A Road Less Traveled

I’ve written on this topic before, but have since gained a number of fresh insights and decided that it’s time for an update. My impression of modern English-speaking tarot culture is that casually curious beginners pick up one of the “easy tarot” kits (a deck and companion book such as those by Rosalind Simmons or Josephine Ellershaw) and begin privately studying, practicing and journaling, eventually finding their way into a community of kindred spirits, usually online. There they are likely to encounter a deep discussion of decks and books of a more complex esoteric nature, such that they ultimately feel encouraged to move out of their comfort zone and tackle a more challenging range of ideas. This road often leads them to a broad array of background literature, not all of it directly tarot-related, that fills the gaps in their rudimentary knowledge. If they are truly inspired they will grow out of their starter decks and pursue those with more metaphysical “meat on the bone.” I’ve met countless people who progressed in this fashion, starting with a Waite-Smith-style deck and ending up with one based more explicitly on the occult precepts of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, frequently via Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck and book and their numerous spiritual offspring. (Those who cozy up to the Tarot de Marseille right out of the gate are a distinctly maverick population – at least in the USA – unless they happen to retreat there after encountering the “heavy lifting” of the Golden Dawn paradigm).

In that light, my own path might be considered “back-end-to.”  Around 1970 in Germany, I was exposed to both astrology and tarot, but it wasn’t until I returned to the US in 1971 that I began exploring the underlying principles in earnest. My younger brother was already an accomplished astrologer and budding ceremonial magician by that time, and he exposed me to the qabalistic writing of Dion Fortune and Israel Regardie, which became a springboard into the works of William Gray, Franz Bardon, Frater Achad, James Sturzaker, Manly P. Hall and Aleister Crowley, among others. But it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Gareth Knight’s Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, with its lengthy section on the cards of the tarot, that the veiled connection between Hermetic occultism and the exoteric tarot really clicked for me. Not long after I found copies of the Thoth deck, the accompanying Book of Thoth, the two early tarot books by Eden Gray, Bill Butler’s Dictionary of the Tarot, Paul Foster Case’s tarot work as presented in his 1947 The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages and the subsequent course curriculum of the Builders of the Adytum and, sometime later, Robert Wang’s Qabalistic Tarot. Although Gray’s observations were rooted in A.E. Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot (PKT) and Pamela Colman Smith’s images, I used her work mainly as a divinational adjunct to the weightier material of Crowley, and for her elegant reconfiguring of Waite’s Celtic Cross spread.

These kept me happily occupied, both in study and practice, from 1972 until 2011, when I joined the online Aeclectic Tarot forum. There the dominant force for most of the threads was the Waite-Smith deck, in whose lore I was woefully deficient. I bought an RWS deck and began a crash course in learning its ways, using my Thoth background and a careful rereading of the PKT to decipher what is essentially a Golden-Dawn-inspired tarot, and soon found it to be a delightful, if decidedly lightweight, resource for public readings. From that belated watershed moment, I moved on to the Lenormand system of cartomancy and then to the Tarot de Marseille.

I’m posting this because I run into so many people online who approach the Thoth deck (and especially the intimidating Book of Thoth) with a great deal of trepidation. I’m here to say that it’s perfectly OK to “jump right in at the deep end” as long as you’re prepared for a mind-stretching (and occasionally mind-bending) experience, one you’re likely to revisit multiple times since it’s a lifetime undertaking. Crowley’s essays on the court cards and the minor arcana are not particularly inscrutable (something that can’t be said for some of his dissertations on the major arcana), and the appearance of Thoth mystique-busting works by Lon Milo DuQuette, Hajo Banzhaf, Michael Snuffin and James Eshelman (Liber Theta) makes unraveling Crowley’s more arcane ramblings a relatively enjoyable and rewarding task. If you sink instead of swim, you can always resume where you left off with the Waite-Smith perspective.

4 thoughts on “A Road Less Traveled

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