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Understanding Aleister Crowley's THOTH TAROT
By Lon Milo DuQuette
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Lon Milo DuQuette
All rights reserved.
LITTLE BITS OF THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
It seems important that you should understand my motive. To me this Work on the Tarot is an Encyclopaedia of all serious "occult" philosophy. It is a standard Book of Reference, which will determine the entire course of mystical and magical thought for the next 2000 years. My one anxiety is that it should be saved from danger of destruction, by being reproduced in permanent form, and distributed in as many distant places as may be. I am not anxious to profit financially; if I had the capital available in this country, I should send (say) 200 copies to State Libraries in all parts of the world, and as many more to my principal representatives.
—Aleister Crowley to Mr. Pearson, Photoengraver, May 29, 1942.
Every year since 1969, when the first color edition appeared in bookstores and specialty shops worldwide, Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot has remained one of the best-selling tarot decks in the world. This is not surprising. In my opinion, it is quite simply the most stunningly beautiful deck of tarot cards ever created. It took the artist, the immensely talented Frieda Harris, over five years (1938-1943) to complete the seventy-eight surrealistic masterpieces.
Today, the images remain as hauntingly evocative as when they were first exhibited. The popularity of the cards, however, shines in bright contrast to the black reputation of the man who designed them and who relentlessly dictated every aspect of their execution—a man maligned during his lifetime as a black magician, and branded by the press "the wickedest man in the world."
Paradoxes seem to define the life and career of Edward Alexander (Aleister) Crowley. Yes, in many ways he was a scoundrel. There is no doubt that he wallowed shamelessly in his carefully cultivated persona as England's literary and spiritual bad-boy. At the same time, he took life and himself very seriously. Among other distinctions, he was a world-class mountaineer, chess master, painter, poet, sportsman, novelist, critic, and theatrical producer. He introduced America to astrology, Isadora Duncan to the I Ching, and the poet Victor Neuberg to hiking and high magick. As an agent provocateur writing for an English-language German propaganda newspaper in New York, he penned the outrageous and inflammatory editorials that provoked a reluctant United States Congress to enter World War I on England's side.
During World War II, at the request of friend and Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, Crowley provided Winston Churchill with valuable insights into the superstitions and magical mind-set of the leaders of the Third Reich. He also suggested to the prime minister, if reports can be believed, that he exploit the enemy's magical paranoia by being photographed as much as possible giving the two-fingered "V-for-Victory" gesture. This sign is the manual version of the magical sign of Apophis-Typhon, a powerful symbol of destruction and annihilation which, according to magical tradition, is capable of defeating the solar energies represented by the swastika.
Astonishingly, Crowley's adventures and achievements—more than any dozen men of ambition and genius could realistically hope to garner in a lifetime—seem almost to be distractions when weighed against his monumental exploits of self-discovery. His visionary writings and his efforts to synthesize and integrate the esoteric spiritual systems of East and West make him one of the most fascinating cultural and religious figures of the twentieth century.
Even though his highly esoteric (and often ponderous) writings today enjoy a level of readership and appreciation never approached during his lifetime, the number of aspirants willing to take up serious study of his Scientific Illuminism remains relatively small. For those daring and tenacious students, his Thoth Tarot becomes the cornerstone of their study—a priceless and indispensable treasure. It is nothing less than a full-color visual textbook of the wisdom of the ages—a living talisman that distills, in breathtaking pageantry, the essence of the spiritual education and insights of a modern master of the ancient mysteries. Is it any wonder that such a rare and radiant magical device should cast an irresistible spell upon nearly everyone with whom it comes in contact? For me, the answer is obvious. However, I think it is also fair to ask if it is possible for someone to use and enjoy the Thoth Tarot, even if they have absolutely no interest in Crowley or the Qabalistic, astrological, and magical aspects of the cards.
My answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" The Thoth Tarot happens to be the preferred deck of thousands of tarot collectors, students, and amateur and professional readers all over the world. Most with whom I have spoken tell me they choose the deck because of its haunting beauty and its efficacy as a divinatory tool. Those who know something about Crowley and his work are usually polarized in their opinions, but even those who consider him a perfectly dreadful individual still maintain a healthy admiration for the cards. I was once assailed by a venerable tarot reader who voiced the opinion shared by many professional readers and fans of the Thoth Tarot: "I don't care who Aleister Crowley was, and I don't believe in his magick. I just know I like those damned cards and they work!"
