Avoiding the Thoth Tarot Because Crowley

A recurring sentiment you’ll hear, even among tarot readers, is that Crowley’s Thoth deck should be avoided, because Crowley. After e-mailing me paragraphs of rehashed Internet research on the salacious nuggets of the man’s biography to lay the foundation of their point, the inevitable question will come: “Should I avoid working with the Thoth because it’s got bad juju?”

I’m always amused when this question is presented for me to answer, as if I have any reasonable idea whether you in particular should work with or avoid working with the Thoth. It’s a matter of personal preference, and so it’s a question I can’t answer without knowing you through and through.

Once when I was reading tarot at a book festival to promote Holistic Tarot, someone came up to me, got a reading from me, and then bought my book. As we were chatting, she mentioned that she was glad I didn’t work with the Thoth because there was no way she could learn tarot from an author or teacher who condoned Aleister Crowley.

At the time I think I just kept my smile and nodded stupidly. I mean what do you say to that in a casual acquaintance-only public square setting? It’s not the time or place to get into an in-depth discussion about the Thoth.

Broadly speaking, I encourage tarot practitioners to become fluent in reading with the Tarot de Marseille, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Thoth, and to establish your own interpretive distinctions among the three. How do you connect and work with the TdM versus the RWS versus the Thoth? How does the Thoth speak to you compared to the RWS? What is your reading process with the TdM compared to the RWS? Do you just have this ubiquitous unchanging system that you transplant into any deck you work with no matter what? Or do you stop and listen to the deck and work with it in a customized fashion, on that particular deck’s character and merits?

My personal experience is the systems do not read the same. Not at all.

Assuming you have a visceral negative reaction to Crowley’s lifestyle and some of his life choices, should you avoid using his deck on those grounds? The answer to that question depends on your ethical standards and philosophy of life. I think if you’re wondering that question, the issue goes beyond Crowley and strikes at the fundamentals of what kind of person you want to be.

If the moral character of a leader runs against your own moral code, does that mean such a person is no longer fit to lead? Are you afraid you can’t be trusted to abide by your own moral code if the leader above you doesn’t abide by that moral code? Do you need to be surrounded by those exactly like you, so that you won’t forget who you are?

Those are the questions to be asking and answering if you have moral reservations about using the Thoth deck because Crowley.

Then I’ve heard the threats that using the Crowley deck will open the gates of hell and you’ll become possessed by demons. Like, 78 pieces of cardstock will become saturated with evil as soon as the 78 works of the Thoth tarot are printed on them. That’s some powerful magic, which I suppose I wouldn’t put past Crowley, but still.

It’s insanity to me how easily people get brainwashed by branding. You can get so primed at the subconscious level that you don’t even realize that everything you are feeling and experiencing is in fact conjured up by someone else manipulating your imagination. I know you don’t want to believe that, but what we think of things we know very little of is completely and utterly informed by its branding.

No one– no one– who has truly given the Thoth deck– and Crowley– a chance thinks it’s an evil tarot deck, or that it has evil juju.

It dismays me when public figures in the New Age, metaphysical, or tarot communities read an unverified blog post on the Internet about Crowley and then decide he’s Satan and go around telling everyone he’s Satan and that his deck is evil incarnate. Oh, but you say you read it in a published book? Take it from someone who’s published several books and is familiar with the publishing industry. A lot of misinformation gets published in books.

When you read an allegation, you want to be discerning. What is the author’s source of information? What might the accuser’s motivations be? Are you able to tell the difference between words and action?

If I’m being rational, the Thoth deck is pieces of cardstock with printed art, which you’ll either like or dislike on a wholly subjective basis, which were based on designs and attributions thought up by Mr. Aleister Crowley and Lady Marguerite Frieda Harris. When you read the primary sources on Crowley, you can’t help but to acknowledge his unmatched brilliance. The bad press he’s known for comes entirely from hearsay.

If I’m being sensitive, Crowley probably could’ve been a bit of a schmuck, wrapped up in a great deal of conceit that would have made him rather unbearable to most. He probably wasn’t always kind, and what he’s penned himself does suggest that he talks down at and likes to be condescending toward nearly everyone. Well. People do not like being talked down at and will vilify those who demean them. So a mountain-load of maligned secondary accounts of his character doesn’t really surprise me.

Well-known public figures of acclaim in Crowley’s time who were probably used to everyone kissing the ground they walked on must have been taken aback when Crowley didn’t do the same. I’m sure that’s going to lead them to leave behind negative reviews of the man.

You can avoid the Thoth because you don’t like the artwork, but to avoid a deck of cards because you think its creator was reincarnated Satan is a little bit– just a little bit– absurd.

And, you know, I would give the real Satan a lot more credit. Reincarnated Satan or the Anti-Christ isn’t going to look and act like Aleister Crowley. Satan is going to look and act like a Love and Light Prophet.

