An issue came up on one of the forums about which is the best book from which to learn about the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. The answer for almost everyone is, without question, Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. This, despite the fact that, for most beginners in esoteric studies, it seems impenetrable. Books by Duquette and Banzhaf are proposed as intermediaries and I agree they are excellent choices, but a problem occurs when Angeles Arrien’s name comes up. Her Tarot Handbook: practical applications of ancient visual symbols takes a completely different approach to the deck, which is often characterized as the “make up anything you want” variety—though it isn’t that at all. I should mention I took several classes with Angie on the Thoth deck starting in 1977, and so I’m not at all objective in my views.
Angie’s approach is based on Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and the meaningful repetition of archetypal images and themes across world-wide human cultures. The statement by Arrien that probably infuriates people the most is: “I read Crowley’s book that went with this deck and decided that its esotericism in meaning hindered, rather than enhanced, the use of the visual portraitures that Lady Frieda Harris had executed.” Of key importance was that Arrien experienced a powerful response to the deck that did not arise from an esoteric OTO or Golden Dawn background. It was not specifically a rejection of Crowley, though it is easy to take it as such.
Instead, Arrien recognized most of the symbols from her study of anthropology and mythology. As a result she felt that “a humanistic and universal explanation of these symbols was needed so that the value of Tarot could be used in modern times as a reflective mirror of internal guidance which could be externally applied.” She believed that the Thoth deck symbols could be read in an other-than-esoteric way—specifically, as cross-cultural psychological symbols (archetypes from the collective unconscious). Her book offers this alternate perspective, based on the work of Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Joseph Campbell, Ralph Metzner, Mircea Eliade and Robert Bly.
In essence, Arrien asked: What do these symbols tell us if we strip away the esotericism and look at them purely as symbols and archetypes from the collective unconscious reflecting myths and images that have appeared across many cultures?
I see this simply as an alternate reading of the deck—not as a demand that we discount Crowley—but, rather, asking what can be seen if we do ignore Crowley? Is there anything else to this deck? Do real ‘true’ symbols transcend fixed definitions? Can they transcend any and all dogma?
We might also ask: If Crowley’s book were lost (along with all other esoteric texts), would future generations be able to reconstitute and find anything meaningful in these 78 images? Would this deck still offer something capable of informing our thoughts and actions?
It turns out that this is a valid question, for at least one person involved in the online discussion (and perhaps many others) felt that the Thoth deck is based on a specific language of symbols, defined by Crowley, such that, without his text the symbolism and the deck become meaningless. To remove Crowley, then, is to kill the Thoth deck—to make it worthless. In fact, as explained to me, symbols contain no meaning outside of the stated definitions of an individual. Strip symbols of definition and they either convey no information or they mean anything one likes.
This is absolutely contrary to the understanding of symbols held by such people as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the French magician, Eliphas Lévi, and countless others who have written extensively on symbolism and who believe that the meaning of the symbol is inherent in its nature. “Symbols can thus be understood as metaphors for archetypal needs and intentions or expressions of basic archetypal patterns . . . which are ultimately inherent in the human mind-brain” (Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind).
Furthermore, symbolism is a sacred, living language that reflects divinity through like vibrations. From this principle arose the occult ‘doctrine of correspondences,’ which says that something that is red, for instance, shares some kind of energy and meaning with other things that are red. Thorns that pierce are the protective weapons and barriers to the alluring rose whose scent also draws the bees. Even an esoteric interpretation takes such elements into account.
Many spiritual teachers do not fear the subjective, for they see each person as partaking of the Divine. The esotericist Manly Palmer Hall wrote in The Secret Teaching of All Ages: “Like all other forms of symbolism, the Tarot unfailingly reflects the viewpoint of the interpreter himself. This does not detract from its value, however, for symbolism is one of the most useful instruments of instruction in the spiritual arts, because it continually draws from the subjective resources of the seeker the substance of his own erudition.”
Certainly Crowley’s erudition is great, and we benefit from the knowledge that he put into the Thoth book and deck (his book is magnificient!). But, if we stop there, we have not done our own work. There may be other interpreters of the Thoth deck who can also point us down what has been called “the royal road” of Tarot. Still, eventually we must make the path our own—there’s no getting around that.
