Deck Interview: Thoth Tarot

I hesitated on getting the Thoth Tarot despite my interest in the way that the deck is structured and my growing love of the Ziilich Tarot, which is a Thoth style deck. I think this hesitation was due to three main reasons: 1) I find Aleister Crowley to be problematic, but so too are his esoteric peers whose examples of antisemitism when explaining the Qabalah are pretty gross; 2) I find some of the imagery, particularly the Fool, to be disturbing, but I more greatly value the depth of symbolism ini the cards, and 3) I really dislike the design of the border. I know it’s petty, but I’m tempted to try and trim them. I won’t because that way disaster lies and, honestly, they’re handy little cheat sheets to the Hebrew letters and titles. I thought they were also helpful for the astrological decans, but I realize that the decan symbols are in the art itself, and I was just thinking of the planetary or zodiacal major associations.

The decans are 10º segments of the 12 zodiac signs. Because there are 360º in a circle, there are 36 of them, and they are tied to each minor “pip” (2–10 of the minor arcana). And since there are ~365 days in a year, these 10º segments make up 10- or 11-day periods of the year. Each of these 10º segments is influenced by one of the seven classical planets (as a secondary influence to the ruling planet of the sign), with Mars closing out Pisces and starting fresh in Aries.

An example of this is the 6 of Disks, which is called “Moon in Taurus.” This identifies the middle period of the Taurus season, and it is an example of the way that Taurean energy can be influenced by the flexibility and changing nature of the Moon, the give and take of materiality. In this context, the designation of “Moon in Taurus” is different from someone who was born when the Moon was in Taurus. This causes some confusion when you’re talking about the Sun or Moon influencing the sign, such as “Sun in Aries” for 4 of Wands. It has nothing to do with all Aries natives, even if it sounds the same. (And, sorry, I didn’t help matters when conflating the two types of “Sun in” and “Moon in” during my recent fun astrology chart for determining what you’d be on a tarot card.)

Well after that long aside, let’s get back to Thoth. My interest in understanding the esoteric structuring of the cards and my inherent nerdiness (demonstrated here) made it impossible for me to resist purchasing the Thoth deck despite some uneasiness with it, so here’s my interview with the deck.

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INTERVIEWING THE THOTH TAROT

Tell me about yourself. 6 of Disks.

What are your strengths? The Fool.

And your limitations? The Empress.

What are you here to help me learn? The Star.

How can I work with you most effectively? The Sun.

Where is our partnership headed? The Lovers.

Look at all those majors! The only minor arcana in the bunch is the 6 of Disks, which just so happens to coincide with the decan in which I was born. It’s a shame there are no court cards because I really like the court structure in this deck, but there’s plenty to chew on here as is, some of which is quite idiosyncratic for me and some is more standard.

The deck’s initial offering up of the 6 shows a confidence in what it has to give me in terms of learning the new systems that I’ve come to appreciate or at least want to understand better. The title for the card, “Success,” pairs well with the meaning of the card from the Waite decks with which I’m much more familiar. That card shows a beneficent merchant distributing alms to the poor, trying to weigh out an appropriate amount to those who seem to be needy. The card’s title obviously doesn’t change regardless of whether it’s tied to my birth decan or not, but it makes me feel as though it’s speaking to me of a successful partnership, and I’ve certainly grown more attached to its systems, even though I have used that understanding to determine ways in which I want my own tarot card designs to differ. You can bet I will share some fo those ideas here on my musings over time.

But continuing to dive into the interview, there’s more to the 6 than might meet the eye when first seeing it. It contains all of the seven “planets” in a hexagram, suggesting fullness and balance. It’s really a powerful card full of rich symbolism. In that way, it speaks to the deck as a whole. There is so much going on that you might not notice, and it’s only in putting it into the context of the other cards in the deck that it fulfills its great potential.

Looking at the strengths and weaknesses cards, you can see some of that overwhelming amount of symbolism and level detail. The Fool is a horned androgynous figure leaping out of the card into air. There are rainbows and ribbons and small esoteric symbols all over, making it a bit overwhelming. The Fool is inviting you to dive in, but the Fool is also very unsettling, a bit crazy-eyed and indeterminate in gender and, perhaps even, species. One of the reasons I hesitated buying this deck was seeing this card in the sample art. It’s just so slightly off in ways that are hard to identify, but its illustrations are so powerful because of it. And I think that’s a useful lesson as the deck’s strength: it’s unsettling and powerful; it will shake things up and force leaps that aren’t always rational.

On the other hand, it’s not the soft nurturing hand of the Empress. All of that symbolism might not always yield good fruit, so it’ll be important to home in on the important factors. Now that I know so many different things about the cards (I’ve been studying them a lot since buying the deck), it will be easy to get lost in the symbolism for symbolism’s sake, and that doesn’t serve anyone. That’s just a collection of fun facts with no purpose. Using those to actually connect and create meaningfully will take work and focus; it won’t come naturally as things might to the Empress.

As for what the deck is here to help me learn, I’m not sure, but I think it’s about breaking some rules in order to follow my own guiding light. This card is a bit of a problem for the rest of the deck because, in communion with some other entity, Crowley supposedly received a message that the Star should not be on the numeric path of the Tree of Life that his occult organization had placed it on. You can see that in the card because it shows the Hebrew letter Hei instead of the letter Tzaddi, which is what it’s “supposed to” be associated with. (Keep in mind that this Hebrew-letter-path and major arcana system was not all that old when he broke that “rule.”) Whether you care about any of that or not, what it suggests to me is that it’s okay to establish a system for interpreting and a beautiful scheme for creating meaning only to then mess with it later because it no longer feels right. Even if it’s written in stone, you can scratch it out and paint over it if you need. It’s something I expect to need to do as I like to make structures and then tweak them after the fact.

The last two cards offer interesting parallels to the first three cards. The Sun is tied to the sun, which is tied to the number 6 in the Qabalistic source of this deck, and you can see that with the central Sun glyph on“Success.” The Empress is also depicted on the Lovers card, bringing things together, even as the Lovers show the permanent division of the androgyny of the Fool. Even more surprisingly coincidental is that the Fool, the Lovers, and the Sun all depict twins, and they’re the only cards to do so. (The name Thomas is a very old / Ararmaic name that means “twin,” which is neither here nor there, but it’s one of those extraneous fun facts this deck inspires one to call out.) I see these last two cards pulling in this idea of the twins to suggest that I will be able to work best with the deck by being with it and enjoying it even as I disagree with elements of it—both can happen simultaneously regardless of the contradictions—but in the end, I will have to choose one direction or another. I will have to deviate from this tarot partner and see it as a separate thing that has value as distinct from my own way of envisioning tarot. It’s as though we’ll have a good connection but in the end I’ll realize that I’ve grown apart from it, even as I can reflect back on how much I’ve gotten out of the experience. And I’m looking forward to that.

A lot of my knowledge & understanding about Thoth decks and decans comes from T. Susan Chang’s book and her and Mel Meleen’s podcast, Fortune’s Wheelhouse.

The cards pictured here are from the Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. © 2005.