Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo DuQuette
Review by Diane Wilkes
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.
As an unabashed enthusiast of Lon Milo DuQuette, both personally and professionally, I was delighted to hear a few months ago that he was writing a book on the Thoth Tarot. Many scholars greater than myself have found Aleister Crowley's The Book of Thoth too challenging a read to shed light on the beautiful and rich Thoth Tarot, and, while I did manage to get through The Book of Thoth, I knew I never gleaned nearly enough wisdom from it to give justice to the Thoth Tarot. I had total faith that a man of DuQuette's credentials and accessible and humorous writing style would do both Crowley's writings and the Thoth Tarot justice and create a masterwork that would engage neophytes and the most ardent of Thelemites. I even recommended it pre-publication to students who wanted to learn to use the Thoth deck and couldn't get through Crowley's book...at least, not in this century.
(Excuse me while I do the happy dance of someone whose faith has been rewarded.)
I'm back. Now I'll do the Nitty Gritty, or rather, give you the nitty gritty on the book's contents.
Every card is addressed in wonderful, lucid detail (the excerpt below is my verification). Crowley's names for the Majors, along with the planetary and/or elemental attribution, Hebrew letter assignment, path on the Tree of Life, and the color schemes are all listed at the beginning of each card entry, along with the decanates associated with the card (if pertinent). The Golden Dawn card illustration, which served as a prototype for the Thoth Tarot, is also described. These in-depth essays on each card are not meant for prognosticative purposes, but truly enrich the reader's understanding, offering a detailed discussion of the qabalistic and mythological associations Crowley invested in each card, along with the symbolism and history. In addition, there is an appendix devoted to Crowley's divinatory meanings for each card, compiled from numerous sources, but all original to Crowley. DuQuette does not project any of his own theories or meanings onto the cards, but "lets Crowley speak for Crowley." We begin to see the cards for what they are--78 pages of the book of personal evolution and growth--and not, "When this card appears in a reading, you'll be seeing a proctologist or visiting the planetarium."
While these card descriptions should and would be enough to make you spend your hard-earned and saved pennies on Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, I haven't even mentioned the first section of the book, which is every bit as valuable and necessary to your understanding of the Thoth Tarot. Nor did I point out the slicer-dicer set, which comes with the book and is available for the same low, low price.
Okay, so there is no slicer-dicer that accompanies the book (I can't fool you guys for a minute!). But what DuQuette offers in the first section is what he calls "Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning to Study Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot." "Little Bits..." clarifies Crowley's often obfuscatory prose and illuminates the use of color and geometric design by Thoth Tarot artist, Lady Frieda Harris. The story of how Crowley "received" The Book of the Law and its influence on the Thoth deck is provided, along with the story of the Aeon card and its meaning (and its differences from the Judgment card in previous Golden Dawn tarots). DuQuette examines and explains, in an open and direct manner, Crowley's visions and the terminology that might alienate readers. He also reveals the mysteries of the Rosicrucian Cross that graces the Thoth card backs and elucidates the basics of the Tree of Life and alchemy as they relate to the tarot in general and the Thoth Tarot in particular.
Lastly, no such introduction would be complete without a discussion of the Holy Guardian Angel and that relationship between the reader and the Divine.
Now you may have tried to absorb some of this material before, and your brain said, "Nope, sorry, not open for business." But when this information is expressed through the magical words of Lon Milo DuQuette, your medulla oblongata will miraculously become more oblong, enough to break its former chains of ignorance. Soon, those pesky sephira will seem but baby steps to you and your oh-so-oblong medulla.
Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration (of both the book and your medulla). But let me give you but one example. Perhaps you have come across the oft-quoted line, "Tzaddi is not The Star" and been totally bemused (yet nodded your head sagely in public). Of course, once you realized that Tzaddi is a Hebrew letter and that all the Majors have been assigned Hebrew letters, and that the Golden Dawn assigned Tzaddi to the Star, you kinda understood the basis of the statement, if not the change-up Crowley throws us by that statement.