While it is undoubtedly true that only a small percentage of owners and users of the Thoth Tarot will ever fully appreciate the esoteric value of the cards, it is also abundantly clear to me that there are a great many people who would sincerely like to know more about them. If you find yourself in this group of seekers, this book is for you.
In recent years, several fine books have been published that use the Thoth Tarot as illustrations. By and large, these books pay respectful attention to the more obvious features of the cards. They are good tarot books in their own right, but they do not, in my opinion, deal satisfactorily with the profound concepts and revelations that make the Thoth Tarot so unique and important. There is, however, one book that does. It is a magnificent work written by the only person truly qualified to comment authoritatively on the cards. The singular shortcoming of this magnum opus, however, is not that it doesn't tell us enough—but that it tries to tells us everything.
Toward the end of his life, Crowley (writing as The Master Therion) wrote one of his greatest works, The Book of Thoth—A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians. He intended it as an "elementary treatise" on tarot in general and the Thoth Tarot in particular. As anyone who has read it, or attempted to read it, will tell you, it is anything but elementary. In fact, unless one is already extremely knowledgeable in the fields of mythology, philosophy, and religion, unless one is thoroughly steeped in the doctrines of the Hebrew Qabalah, unless one is intimately familiar with the immense body of magical and visionary work that occupied Crowley for nearly fifty years, unless one is fluent in the complex and enigmatic nomenclature these visions spawned, The Book of Thoth is most definitely not a user-friendly exposition of the Thoth Tarot.
This is not to say that the uninitiated cannot benefit from reading it. On the contrary, there is much in the text that is immediately comprehensible, indeed, profoundly inspirational. Nevertheless, if it is the reader's desire to gain some practical information about the Thoth Tarot quickly, he or she will most likely not read past the seventh paragraph:
One important interpretation of Tarot is that it is a Notariqon of the Hebrew Torah, the Law; also of ThROA, the Gate. Now, by the Yetziratic attributions—see table at end—this word may be read The Universe—the new-born Sun—Zero. This is the true Magical Doctrine of Thelema: Zero equals Two. Also, by Gematria, the numerical value of ThROA is 671 = 61 x 11. Now 61 is AIN, Nothing or Zero; and 11 is the number of Magical Expansion; in this way also, therefore, ThROA announces that same dogma, the only satisfactory philosophical explanation of the Cosmos, its origin, mode, and object.
Please do not think that I am deriding the content of the above statement. It is remarkably lucid and perfectly Crowley. I understand it (to a degree) and, given enough time (with breaks for meals), could explain it to any reasonably intelligent person. However, when I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it made absolutely no sense to me. I knew nothing about Qabalistic world subdivisions, Enochian Aethyrs, or magical societies. I couldn't get through one page of The Book of Thoth without encountering references to things I knew nothing about and reference books I did not possess.
Lady Harris was equally overwhelmed, and voiced her frustration in a January 1939 letter to Crowley.
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.
So it is with much of The Book of Thoth. It is a masterpiece without equal, and the perfect companion to the Thoth Tarot. While the latter can be appreciated the moment the cards are taken out of the box, however, the former demands a significant investment of time and study.
It would be many years before I realized that, had I known only just a little bit about the magical life of Aleister Crowley, just a little bit about his revolutionary spiritual world-view and prophetic visions, just a little bit about astrology, just a little bit about the Qabalah, just a little bit about alchemy, just a little bit about the Golden Dawn and the Tree of Life, then The Book of Thoth and the Thoth Tarot cards would soon have yielded many of their most important mysteries. What I needed was another book—a book that might have been titled Little Bits of Things You Should Know before Beginning Your Study of Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot.
Unfortunately for me, no such book existed at the time. Hopefully, one does now.
ALEISTER CROWLEY AND THE GOLDEN DAWN
Beyond all other mundane events it was the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that shaped Aleister Crowley's life. Once exposed to its Qabalistic system of grades and philosophy, its magical practices and ceremonies he was never the same.
Obviously, for us to begin to understand Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, we should first know a little bit about Aleister Crowley. Not forgetting my words in the previous chapter concerning the helpfulness of "little bits" of information, I must confess that, when the subject is Aleister Crowley, a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. Those knowing just a little bit about the man vilified him mercilessly during his life and continue to do so to this day. On the other side of the coin, there are those who know just a little bit about Crowley who become instant "true believers." They emulate his every perceived prejudice and vice and zealously worship him as if he were an omniscient and unerring god. Both views are dangerously flawed. Make no mistake about it: a person needs an enormous amount of information in order to arrive at a fair and reasonable understanding of this complex and remarkable character.
