The Thoth deck is so difficult! Crowley was evil, the deck has bad vibes. You can only read Thoth if you study all the attributes…Did one of them ring a bell? Loads of tarot readers either read or said it. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I disagree with all of the above (he might not have been an angel, but regardless of his character and behaviour the deck is paper & ink and won’t have influence over you). Crowley’s Thoth is an exceptional tarot deck that can be read like any other, due to Frieda Harris’ great art.
But if you would like to read with the deck in all its esoteric glory study and studying Crowley’s works is indeed necessary. A seemingly daunting task for everyone who’s ever opened his Book of Thoth. Luckily there are easier ways to get a good foundation: Lon Milo Duquette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot has been THE go-to book for years and Weiser Books just released an update, with extra’s.
Lon Milo DuQuette is simply put ‘the Crowley authority’. If you ask what material to read on Thoth his name and book title will most likely come up. As an O.T.O member* and decades long ‘professor’ of all things Crowley it was no wonder he was asked (by Weiser Books) to create the companion he himself missed so dearly when starting out with Thoth decades ago. And now with this update the title can be in the spotlight once again.
This review is mostly intended for tarot readers who don’t own a copy of Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot yet, but by all means stay with me if you want to know if a second copy is worth the buy. The 2017 edition has been updated with a new preface and that introduction is the extra. In all other regards the book remained largely the same, but paragraphs on the unicursal hexagram card, sex magic and the author’s own way of reading with the Thoth deck were included in this new release. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot seems to be finally complete.
The challenge of Crowley
In the beginning of Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Lon Milo Duquette’s own admission on reading the Book of Thoth came as somewhat of a relief to me and I am pretty sure everyone who has been postponing on getting into the nitty gritty Thoth-wise because of Crowley’s utter vagueness (sorry, Crowley fans. The man might have been a genius, but even my classes on Science of Philosophy – the Humanities course 80%+ of the student body failed every year – were more to the point).
I paraphrase when I say that even he thought ‘Book of Thoth made no sense whatsoever, reading it for the first time’ and ‘you need to be an expert in pretty much everything to understand what is written’. Duquette never had a handbook, which is why he was eager to write one for us. In the author’s words ‘Understanding’ is meant to arm the reader with a basic understanding of the various spiritual movements and schools of thought that formed the foundation of Crowley’s system of “Scientific Illumination” and on top of that gives a rudimentary course in ceremonial magic, alchemy, Hermeticism, Qabalah (Kabbalah), astrology, mythology, Thelema and the works of Aleister Crowley himself. A mouthful and a book full. In other words, this handbook is a kickstarter guide on basically everything Thoth and Crowley.
If you’ve ever thought you could never make sense of all that Crowley wrote, that intro just showed you you can even become an authority on the matter, regardless of how much you failed your ‘first Crowley-time’ ;-). Luckily, it also resulted in this Thoth-companion.
I personally think that next to handbook companion is an accurate description. The paperback resembles the (luckily) many bigger guides we get or can buy nowadays with our decks. If I were to compare it to any of the more recent ones, the books by MM Meleen come closest. The topic is of course pretty much the same, but the build ups coincide in a lot of ways. Though Duquette’s work focuses on Thoths creator more (obviously) and gives us that little something on all the modalities -which is something I’ve seen only marginally in the Book of Seshet and nowhere else. It is truly a book that touches everything important to the Thoth deck and while the updated version has only added some minor things it makes that statement even stronger.
Guide to every -ology
The Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot guide is a paperback with the gorgeous Princess of Disks on the cover. An interesting choice if you consider that she represents the beginning of new projects, creation and her shadow side can include being illogical and stubborn. I wonder if the publisher (or Duquette) chose her because she’s aesthetically pleasing or if it’s based on more (let me know if you know!). The 330 pages counting book comes in two parts. Part I is an interesting mix of ‘the making off’, the relationship between painter Harris (who SPOILER ALERT apparently is the reason the Thoth deck isn’t – as Crowley wanted – a slightly corrected, but otherwise faithful reproduction of an historical deck, but convinced AC to create 78 original paintings. Isn’t that food for an interesting discussion?!), deposing of myths on ‘Evil Aleister’ and an insight into his ‘prophecies’ and spiritual ideology.
