Patience Is Not A Virtue (When Persistence Won’t Do)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: At the risk of “beating a dead horse,” I’m going to present a few more thoughts on my uneasy, rather tepid rapport with the (Rider) Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot and my much more robust appreciation of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. I come down somewhere in the middle on “pip” decks like the Tarot de Marseille and atypical creations like the Chrysalis Tarot (a beautiful non-traditional pack that reads more like an oracle). Although I don’t care for its artwork, I may add Barbara Walker’s tarot to the last group because of her penetrating analysis of the cards – from both a mythological and psychological perspective – in her book, History of the Tarot: Origins, History and Symbolism.

As is abundantly clear from my past writing, I have little patience with the RWS because much of it is too muddled by Smith’s shallow theatrical and folkloric presumptions to make it a good exploratory vehicle for my primary metaphysical purpose, which is “getting under the skin” of objective reality in a mystical way to see what makes it tick (divination is only an interesting offshoot of that goal). Its prosaic imagery is too lightweight for this endeavor, except perhaps in the Major Arcana where A.E. Waite deposited as much occult knowledge as he felt comfortable doing given his vow of secrecy (although for the most part his alterations to the traditional Medieval and Renaissance iconography are entirely too Christian to be universally applicable for the non-Christian). It’s interesting that both Waite and Crowley came from the same esoteric order and learned from the same master(s), but Waite did too thorough a job of excluding everything that might have been most useful. It begs the question “Why create a tarot deck at all if you’re only going to neuter it?”

Crowley’s tarot is the backbone of my practice. It speaks to me at a profound subconscious level where the RWS only scratches the surface. When I approach a reading with the Thoth, I let the evocative mood and subtle nuances of artistic theme and color soak in since I think that’s where Harris’s true genius shines (much more so than in her signature “Synthetic Projective Geometry”); then I let fragments of thought and impressionistic ideas coalesce into something I can work into language, often with intuitive nudges from the Crowley-directed imagery. Navigating this allusive landscape demands finesse where the RWS requires only persistence and what might be called “suspension of disbelief.” (I often think “This just doesn’t pass the ‘giggle test'” as I snicker and titter my way through the RWS Minor Arcana.) It’s the storyteller’s visionary brio that moves me to build meaningful, impromptu “free verse” from these raw materials. The RWS seems to be “on rails” in this regard since its canned anecdotal vignettes often hijack the plot and force me to step back and reconsider; this is not a good situation for any kind of seamless narrative continuity. Only retooled RWS “clones” that transcend the original deck’s mood come close to working well for me, sometimes through their ingenious use of color (Albano-Waite) or their impressive re-imagining of the symbolism (Golden Art Nouveau – not to mention its delightful gold-foil “bling”).

Although I use the RWS for public readings because most sitters respond readily to it, I invariably bring my well-honed affinity for the Thoth to bear on the interpretation. Even then I find that I can’t transfer some of the Thoth card titles to the RWS because they don’t make sense in that context, while Crowley’s definitions themselves are generally more coherent and less scattered than Waite’s so I use them where I can, albeit with my own spin. But I don’t use Crowley’s text verbatim in most cases, except for one or two quotable “gems” that are too good to disregard and impossible to dislodge from my memory. The Golden Dawn material from Liber T is also not directly transferable to the RWS in many cases since Waite went in a different direction with his thinking, and it (Liber T) doesn’t always align with Crowley’s later work either, although he apparently used it himself with minor personal tweaks until he wrote the Book of Thoth.

After years of practice, all I need to do now is take note of a card’s identity when it appears in a spread and my experience instantly kicks in without having to think too deeply about it, so the written word is both moot and much too narrow. (This, I would submit, is the “Holy Grail” for tarot readers.) Quite often I will use inspired storytelling tropes (both conventional and completely off-the-cuff) instead of generally-accepted meanings in my narration. I re-read Crowley’s Book of Thoth for pleasure, not for content; Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot I’ve read twice but very little of it sticks (except his discussion of the Chariot, which flies in the face of the way most people interpret it today, as well as agreeing in the main with the Golden Dawn and Crowley assumptions). I love reading tarot face-to-face for other people because it gives me the chance to flex my unconventional imagination in stimulating ways. I seldom read for myself any more unless it’s to test a new spread or theory. These days – with Covid keeping me away from my usual clientele – I’m more of an experimenter than a tarot reader, philosopher or scholar (although it may be hard to tell from this blog), and the Thoth is my analytical tool of choice.

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