Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot has become one of the most popular Tarot decks in the world, and his The Book of Thoth is Crowley's last word on the subject. Anyone interested in Tarot or the western mystery traditions should read and study it. It's the s Magnum Opus of the greatest magical minde of the 20th century. However, for the beginning tarotist or someone unprepared for the style and erudition of Crowley's writing it can be an impossible read, and so I also recommend in the strongest terms DuQuette's "Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot" --not as a replacement for The Book of Thoth, but as a companion text. It's the only commentary on the subject by a real Crowley expert (a 33 year veteran of Crowley's O.T.O.) and a real tarot expert (a Certified Tarot Grand Master). No one can make Crowley understandable like Lon Milo DuQuette, and his Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot is the Rosetta Stone of The Book of Thoth and the Thoth tarot.
Lon gives an overview of the book:
Excerpts from CHAPTER ONE
LITTLE BITS OF THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
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 Lady Frieda Harris, over five years (1938–1943) to complete the 78 surrealistic masterpieces.
Today the images remain as hauntingly evocative as when they first were 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, Aldous Huxley to mescaline, 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 the First World War on England’s side.
During the Second World War, 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, that, 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 esoteric spiritual systems of East and West make him one of the most fascinating cultural and religious figures of the 20th 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 seriously take up the 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 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 sincerely would like to know more about them. If you find yourself in this group of seekers, this book was written for you.
There have been other efforts in this direction. 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 authoritatively comment 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 to be 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 quickly gain some practical information about the Thoth Tarot, 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, and 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. But while the latter can be appreciated the moment the cards are taken out of the box, 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 have soon 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, at the time no such book existed. Hopefully, one does now.
In the dark and brooding firmament of occult literature, Lon Milo DuQuette is a star of unique and exceptional brilliance -- Born 1948 in Long Beach California, and raised in Columbus Nebraska -- 1960s radical Peace activist and Epic Records song-writer and recording artist (...