Interview with Lon Milo DuQuette
Conducted by Diane Wilkes
I met Lon Milo DuQuette several years ago at a tarot conference. Arnell Ando had just completed the artwork for the Storyteller Tarot and I was displaying it to various and sundry folk. Lon's sincere enthusiasm and interest in both the deck and discussing everything about tarot in general were engaging; his intelligence and warmth were even more so. He was particularly interested in my Lovers card, because of its connection to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen. It turned out he and his wife were both Austenphiles. After I attended one of his classes and couldn't stop raving, my friend Michele began to tease me about my predilection for all things Lon--I read all of his books, enjoying his accessible manner to things that I had previously found a bit arcane for my tastes.
At the last International Tarot Society congress, I remember another wonderful exchange with Lon. I had just signed my contract with Lo Scarabeo to create the Jane Austen Tarot and noticed Lon sitting in the same room. Lon and I discussed many cards and their Austen story connection possibilities. And I have often thought of that chat as I worked on the cards. His enthusiasm for this project helped to keep my spirits up during this lengthy and sometimes challenging process.
So, you can see that I have reasons for my personal fondness for the man. But that affection had nothing to do with my eagerness to read his latest book, Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Though I have waded through Crowley's The Book of Thoth, I never believed I truly understood it all. And I didn't find that it helped me understand the Thoth Tarot. I had total faith that DuQuette could help me to plumb many of the mysteries of the Thoth Tarot, a deck I used personally and professionally for many years.
To say he has done that, and more, is too modest a statement--certainly too modest for a man whose shameless self-promotion does little to help "his loved ones for whom [he]...has otherwise made no future provisions."
DW: Many people come to tarot via different avenues-psychological, pagan, ceremonial magick, etc. What were your first experiences with the tarot? What has your journey with the tarot been like?
LMD: My interest in tarot grew out of my youthful studies of the Western Mystery traditions, particularly Rosicrucianism and Qabalah. Several of my friends in the Rosicrucian Order AMORC pulled me aside one afternoon after convocation and mentioned that I might be interested in the tarot lessons of the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA). We had to talk quietly because it was discourteous to discuss other organizations in temple. We felt so deliciously evil!
I took the lessons for about three years and developed a deep love of tarot – at the time not so much as a divinatory tool but as a meditative focus and a visual encyclopedia of the Western Mysteries.
Since then my 30 odd (very) years “journey with the tarot” has been as glorious and terrifying as any adventurous tale of the Grail Quest. We may just as well paraphrase the sacred question and ask me, “Whom doth the tarot serve?”
DW: You created your own deck, Tarot of Ceremonial Magick. Could you talk a bit about that experience? Is there anything you would change about the deck or book today?
LMD: I didn’t set out to create a Tarot deck. I’m far too lazy and unambitious to ever dream of such a thing. It began as a simple project to demonstrate to members of my weekly magick class (now in our 26th year) how tarot is like the DNA of the Hebrew Qabalah and that the occult arts of astrology and several of the most popular varieties of ceremonial magick have tarot as a common denominator. It wasn’t that hard, but it did take about five years.
DW: You are a self-described Thelemite. Could you explain what that means to the uninitiated?
LMD: Thelema is Greek for “Will”. In broadest terms a Thelemite, like all sincere spiritual seekers, is striving to discover the meaning to his or her own existence (in astronomical terms what is our true orbit or trajectory in life). Each of us has our place in the universe – a place not only geographically, but a specific job that only we can execute –a job that is ultimately necessary for us to perform as an integral part of the great scheme of things. That job is our Will, and whenever we are doing our Will we are in sync with the forces and momentum of the entire universe. Whenever we are not doing our will, however, we collide with our environment like a planet knocked out of its orbit.
The terms Thelema and Thelemite are usually used in reference to the work of Aleister Crowley, who in the first half of the twentieth century was a zealous proponent of discovering ones Will and then doing it. Fans and students of Crowley’s work often call themselves Thelemites whether they grasp the profundity of the word or not. Obviously anyone in the world has discovered their Will and is proceeding to execute it is technically a Thelemite no matter what their belief system may be – even if they’ve never heard of Aleister Crowley or the word Thelema.
DW: What (other) ways do you combine magick and the tarot, if any? And are there are other ways you use the tarot? How frequently do you use the tarot. or, like Crowley, do you prefer the I Ching?