(Are you still with me? I don't have DuQuette's magic touch...)
So let me quote the master (Crowley would be the Master--that capitalization factor is how we can differentiate...):
When Crowley "heard" the reference to "the fortress" and "the House of God" (alternate titles to trump XVI, The Tower), a question arose in his mind concerning the general correctness of the ordering of the tarot trumps. Instantly, his question was answered, when Aiwass (Crowley's Holy Guardian Angel) dictated the next line: "All these old letters of my Book are aright but Tzaddi is not the Star. This is also secret: my prophet shall reveal it to the wise."
This comment puzzled Crowley. If Tzaddi was not the Star, then what card was? And what Hebrew letter should be attributed to the Star card? The answer was some time in coming, but when it did come, there was no doubt in Crowley's mind that he had figured it out. Tzaddi was the Emperor.
DuQuette goes on to cite Crowley as to why. "The sign TZ or TS implies this in the original, onomatopoetic form of language. It is derived from Sanskrit roots meaning Head and Age, and is found today in words like Caesar, Tsar, Sirdar, Senate, Senior, Signor, Señor, Seigneur." (Crowley)
The Emperor's old letter was Hé. It would now be attributed to the Star. Hé is the letter for both female components of YHVH...and a perfect representation of the Star Goddess depicted on Atu (key) XVII. DuQuette then shows through diagrams, as well as words, how this works astrologically. He then goes on to show how Crowley confuses the issue in writing later down the line. This is probably one of the most complex changes you will find from the Golden Dawn system, involving astrology and the Hebrew letter correspondences, yet DuQuette's clarity of writing makes it relatively easy to follow.
I am only abstaining from quoting and quoting from this marvelous book because I want you to go out and buy it for yourself (and there's always that little copyright bugaboo to consider, as well).
My only criticism of Understanding the Thoth Tarot is that there are way too many typos. One such error ("Om tje 8, 9, and 10 of April...") appears on page 22, and had me thinking, "Om tje? Om tje? Sounds like some meditation Crowley picked up in Tibet..." until I came to my senses. I hope and trust that these errors will be corrected prior to the next printing.
And there will be a second and third printing of this classic text. For those who have already eaten up the words of Crowley and asked for seconds and thirds, this book might not be necessary (though it should still be refreshing as all get-out). However, for many tarotists who love the Thoth deck's art but have never managed to understand Crowley's writings, this book is an incredible and invaluable gift.
Many purists have scoffed at the works of Arrien and Wanless on the Thoth Tarot because they don't hew to Crowley's initial vision. Even as I will always support the right of individuals to approach (and write about) a deck in a way that is innovative and useful (and it's bound to be useful to some!), I can't help but be grateful to DuQuette for shedding the Hermit's lantern over Crowley's work and offering the rest of us a light on a path that isn't so easy to tread alone.
The High Priestess
The Priestess of the Silver Star
Planetary Trump of the Moon
Original Design: A crowned princess sits before the veil of Isis between the pillars of Seth. She is reading intently in an open book.(36)
Hebrew Letter: Gimel (camel)
Tree of Life: Path 13, joining Kether--Crown toTipareth--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! (37)
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. (38)
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 Abyss, 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."(39) 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 principal deities connected with this card are those who, by tradition, represent the lunar goddess, virgin priestess, 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."(40)
This card is a textbook display of the graphic principles of synthetic projective geometry. (41) 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. (42) 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 the veil which
hides that Spirit. It does so all the more effectively because of 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
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.
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.
If you would like to read an interview with the author, Lon Milo DuQuette, click here.
Be sure to check out the November ATA Newsletter, Tarot Reflections, for another interview of Lon Milo DuQuette and another review of this book.
Cited text © 2003 Weiser Books and footnotes from Crowley 36-40 and 43 ©
Weiser Books; footnote 41© Rudolph Steiner Press 1989
Review and page © 2003 Diane Wilkes