The Thoth Tarot was designed by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley had a bit of a rivalry with Arthur E. Waite, a fellow member and designer of the popular Rider-Waite deck. Crowley sought to surpass Waite’s deck with his own, and used as much symbolism as he possibly could in it, borrowing from many cultures and disciplines. He renamed (and re-ordered and re-associated) some of the Trumps, and altered slightly the traditional meanings of several of the Minor Arcana, in order to be better reflect his own views on the Tarot.
Like all occult Tarot decks, the Thoth deck is based on Western Esoteric practices such as Astrology, Alchemy, Numerology, and Kabbalah. The Thoth deck, however, emphasizes the Kabbalistic aspect of the Tarot, and is very clearly based off of the Tree of Life and the ten Sefirot. In the book he wrote describing the deck, The Book of Thoth, Crowley spends a good deal describing the Sefirot and Naples Arrangement, as well as his views on the placements of the cards.
The Naples Arrangement and the Ten Sefirot
Just as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life has ten Sefirot, the Naples Arrangement has ten stages of existence, from the Point to Reality. Each Sefirot corresponds to a stage in the Naples Arrangement, and they share similar meanings:
1 (Kether): Spiritual Perfection – Point
2 (Chokmah): Original Harmony – Line
3 (Binah): Potential – Plane
4 (Chesed): Stability – Matter
5 (Geburah): Motion – Motion
6 (Tiphareth): Conscious Harmony – Experience
7 (Netzach): Sensitivity – Bliss
8 (Hod): Intellect – Knowledge
9 (Yesod): Crystallization – Essence of Being
10 (Malkuth): Reality – Reality
Just as the energy of EinSof flows through the ten Sefirot, existence passes through several stages: pure existence is represented by the point, which develops into the line and finally has distance, which then becomes the plane and begins to see its potential, and when the next dimension in added, matter appears. The matter then moves, creating motion, and with this motion the existence of time is implied, and so also the idea of an object having experiences that teach it. Emotions and thoughts are then implied by the existence of experience, represented by bliss and knowledge respectively. The idea of an ‘Essence of Being’ refers to the state of awareness of one’s own existence through knowledge of the previous states of being. Reality is, of course, the whole sum of the parts before it.
The Minor Arcana
In the Tarot, each number in the suits of the Minor Arcana correspond to their number in the Naples Arrangement and among the ten Sefirot of the Tree of Life, as can be seen here. The Aces represent perfection, the twos original harmony, the threes potential, the fours stability, the fives motion, the sixes conscious harmony, the sevens degenerate weakness, the eights intellectual weakness, the nines a crystallization of the suit, and the tens what happens when the suit is applied to reality. Each of these paths is interpreted individually for each suit, and so four different evolutions of energy are seen, that in theory cover most events that might occur in one’s life.
The four Suits are the standard Tarot ones: Wands representing Fire, willpower, and creative force, Cups representing Water, emotion, and passivity, Swords representing Air, logic, and principles, and Disks (often seen as Pentacles or Coins) representing Earth, practicality, and the material.
Each Minor Arcana card is named by Crowley according to its broad meaning, and each card has many different meanings that can be used when appropriate. The art on each card features the number of items of the suit equivalent to the number of the card, often with a background reinforcing the meaning. There are no other objects in this images, especially no living beings, which sets the Minor Arcana apart from the Court Cards and the Trumps.
The Court Cards
There are, as is standard in Tarot decks, four court cards for each suit. However, the Thoth deck has a different take on these cards. The four cards Crowley uses are Knights (normally seen as Kings), Queens, Princes (normally seen as Knights), and Princesses (normally seen as Pages or Knaves). The meanings of the Court Cards differ from other decks, in that each Court Card represents an association with a particular element. The Kings are Fire, the Queens are Water, the Princes are Air, and the Princesses are Earth. When combined with the element they represent, then, each Court Card represents one elemental aspect of another element, like so:
Knight of Wands: Fire of Fire
Queen of Wands: Water of Fire
Prince of Wands: Air of Fire
Princess of Wands: Earth of Fire
Knight of Cups: Fire of Water
Queen of Cups: Water of Water
Prince of Cups: Air of Water
Princess of Cups: Earth of Water
Knight of Swords: Fire of Air
Queen of Swords: Water of Air
Prince of Swords: Air of Air
Princess of Swords: Earth of Air
Knight of Disks: Fire of Earth
Queen of Disks: Water of Earth
Prince of Disks: Air of Earth
Princess of Disks: Earth of Earth
Through this system, the four court cards explore four different types of each element, to better understand the whole. As is normal in Tarot decks, these cards also represent personalities – and in the Thoth deck, these personalities are defined in relationship to the elements. The art on each card shows a single figure, as well as their surroundings. The Knights are always riding horses to indicate their willpower, and the Princes ride chariots to indicate their aloofness and forward progress. The Queens are always reclining on thrones as suits their passivity, and the Princesses are usually standing on their feet, being practical and down-to-earth.
The Thoth Major Arcana each correspond to a one of the paths between the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. Each card is also associated with either an element or astrological symbol, as well as with a Hebrew letter, linking together many disparate esoteric schools. The Major Arcana for the most part also carry standard meanings as seen in the Fool’s Journey, but have the added depth of also being associated each with two of the Sefirot and the connection between them. Aleister Crowley also made some changes in the ordering and associations of the Major Arcana; in his deck, he switches the cards Justice and Strength from the standard Rider-Waite setup, and also renames them both: Justice becomes Adjustment and Strength becomes Lust. these new meanings and names better suit their placement on the Tree of Life.
Crowley also switches the normal interpretation of the Major Arcana’s positioning on the Tree of Life (the association with the paths between Sefirot is not a new thing; Crowley merely emphasized it strongly). The Emperor, normally the connecting path between Chokmah and Tiphareth, he places between Netzach and Yesod, while the card normally there, the Star, he places in the Emperor’s normal place. This switch also serves to change the Hebrew letters associated with each card. This switch is very controversial, and not all agree with it.
Crowley also changes the names of many of the Arcana from the traditional; the Magician becomes the Magus, the High Priestess becomes the Priestess, Justice becomes Adjustment, the Wheel of Fortune becomes Fortune, Strength becomes Lust, Temperance becomes Art, Judgement becomes the Aeon, and the World becomes the Universe. This is in keeping with Crowley’s own interpretation, as well as his grand ideas, and incorporates elements of the religion he founded, Thelema.
The art on each card depicts usually a figure of the object in question, and is full of symbolism and very detailed.