LMD: You might not believe this, but I believe that one of the most profound magical acts one can do with a deck of tarot cards is to simply put them in order. It’s not very magical, however, if you don’t realize that the thing you are really putting in order is yourself.
The Tarot may not have started out as a Qabalistic wonder-tool but it sure developed into one. No matter what tarot’s historical pedigree may be, by the nineteenth century (at the latest) it congealed into the structure that we see today; 22 trumps, four aces, 16 court cards, and 36 pips. Whether or not there was conscious effort on anybody’s part to break the cards up in this patently qabalistic manner the fact remains that this arrangement expresses the most fundamental principles of the Qabalah.
Frankly, I think it’s far more miraculous and spooky to believe that a popular card game evolved into qabalistic perfection rather than it is to believe that some adepts with too much time on their hands designed the cards from the beginning to express specific doctrines and concepts.
Familiarity with the cards on this level takes you in short order to a place where the simple act of gazing at a card triggers a wealth of correspondences in your subconscious mind, things that you are most likely not aware of consciously. Imagine what it is doing to you while you gaze multiple times at each one of the 78 cards while organizing them, the universe and YOU by putting them it order.
I would probably have to say that I use tarot in one way or another every day. Like many tarot readers I’ve spoken to over the years, I find it much easier to read for others than read for myself.
When divining for myself, it’s easier to consult the I Ching; it offers less room for self-delusion and wishful thinking. For over thirty years, I’ve used the Wilhelm-Baynes edition, but recently I wrote my own I Ching in which I put the classic text into my own words. For instance; the third moving line of the 47th Hexagram in the classic W-B text says:
“A man permits
himself to be oppressed by stone,
And leans on thorns and thistles.
He enters his house and does not see this wife.
The same line in the I Ching of Mi-Lo says:
“Bummed out about the wrong things, you turn to stupid things for support. Your wife leaves you.”
The W-B for the fourth moving line for #50 the Ting (Cauldron) reads:
“The legs of the
ting are broken.
The prince’s meal is spilled
And his person is soiled.
The same line in the I Ching of Mi-Lo reads:
“Headline: Texan President gets drunk with prairie scum cronies! Pukes on Japanese President.”
I suggest that anyone familiar with the text of the I Ching should take the time and do the same thing. It’s really dramatic to consult the oracle and be answered in your own words. After all, the answers all ultimately come from ourselves.
DW: Aleister Crowley is the most controversial figure in tarot ever, I think, with people either worshipping him or hating and fearing him. Why do you suppose he is so polarizing a figure and how would you describe him?
LMD: I spend a great deal of space in my new book, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, to the character and personality of this complex and highly eccentric character. I think the most concise thing I can say here is that if Aleister Crowley had been born in 1925 instead of 1875, his teachings would have had a much broader appeal and his life-style would have hardly raised an eyebrow. He would have most likely been placed slightly to the right of Timothy Leary and slightly to the left of Joseph Campbell.
DW: You once mentioned that you were sworn into the Masons using "your" Bible. Would you like to share that story with Tarot Passages' readers?
LMD: There’s not much to tell, actually. Masonry opens her doors to adult men of every creed and religion. As long as one professes a belief in a Supreme Being and any form of afterlife, he is welcome. A Mason takes his obligation with his hand or hands resting upon what is called in the Craft the “Volume of the Sacred Law,” a book symbolic of the sacred texts of each Mason’s own religion. As most Masons in the United States are either Christian or Jewish, most of the time you will see a Bible or a Torah on the altar. But if the candidate is a Moslem, the VSL used for his initiation is the Koran, or a Mormon, the Book of Mormon. As I am an Archbishop in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a Thelemic Gnostic Church whose Holy Book is Liber AL vel Legis (the Book of the Law), a week or so before my initiation it was arranged with Grand Lodge to have Liber AL added to the approved Holy Texts to be used in California for Masons of the Thelemic faith. Since then, it has been used by many Thelemic Masons in California and I understand it is now also used in other states as well.
DBW: Your new book is devoted to "Understanding the Thoth Tarot". Please tell me about it.
LMD: The Thoth Tarot, created by Aleister Crowley and painted by Frieda Harris is one of the most popular and best-selling tarot decks in the world. As Harris painted, Crowley wrote The Book of Thoth, the text that was to accompany the deck – a book that represent the sum of his understanding of magick, alchemy and the western mystery traditions. Unfortunately, The Book of Thoth is so esoteric and complex that only a few individuals are magically ‘educated’ enough to begin to appreciate its profundities.
