Review by Bonnie Cehovet
“The symbolism, traditional postures, attribution
of the cards, and the planetary, zodiacal, and elemental
colours have been given to me by an expert who has studied
the Tarot for forty years, and to whom my thanks are due
for his courteous co-operation.”
Lady Frieda Harris
I feel like I am light years behind in reviewing this deck, which, along with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, is not only a popular deck, but a classic Tarot deck. Originally published in 1969, it has since come out in several different sizes and versions (including varied coloring). (Note: The deck was not published in the lifetimes of either Aleister Crowley or Lady Frieda Harris, aside from a limited edition of 200 copies that Lady Frieda Harris herself had printed.)
The deck that I am reviewing is the 2006 edition from US Games, Inc. It comes in a beautiful lavender colored box (as opposed to the cream colored version), and includes an 80 card deck (there are three versions of the Magus), a 20” by 17” spread sheet for the Celtic Cross spread, and a 48 page instruction booklet (LWB – Little White Book) by James Wasserman. The LWB was edited and updated by Lynn Araujo, and includes two essays written by Lady Frieda Harris, along with commentary by Stuart R. Kaplan.
The back of the sleeve that the box comes in shows images of the Hierophant and the Star, along with a short background on the deck. The back of he box that holds he deck contains concise biographies of Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris.
This is a controversial deck, to be sure – in large part because Crowley himself is such a controversial figure (by choice). The deck was begin in 1938, and completed in 1943. Traditional Tarot symbolism was revised along highly esoteric lines, based on Crowley’s own esoteric theories. (Note: Crowley was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as was Lady Frieda Harris.)
This deck is so heavily esoteric that it can be hard to understand. Crowley wrote a guidebook to the deck, entitled “The Book of Thoth”, which was illustrated with Frieda Harris’s images. Quite frankly, it is not an easy book to follow. (Crowley likes to hear himself talk.) Other books that may be a bit easier to understand are Lon Milo DuQuette’s “Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot”, or Gerd Ziegler’s “Tarot: Mirror of the Soul”.
The LWB starts out with the background of the deck, followed by a section on the background of Tarot, connecting it strongly to the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. The suggestion is made that the reader should give an invocation to higher forces before doing a reading (or, alternately, visioning a radiant white light purifying and exalting consciousness). The following is offered as a sample invocation”
“I invoke Thee, IAO, that Thou wilt send HRU, the great Angel that is set over the operation of this secret Wisdom, to lay his hand invisibly on these consecrated cards of art, that thereby we may obtain true knowledge of hidden things to the glory of thine ineffable Name. Amen.”
There is a fifteen card template (laid out in five groups of three) presented in the that acts as an alternative to the classic ten card Celtic Cross spread.
The card meanings are presented in brief form, text only (no scans). For example:
0 The Fool. In spiritual matters, represents ideas and thoughts, which endeavor to transcend earth. In material matters, reveals folly, eccentricity, even mania. It represents a sudden, unexpected impulse.
Knight of Cups. The fiery part of water. A man with commitment issues. Amiable but passive. Attracted to excitement. Unsustainable enthusiasm. Sensitive but shallow. Influenced: Sensual and idle, untruthful, prone to depression and drug abuse.
Note: In the Thoth Tarot the Knight takes the place of the King.
Two of Swords. Peace. Dual nature. Sacrifice and trouble giving birth to strength. Conflict leading to peace. Pleasure after pain. Truth and untruth. Indecision. Ambivalence.
Stuart Kaplan provides a very nice introduction to the essays, indicating that the first essay, “Exhibition of Playing Cards – The Tarot (Book of Thoth), 78 Paintings”, was probably edited by Lady Frieda Harris from Crowley’s writings, while the second essay, “Exhibition of 78 Paintings of the Tarot Cards”, written for an art exhibition at Berkeley Galleries, was written by Lady Frieda Harris.
Traditional titles are used for the Trumps (Major Arcana), with the following exceptions: Magus (Magician), Adjustment (Justice), Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune), Lust (Strength), Art (Temperance), and Aeon (Judgment). The four suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Disks. The Court Cards are Knight, Queen, Prince and Princess.
The artwork itself shows the influence of both art deco and projective geometry (through the work of Rudolf Steiner). Instead of the usual straight or curved lines, when we look at the Thoth deck we see arcs, sworls, and geometric forms overlaid in a stunning pattern, made more so through the use of color. It is like stepping into another dimension to look at this deck, much less to read with it.
The card that departs the most from traditional imagery is that of Aeon. In place of the trumpeting Angel we see stylized figures of the deities from the Stele of Revealing and “The Book of the Law”.
The cards themselves are 2 7/8” by 4 3/8”, of good quality card stock. The card backs image on the card backs is that of the Rose Cross, surrounded by a white border. This is Lady Frieda Harris’s interpretation of the Hermetic Rose Cross. Within this cross is represented all 78 cards of the Tarot.
The card faces show a narrow white outer border, followed by a gray inner border. For the Major Arcana, the Roman numeral is centered at the top of the card, with the card title, astrological glyph and Hebrew letter, at the bottom. (Note: I have one small gripe here: the titles are in black letter, with light gray lettering behind them reading Trumps (for the Major Arcana), and the suit name for the Minor Arcana. It is a bit annoying.) For the Pips (numbered cards), the number in Arabic numerals is at the top of the card, with the esoteric title at the bottom of the card. For the Court cards, title and suit is placed at the bottom of the card.
The Fool for me is quite a startling card – in place of a rather ephemeral being, we see quite a strong individual, arms raised, bearing a sphere containing Illusion in his left hand, a staff in his right hand, over his right shoulder. At his feet are a lion and a dragon.
The Two of Cups (esoteric title Love), is beautifully portrayed by two fountains of water (silver on the left, gold on the right).
Note: The Pips are not illustrated as such – they closely follow the Marseille tradition of using icons only with a few additions.
The Three of Wands (esoteric title Virtue) shows three gold wands crossed in the center of the card, against a bright orange background.
The Four of Swords (esoteric title Truce) shows four swords in the center of the card, tips pointed towards the center) against an emerald green background, with a lavender rose with white rays.
The Ace of Disks is a geometric wonder! Incorporated into this card are five concentric circles, with a yellow circle in the center. In the center of the circle we see both a hexagram and a pentagram.
For those students interested in the Golden Dawn, or in esoteric imagery, this is a wonderful deck to study. For those wishing to simply collect the deck, or use it for journeying or guided imagery, this is also an excellent deck. I would highly recommend purchasing DuQuette’s book along with the deck (rather than, or in addition to, Crowley’s own Book of Thoth), because it is much easier to follow!
© August 2010, Bonnie Cehovet
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.