Unfortunately, space will not allow us a thorough examination and proper defense of the seventy-two-year adventure that was the colorful life of Aleister Crowley. For those of you who wish to take a more in-depth look, there are four biographies that I do not hesitate to recommend. They are included in the bibliography at the end of this volume.
Understandably, many of you will not care (or be able) to research these texts, nor should this gap in your Crowley education prevent you from using and enjoying the Thoth Tarot. I truly wish I could break every rule of literary decorum and simply say something like: Please trust me on this, folks. I know an awful lot about Crowley. He wasn't perfect. In fact, he could be perfectly horrible! But despite his outrageous behavior and many shortcomings, his spiritual quest was as sincere, as genuine, and as successful as any ever recorded. In this respect, he was in a very real sense a holy man. Within the mountains of written material he left behind there are priceless treasures waiting to be discovered by anyone willing to dig for them.
Aleister Crowley was born Edward Alexander Crowley on October 12, 1875, at Leamington, Warwickshire, England, to Edward Crowley, a wealthy brewer, and Emily Bertha Bishop. His father was a follower of John Nelson Darby and a lay preacher for the extremely conservative Plymouth Brethren Protestant sect. His mother was an enthusiastic (Crowley wrote "fanatical") member of the same.
Young Alex was a sickly child and endeavored to overcome his health deficiencies by hiking and rock climbing. He was educated by a number of private tutors and private schools, including Malvern College, Tonbridge, Eastbourne College, King's College, London, and finally Trinity College, Cambridge.
At Cambridge, he blossomed into a prolific poet and developed a keen interest in alchemy and all things mysterious and occult. In November of1898, he offered himself for initiation into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, taking the motto "Perdurabo," meaning "I shall endure to the end." This is an allusion to Matthew 10:22, that is chillingly prophetic of the future that lay before young Crowley: "And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved."
Although he would be instrumental in breaking it up just a few years later, the structure and teachings of the Golden Dawn would remain a major influence throughout his life. It would also, quite literally, provide the blueprint for his personal spiritual evolution. As we will soon see, the Golden Dawn's Equinox ceremony (when the Hierophant steps down and a new one is installed) foreshadowed a most profound cosmic event—but more on that later.
In the Golden Dawn's fifth degree (Adeptus Minor), the new initiate is required to paint his or her own deck of tarot cards modeled after one loaned to him or her by the Order. The model deck was almost certainly designed by the Order's master adept, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, and painted by his artist wife, Moina.
For less than a dozen years, this deck had been the most esoteric and secret pack of cards in existence. Candidates were bound by the most solemn and terrible oaths never to reveal the secret correspondences and images. Crowley, as part of his Adeptus Minor duties, most assuredly created his own, and the images of the Thoth Tarot are based solidly upon those of the Golden Dawn model. Later, when I discuss the individual cards, I will make repeated references to these original designs.
The Golden Dawn degree system is based upon the Qabalistic schema called the Tree of Life (see figure 21, chapter 9). This diagram will become very important to us in our study of the Thoth Tarot and the initiatory career of its creator. The Tree of Life consists of ten sephiroth,—emanations from (or aspects of) the supreme being. These ten sephiroth can be considered levels of consciousness—the lowest (10) being that of the material plane, the highest (1) being the supreme consciousness of deity. In the course of our incarnation adventures, each of us, in one way or another, eventually "climbs" this tree, gaining ever more subtle levels of consciousness, until we finally achieve union with godhead and supreme spiritual liberation.
The tarot is a perfect representation of the Tree of Life. The ace of each suit represents the top sephira (1) and the two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten of each suit represents its respective sephira on the Tree.
There are also twenty-two paths that connect the ten sephiroth and facilitate the candidate's climb up the tree. These twenty-two paths are represented in tarot by the twenty-two trump cards. We will discuss the Tree of Life in more detail in chapter 9. Here it is only necessary to remember that the ten sephiroth and twenty-two paths of the Tree of Life are the keys to understanding the magical life and career of Aleister Crowley, as well as the key to understanding the Thoth Tarot.
Excerpted from Understanding Aleister Crowley's THOTH TAROT by Lon Milo DuQuette. Copyright © 2003 Lon Milo DuQuette. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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