Extra chapters give you a basis in Secrets of the Rose Cross, Crowley’s own Hebrew sequences + tarot links to the zodiac, differences with Golden Dawn, the Secrets of the Tree of Life and the so-called World of Color.
Part II gives us a per card revelation. Think the influence of astrology -which Duquette points out will help you with timing questions since this can be linked back to certain weeks even – the link between the Thoth Tarot and Kabbalah, quotes on each card, appointed GD colors and a reference to the relevant page in the separate chapter on divining with the Thoth Tarot. Part II is the part of the book that truly dives into the 78 paintings of Crowley’s tarot deck, but Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot could not be ‘whole’ without all the chapters before. They are necessary to truly get a feel for the esoteric layers of the deck.
You need an insight into the man Crowley as well as the path to creation. You need an insight into his spiritual doctrine as well as the philosophies and modalities he used – especially where they deviate from the Golden Dawn**. Yes, you all need that if you want to truly understand the source for Thoth’s powerful imagery and symbolism and for maybe just a second get a look into tarot history’s most elusive deck designers. And it is exactly that what Duquette delivers, even if the author can’t entirely prevent the book to still be a complicated read with -at times – mind boggling language. It comes with the Crowley territory.
I am afraid Lon Milo’s own exclamation, thereby pretending to read our minds, on page 40 “Oh not math again!” says it all. But, as he also explains, if you want to grasp even the basics of what Aleister Crowley meant to do with his tarot deck you can’t skip Kabbalah (or astrology) and those come with numbers and what at least looks like math (yeah, I had to wipe away some tears too). Luckily the author has a way of making what seems like an impossible read appear clear(er) and understandable. On a personal note, I’ve always read Thoth based on my own techniques and without the underpinnings of the art (and its modalities) provided. Duquette is the first to make me pick up that deck and *want* to look at it in a different way.
It is most likely the reason why this book was received so enthusiastically by the tarot community and fellow tarot reviewers the first time it was published. I have no doubt in my mind this updated version will receive equal merit. Even if, and this could be a good reason for some not to buy the book after all, it all remains rather theoretical. Practical appliances are sparse and information on that comes at the very end. About that, a little more later…
As I explained earlier on, the extra’s in this updated Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot consist of three things. The two topics that were missed by some in the first edition: an explanation on the universal hexagram card and sexual alchemy. I would do any (new) reader to give away what he writes here, but as a reviewer I do feel compelled to say they are a very small part of the new preface and both make up less than a page. That was quite the disappointment when I heard there was an updated version with extra’s.
Duquette reads Thoth
The other extra does cover several pages and was added due to 15 years of asking and the criticism the author was bothered by most: the fact he didn’t put any extra divination information in the book since Crowley’s take on his Thoth deck is one of first and foremost a Qabalistic tool, a meditation aid, psychic programming and a magical weapon of sorts. So, Understanding the Crowley Thoth 2017, as opposed to the 2003 edition, grants you a look behind the scenes of Lon Milo Duquette’s own tarot practice.
If you’ve ever wondered how a Crowley expert plays with his Thoth, this is your change. Honestly, I had expected something, eh well, complicated. I mean… Have you seen Opening of the Key? Well, interestingly enough Duquette swore off the Crowley/Golden Dawn method of reading out of sheer frustration – it didn’t work for him – and like most tarot readers do fabricated his own way of reading, including a go-to spread. Much to my surprise our ‘rules of thumb’ while interpreting tarot are very identical (I look at the suits in just a slightly altered way). His F2F way of reading is remarkably simple and based on a small, during the session to be expanded, spread. I think it once more emphasises that Crowley’s materials might be complicated, the deck itself isn’t and Duquette knows how to break it down.
But… as much as I truly enjoyed this section and applaud its addition to the new version, the original critique remains. The separate chapter on divining with the Thoth deck is still quite small seeing its current day importance for readers and also still exactly what Crowley once concocted. Where Duquette inserted himself in other chapters, here he says he is staying out – remaining faithful to Crowley’s system. Considering that Aleister Crowley was appalled by the idea his deck might be solely used as a fortune-telling tool AND the fact quite a large percentage of Thoth users do exactly that, I see this as a missed opportunity.
