Thoth Tarot Deck
Deck Name: Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck
Artist: Frieda Harris
Publisher: U.S. Games Systems, A.G. Müller
First Published: 1969
The year is 1938. Aleister Crowley encourages his pupil, a surrealist painter named Frieda Harris*, to design a deck of tarot cards. "It will be easy," he assures her. It won't be, but the Thoth tarot deck––the final product of this persuasion––will become one of the best known occult decks in the world.
Crowley plans to "get hold of the best available old pack" and have Harris re-draw it "with occasional corrections and emendations." Harris suggests that Aleister redesign the deck and write a book about it. Harris prevails. The tarot, rather than being "finished easily by Christmas," takes five years.
Harris and Crowley's abundant correspondence––preserved and published by Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.)––is the most complete record we have of a tarot deck's creation. As Frieda created the cards, they took on lives and wills of their own, even affecting her physically. In one letter to Aleister Crowley, she broods over the aces:
I keep on thinking about those 4 elements & their mightiness & I feel drowned in water, burnt with fire, cut by the air & dug into the earth.
Harris goes on to ask, "Have you ever realized how much I have given up for this work?...I am become a nothing in the wilderness."
The Thoth tarot, like the Rider-Waite-Smith deck before it, is based on the teachings of the Golden Dawn. As influential as it was short-lived, the Golden Dawn was a magical order whose members swore to "divulge nothing...concerning this Order to the outside world."† A.E. Waite, Pamela Smith and Aleister Crowley were all members, and all received the same teachings on the tarot.
The Golden Dawn's influence on the Thoth deck is apparent. One only has to read Book T, the order's treatise on the tarot, to see it. Some cards, such as the Princess of Wands, follow its instructions almost to the letter. Each pip card carries a subtitle like the one given in Book T. The Two of Swords, for example, is called "Peace Restored" in Book T and "Peace" in the Thoth deck.
The differences between the two decks go beyond style. Waite and Smith took pains "to introduce the mysteries, not to reveal them" (DuQuette, 205). Crowley, in contrast, did not feel bound by the order's oaths to secrecy; he published its teachings and used them as basis for his own ideas. By 1938, thirty years after Waite and Smith's deck was published, few of the Golden Dawn's teachings were still secret.
A few of the trumps, and the names of the court cards, are different from any previous decks. These differences, outlined below, are minor but telling, and explained in Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot.
||The High Priestess
||Wheel of Fortune
Neither creator lived to see this deck published. The Book of Thoth, Crowley's book on the tarot, was privately published in 1944, and parts of the deck were exhibited in the 1940s. The deck was first fully published in 1969, though it was poorly made; Harris's paintings were re-photographed for later editions.
Today, the best quality Thoth deck is one published by A.G. Müller and U.S. Games Systems. It is small––the cards are 4.5 by 3.5 inches––and it comes in a bluish/purplish packaging, as shown at the top of this page. Its cards lack the "murky green tinge" of the larger version.
An in-depth analysis of the Thoth tarot deck is beyond this article's scope. Those looking for a study are advised to read Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, by Lon Milo DuQuette. This book covers the deck's history, describes each of its cards in depth, and introduces the esoteric ideas behind its symbols.
Top row: The Star (Atu XVII) and The Universe (Atu XXI).
Bottom row: The 10 of Swords and the 8 of Disks.
More Tarot Decks:
The Vampire Tarot
Tarot of the New Vision
*Some sources, including the Thoth tarot's packaging, incorrectly refer to her as "Lady Frieda Harris." She was entitled to style herself as "Lady Harris" because her husband was a baronet. According to Clive Harper, "'Lady Frieda Harris' would only be correct if she was, for example, the daughter of a duke, and so entitled...through her father" (DuQuette, 14). Return to text
†For an excellent description of the Golden Dawn's initiation ceremony, see the opening chapter of Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley, by Richard Kaczynski.
Return to text
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth. Weiser, 1992.
Crowley, Aleister and Harris, Frieda. Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot. U.S. Games Systems and A.G. Müller, 2006.
Crowley, Aleister and Harris, Frieda. "Correspondence between Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris." Reprinted by Ordo Templi Orientis in 1990.
Duquette, Lon Milo. Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Red Wheel/Weiser, San Francisco, 2003.
Kaczynski, Richard. Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2010.
Marchman-Jones, Clarice. "This is the Thoth deck to own!" Amazon Review, February 1, 2001. Accessed 12 April 2011 at http://tinyurl.com/6bj9k89
Mathers, S.L. Book T. Reprinted on http://www.tarot.org.il/Library/Mathers/Book-T.html. Accessed 10-12 April 2011.
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