Aleister Crowley was an English occultist, ceremonial magician, adventurer, mountaineer, poet, painter, novelist, and allegedly spy or secret government agent, member, or co-founder of several esoteric orders, founder of Thelema, considered the Godfather of modern Satanism and labelled by the press of his time as being “the wickedest man in the world”. Preceded mainly by his bad reputation, Crowley is the one to love or hate. He has remained one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, both amongst occult-ists and in popular culture. In 2002, a BBC poll placed Crowley on the honourable seventy-third position in a list of the 100 Greatest Britons, a list led by Sir Winston Churchill, and populated by prominent personalities such as Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, John Lennon or Diana, Princess of Wales. He has become even more famous after his death than during his life.
Crowley was born Edward Alexander Crowley, on October 12, 1875, and died on December 1, 1947, in poverty and relative anonymity. He began to receive adequate scholarly attention only in the late 1990s.
Between exploration and experimentation, Crowley was a highly prolific esoteric author. Many of the works of Crowley are in the form of Libri – meaning “books” –, which are usually short documents consisting of core teachings, methodologies, practices, or Thelemic scripture. All the Libri are given a number in the Greek numbering system. The Equinox (subtitle: “The Review of Scientific Illuminism”) is a series of publications in book form that serves as the official organ of the A∴A∴, (Argentium Astrum – meaning silver star) the magical order founded by Aleister Crowley. Begun in 1909, it mainly features articles about occultism and magick, while several issues also contain poetry, fiction, plays, artwork, and biographies.
“The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians” is the title of The Equinox, volume III, number 5, recorded in the vernal equinox of 1944, and was originally published in an edition limited to 200 numbered and signed copies. The book describes the philosophy and the use of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, a deck which was designed by Crowley and co-designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris. The Thoth Tarot has become one of the best-selling and most popular Tarot decks in the world.
The artwork is absolutely brilliant and breathtaking. When I first saw Lady Frieda Harris’s Death card, I get stoned. Although Crowley originally intended the Thoth deck to be a six-month project, it took the artist over five years (1938-1943) to complete the seventy-eight surrealistic paintings. However, the deck was first published only in 1969, long after they both were dead and without their consent while not one of them was completely satisfied with the outcome.
While Arthur Edward Waite’s “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” was just a straightforward accompanying book consist mostly only in short description of the cards general meaning – and mainly borrowing from the tradition set by Etteilla –, Crowley’s writing is full of vivid details and fascinating incursions in the never before explored esoteric – genuinely hidden – world. Crowley takes his readers on a highly exciting roller-coaster of mythology, philosophy, and religion, revealing the unsuspected connections of the Tarot to the Kabbalah, Astrology, Numerology, Enochian Magick and I Ching, in his efforts to synthesise and integrate the esoteric systems of East and West. However, by no means, The Book of Thoth is easy reading. It demands a significant investment of time and extended study not only of the book itself but also the multiple topics referred by Crowley.
It is not the subject of the current book to get in-depth into the philosophy and structural set up of the Crowlian Tarot. The core of Crowley’s system is built upon the Golden Dawn tradition. However, some aspects although are allegedly part of the original Golden Dawn system, I suspect are actually Crowley’s own interpretations and contributions. It must be mentioned that most of the published documents of the Golden Dawn or works dedicated to the Golden Dawn, and I refer especially but not exclusively to Crowley’s secretary Israel Regardie, has as a source or refers exclusively to Aleister Crowley. In this particular matter, with due respect, Crowley is not an entirely reliable source. Forgery seems to be the second nature of many occultists, the most eloquent example being one of the founding fathers of the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn, Dr William Wynn Westcott. Westcott is suspected to be one of the forgers, together with Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, of the founding document of the order, The Cipher Manuscripts. The same Westcott seems to be the author of the Magical Rituals of the Sanctum Regnum, falsely attributed to Éliphas Lévi. Arthur Edward Waite, on the other hand, was the first to suggest that the Cypher Manu-scripts was composed by Kenneth Mackenzie.
One of the artifices introduced by Aleister Crowley is the placement of The Fool at the beginning of the Tarot deck. Although it is unnumbered, numbered zero or rarely, numbered twenty-one, traditionally, The Fool is positioned between The Judgement and The World, or at the end of the sequence of the Major Arcana. However, historically, there are two notable exceptions when The Fool was listed at the beginning of the Major Arcana. In work attributed to Aretino and dated from 1543, “Le carte parlanti. Dialogo di Partenio Etiro nel quale si tratta del gioco con moralità piacevole,” The Fool is the first card in the deck. The other work is called “Triomphi de Pomeran da Cittadela composti sopra li terrocchi in laude delle famose gentil donne di Vinegia” published in 1534. “Triomphi de Pomeran” is a series of sonnets using the Tarot trumps to describe the noblewomen of Venice. The volume of verses is organised into four parts. The second part has a pictorial sub-title and consists of twenty-two stanzas of ottava rima, with headings associating specific women with the Trumps. However, these two known examples from the sixteenth-century Ita-ly seem to be exceptions and may have not esoteric grounds but other considerations, possibly incognizance.
In the introduction of The Book of Thoth, Crowley stressed that although the attributions of the trumps according to Éliphas Lévi in his famous “Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual” is wrong, Lévi knew the correct correspondences but felt bound by his oath of secrecy to the Order of Initiates which had given him the secrets of the Tarot.
The issue of secrecy is the central matter here.
Crowley’s main argument for putting The Fool at the beginning of the Tarot deck originates from the folio number thirty-two from the Cipher Manuscripts. The question that raises from here is, the Cipher Manuscripts a legitimate and reliable source? A variety of theories exist as to the real source and possible authors of the Cipher Manuscripts. Westcott and Mathers are the prime suspects behind the supposed forgery. On the other hand, if it is a forgery, it is well executed. From my point of view, what matters is the content of the manuscripts. Just at first glance, there are more than one errors and inaccuracies within the texts. At this point, I am not going to analyse all the sixty folios but focus exclusively on the folio in question, respectively folio number thirty-two.
Although The Fool is listed as the first card opening the sequence of the Major Arcana, the cards are not arranged in any particular order. It just does not make any sense to adopt the position of one card and ignore all the others. Moreover, The Fool is numbered with the Roman number one (I), and Arab number 11 and apparently the Juggler (The Magician) is marked as zero – difficult to distinguish precisely from the existing photocopies. While the Roman numbers, except the Fool and Magician, fit the traditional, respective-ly Tarot of Marseille ordering, the Arab numbering begins with 11, ends with 32 and seems completely random.
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(Excerpt from the book “The Cartomancers Handbook, Fortune-telling with playing cards” by Attila Blága. Full or partial use of this text for commercial or non-commercial distribution by any means whatsoever is strictly prohibited unless expressly authorised by the author.)