23 thoughts on “Avoiding the Thoth Tarot Because Crowley

  1. hermitsmirror

    Yes! I absolutely agree. I avoided it for so long, but I actually really love how it reads and what I can glean from it, even more than my Waite deck now. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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  2. nineveh

    I think it was Lady Frieda Harris who actually painted the images of the Thoth Tarot, and I think it’s high time she got some credit for that, the way Pamela Coleman Smith was basically ignored as the “Rider-Waite” artist. It wasn’t solely Crowley’s creation, the way AEW was not solely responsible for “his” Tarot deck.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. I’m aware that Lady Frieda Harris painted the deck art. If you consider the context of what I’m addressing in this blog post, then you’ll understand why the focus here was on Crowley.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad you’ve addressed this, and interestingly, during a time when I myself am in the market for and desperately trying to suss out a good copy of the Thoth. Very synchronistic, indeed. I find it strange, bothersome and outright silly when I hear these types of comments about Crowley or any teacher or thought leader. Folks, let us think critically for ourselves! You should listen to the **ideas** and **methods** of your teacher, not copy their lifestyle and ideals! People get so caught up in a PERSON that they forget they’re learning a subject, not a lifestyle. I mean yes, emulate the way a person thinks to really understand what they are saying, then: be your self with a new perspective on something! The thing is everyone wants to treat teachers and instructors as messiahs, they don’t realize one imperial truth: those are people too. They have fallacies, they have shortcomings, and no one is telling you to trust their every word to the period, just expand your horizons of thought. So many of the people that I hear say this tend to be “energy healers” or only read “intuitively” and look down on LWB for a deck because they just “feel” the cards. That’s great in part of course, but knowing a broad base of info about the cards and the separate systems is key to truly understanding them and ourselves. I find learning as much as possible from as many different perspectives as one can, is best and proves for an open mind and an authentic reader. In my mundane and magical lives, I follow this. If you listen to yes-men and only those that agree with you and recite the same thing on Reddit and froth when a perceived nay-sayer interjects, guess what: you end up in an echo chamber. An unusual place to be to gain knowledge, no? Sorry I’ll stop com-ranting now! HA! Fantastic post as always!

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  4. Thank you for stating this argument so clearly. I chuckled in agreement throughout it. I too have had people mention their problematic ethics about the Thoth deck. Being respectful, I allow them to have their own opinion. Your precise question, “Are you afraid you can’t be trusted to abide by your own moral code?” Regarding Crowley, no one is ever perfect and history is not always true and we will never ‘know’. Practices of tarot need to be authentic and true to themselves. If you don’t like a deck, move on, but don’t imbue old beliefs and judgments. It just seems wildly archaic, oh, like book burning or even witch burning, lol.

    Also, to echo Nineveh, Lady Frieda Harris does need more credit! The artwork is hands down top 10 best decks, my opinion. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s always worth mentioning Frieda Harris as what she produced varied greatly from Crowley’s initial stated intention. It is an intense deck, and not always easy to grasp with its Minor Arcana that’s mood and energy-based rather than scenic. Plus, being created dying WWII, cards labeled as victory and defeat were created, as Frieda Harris noted, in scynchronistically with those very occurrences. For those who are attracted to the deck but fear Crowley I recommend Angeles Arrien’s *The Tarot Handbook*, with its human potential slant. However, it is worth eventually reading Crowley’s *Book of Thoth* as it is brilliant. May she who has not sinned through the first stone.

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    1. Errata: throw not through in last line, and cut the “in” before synchronisitically. That will teach me not to post on my iphone while drinking coffee at a cafe!

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  6. Well, now I feel foolish for having avoided the Thoth deck for so long. For those of us who might not like the artwork in the Thoth deck, are there other decks closely based on it that you could recommend?

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  7. Sally

    I read your posting and had to laugh at myself. I especially like your para about being brainwashed. Guilty! Oddly enough the Thoth deck was the first deck I purchased and I came at it from Angeles Arien and so really knew *nothing* about Crowley. Although I thought some of the illustrations weird (and even the interpretation of the cards in Arien’s Book) I kept using the deck for a couple of years at least—naively. When I learned about the weirdness of Crowley I suddenly became all huffy. What does that say about me??? I have to think twice now about my flakiness! Perhaps my reaction to Crowley (after reading a bit about him) reminded me of my meditation teacher who ended up being very human and having clay feet—and not in a very good way. I felt that he was not fit to lead and yet he introduced me to very good skills and philosophies, so……

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  8. Whist

    I loath Crowley for his cruelty not because he is some demon incarnate. Frankly he would be a poor substitute for that role as I see the devil as far more insidious in its manifestations. I do however appreciate aspects of the Thoth deck especially the art. I just dont feel the need to read with it due to personal preference.

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  9. Crowley often gets taken out of context. He was a man way before his time. I mean, he lived during Victorian England where sexuality was a major taboo. And he loved to antagonize and provoke people. No wonder why he would receive a lot of bad press in such a society. If he lived today, probably none would lift a finger.

