-sided polygons. Within the two polygons is a heptagram (Thelema's Star of Babalon), and within the heptagram we find the Mark of the Beast.

The Mark of the Beast is made up of three intersecting circles. The uppermost circle contains a dot at its center, creating the astrological symbol of the Sun. Cradling the Sun circle from below is an upturned crescent Moon. Together, they are the Sun and Moon conjoined, the symbol of so many things that I would be an idiot to even start a footnote. The number 666, the number of the Sun and of the Beast is written across the two lower circles. This symbol is rich in magical and Qabalistic symbolism. One can also, with very little imagination, see a bird's-eye view of the three main characters of male genitalia. Perfect Crowley! 5

~~~~~

Queen of Cups Water of Water

20 degrees Gemini to 20 degrees Cancer

June 11 to July 11

Original Title: The Queen of the Thrones of Water; Queen of the Nymphs or Undines

Crest: Ibis

Symbols: Crayfish issuing from River.

Hair: Gold-Brown.

Eyes: Blue

~~~~~

Her image is of extreme purity and beauty, with infinite subtlety, to see the Truth of her is hardly possible, for she reflects the nature of the observer in great perfection.

The Queen of Cups is my birthday court card, so please be warned that the objectivity of my comments may be obscured by clouds of narcissism, but honestly, who am I to argue with Crowley?

Harris's Queen of Cups bears striking similarities to Atu II, the High Priestess. As a matter of fact, if you were to trim the borders of the two cards and place the Queen of Cups upside down above the High Priestess, you would see that they match in a dizzying display of synthetic projective geometry. Both cards present the image of a great cup, the stem of which is formed by the body of a goddess. Atu II is the cup of the virginal goddess of the Moon; the Queen of Cups is that of the great mother goddess.

Water of Water is tantamount to saying reflection of reflection, or mirror to mirror. The Queen of Cups is popular and makes friends easily because, when others look at her, they see only themselves. Crowley tells us that "She is the perfect agent, and patient, able to receive and transmit everything without herself being affected thereby." To liberals, she looks like a liberal; to conservatives, she looks like a conservative, when in truth she may be neither. If ill dignified, she can be dangerous and cruel, distorting the reflections she casts back on her unsuspecting victims, who then see only the monsters in the mirror.

My fellow Queen of Cups include Paul McCartney, Jacques Cousteau, John D. Rockefeller, Nikola Telsa, George Orwell and Gerald Gardner.

Cool blues and blue-greens dominate this card, as they do the other Cups court cards. 6

~~~~~

Eight of Wands Swiftness

(Mercury in Sagittarius)

O degrees to 10 degrees Sagittarius

November 23 to December 2

Original Title: Lord of Swiftness

Golden Dawn Model: Four hands (two from each side of the card) appear from clouds; clasped in two pairs in the center with the grip of the First Order. They hold eight wands, crossed four with four. Flames appear where wands meet.

King Scale for Hod: Violet.

The Four Scales for Mercury: Yellow; Purple; Grey; Indigo; rayed Violet.

The Four Scales for Sagittarius: Blue; Yellow; Green; Dark, vivid Blue.

Formula: 8 (Hod) of Wands (Atziluth) + Mercury in Sagittarius = SWIFTNESS

~~~~~

If this card doesn't electrocute you, it may tickle you to death. Harris departs dramatically from the Golden Dawn model, and offers us a portrait of energy becoming matter: "Light-wands turned into electrical rays, sustaining or even constituting Matter by their vibrating energy." without mentioning Einstein or the formula e=mc2, Crowley goes so far as to state: "This card, therefore, represents energy of high velocity, such as furnishes the master-key to modern mathematical physics."

Swiftness is the perfect title for this card, because it represents everything that requires speed and a high-frequency level to hold together, whether that be a business endeavor, a romance, or the sum of all the matter in the universe. All this is fine and good, but what does all that mean when this card appears in a tarot reading? Let's look at the formula.

Mercury is in Sagittarius, where the element fire has become stabilized, and is eminently comfortable. This partnership is double energized by being in Hod, the sphere of Mercury. Even Hod's low and unbalanced position on the Tree of Life does little to diminish the intense activity of this almost overly stimulated coupling. This card is like two people who have had too much coffee who stay up all night, talking simultaneously. A lot may be said. A lot may be learned. But, inevitably, they are both going to crash.

See Chapter 20 for the general divinatory meanings of this card. 7"

I hope that this little foray into the cards has shown at least a glimmer of the wisdom that Mr. DuQuette leads us to discover. Attempting to clarify the words of a person from another time (even a time so close to our own) can be a precarious venture. Speaking for myself, I now feel very comfortable wandering into the world of the Thoth Tarot, knowing that I will see the cards as more than "pretty faces", and the system as more than the ramblings of a unique and gifted individual.

Footnotes:

1. ibid. page 10.
2. ibid. page 25.
3. ibid. page 75.
4. ibid. pages 102-103.
5. ibid. pages 169-170.
6. ibid. pages 284-285.
7. ibid. page 229.

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.



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