Aleister Crowley’s ‘The Book of Thoth’ - A Treasury of Truth and Beauty By Isis
According to ancient tradition, The Book of Thoth was the legendary repository of the Egyptian mysteries; as such it is forever connected with occult knowledge, mystery schools and the esoteric secrets and magical systems that these schools taught. The Book of Thoth has long been associated with the tarot, which is said by many to be the embodiment of its teachings.
Crowley was undoubtedly one of the finest occult minds of our time and soon realised that despite the historical interest in the tarot that occultists harboured, there was a distinct lack of authentic texts that explored the cards, let alone develop them. He resolved to rectify that omission by creating one definitive text that would make the Tarot accessible to everyone who had the desire to learn. Guided by the intelligences that had directed him throughout his life, Crowley penned a legend, an extensive treatise on the tarot, which he named The Book of Thoth, after the tradition of wisdom itself.
Crowley’s Book of Thoth incorporates the wisdom, philosophy, science and magick of Egypt, melding eastern and western mystery traditions to create the most complete method of studying the tarot and finding self-knowledge that there is in existence. Occultists such as A.E. Waite have written their own studies of the tarot, but none of the succeeded in imparting the occult wisdom of Crowley’s classic text. It has to be said that the Book of Thoth is not usually recommended for newcomers to the tarot and to the occult. It unites Cabbalistic tradition, Tarot, philosophy, science and magick to create a complete yet multi-faceted tradition creating a tool that can be used to explore the magickal and mystical elements of both microcosm and macrocosm. To many modern occultists The Book of Thoth remains without parallel. It represents the entire sum of not only Crowley’s knowledge but also the knowledge of the masters themselves.
The Art of the Tarot
Crowley commissioned the surrealist artist, Lady Frieda Harris to undertake the artwork for the tarot deck that was to accompany the treatise. The Thoth deck itself was a labour of love, an undertaking that took over five years of painstaking work, with many of the 78 cards being redesigned up to eight times before Crowley was satisfied with the design. Lady Harris became both a student and in many ways a teacher to Crowley. In order to create a visual representation of Crowley’s knowledge, she first had to understand it herself. This meant she also had to coerce him to crystallise fifty years of accumulated knowledge and enter into her own exhaustive study of his teaching. From the first moment of its creation, the Thoth deck was and remains the deck that must be absorbed and ‘lived’. It cannot be understood from the outside; those using the deck must always look within.
The fractal deck
The Thoth Tarot is one of the most symbol-rich decks in existence. Every single card contains a wealth of esoteric symbolism, which Crowley and Harris incorporated not only into the images, but also into the colours used in the artwork. The myriad of images, each of which represents a symbolic path to a complex thought form, must be considered both individually and then in relation to the other symbols on the card. Essentially each symbol stands on its own as a complete idea and yet contributes to the greater intention of the meaning of the card. Each of the 78 cards reveals a key to a specific area of esoteric knowledge. Together the symbols and the cards combine forming a complex inter-relationship that creates a symbolic picture of the universe. Even the most innocuous symbol of each card is part of the whole, so that the spirit of the microcosm and macrocosm is reflected in Crowley’s deck. It is this fractal model of the universe that many mathematicians and physicists often use to study cosmology from a scientific point of view, Crowley uses the tarot to validate that understanding of the universe. Esoteric cosmology and scientific understanding of cosmology are not as far removed from each other as Science would have us believe.
Together Crowley’s deck of cards contained the keys to the long forgotten esoteric knowledge known only to a selected few in the Egyptian priesthood. It is this secret knowledge, the knowledge contained in The Book of Thoth, that many feel that mankind has lost and needs to rediscover. The Book of Thoth was and still is the roadmap to the new aeon. It allows the initiate to become a master of his fate by embracing his true will and surrendering himself to the universe so that he symbolically takes his place as part of the whole in the same way that each pictorial symbol does.
Method and Wisdom ~ the path to enlightenment
The numbering of the Thoth Deck is based on the idea that each number (to paraphrase Crowley) is not simply one greater or less than its neighbour; it is an independent and individual idea, a concept in its own right, basically in the same way that every symbol and colour is. Crowley elaborated on this by commenting, ‘like all concepts, it has a spiritual, moral and intellectual identity’. As we’ve already discussed, any physicist will tell you that mathematics is the key to understanding the mechanism of the universe; likewise, any cabbalist will tell you that Cabbala is an esoteric exploration that incorporates both spirituality and science. Hence the mathematics of the Thoth deck, from the simple numbering of the cards to the more complex system of Gematria that cabbalists employ, needs to be understood. The tarot is essentially a pictorial representation of the tree of life with each tarot card representing a specific path on the tree of life and the cube of space.
Tzaddi and the transposition of the Star and the Emperor attributions
One of the major differences between the Thoth tarot and traditional decks is the sequencing of the cards. It was in 1904, when Aleister Crowley received the legendary Liber Al vel Legis or the Book of the Law as it is commonly known, that it came to his attention that Tzaddi had been incorrectly attributed to The Star for centuries. The Book of the Law was to form the basis of the doctrine of Thelema but at that time the correct attribution for Tzzadi eluded him, and his energies were naturally directed towards his work with Aiwass, the ‘praterhuman intelligence that guided him in his work and which first made contact with him in Egypt. It was many more years later that he found the correct attribution. Tzaddi should have been attributed to the Emperor. Crowley realised that it was a fundamental error that had to be corrected.
