Briefly noted: Two books to help you understand the Thoth Tarot

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about authors’ research that gets out of hand, often because the author really likes the subject and gets happily lost in it. In researching my next book, I dusted off two older Tarot books, in addition to the venerable Book of Thoth: Robert Wang’s 1987 Qabalistic Tarot (revised in 2004) and Lon Milo Duquette’s 2003 Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot.

Tarot card readers will, I think, be debating the differences (and efficacy of) the Rider-Waite Tarot deck vs. the Thoth Tarot deck (among others) forever. I started out with the Rider-Waite deck. Most people do. Waite, it is said, held back on the deck’s symbolism because he considered that revealing more would be to open up Golden Dawn secrets to everyone. I stepped away from the Rider-Waite deck for that reason–no offense to those who love it and rely upon it.

I do take issue with the numerous decks of fortune telling cards with other symbols on them that purport to be tarot cards. They are not. The Tarot is closely linked with the Qabalah, the Tree of Life, alchemy, and astrology, and any deck that doesn’t rely on this symbolism is not truly a Tarot deck even though if may work well for those who who are attuned with its symbolism

Qabalistic Tarot

wangtarotThis book is considered a classic, and rightly so. It shows the relationship between the cards and the hermetic Qabalah and includes several popular decks. Read this one before you read the Duquette book.

From the publisher: Hailed by reviewers as “a masterpiece,” and as “the single most profound reference of its kind,” The Qabalistic Tarot has become the standard in its field, a book essential to all students of Tarot symbolism. It is both a textbook and a sourcebook for the symbols of the Western Hermetic Qabalah, a corpus of mystical ideas which have, for centuries, exerted a powerful influence on the development of Western thought. Dr. Wang explains the Tarot as an externalization of a mystical system which has evolved from approximately the third century C.E. to our own time. He traces the development of Qabalistic ideas from the Neoplatonic through the Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern periods, systematically discussing each Sephira and Path on the Tree of Life. He uses the Tarot images as a point of visual reference, and provides a thorough explanation of the symbolic intricacies of the Paths. The Qabalistic Tarot is recommended as a comprehensive textbook for individual study or for the classroom. The first and only work based on the four major decks in use today, it is the ideal companion book for the Golden Dawn Tarot, the Thoth Tarot, the Rider-Waite Tarot, or the traditional Marseilles deck.”

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot

thothtarotThis book focuses on the Thoth deck. It discusses, in addition to the correspondences of the cards to the Tree of Life, the rationale behind the differences between this deck and the Rider-Waite deck. The philosophy behind this deck is much larger than the differences between the names and numbers of some of the cards. The author has written a good many books about esoteric subjects, so he brings a lot of research into this work even though it is–on occasion–a bit flippant.

From the publisher: “Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot was his final opus, the culmination of a lifetime of occult study and practice. With artist Lady Frieda Harris, he condensed the core of his teaching into the 78 cards of the tarot. Although Crowley’s own Book of Thoth provides insight into the cards, it is a complicated, dated book. Now, in clear language, Lon Milo DuQuette provides everything you need to know to get the most out of using the Thoth deck.”

These books are valuable especially for those who are interested in the relationship between the Tarot and the Tree of Life.

You may also like:

  • bookofthothBook of Thoth -Crowley’s famous book describing the Thoth Deck is available in various editions from multiple booksellers including Amazon.
  • Book T – Referenced by both of the books in this post, Book T was a Golden Dawn manual listing information about the cards. It can now be found online as a PDF at the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) site among other places.
  • Book of Formation: Referenced in both books here is the ancient Jewish Kabbalah text, the Book of Formation (Sepher Yetzirah), which you can find online here.





4 thoughts on “Briefly noted: Two books to help you understand the Thoth Tarot

  1. Thank you for writing on the tarot! And thank you for the references. I’ve read Wang–it’s excellent, but hadn’t heard of the other one. Yet another book to read.

    I love the Thoth deck but I read with the RWS deck. When I began reading tarot, almost forty years ago, my teacher wouldn’t let me use the RWS deck because he felt that the pictures on the pip cards were too limiting and he wanted me to use my intuition and knowledge of number and suit symbolism. So I learned on the Marseilles Deck because in those days the Thoth deck was considered by many “white” magicians and witches to be evil (Crowley had a really bad rep back in the day). If you tried to do a reading with one, many querents were likely to run away screaming.

    I disagree with your statement that a tarot deck is not a tarot deck unless it uses astrological, Qabalistic, and alchemical symbolism. The first decks that were actually called tarot decks, what we now call the Marseilles decks, first appeared in the mid 1400s in Southern France and Northern Italy. The pip cards are simply pictures of cups, wands, discs, and swords and look like the playing cards brought into Europe in the 1200s and 1300s from the Middle East. The major arcana have a distinctly Christian/Classical/Apocalyptic theme, but, as far as I know, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that occult scholars began to tentatively suggest that the cards might correspond to Astrological and Quabalistic symbolism.

    It was the Golden Dawn, in the early 1900’s that formally attributed the astrological/alchemical/Qabalistic symbolism the the Golden Dawn and the RWS decks.

    So I am willing to let any deck that has pip cards, court cards, and major arcana cards be called a tarot deck. The Mother Peace deck is one that comes to mind. Lots of my friends read with that and call it a tarot deck.

    1. I’m sure a lot of people like those other decks. I see references to them all the time, and some of them have beautiful images. They “bother” me, so I tend to discount them, no doubt because they don’t use the system I grew up with. (Too old to change now.)

      The Golden Dawn was, of course, instrumental in developing the associations between Qabalah, alchemy and the Tarot even though esoteric schools maintain the association has always been there. Hard to know for sure.

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