“Inner Navigation” with the Thoth Tarot

The purpose of this essay is to inquire “At what point does (or should) a serious tarot scholar become a diviner?” The best answer to that comes from Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, at the beginning of Appendix A, “The Behaviour of the Tarot: Its Use in the Art of Divination,” which I will quote in part:

“. . . he (the student) cannot reach any true appreciation of them (the cards) without observing their behaviour over a long period; he can only come to an understanding of the Tarot through experience. It will not be sufficient for him to intensify his studies of the cards as objective things; he must use them; he must live with them. They, too, must live with him. A card is not isolated from its fellows. The reactions of the cards, their interplay with each other, must be built into the very life of the student. Then how is he to use them? How is he to blend their life with his? The practical everyday commonplace way is divination.” Elsewhere, Crowley noted: “Each card is, in a sense, a living being; . . . It is for the student to build these living stones into his living Temple.”

Unless he or she is solely interested in tarot history, the open-minded academic can be impelled by this “living tableau” toward a more visceral bonding with the cards. They will no longer be merely an intellectual abstraction but will ideally become a springboard for a lively “dialogue with the Universe,” assuming the scholar can banish any qualms about the role of the Creative Imagination in animating them. But of course, as George Carlin would have said, they “gotta wanna,” and “lacka wanna” will sound the death knell for any such visionary exploration.

Having pursued an intensive study of the Hermetic Qabalah before I encountered the Thoth Tarot and its companion Book of Thoth (I was heavily into Dion Fortune, William Gray, Gareth Knight, Frater Achad, Franz Bardon, Israel Regardie and a few others), I enthusiastically welcomed Crowley’s oeuvre into that esoteric foundation. That was in 1972, and I didn’t start divining seriously with the deck for at least a year after I bought it. I took Crowley’s advice to “live with the cards” and contemplate their symbolism, and when I eventually followed his recommendation to use divination to gain practical experience with them, it wasn’t in a “fortune-telling” way; more like “inner navigation.” But this journey wasn’t of the psychological “navel-gazing” kind, it was decidedly mystical and dreamlike (a “waking” – or lucid – dream, to be precise) in a meditative sense, not at all self-analytical. I did some more focused path-working on the Hermetic Tree of Life, but my creative visualization skills were a bit anemic at that point. Also, I had already been an astrologer for a couple of years, and that helped tremendously with the zodiacal and planetary correspondences. So I would say I’m more of an “applied scholar” with a “minor” in divination.

But I’ve never been a “card-a-day” learner, where one selects a single card each day and dwells on its imagery while contemplating its meaning. That always seemed entirely too dry and mechanical to me. I much prefer taking them in pairs or even threes, observing their visual impact on one another, swapping them around to see how the dynamic changes in instructive, even “magickal,” ways. If Harris’s artwork had been any less evocative I probably wouldn’t have gained as much value from the exercises as I did. For me it was the start of a very productive “story-telling” relationship with the Thoth, one that quickly grew beyond the (mostly) excellent definitions in the BoT and took on a life of its own.

It’s not so much about the imagery itself and its divinatory import as it is about the color and mood that dominate each card. These are certainly aligned with Crowley’s text but they bring more to the table than mere illustration. They fire the imagination in a way that releases an internal cascade of vibrant allusions, vivid thought-forms that coalesce around a coherent narrative “kernel,” ripe for fruitful musing and translating into language. These inner voyages are entirely personal at first, and only later do they lend themselves to the art of divination for others. Their impressionistic qualities make for a much more fluid “read” than one gets from purely knowledge-based interpretation, or even from normal free-association. It may be simply because I was a graphic artist at one time that the Thoth cards move me so strongly, but they offer a depth of symbolism – both in mood and metaphysical “meat” – that few other decks can rival.

As a postscript, I took some liberties with the lyrics of the song “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers to illustrate what I mean by “inner navigation;” it’s a bit of “New Age woo-woo” but I think it makes the point eloquently.

Just let your mind flow like a mountain stream
And let your mind grow with the smallest of dreams
And let your heart show and you’ll know what I mean
It’s the season
Let your mind fly like a bird on a wing
And let your heart bind you to all living things
And let your soul shine and you’ll know what I mean
That’s the reason

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