The author could have stayed true to the system, while expanding a little on the topic. Purely increasing Thoth divination-skills with this book is unlikely. The mentioned spread and method is quite complicated and the rest of the chapter is merely giving you keywords for interpretation. On average three lines for the Majors, five for the Minors (and those get little attention in the card section). It is, for me, the one clear shortcoming in a book that’s otherwise a great theoretical syllabus.
While the topic of Crowley’s works makes it certain this will never be a ‘curl up on the couch with hot cocoa’-book, Duquette’s try to create a clarification of the Thoth deck is a success – in his own very true words with Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot he made a compact generic primer for people to start their studies with. It is also by far the most comprehensible and dare I say simplest read on Thoth- related materials I’ve seen so far. Especially when it comes to Kabbalah and the enormous list of diagrams the book includes. With topics divided into easy to consume, short chapters he did every Thoth lover a true service.
With the exception of gaining divination prowess – very underwhelming -, and lacking a practical approach to Thoth (perhaps not the premise of the book) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot opens magical doors that have remained closed for many who were put off by Book of Thoth and less expert ways of explaining Crowley’s vision. Duquette provides excellent training wheel for whomever wants to dive deep into the artistry of one of the most iconic tarot decks of the 20th century (and still is). Want to get into Crowley’s head and Thoth’s possibilities this handbook remains, even still in 2017/2018, the best start and support on your Thoth journey. Before you know it you will be, armed with your little guide to everything, diving into other works by Crowley***. That hot cocoa is going to be a much deserved after…
* Something of a successor of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, owning the copyright to the original Thoth deck…though there’s an extra story there. By the way, if you still would like to own a beautiful copy of The Book of Thoth: for their 60th anniversary Weiser Books produced a limited edition facsimile of their 1969 hardcover publication with 8 remastered full colour plates of cards. Only 3000 copies.
** The Tabula Mundi decks are considered somewhat of a Thoth deck, but a better name would be Golden Dawn-decks, since creator MM Meleen followed the color scales of GD and deviated from Crowley’s Thoth in some important ways. But the decks are usually a hit with Thoth users and vice versa, certainly to those readers who are well-versed in the materials Understanding is also about. All six reviews on Tabula Mundi
Nox et Lux, Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus and the companions on Tabula Mundi 1. Book M: Liber Mundi and the Rosetta Tarot (another Thoth/GD influenced deck) 2. Book of Seshet can be found by clicking on their respective names.
***Strapped for money? Crowley’s work can be found all over the internet (don’t worry, without violating any copyright laws). This link here is a great one: https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/crowley/libro_thoth.htm – though there are plenty more. If you click on the “Go to Crowley” you’ll get plenty info on the creator/writer himself as well as everything else he’s ever written. You know, in case Lon Milo Duquette’s book made you eager for more (his bibliography and notes will provide you with plenty possibilities).
Weiser Books obviously has Thoth gold in hands with Duquette’s material, and since there is hardly any competition the title will remain at the top for everyone who wants to know more about the deck. However, I truly wonder if and how that will change once there will be more (and I hope more practical too, especially for people who think Thoth is difficult even without the modalities) works on the deck. Why do I say this? Well, I heard through the grapevine we can expect two extra titles on Thoth and Golden Dawn. Two Llewellyn authors will join the ranks in – I believe – respectively Spring and Autumn of 2018: The first is (not sure on exact title) Secrets of the Crowley Thoth by Katz & Goodwin. Books by this duo are never ‘standard’ in content and most of the time offer a new way of looking at a tarot deck or at certain techniques. If it is as easy to read as Secrets of the Waite Smith it will be even more of a “Can’t wait!-title”. The second is a studybook of sorts on all the GD attributes by my friend T. Susan Chang – you might know her through her Arcana Cases. Susan already has a podcast on Thoth/Tabula Mundi with designer MM Meleen, so I expect great things from this read (no pressure, Susie :D).
@Llewellyn: you can send all the review copies to the address in the contact menu ;-).