    I feel that the “New Age Community”, if we can call it that, is dominated by a very feminine energy. There is a reason for why there are so few males in that community. We simply don’t feel “at home”. So instead males, like me, often turn to traditional magic and occultism instead (a lot of women do too). The problem is that the New Age scene is completely stripped of any masculine energy. Just look at the sheer amounts of tarot decks and oracle decks that are marketed towards women. I don’t find the Thoth deck to be a masculine deck in particular, but it’s a deck where masculinity isn’t omitted. It might have a bit of a darker feel compared to many newer decks, but honestly, so does the traditional RWS.

    But it is not only that. The New Age scene has become very commercial, and with it a lot of quick-fixes and simple solutions are being sold. People in general want to be positive and “dark” or “negative” sides don’t sell too well. Crowley’s works aren’t accessible. It is quite overwhelming material and most people won’t have either time or the patience for it. So it is a very convenient excuse to just shove it off as “something bad”.

    I don’t claim that I have a full overview of everything Crowley stands for and I don’t consider myself a thelemite, but anyone with at least some interest in western occultism, should probably at least try to get a basic understanding of his ideas so they can decide whether they agree or not. That is how influential he has been.

    So I support your view 100%. It is unfortunately only ignorance that make people to be skeptical and have an opinion of something they have no reason to have an opinion about. In science the norm is to go straight to the source rather than third party sources, so why should that not also apply to Crowley?

    If Crowley was good or bad as a person is an open question I suppose, but honestly, most of us have no idea what people behind a lot of tarot decks are like. The difference is that Crowley is famous and then people feel that they can make a judgement based on that.

    Hehe I don’t normally rant like this in comment fields, but I find it so provoking when people have very strong opinions about something and when you just scratch the surface you see that it falls apart. 🙂

    Thank you for bringing this into attention though. Hopefully it can bring some balance back to the New Age/Tarot community.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This may be a case of “your mileage may vary” rather than “one size fits all”.

    Benebell, pardon me if I get some details here wrong, I seem to recall an interview you did some years back with Brigit Esselmont wherein you said something about your mother indicating decks would pick up energy as they were used that would need to be energetically cleansed periodically. I’ve been following a meditational discipline for several decades and perhaps have become sensitized but my own experience was in line with what I recall your mom had indicated.

    Of equal interest to me, and maybe more germane to this discussion, I have, from the beginning, found that the decks I’ve used retain some of the character of the deck’s author as a foundation that was hard for me to cleanse. The first deck I had, which I will not name so as not to reflect on the author, had a strong codependent and controlling feel to it when it arrived in the mail. It started out giving off a resentful vibe as soon as I received it in the mail and it only got more resentful over the first week that I had it. I tried sleeping with it in my room and found I could actually see (and feel) a black vortex coming out of my backpack where the deck was at night. I had to move it out of the house during the night so I could get some sleep. It also seemed to be a hindrance to my meditation which didn’t happen when I removed it from the house. So, it had to go. I’ve since been a little careful about the decks that I use, occasionally gifting some of them to others when they’re not a good match for me energetically. If only just because I don’t want to waste the money, I like to hold the box in my hands before buying unless I’m well familiar with the author of the deck and feel it more likely to be compatible with me.

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  11. Really enjoyed reading this and especially agree with the line about the devil appearing as all ‘love and light’. Thank you for sharing these insights. I think it’s time I dusted off my own copy of the Thoth and had a closer look at it. I myself never had any major ‘bad’ feelings about this deck. In my mind it is, like you say, just a deck of 78 cards. I never really resonated with it to be honest, but lately it’s been calling me. Time to re-examine.

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  12. Frank Hall (Parzival)

    Great insights by everyone. I think gaining a wide range of Tarot systems and artistries opens up the intuition, but the danger to this is superficial scattering of attention. So, it may be best to concentrate on some classic decks as a kind of “Tarot Axis,” with a circle of secondary or tertiary decks around it. To me Visconti, Marseilles, Egyptian-styled (Pitois), RWS, and Thoth are at the center, not because of what we know or don’t know about their creators, but because they have significant historic, aesthetic, and symbolic value. As to Crowley as well as Waite, both have their extremely crititical idiosyncracies, with Crowley denouncing Waite vigorously, with Waite admiringly translating Eliphas Levi’s works, adding his own scathing notes. Great classic Tarots go deeper down into inspiration that leaves personality behind, generally. At least, we can reach for the universal symbolic content and forget matters of biographical accounts that tend to be worshipful or damning. Waite’s deck has Grail symbolism that is much more universal than his scholarly rants; Crowley’s Kabbalistic unity and coherence in the Thoth is much more universal than his sometimes wild,witty will. Let’s look for humanity deep down in the decks, not for idolatry or mockery as to the creators. We do that with Beethoven and with Picasso, so let’s do that with Tarot.

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