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Tarot Reading: The History of The Thoth Deck

Now that we’ve discussed the most common deck of tarot cards, the Rider-Waite deck, let’s discuss Aleister Crowley’s attempt to update Waite’s work with the Thoth deck!

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was a renowned occultist, novelist, and poet who chose to create his own deck of tarot that incorporated his multifaceted studies: science, philosophy, and Egyptian mythology. Like the Rider-Waite deck, Crowley steered away from Christian themes and imagery, instead chose to integrate more occultist ideals. For the card’s artwork, he commissioned artist Lady Frieda Harris to give his ideas a cohesive aesthetic. Harris’ artwork is notably more psychedelic than any previously published deck.


Departures From Earlier Decks

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In the Thoth deck, Crowley renamed many of the Major Arcana to better fit his intended symbolism. For example, “The Magician” became “The Magus,” “The High Priestess” became just “The Priestess;” keeping with his Egyptian mythology background, Crowley introduced “The Aeon” in replace of “Judgement.” He borrowed heavily from Egyptian ideals when devising his own philosophy, Thelema.( In Thelema, human history is divided into separate aeons, which are different periods of magical and spiritual expression.) Wanting to stray from heavy-handed religious dogma and terminology, it was only natural to replace the Rider-Waite’s interpretation with Crowley’s personal philosophies.

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Publication

What Crowley and Lady Harris intended to be a six-month project in the late 1930’s, soon proved to be a much more daunting task than they’d expected. He insisted on perfecting the deck before publication, often rejecting Lady Harris’ designs; some of the cards were painted as many as eight times before Crowley approved them, and even then his approval was tentative. Neither Crowley nor Harris lived to see their deck published, but their work was continued by Crowley’s disciples. Finally, in 1969, the first Thoth deck lived to see the light of day.
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