The Egyptologist, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz in Symbol and the Symbolic tells us that symbols are different than an abstract alphabet in that we can reconstitute their meanings: “Any manner of writing formed by means of a conventional alphabetical, arbitrary system can, over time, be lost and become incomprehensible. On the other hand, the use of images as signs for the expression of thought [hieroglyphics] leaves the meaning of this writing, five or six thousand years old, as clear and accessible as it was the day it was carved in the stone.” In The Temple in Man, Schwaller de Lubicz talks about the living quality of the symbol that can not survive too rigid of a definition: “To explain a symbol is to kill it; it is to take it only for its appearance; it is to avoid listening to it. By definition, the symbol is magic, it evokes the form bound in the spell of matter. To evoke is not to imagine. It is to live, live the form.” (See Schwaller’s Egyptianized Tarot Trumps here.)
Most of all I appeal to Oswald Wirth who created the first truly esoteric Tarot deck (1889; revised in 1926) that is a significant influence behind all that have followed. Wirth, in Le Symbolisme Hermétique (translated by P. D. Ouspensky), wrote that symbols are meant to awaken us to our own freedom:
“Each thinker has the right to discover in the symbol a new meaning corresponding to the logic of his own conceptions. As a matter of fact, symbols are precisely intended to awaken ideas sleeping in our consciousness. They arouse a thought by means of suggestion and thus cause the truth which lies hidden in the depths of our spirit to reveal itself. . . . They especially elude minds which . . . base their reasoning only on inert scientific and dogmatic formulae. The practical utility of these formulae cannot be contested, but from the philosophical point of view they represent only frozen thought, artifically limited, made immovable to such an extent, that it seems dead in comparison with the living thought, indefinite, complex and mobile, which is reflected in symbols. . . . By their very nature the symbols must remain elastic, vague and ambiguous, like the sayings of an oracle. Their role is to unveil mysteries, leaving the mind all its freedom.”
“. . . Leaving the mind all its freedom.” It saddens me that the fears and anger provoked by Angeles Arrien’s book indicate a deep mistrust that the Thoth deck can survive the common touch of the “masses,” or that it has any worth whatsoever outside of Crowley’s text. It is felt that the mistakes and misconceptions in Arrien’s book (of which there admittedly are many) could create a devastating sense of betrayal in those who eventually find out that Crowley intended something different. This supposedly-fearful juxtaposition, however, led me to a much deeper appreciation of Crowley, while Angie encouraged independence and freedom in how I work with the deck and its symbols (not a good thing to those who see Crowley as the absolute and only fundament).
Although Crowley professed love for “the scarlet woman,” yet he feared the prostituting of his work, insisting that the deck and book always be sold together (it isn’t) and describing the deck’s potential use in fortune-telling as being a base and dishonest purpose (here -see text at the end). In fact, it seems that Crowley feared even the thought that anyone might claim independent insight into his deck for, despite her working diligently for five years with him to produce the deck, Crowley made clear that his student and artist, Frieda Harris, at no time contributed “a single idea of any kind to any card, and she is in fact almost as ignorant of the Tarot and its true meaning and use as when she began.” What hope is there, then, for the rest of us?
But, hope does exists, for the ever-contradictory Aleister Crowley (using the pseudonym “Soror I.W.E.“) wrote in his introductory biographical note to the Book of Thoth, that “the accompanying booklet [this book] was dashed off by Aleister Crowley, without help from parents. Its perusal may be omitted with advantage.“ If Crowley was of two-minds about how necessary his own book was to the deck, then is it at all surprising that we should be, too? I think most of us can agree that Frieda Harris’ innovative use of Steinerian ‘Synthetic Projective Geometry,’ described here, which was not in any way Crowley’s contribution, certainly deepens the effect of the deck’s imagery on the psyche.
I can only hope that, if you care about the Thoth deck, that each of you are brave enough to make up your own minds and feel free to “do as you will.” I leave you with this thought from old Aleister:
All ways are lawful to innocence.
Pure folly is the key to initiation.