By changing the attributions of the Star and the Emperor, The Star became aligned with Aquarius in the zodiac and The Emperor to Aries. This change allowed the tarot to exist in a much more balanced and symmetrical form as can be seen in the table below.
To briefly explain for those unfamiliar with these attributions, the cabbalistic teachings associate the 22 Hebrew letters with the 3 elements (fire, water and air), 7 planets and the 12 signs of the zodiac. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that they needed to be transposed, to allow the zodiac to appear in its natural order. If you look at the ‘Attribution’ column of the table below, this illustrates the fact. Even today, most tarot decks still use the original but incorrect attributes.
The Three Magi of the Thoth Tarot
Besides its reworking of the order of the Tarot, one of the things the Thoth Deck is famous for is the fact that is has three Magus cards. If we include the unicursal hexagram card, this brings the total number of cards in the deck to 81 and facilitates a numerical arrangement of 9x9, a complex arrangement that aligns the cards directly to the energies of the universe.
There are two versions of the Thoth deck, one with normal sized cards and one with larger cards. It is the smaller of the two that contains the three magus cards, the larger just carry one as a standard deck would. For those who want to use the Thoth deck for readings, the deck with just one Magus card is usually recommended, but for those who want to use the tarot as a tool for self development, path working and spiritual evolution, the tarot deck containing the three Magus cards offer a more in-depth appreciation of the journey.
In many ways, these three Magus cards represent a subsystem of spiritual development that runs a parallel course to the journey detailed by the 22 cards of the Major Arcana or Atu (keys) as they are known. Where as the 22 Atu represent the complete universal scheme, with each individual card representing a facet of that scheme as we’ve already said, the three magus cards represent three distinct phases that the initiate himself must go through.
The fact that the god Thoth represents the Magus, the deck itself is called the Thoth deck and the accompanying treatise The Book of Thoth adds to the triple representation of the card underlines the importance of the Magus. The book of Thoth is essentially the key to all knowledge and wisdom. That key resides in this card (or cards).
This first Magus card (the card that all decks contain) shows Mercury, otherwise known as Hermes or Thoth, three Gods in one. The message we get from this is that reality is an illusion through which we can access true knowledge and wisdom.
In this version of the Magus, he is a naked boy, in awe of the power before him. His tools float in the ether around him, and he guides or feels them out rather than physically using them. His body is one of light, but the colour is the yellow-green of spring, indicating youth. The fact that the boy is naked represents his vulnerabilities. At this point in the journey, the Fool has become the Magus, he has shed his clothing (connection to the material plain) and evolved to a higher state. But this is only the first stage of the transformation of the Magus.
In the second of the three Magus cards, Crowley depicts a more mature, confident Magus, representing perfected wisdom. He stands on tiptoes, feet slightly apart, arms outstretched. On his face is an expression of concentration mixed with excitement. Rays of light shoot out around him, a hand on the end of each one. He holds his magickal tools firmly, reflecting a far higher, some would say, new degree of control and more mature will. This Magus shows a more advanced state of intellect, he controls his art at this point. Youthful wonder has been replaced with expertise and good judgment.
The third card reveals the final glorious and enlightened stage of the Magus, the completion of the transformation. The card depicts a youthful and unclothed Magus, with a tranquil expression reminiscent of a Hindu God, dancing in the air. His tools, now made of more primitive materials, float around him once again. However, this time there is an order to their suspension, unlike the tools in the first Magus card. This card is considered by many to show the final goal of the initiate. Here the Magus has moved beyond the procedures and principals of regimented magick. He is as one with the work and as one with the universe. He represents the unification of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the final transformation of man.
Crowley never specifically detailed how the three Magus cards should be used, indeed only one card is mentioned in his treatise suggesting that it was only later when the cards were being created that it occurred to him to take the highly unusual step of using three Magus cards. Crowley’s lack of explanation could be put down to the line of reasoning that says, if you need to ask you’re not ready to know, alternatively it may simply have been that his death in 1947 meant that the time was not there to elaborate. Most occult practitioners who have undertaken any in-depth path working and study of the Thoth deck will find their purpose clear.
The undoubted strength of the Book of Thoth, besides its technical brilliance, is that it reflects Crowley's legacy of Thelema. In essence the message of the treatise and the cards is to discover and follow your own way and create a lifestyle that is in harmony with the energy of the universe. The Thoth deck is the tool, which allows you to do just that. In many ways, The Book of Thoth represents an instruction manual that will guide the initiate on their journey of self-knowledge and enlightenment if you have the commitment to walk the path of the initiate.
Crowley believed that we are all individuals, just like the symbols and therefore we each have a unique path to walk, in the worlds of his Thelemic doctrine, "Every man and every woman is a star."
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