When I first bought the cards and read The Book of Thoth over thirty years ago I had no idea what Crowley was talking about in 99% of the text. Lady Harris even wrote Crowley that his writings were just too hard to understand. She wrote in 1939:
“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.”
The idea was first suggested by Miss Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, the occult buyer at New Leaf Distributing and a dear friend, at an informal meeting with me, Donald Weiser and Betty Lundsted of Weiser Books at Book Expo America in Chicago. I had no idea Judith was going to pitch the concept. She pointed out the fact that, other than Crowley’s The Book of Thoth itself, there is no book that adequately examines the Thoth Tarot from the point of view of a Crowley “expert.”
My first book with Weiser, The Magick of Thelema (now reissued as The Magick of Aleister Crowley) was my attempt to ‘translate’ Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice into language understandable to more people. I guess I did a pretty good job of it, because the title has sold very well in the last ten years. Don and Betty agreed with Judith that the world in general and the tarot and magical worlds in particular needed a similar book to explain the Thoth Tarot and The Book of Thoth, and that I should write it.
That was that. I had hardly spoken a word. I went back to my hotel and stared out the window at a glorious Chicago thunderstorm and asked myself, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into? For the next three years I would find out.
DW: I have been reading your wonderful new book, and I have some specific questions that might interest readers. How much knowledge of Egyptian mythology does one need to understand the Thoth deck?
LMD: Only a little bit. But that little bit is very important. I try to provide that little bit in the book. In fact, the first half of the book is called, "Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning To Study the Thoth Tarot"
DW: You make it quite clear that the Thoth deck is heavily based on the Golden Dawn prototype, though Trump XX, The Aeon, is quite different from the Golden Dawn Judgment card. Would you like to talk a bit about that?
LMD: We're all familiar with the traditional image of Trump XX, Judgment (or The Last Judgment). It is a picture described in the Book of the Revelation of John. The angel Israfel blows his trumpet on Judgment Day - the day God's wrath towards humanity is unleashed and the world is destroyed by fire. The corpses of the dead rise from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and begin to pull themselves zombie-like out of their crypts to await God's Judgment.
What the interpreters of John's Revelation omitted to tell us for nearly two thousand years is the fact that the "End of the World" is not really the end of the world. It's the end of the "age".
Crowley goes to great lengths (and I go to DuQuette-sized lengths) to explain how the revelation of John was indeed the prophetic image of the end of the Age. John, writing in the first century and being the voice of a spiritual formula that was just beginning, viewed the events that would end his era as being horrible and frightening. Who can blame him? He was a major stockholder in Christian Corp.
Crowley said that John's age (or Aeon) ended in 1904 and the birth of a new age (generally coincidental with the birth of the astrological age of Aquarius) began. Using the symbolic language and imagery of Egyptian magick, we've moved from the Aeon of Osiris to the Age of Horus, whose traditional weapons are force and fire. In other words, the old world (Age)of Osiris was destroyed by Fire (Horus) in 1904.
In the Thoth Tarot, Crowley replaced the obsolete Judgment Trump with The Aeon, which symbolically depicts the divine principles and forces that represents the current age. To find out more details - I urge you to read my book.
DW: You write a great deal of the importance of being in contact with the Holy Guardian Angel. How would you suggest someone who has not read Crowley's work go about doing that? Or would you suggest they not do so at all?
LMD: I know this might sound odd for me to say, but I firmly believe that at this point in time most individuals who undergo the spiritual experience of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel have never heard the name Aleister Crowley and have never connected the concept of the "The Holy Guardian Angel" to the experience and its accompanying expansion of consciousness - nor do they ever need to.
For most HGA-ized people on this planet, the experience is simply tantamount to "falling hopelessly in love with God."
DW: Your book is, in many ways, strictly a "translation" of Crowley's The Book of Thoth into accessible English. Did you interject any of your own interpretations that were not strictly derived from Crowley's writings?
LMD: No. There are plenty of books already that try to do that, and Crowley would be turning over in his grave (if he had one). As far as the interpretive meanings of the cards are concerned, I stayed completely out of it and let Crowley be Crowley. I collected the various Crowley interpretations in one place and put them in the back of the book. That way beginning readers can go to one convenient place in the text and quickly find the interpretive meanings without having to dig through my discussions of Qabalah, Tree of Life, Astrology, numbers and color.
