Chickens, Eggs, Carts and Horses

I just had an interesting but perplexing conversion on one of the Facebook tarot pages regarding the provenance of the tarot material associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There is apparently a widespread popular opinion that “Liber T,” a compilation of the Order’s tarot “knowledge papers,” was actually written after Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and may actually be a plagiarized version of Crowley’s work. I’ve thoroughly researched the history of the Golden Dawn and can say that this assumption is patently absurd. Order chief Macgregor Mathers (augmented by Harriet Felkin’s contribution) penned most of the tarot curriculum, possibly based on material received from Kenneth MacKenzie, sometime between 1887 (the first Order’s founding date) and 1897 (the year of its collapse). Crowley – without authorization – published Liber T in its original form in the Autumn 1912 edition of his periodical, The Equinox.

I can’t help but think that people who hold the above opinion have grabbed the chicken, tossed the egg and set off down the road in a cart being pushed by a horse. They are most likely being misled by the fact that, some time after 1973 (when the College of Thelema was formed by Phyllis Seckler), Thelemite Jim Eshelman “expanded and revised” Liber T based on the Thoth model and re-issued it as “Liber Theta.” It probably didn’t help matters that the PDF version that can be downloaded free from the College of Thelema website is labeled “LiberT.pdf,” the Greek theta most likely being unavailable in the font. Liber Theta is reasonably faithful to its Golden Dawn predecessor (as, for the most part, was Crowley) and is in many ways more intelligible, but it is not the same document.

Israel Regardie, a Golden-Dawn-offshoot Stella Matutina member, tried to set things straight by publishing (in collaboration with Christopher Hyatt) what he alleged to be the “original” Liber T in his Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, last issued in 1984. But there is expert opinion concluding that Regardie’s publication was almost certainly based on a subsequent version used by the Whare-Ra Temple in New Zealand. Modern tarot writer Benebell Wen posted what she calls the “original Liber T” on her blog site; as far as I can tell, she has made only minor cosmetic tweaks to its contents.

3 thoughts on “Chickens, Eggs, Carts and Horses

  1. The facts are not lost to history:

    Crowley first published what is effectively Book T in Equinox Vol I No 8 in Sep 1912.

    The Book of Thoth is Equinox Vol III No 5, and it was published in 1944. In the (auto)biographical note, Crowley states “He published a full account of the Tarot according to the MSS of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in The Equinox Vol I Nos 7 and 8 (1912 e.v.).”

    Liber Theta was first published in Oct 1997. According to its own introduction, it is an update, reorganization, and expansion of Book T. It makes no claim to being entirely original. The little bit of history I provided above can also be gleaned from Liber Theta’s Introduction section.

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    • Yes, I have all three publications as well as the allegedly original Mathers-Felkin document. My understanding is that Crowley’s publication in 1912 (which was republished in 1976 by Weiser in a booklet titled Tarot Divination) was an unauthorized release of the information to the world at large. Liber Theta is Thoth-inspired, and Eshelman made some valuable clarifications to the original Liber T text.

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      • Yes. It is an excellent resource that I would recommend to Thoth deck users – and maybe G.D.-based deck users in general – at any level of interest or proficiency. It arguably but understandably leans a little too much in the direction of Crowley apologist, but that does not diminish its value.

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