Uncle Al’s Thoth Tarot

I’m not sure where I first heard the appellation Uncle Al (I think of him as ‘Uncle Al, the kiddies pal’) for Aleister Crowley. I guess it’s some sort of leftover from my days in AOL chatrooms, making snarky comments in defense of the man who was called ‘the wickedest man in the world’ in his own time, but it’s a common nickname for him. Someone on Livejournal, appropriately using the title ‘Frater DD’ has a great selection of photos of Crowley, taken from LIFE magazine.

Not so scary here, eh?

Be that as it may, I’ve always thought of him with some affection. I don’t know why. His reputation, while no doubt to some extent overblown and sensationalized (although frankly that would take some doing) to his own amusement and use, clearly paints him as rude and difficult to get along with even by those who were in his circle. Maybe I respect a rebel who didn’t give a damn what the world thought of him, in an exceptionally repressed age. And to be fair, it also probably didn’t take much to fall from grace with polite society in the early 1900s.

Here’s a teensy bit of his bio from Wikipedia for those not acquainted with the man:

Edward Alexander Crowley, and also known as both Frater Perdurabo and The Great Beast, was an influential Englishoccultist, astrologer, mystic and ceremonial magician, responsible for founding the religious philosophy of Thelema. He was also successful in various other fields, including mountaineering, chess and poetry, and it has also been alleged that he was a spy for the British government. In his role as the founder of the Thelemite faith, he came to see himself as the prophet who was entrusted with informing humanity that it was entering the new Aeon of Horus in the early twentieth century.

While his views on most social mores transcended his time, sadly the same cannot be said of his views on women. He was quite mired in conventional attitude that women were inferior. Why he could flout most conventions and not this one I have no idea. He was born to a wealthy family, perhaps the women he was most in contact with were more like Daisy Buchanan than Margaret Sanger. His relationship with the independent Frieda, Lady Harris, seems to have been more egalitarian. His letters to her were forthright, blunt, intelligent, the attitude I imagine he would have taken with a respected peer, not someone he considered to be a lowly, intellectually dull female.

I have long had copies of the deck he and Frieda Harris created (at her urging), but have rarely worked with it, because the style and the symbolism embodied in the amazing paintings Harris created were frankly beyond me and somewhat intimidating. I’d tried reading his own book on the subject, The Book of Thoth, and found that nearly incomprehensible. All that is changing.

I finally picked up Lon Milo DuQuette’s book on this deck, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. I’m only forty pages in and already my understanding of this deck has increased more than I can tell you. So much of the creation of the deck stems from his writings channeled to him from his Holy Guardian Angel Aiwass while in Egypt, and even from visions his own wife Rose experienced there. Much is based on Eygptian mythology and cosmology, and I have never been an Egyptologist. I don’t know why, perhaps the fact that Egypt is so often revered by occultists and Tarotists that it seemed cliche and, worse, like kids playing dress-up and a game. And yet I seem to keep being pointed in that direction. Like last winter I accidentally ended up with a copy of the Ibis Tarot by Josef Machynka. And just a couple of weeks ago I ran across a copy of the Nefertari’s Tarot on EBay for half of what it normally goes for, so of course I caved and bought it. :::insert wry grin::: Oh yeah, and a copy of the Brotherhood of Light Deck I picked up last year. Despite not being interested in Egypt or Egyptian-themed decks. Ok, says I, I will sit up and take notice at long last.

If you have this deck and were put off by Crowley’s reputation or were unable to get through his own book on the subject, this is THE book to get to set you on the path to a greater (and great) understanding of this deck. Maybe after I finish it I’ll get more out of Crowley’s own book.  Here’s a short snippet from Duquette’s book:

Harris’s style is characterized by her graphical conversion of the mathematical concepts of projective geometry. A provocative expansion of Euclidean geometry, projective geometry was, in the mid 1930s, the focus of intense study among the disciples of Rudolf Steiner. Three years before she began painting the Thoth Tarot, Harris studied under two of Steiner’s most brilliant students, George Adams and Olive Whicher, and was soon busy transferring theoretical mathematics to canvas.

However difficult or unimportant it may be for us to grasp the mathematical subtleties of projective geometry, we see it thrillingly manifested in Harris’s use of lines, nets, arcs, swirls, twists, and angles stretched and overlaid one upon another, or otherwise combined to visually redefine the fabric of space. Each time we gaze upon one of these cards, we are obliged to transcned the dimensional boundaries of our minds and momentarily place ourselves in an environment where infinite depth can exist simultaneously with infinite projection.

There’s so much in there, I’m sure I’ll be discussing it more as I make my way through the book. And for all that, the style is clear and conversational. DuQuette has a gift for making the grand concepts embodied in this deck thoroughly accessible. Maybe now I can justify a fresh copy of the deck after spilling coffee on one copy, and losing the Lust card from another to a cat’s mischief. I had it sitting out as my daily meditation card, and one of my male cats sprayed it while I wasn’t looking. Evil beast. Somehow I think Crowley would enjoy that.

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4 thoughts on “Uncle Al’s Thoth Tarot

  1. Another fantastic post, DD. This new blog of yours is just great!

    As far as I can see, Aleister never deserved the evil reputation some tried to label him with.

    Slightly off subject, but did I tell you about the book I have, “Women of the Golden Dawn”- by Mary K. Greer? It’s a fascinating read.

  2. Thank you, Tasha! 🙂

    Well, as much as I admire and respect Crowley’s writings and work, he was pretty wild, although that isn’t the same thing as evil. He was not a Satanist as many people and Web sites claim (and I know you know), if people knew anything about the Golden Dawn or the OTO they would realize that. DuQuette quotes from the letters exchanged by Harris and Crowley during the creation of the deck, and from one very interesting one Frieda Harris wrote to someone else towards the end of her life while living in Egypt, saying how much she missed AC and his honesty and intellect. (I can dig it up when I get home if you want the actual quote). They seem to have had quite an amazing partnership, but they were apparently never more than fellow artists and OTO members.

    I started re-reading Uncle Al’s Book of Thoth now, and I find it much clearer. It’s like DuQuette’s book was the Young Adult intro to the subject, and now I can read the Big Girl books 😉 Crowley wrote at a level that was more geared towards people already involved in Qabala and Hermeticism, and mysticism, so for someone without a good grounding in those things you’ll be more than a little lost. DuQuette’s book is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you enough to get started.

    I know of MKG’s book but haven’t read it. Does she discuss Frieda Harris at all?

  3. I don’t recall if Frieda Harris was mentioned or not. The book centers on Maud Gonne, Moina Mathers, Annie Horniman, and Florence Farr.

    When I reread it in the future, I’ll keep an eye out for any mention of her. 🙂

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