What the F*** is a Thoth Deck?
I have to admit to being a bit conflicted about writing this post. On the one hand, the idea was immensely exciting and I was really looking forward to writing this piece. On the other hand, I knew that I would only be able to scratch the surface of what is a very deep and convoluted rabbit hole. The more I read, the less I know, the less I know, the more there is to research and the bigger and windier the road becomes. Therefore, this is designed as an introduction to what I have learned so far. There are undoubtedly many people who know much more about this that I do and I’m sure as time goes on, there will be other posts from this blogging collective around the subject and the key concepts behind the creation of the tarot.
When I first started learning about tarot, it was immediately clear to me that there was a whole world of beautifully designed decks to choose from, each with a different style and theme. What I didn’t realise is that they were mostly based around the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) original designs. Sure, each deck has its own interpretation of the cards and a specific ‘attitude’ but none the less, they still take the basic form of the RWS deck and follow its lead.
So when I first heard people talking about a Thoth deck, my first thought was ‘What the f*** is a Thoth deck?’ It seemed to be some completely alien, mystical and unfathomable beast that people either loved or hated in equal measure. It was spoken about as dark, shadowy and dangerous and anyone who knows the basics about the life and times of the designer of the Thoth deck, Aleister Crowley, could take a guess at why people might see it that way.
Conceived by Aleister Crowley (a self-styled dark wizard) with illustrations by Lady Frieda Harris, the deck took approximately 5 years to create between 1938 and 1943 (Wikipedia). Crowley also wrote and published a book to accompany the cards, The Book of Thoth (1944).
The truth is, the Thoth deck is also based around the RWS. Titus Salmon in his book Celestial Arcana: Precession, Tarot and the Secret Doctrine (2017) discusses how Crowley and Waite were both well respected esoterists in their time, who were well acquainted with each other and often worked together, swapping ideas and information. There is no doubt that these two men knew their stuff but like all good academics, they disagreed vehemently on a few fundamental issues. Mainly, that Waite completely rejected the Egyptian theory of the origins of tarot whereas Crowley believed it was a fundamental principle (more on this later). Therefore, when Crowley was creating the Thoth deck, he made a few changes to the RWS deck designs so that he was able to express his beliefs through the cards.
Crowley believed that tarot cards originated in the Egyptian era and that the cards were descended from the original alphabet created by the God Thoth. Thoth was the Egyptian God of writing and language, the scribe of the underworld and narrator of the Egyptian’s history. Thoth’s original language of ideograms was considered to be the first pictures of the gods and were called Tarot or Ta-Rosh which translates as either Pictures of Mercury or The Royal Way, depending on who you ask.
Thoth was also responsible for the areas of science, knowledge and, importantly for Crowley, magic. Thoth was also responsible for equilibrium and balance. His role was to make sure that neither good nor evil had the upper hand in the world. As part of this role, Thoth was the arbitrator of disputes amongst the Gods and responsible for judging the dead. Those of you who are familiar with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have seen him weighing the hearts of the dead against a feather to judge whether they have lived their lives well. Along with his wife Ma’at Thoth was responsible for maintaining the universe and was one of the Gods who guarded Ra on his boat. Thoth is often depicted in hieroglyphics as having either the head of an Ibis or a Baboon.
So, you can see that with so much responsibility on his shoulders, Thoth was a serious player in the Egyptian pantheon of Gods. You can also see why Crowley might believe that Thoth was the original creator of the Tarot, that the tarot is magic and why he disagreed so fiercely with Waite who did not believe this version of the origins of Tarot.
The general opinion that seems to prevail online is that Thoth is a difficult deck to read so I was surprised to find that for me, it’s actually easier to read than the RWS deck. I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to why this might be and I think this is because I’ve never really read the deck by looking at the pictures. I use the numbers, elements and traditional meanings of the cards to build a picture of the answer, as Steve taught me to do, mainly so that I could read pip decks.