DW: I recently read somewhere that the subtitle of your new book (An authoritative examination of the world's most fascinating and magical tarot cards) indicates questionable authority. First, it doesn't look like a subtitle to me, and second, doesn't the publisher create such a description? And lastly, how would you answer such a charge?
LMD: Does someone have a problem with the word "Authoritative"? Let's take it outside. Wands at 10 paces!
Seriously, I can't imagine anyone possibly having a problem with them subtitling the book, "An Authoritative Examination of the World's Most Fascinating and Magical Tarot Cards".
In the front-end material of the book I acknowledge the value of the works of other authors (several of whom, as you know, are dear friends) who have in the past have offered their opinions on aspects the Thoth Tarot. I'm certainly not suggesting I am any more intelligent or wise than any of these brilliant tarot experts. There is no question, however, that I have received a radically different education.
· For nearly thirty years I've immersed myself in the study of the magical works of Aleister Crowley.
· Early in my studies I was privileged to receive instruction and guidance from individuals who knew and worked with Crowley.
· Beginning in 1975, I underwent formal initiation in magical Orders created by Crowley to properly and effectively impart his specific magical techniques and processes (among these matters relating to the mysteries of the Thoth Tarot).
· As part of my spiritual life work I practice the magical and alchemical techniques for which the Thoth Tarot was designed to be the visual textbook.
· As a fully initiated and instructed national and international officer of one of those great Orders, I've had access to unpublished archival material directly relating magical and artistic concepts that have a direct and critical bearing on understanding the Thoth Tarot.
· Besides all that, my general Tarot credentials are not so shabby either. I'm a Certified Tarot Grand Master, creator of my own deck (Tarot of Ceremonial Magick), author of two non-Crowley related Tarot books, and one hell of nice guy!
· With due respects all around, I believe that, in magical and esoteric matters that address specific principles that make the Thoth Tarot unique among all other Tarot cards, I do have somewhat an edge.
DW: You stress in the book that one should read and re-read The Book of Thoth for many reasons, not least of which is that such dedication is repaid in many ways. Once someone has done so, is there any other book by Crowley that you consider a "must-read" to fully understand the Thoth Tarot?
LMD: Yes. First and most important is The Book of the Law. You might not understand much of it at first, but after a while, it becomes a real treasure. Next, The Vision and the Voice. It's best to get it with the commentaries. The work that I think is the most fun for Tarot lovers is The Wake World, which is found in the book Konx Om Pax. It's an Alice and Wonderland-ish trip up the Tree of Life where every path is a Tarot Trump.
DW: How does your Tarot of Ceremonial Magick reflect the Thoth Tarot? In what ways is it different?
LMD: Tarot of Ceremonial Magick is like the flash cards of the Thoth Tarot. The uniqueness of the deck is not in the artwork, but in all the other collateral magical, qabalistic, and astrological information printed on each card. I assure you, I did not just throw this information on the cards. In a very real way, all the information, even the spirits and angels, presented on the deck invisibly inhabit the cards of every standard deck with 22 trumps, four aces, 16 Courts, and 36 pips.
DW: Here's a tough question--if one could only purchase one tarot deck, should it be Thoth or the Tarot of Ceremonial Magick? Why?
LMD: I would hope life never becomes so cruel as to present to anyone such a painful and difficult decision. But if it happens - go for the Thoth Tarot - but please mail me 12 dollars.
DW: Now that you have created this new masterwork on the Thoth Tarot, what are you working on now?
LMD: I'm finishing up a new book on divination. The working title is "Funny You Should Ask". Among many other things it has my Tarot of the Painful Truth, The Mark Twain Oracle, and the I Ching of Mi-Lo.
DW: Any last words of wisdom on your new book, the Thoth Tarot, or tarot in general?
LMD: Just remember; It's all in your head, you just have no idea how big your head is.
Many thanks to Lon Milo DuQuette for taking the time for this interview. If you found his answers engaging and wise, you'll know that his new book on Thoth is even wiser--and just as engaging! Don't waste time--go buy it now! Remember those loved ones of his, for whom he has made no other provisions!
If you would like to read a review of Lon Milo DuQuette's new book, Understanding the Thoth Tarot, 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.
Interview and page © 2003 Diane Wilkes