One doesn’t really review Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth (BoT), his exquisitely (and often excruciatingly) erudite companion volume to the magnificent deck of tarot cards he and Freida Harris bestowed upon the world. One stands back at a safe distance, squints sagely at it, maybe scratches one’s addled pate, and tries to think of something profound to say. Much of it simply defies normal language. I was first seduced by it (“reading it” is much too prosaic a concept) around 1972, and it has been a constant source of study, reference and inspiration ever since. I just got a new hardcover copy this past December. As a lifelong user of the Thoth deck and the Book of Thoth (45 years and counting), I was able to condense my impressions of my new edition of the book into a few paragraphs for the curious neophyte. Those who are well-versed in Crowley’s masterpiece may quibble that I left quite a bit out, but my purpose was to create a brief overview that gives the overall flavor.
The book is separated into four major parts – inexplicably titled Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part IV – plus two lettered Appendices and a List of Illustrations. An introductory “Bibliographical Note” (commonly believed to be written by Crowley himself and not the credited “Soror I.W.E” [Martha Kuntzle, who died from senility in a “home for aged teachers” in 1942, two years before the book was first published]) succinctly lays out his intention for the deck, which was to “reproduce the whole of his Magical Mind pictorially on the skeleton of the ancient Qabalistic tradition.” He then attempts to explain what he accomplished in the text.
Part One, titled “The Theory of the Tarot” is a ramble through Crowley’s mental library (and an annex or two) of putative facts, opinions and theories regarding the structural, historical, philosophical and mystical underpinnings of the tarot. It offers an interesting overview but is not something that will be revisited often.
Part Two, “The ATU (Keys or Trumps)” is a card-by-card examination of the 22 Major Arcana, in which Crowley goes to great lengths to impart as much incidental but parallel wisdom as he can from other venerable systems of mystical thought. This is highly valuable material (especially compared to what A.E. Waite, his contemporary and favorite whipping boy, divulged more vaguely in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot), right up to the coda titled “APPENDIX,” in which Crowley waxes a little too esoterically lyrical and arcane for my taste. The latter is chock-full of interesting ideas but getting the meat out of it can be some very heavy intellectual lifting. It’s a large part of what makes the BoT a lifetime study.
Part Three, “The Court Cards” is far and away one of the best expositions of the sixteen “royal personages” of the tarot that I’ve come across in over four decades of working with them, if only for its thorough analysis of what Crowley calls their “moral characteristics.” It lends itself just as effectively to defining the psychological attributes of the querent as it does to those of other people potentially involved in the querent’s situation. Each thumbnail also gets a description of the I Ching (“Yi King”) correspondence from Crowley’s personal system. This section receives a lot of browsing. I even went to the trouble of extracting every single key word and phrase from it that I could find and creating my own stand-alone table.
Part IV, “The Small Cards” is arguably the most important and useful part of the book for practical purposes. It embraces Crowley’s understanding of Qabalistic number theory and astrological associations as embodied in the Tree of Life to excellent effect. Although it is basically constructed around the Golden Dawn system of esoteric correspondences, Crowley’s unique narrative flair makes it a much more lively and compelling read than Liber T. I spend a lot of time here; sometimes I dip into it for a quick reference and find myself reading whole paragraphs for the pleasure of its language.
After several pages of black-and-white plates of all the cards, Appendix A (“The Behaviour of the Tarot: Its Use in the Art of Divination”) includes Crowley’s spin on the Golden Dawn’s signature spread, the “Opening of the Key” (trust me, you’ll want to take Paul Foster Case’s version to heart instead) and a brief but insightful keyword section on the trumps, logically titled “General Characteristics of the Trumps as They Appear in Use.” I should also mention that all of the color plates from the 1969 Weiser edition are here, but scattered throughout the volume instead of being gathered together near the front.
Appendix B (untitled) provides a set of Tree of Life and planetary number diagrams, along with tables of color scales, planetary dignities and a few miscellaneous items that are probably best viewed in total in Crowley’s 777.
If you’re new to the BoT and have no prior exposure to Crowley’s other work, you’re almost certainly better off reading Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot first, and you might also want to tackle Robert Wang’s Qabalistic Tarot as a prerequisite. You’ll thank me later.