A Tarot deck is a deck of cards used for Divination that has at least a set of Major Arcana. In many cases, it also has a set of Minor Arcana. Any deck used for Divination that does not have Major Arcana is known as an Oracle deck, not a Tarot deck. Invented in 15th century Italy, these cards can give the practitioner insight into the past, present, and future. A reading will often begin with formulating a question that the tarot reader will use to get intel from the deck. However, multiple kinds of decks can assist you throughout your journey. While beginning tarot readers in the English-speaking world will most likely choose to start their practice with the classic Rider-Waite deck, people further into their cartomancy journey might decide to opt for Thoth Tarot.
Designed with the instructions of Aleister Crowley and drawn and painted by Lady Frieda Harris, the Thoth Tarot deck is known for its stunning illustrations and symbolism. What makes this set different from the rest, and why should you add it to your collection? Let’s take a closer look!
The Thoth Tarot Deck: What Is It?
Illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris, Thoth is a divination deck from the 20th century. Not only is it donned with unique drawings all over, but also its symbolism is based on Crowley’s philosophy of the spirit. While Eliphas Levi was the first to make a connection between Tarot and the Kabbalah, Crowley and Harris designed a deck based on this correspondence. Crowley is a controversial figure, to say the least. He was an egotist with a superiority complex.
Lady Frieda Harris, on the other hand, spent many years studying projective synthetic geometry before getting started with this deck. It was Harris who financed this deck by giving Crowley a stipend while he came up with the concepts that make up this deck and attracting investors during the production of the deck. Crowley intended the deck to be more in line with the traditional decks out there. It was Harris who convinced him to make the deck reflect his unique views on spirituality.
Also known as the Aleister Crowley Tarot, a name that erases the valuable contributions of Harris, Thoth is a deck that promises you a brand new reading experience. As you can tell by the name, it honors Thoth— the Egyptian God of the moon, reckoning, writing, and learning. He was the scribe, adviser, and interpreter of the Gods of Egypt, which is only fitting considering the purpose of this deck.
Thoth also has a book on the side that Tarot readers can refer to for detailed explanations of these symbolisms. It’s called the Book of Thoth or Book of the Law. The symbolisms explained in this book allow for new possible meanings, ideas, and messages.
The Creation of The Thoth Deck & Its Book
Even if most people did not know it at the time, the 20th century witnessed a turning point in terms of cartomancy and divination. When Aleister Crowley started planning for the Thoth tarot cards, he had a goal. He wanted to breathe new life into the Major Arcana, updating the traditional tarot deck and giving it a twist by interlinking Kabbalah and Tarot in these cards. He assigned a Hebrew letter to each Major Arcana. To do so, he placed The Emperor on the number 17, traditionally the number associated with The Star, so The Emperor could correspond to the Hebrew letter Tzaddi and The Star, which was placed fourth in the order, with the letter Heh.
The deck came together with the divine knowledge and guidance of Aleister Crowley and the artistic talent of Lady Frieda Harris, but Crowley went the extra mile to write a book that would accompany this deck, and thus the Book of Thoth or Book of the Law was created.
Aleister Crowley Tarot vs. Rider-Waite Smith
The Rider-Waite Smith Tarot is a Tarot classic. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, you probably have come across this deck. So how does the Crowley tarot set itself aside from this, you ask? The short answer is: it does not have a lot of differences—but the ones it does have are pretty crucial to know. Here is a quick look at the main differences you might come across in these decks:
- Card Names
Now, let’s take a detailed look at the alterations.
Symbolism in the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck
If the Rider-Waite Smith tarot cards were a classical portrayal of the medieval eras when Paganism and Christianity both reigned supreme in their own rights, Crowley’s designs are a deep dive into the more modern understanding of occult practices. They are strikingly out there— like neon signs catching your eye in the darkest hours of the night.
Take The Fool, for one. In the Rider-Waite Smith deck, the Fool is precisely what the name makes it out to be. A young man on the edge of a cliff, with a flower in one hand and a sack of belongings in the other, just beginning his journey. But in the Aleister Crowley tarot cards, The Fool is portrayed differently.
This version has The Green Man front and center. In spiritual practices, The Green Man signifies death, rebirth, and finally: life. The circles surrounding this personage also depict the cycle of life, not to mention the bright colors that make it all the more possible to interpret the symbolism in several ways.
But this is just the beginning of Thoth’s tarot. It gets much broader when the imagery gets involved, which is what we will be looking at next.
Imagery in the Crowley Thoth Tarot
As we mentioned above, Thoth comes with beautiful designs courtesy of the talented Lady Frieda Harris. But what exactly was changed in these cards, and more importantly—why?
One of the most obvious reasons would be the artistic liberties taken by Harris herself. While Crowley provided guidance, the depictions belonged to Freida, who, in her letters to Aleister Crowley, stated that she “made an effort in the present pack to embody this current mode of the century.” Her goal was to portray movement and life in the cards. She described this as “four dimensions,” which she claimed required “great concentration” and was “an incentive to meditation.”
Another reason for these changes was the specifications of Crowley. Harris took long periods to work on a single card (sometimes drafting up to eight versions), but the result was well worth it, and got everybody talking.
Though she could have re-illustrated the Major Arcana, Frieda stuck by her principles. She was a suffragette, but after marrying the MP of the Liberal Party, people started to recognize Freida as the wife of Percy Harris, the radical socialist. It probably didn’t sit well with her to be perceived as some sort of a trophy wife, so she turned things around by publishing her illustrated writings. Still, her private life was left in the shadows; her creativity was clandestine. However, she spent her time associating with members of esoteric and co-masonry societies. But the people she spent her time around all faded to black when she emerged as the executive artist of Thoth. Her beliefs on Tarot, too, were unique to her era. According to Freida, these cards were “a Map of the Universe and they might quite easily be compared with the symbols of Mathematics. Regarded as such they represent a convenient means of stating cosmic problems…”
She was sixty when she approached Aleister Crowley with the idea that would become a life legacy to them both. The plan was to revise the symbolism and make it more holistic. Though it took a while for Crowley to get on board with this idea, he soon took it to heart and incorporated Thelema, the religion created by Crowley, with the Thoth tarot cards.
Card Names in Thoth
Another significant difference in the Crowley Thoth tarot was the card names. After all, a brand new approach called for recreations on all accounts. The new and improved names on this deck allowed for new interpretations that can result in many exciting readings.
The Aleister Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot Deck has been rearranged in terms of astrological and numerical correspondences, which was the main reason behind why some of the old names had to go. But in some cases, the linkages stayed the same while the cards got renamed.
That is precisely what happened to Pentacles. They were still linked to material goods and elementally associated with earth, but they now existed under the name: “Disks.”
The Court Cards also got renamed. The Knight became The Prince, and in its place, The King became The Knight. The Page also got a remake and was called The Princess.
Reading Thoth: Spreads and First Approaches
If there is one thing we cannot stress enough, it is that Thoth is a unique deck. With all these differences to keep in mind while conducting a reading, it might be easier to approach the Crowley-Harris Tarot like any other deck at first—intuitively. For extra help, you might want to pick up a version that comes with a guidebook.
Reading Thoth can be a learning process. So a good way of going about it would be to try out traditional three or five-card spreads. That way, you will connect with the deck and get used to how it speaks to you.
The Aleister Crowley-Harris Tarot cards are great for readers seeking unique guidance from the Universe. While it might be challenging at first, you will gain better control of your cards with more practice. Grab your cards and meet us in the comments section to discuss your experience!