I was first introduced to the Thoth tarot deck while studying in Istanbul. Unfortunately I had no idea what its origins were, and all the literature I could find there was in Turkish, which I could not read so well.
I only noticed that it was a much better tool for readings than I had previously encountered. When I returned to the United States, I set about to learn more about the tool that had become so important to me.
The God of Writing and Magic
Thoth is usually described as the ancient Egyptian god of writing and magic. In order to gain some better sense of Him, though, one must leave behind our modern environment where writing has become commonplace (and thus diluted in power).
This was the dawn of human writing, in a time when marking symbols on stone or papyrus (or on skin) was indistinguishable from magic. Scribes were an elite caste in Egypt. Those few of the nobility who learned to write often adorned themselves in the menhed, the scribal apparatus, which is also a symbol of of the god.
The Wedjat Glyph/Tool
Is writing a “technology”? Historians and philosophers have debated this point for centuries. For the Egyptians, who invented writing, there was no question. Thoth was simultaneous the god of writing, science, and mathematics: all of them “tools of the mind”, like the menhed.
The centerpiece of the Egyptian hieroglyphic system is the talismanic symbol known as the wedjat or eye of Horus. The origins of the wedjat are lost even to mythology, but a legend describes the eye being shattered, and then re-assembled or re-created by the scribe-god.
A controversial theory argues that the Eye of Horus was used by the Egyptians as a mathematical tool, similar to an abacus. It was, then, a “tool of the mind”, as well as being a talisman. It remains—five millenia later—one of the best-known occult symbols.
The God and His Symbols
All gods have particular symbols, but Thoth is a special case since He was a god of symbolism. He was autopoietic (self-creating), and was ultimately the author of all knowledge systems, from magic to science to mathematics to writing. In most of Egyptian art, He is depicted as a scribe, or as an ibis- or baboon-headed man. But that only scratches the surface.
In keeping with His autopoietic magic, He could in principle be represented in any form. (Thus in the scroll engraved on the Haremhab statue He is called “Lord of Appearings, light of the gods”).
There are esoteric traditions, for instance, that the human figure in the well-known but mysterious Flamarrion Engraving is, in fact, the Egyptian god.
Similarly, in the Waite-Rider Tarot deck, there are supposedly three images of Him. On VII of Cups, he appears as a hooded figure. The other two depictions are more controversial. This brings us to His most recent incarnation, as it were: the Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley.
Tarot: A Tool of the Mind
Few people, if anyone, can access magical or divinatory forces without potentiating themselves through some external tools. These tools—the ultimate “tools of the mind”–can range from tea leaves to crystals, but in the much of the world, the tarot deck has been the mental tool par excellence. The cards form a compact symbological library. Interacting with tarot, an experienced reader can go much further, much faster, and much more precisely than they could alone.
A tarot deck, then, is an occult technology in the same sense as the wedjat. Consider that there have only been seven or eight truly efficacious divinatory tarot decks designed in human history (at least one, the Paul Christian deck, is known to be worrisomely flawed). In other words, humans have landed ships on the moon more often than we have completed the great work of a new tarot deck!
Of all these decks, none has been produced with as much care as the Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. Indeed, Crowley died after five years working on the project. The deck was ultimately finished and published by the Ordo Templo Orientalis, thirty-one years and at least eight drafts after the project began.
Crowley, Harris, and the Ordo Templo Orientalis
Aleister Crowley, among the most famous magicians of the 20th century, founded the Thelemite mysteries to help humanity evolve into what he termed “the Aeon of Horus”.
A mysterious, notorious, and fascinating figure, Crowley was a polymath, mountaineer, and possibly also a double-agent working for British wartime intelligence. Crowley’s partner in the tarot deck was the baroness Lady Frieda Harris—indeed, it was at her prompting that he undertook this massive project.
The two of them were both involved in the already-venerable O.T.O., a group which would become largely synonymous with his teachings. (The lamen of the O.T.O. is surmounted by a wedjat radiating the “light of gods”.)
Harris was influenced by anthroposophy and the I Ching, and brought esoteric aspects of both these traditions to her artwork. Neither of them lived to see the publication of their joint masterpiece, the Thoth tarot itself.
Misconceptions About the Thoth Tarot
Tarot has been widely discussed as an esoteric system since Antoine Court de Gébelin (who was, interestingly, a scribe!) published on this matter in 1781. Some of Gébelin’s inferences, however, were incorrect. The tarot was likely brought out of Egypt by returning crusaders, not the tsiganoi (the so-called gypsies). Nevertheless many of them certainly adopted its use and are still famous about their soothsaying abilities.
Again, divination as understood by Crowley is not a matter of precisely “knowing the future”, although many people would like it to be. It is rather a matter of collecting and analyzing information. To use the wedjat as an example; an abacus does not “know” the solution to a math problem. It is just a tool for solving the problem.