In my opinion, the artwork used for the Thoth deck more closely match their intended meaning than those used for the RWS. I’ve always found the pictures on certain cards in the RWS confusing, for example, the six of swords, swords are the Air element suit and are associated with action. Six’s should be associated with healing, balance and harmony and yet the picture is of a woman and child being ferried across the river. So yes, for me, the air element is there in that action is being taken but this is not a happy, healing card. To me they look sad and hunched over, as if they are fleeing something. In my mind, this image is much more suitable for an ace (new beginnings), a two (decisions) or a five (conflict, challenges and decisions). Whereas in the Thoth deck, the 6 of swords is given the title Science and the 6 swords pierce the Christian Cross. The meaning is perfect balance between mental condition and moral faculties. The card does what it says on the tin and I find this imagery unequivocal to the intended meaning of the card.
That said, I can appreciate how those more used to the RWS might struggle with how the cards are presented in the Thoth deck. For example, there is a lot more astrological symbolism hidden within the pictures as you might expect from Crowley.
The main differences in the deck are that the numbers of the Strength and Justice cards, and the Star and Emperor cards are inverted in the RWS deck. Crowley considered the cards to be linked to the signs of the zodiac via the Hebrew alphabet. In the RWS deck, Waite deliberately inverted the numbers of these cards, when compared to the zodiac alignment and the Hebrew alphabet. Waite’s explanation of this was that no-one needed to know why he had done this as it made no difference to the way the cards read, which is really no explanation at all. Crowley saw himself as correcting this inversion in the Thoth deck.
There are also no Pages or Kings in the Thoth deck. Instead, each suit has a Prince and Princesses card. The Royal procession starts with the Princess at the top, followed by the Prince, Queen and the Knight before leading into the numbered minor arcana cards. There seem to be many theories for why this is and to be honest, I’m not sure which to believe. Some people think this was done to give the pack more female/male balance, others say Crowley didn’t give a toss about gender equality. The princes seem to be quite straight forward as princes are actually the sons of Kings and precede the Queen in terms of succession to the throne. The Princesses, however present a bit more of a conundrum. In The book of Thoth (1944). Crowley himself explains that the Princesses are the “re-absorption of the Energy” and “the silence into which all things return.” Does this give the Princesses a more ‘mystical’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘Magical’ quality whereas the RWS Kings are always very grounded but a bit arrogant and set in their ways? Perhaps situating the Princesses at the top of the list refers to the feminine Goddess and the many forms she takes. I think this topic could be a whole other blog post so maybe I’ll add this to my to-do list!
Lust has replaced Justice as number X1 in the major arcana. Justice is now number VIII, has been renamed as the Adjustment card, and shows a woman who is satisfied with what she has. I love the fact that the Thoth deck has a Lust card as with Crowley, there is no escaping humanities basic nature. Whilst RWS is very much a product of its time, and still sticking by Victorian values and niceties with the punitive Justice card, Crowley has left all of that behind and accepted the human animal for what it is, base instincts and all. There is no sin, shame or depravity linked to the Lust card, it is just acceptance of pure desire as a natural human response. The choice is then with the reader as to whether to accept it or act on it.
Temperance has been replaced with the Art card as number XIV. Art relates to the Art of alchemy and the ability to make something out of nothing. The key words here are change, purification and free will.
Aeon has replaced Judgement as number XX This card depicts the Egyptian god Horus as the child of Nuit and Hadit. Horus is the incarnation of the new aeon and is very much a card of rebirth.
The Universe has replaced The World as number XXI. The universe is bigger and more encompassing than the world. The universe shows unlimited possibilities and completion of a great work.
In addition, each of the cards in the Thoth deck has a one description printed under the image on the card to give a singular meaning for the card. Some people find this confusing. I find it really interesting and helpful. For instance if you want to ask a quick one card question such as ‘What do I need to get me through today’ the one word could be quite helpful.
Finally, I consider Lady Freida Harris’s art work to be of a much better quality than Pamela Coleman-Smith’s. This may seem like a trivial point at first glance but when you consider how much sway the artwork has in whether you buy the deck in the first place, it must surely play a part in how well you connect with the deck, how often you chose to use it and how much you trust the answers you get.
I personally find the Thoth deck to be very straight forward, there is no ambiguity and it tells me exactly what I need to know. It’s rapidly becoming my ‘go to’ deck’.
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth_tarot_deck
- Titus Salmon; Celestial Arcana: Precession, Tarot and the Secret Doctrine (2017); Mandrakes of Oxford; ISBN 978-1-906958-80-0
- The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley (1944), Samuel Weiser, Inc; 0877282684 (ISBN13: 9780877282686)