Sneaking Up on the Book of Thoth

In response to those tarot journeymen who are struggling mightily (and often unsuccessfully) with Aleister Crowley’s daunting Book of Thoth (BoT) and complaining almost as fiercely, I’ll stick my oar in the water here. As always, I do this at the risk of repeating myself, not for the first time nor the last. (I could, of course, preface this screed with “TL;DR. Just keep plugging away” and save you the trouble of reading it.

I always recommend a structured approach to those new to the BoT. Read the introductory essays first, since they’re very well-organized and well-written (perhaps even re-read them a couple – or more – times before advancing). Then move on to “Part IV, The Small Cards,” followed by “Part Three, The Court Cards” (which I’ve found to offer some of the best commentary on the subject in print, primarily due to Crowley’s focus on “moral characteristics”). Finally, take a deep breath and attack “Part Two, The Atu (Keys or Trumps)” with diligence, girding yourself for a vigorous intellectual tussle; leave the mercilessly convoluted and arcane “APPENDIX” to that section for last (that’s where I think the “lifetime study” of the BoT resides). I sometimes wonder – with absolutely no evidence – whether Crowley was talking about this appendix when he said (and I do think it was his “ghost writing”) in Soror I.W.E’s “Bibliographical Notes” that “Its perusal may be omitted with advantage.

If that turns out to be too tame for you, try to penetrate the very dense anthropological and historical background information in James George Frazer’s Golden Bough, rather sadistically implied by Crowley to be good source material for his (Crowley’s) syncretic pan-cultural rambling in Part Two. Some people think Crowley was playing a joke on his readers by touting Frazer, but he certainly had the resolute mind to pick his way through the monumental Golden Bough without becoming bored or exhausted. I’ve tried to read it cover-to-cover a few times but it always defeats me early on. It reminds me of the line from the old Bert and I “Down-East Maine wisdom” about the drowned man who changed his shirt only once a year: “The dirt just drug him down.” It my case it was Frazer’s “minute and tedious” detail.

The material in Appendices A and B at the back of the book can be dipped into as needed; I find myself referring frequently to – and quoting – the “General Characters of the Trumps As They Appear In Use.” Crowley’s take on the Golden Dawn’s sprawling “Opening of the Key” spread, several tables of correspondences (although most of those are in his 777) and a few Qabalistic diagrams are also found there. As has often been said, Crowley wasn’t writing for novices, so by carefully deconstructing the BoT in a systematic way you can “back-door” your entry into his thinking on the tarot.

I would also recommend getting your hands on Jim Eshelman’s Liber Theta, a Thoth-informed minor rewrite of the Golden Dawn’s Liber T, mainly for its amplification of some of Mathers’ less well-explained methods, the same techniques that Christopher Hyatt tried with some success to elucidate in Israel Regardie’s Golden Dawn “brick,” The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. (Liber Theta was freely available from the College of Thelema when I downloaded it a few years ago.) Then spend some quality time with the BoT’s spiritual inspiration, The Book of the Law (Liber al vel Legis); these days I like to re-read it more for its poetic flow (reminiscent of the luminous Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) than for its esoteric content. I’ll probably draw down the “Wrath of Aiwass” upon myself for saying so, but I now see it as containing half-a-dozen nuggets of unsurpassed mystical brilliance wrapped in a good deal of euphoric faux-Egyptian window-dressing (as well as a couple of nasty elitist diatribes attributed to the spirit Aiwass that I would argue shouldn’t be taken at face value – but good luck philosophizing your way out of that box!)

Regarding Lon Milo DuQuette’s oft-recommended book, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, I think it’s a worthy primer but not nearly as memorable as the original; in my opinion – and this was probably the author’s intent – it’s more like “BoT Lite.” I’m reminded of the old Miller Lite beer slogan: “Great Taste, Less Filling.”

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