Great Tarotists of Yesteryear:
By James W. Revak
The Equinox and a Demon in the Desert
During 1909-1913, Crowley published at significant personal expense a journal devoted to magic, yoga, mysticism, and, to a lesser extent, literature, titled The Equinox. Comprising mostly writings by him, it served as the official organ of the magus new magical order, the A:.A:. (purportedly an abbreviation of Argenteum Astrum [the Silver Star]). Many of Crowleys most profound writings were published in its pages. Likewise, many of his books which are in print today, originally appeared in its pages.
After publication of the second number of the journal, Crowley and his new student, Victor Neuberg, travelled to Algeria in 1910, where Crowley undertook an arduous exploration of Enochian magic, first developed by John Dee and Edward Kelly in sixteenth-century England. Crowley viewed this undertaking as an important test. Specifically, he entered into the Enochian spirit world with magical formulas originally used by Dee and Kelly, wherein he had visions of the Enochian Aethyrs (i.e., levels of spiritual existence).
As he described what he observed and learned Neuberg recorded his teachers experiences and insights. Additionally, sometimes he and Neuberg practiced sexual magic, which included homosexual intercourse. On one such occasion on a desert mountain, according to the magus own report which was substantially confirmed by Neuberg, Crowley tested himself by invoking and confronting the demon of chaos, Chroronzon, a dangerous inhabitant of an Enochian Aethyr. The demon appeared and attacked Neuberg in the form of naked a savage, throwing him to the ground and attempting to kill him. Neuberg responded by invoking God and counter-attacking with a magical dagger. Thanks to his brave actions the demon was contained. No independent parties witnessed the event. However, regardless what exactly happened, such was the extremity to which Crowley pushed himself and his students in the risky quest for mystical knowledge and experience. In fact, Crowleys harsh domination of Neuberg eventually compelled the student to break with the teacher.
Following his work with Enochian magic, the magus again turned his attention to the Equinox. Despite having sworn an oath of secrecy when he was initiated into the Golden Dawn, he had published in its pages several long verbatim selections from heretofore confidential Golden Dawn documents and was preparing to publish more. Mathers, author of much of this literature, responded by obtaining an injunction forbidding Crowley from further publication. However, he lost on appeal and his erstwhile student resumed dissemination of the once secret doctrine and rituals.
Still, Mathers apparently had his revenge. He almost certainly supplied information damaging to Crowley to a British tabloid called The Looking Glass. In 1910 it published a sensational expose of the magus, which detailed his purported immorality and wickedness and strongly implied that he was a homosexual. The resultant publicity, complicated by a related legal battle the following year, threw Crowleys magical order, the A:.A:., into disarray and serious decline with many members resigning.
Luckily for Crowley he soon had entré to another magical order, the Ordo Templis Orientis [Order of the Eastern Temple], commonly referred to as the OTO. The German magus Theodore Reuss, who headed this order, appointed him head of the OTO in Great Britain. Crowley used his new position to promote Thelema among the British members. Further, at Reuss invitation he re-wrote the rituals to be used by all members to reflect Thelema. However, when Reuss was incapacitated by a stroke in 1920, he failed to succeed him as the head of the entire OTO organization.
The Middle-Aged Magus
After 1913, as Crowley approached middle age, his ground-breaking work and creative output diminished but by no means ended. Of course, neither did his love affairs whether with women or men. However, he increasingly experienced financial problems. He had spent his fortune and possessed no significant source of income least of all from his books which were typically self-published and never commercially successful. Rather, he existed, in part, on gifts from friends and students.
Beginning in 1920 Crowley leased a villa in Cefalù, a small town located on Sicily. During his brief stay, it was commonly called Abbey Thelema, and served as a retreat house for individuals who wished to study under him. However, the arrangement lasted only three years; when the new Fascist government expelled him and his followers from Italy. The reason for the expulsion remains unclear, but may have been related to his notoriety before and during his stay at the abbey.
In 1929 the magus published his major statement on magic, Magick in Theory and Practice. He often used the spelling magick, in part, to differentiate it from stage magic. In this complex book for the advanced practitioner he sought to recast magic as a common phenomenon, broadly defining it as the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will. Crowley covered a wide range of topics, e.g., basic theories, Cabala, yoga, meditation, clairvoyance, and divination (including briefly Tarot). He explored many facets of ritual, including the use of magical formulas as structural patterns, equipment, gesture, sacrifice, banishing, and invoking. He provided detailed instructions for selected rituals and argued that the main goal of magic was Invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel (i.e., mystical union with the Divine). However, his ideas were sometimes difficult to follow, vague, and allusive. His style ranged from lucid to opaque, from elegant to overwrought.
In 1932 forty-eight creditors forced the magus into involuntary bankruptcy at which point his assets were virtually nil. He was also addicted to morphine. Following the advice of physicians he regularly used the drug to alleviate serious asthmatic attacks. He also sometimes used drugs for both spiritual development and, frankly, recreation. Nevertheless, he persisted in his work, subsisting, in part, on continued gifts from friends and students.
A New Tarot for the New Aeon
Late in life, at age 63, Crowley began his major statement on Tarot, the Thoth Tarot and the related The Book of Thoth. The deck, named after the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic, was the product of intense collaboration over five years (1938-1943) between the magus and British artist Lady Frieda Harris (1877-1962) (see illustration, left). Although Crowley apparently had final say concerning the deck, it would have never taken form without Harris evocative paintings, which reflected a wide variety of important artistic movements of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, including Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Futurism.
Illustration (above): Pictured (c. 1941) are Crowley (center) and Harris (right) with a friend of Harris identified only as Catherine. From Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and “The Golden Dawn” by Ithell Colquhoun (copyright © 1975 Colquhoun).
Crowley felt that the early history of Tarot, including its purported beginnings in ancient Egypt, was ultimately unimportant. The origin of Tarot is quite irrelevant, even if it were certain. It must stand or fall as a system on its own merits, he explained in The Book of Thoth, which he wrote as a companion to the deck. However, he noted that the Tarot is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah [a kind of Jewish mysticism].
Furthermore, the Thoth Tarot was a symbolic picture of the universe according to Thelema and, of course, its greatest prophet, Crowley. This new Tarot may therefore be regarded as a series of illustrations to the Book of the Law; the doctrine of that Book is everywhere implicit, Crowley noted. For example, the Trump traditionally titled Judgment was replaced by The Aeon (see illustration, above), in celebration of the New Aeon and the coming of Thelema .
Illustration (above) The Aeon from the Thoth Tarot designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris (copyright © 1944 Ordo Templi Orientis). Click the image for a larger one. For a brief explanation of this card, click here.
In keeping with Thelema, Crowley often advocated the free integration of spirituality and sexuality. In his commentary on The Book of the Law he wrote:
We [Thelemites] refuse to regard love as shameful and degrading, as a peril to body and soul. We refuse to accept it as the surrender of the divine to the animal; to us it is the means by which the animal may be made the Winged Sphinx which shall bear man aloft to the House of the Gods.
Therefore he made certain that the Thoth deck integrated Tarot and sexuality. For example, he replaced the Trump traditionally called Strength with Lust, which included an unabashedly erotic image of a nude woman astride an extraordinary beast.
The Book of Thoth and the related Thoth Tarot was Crowleys final major achievement. Three years after publication of the book in 1944, which included illustrations of all seventy-eight cards, he was dead at age 72. Neither he nor Harris lived to see the publication of the Thoth Tarot as a working deck; it was first published in this format in 1969. In a sense, The Book of Thoth and the Thoth Tarot were Crowleys spiritual last will and testament.
A N A S S E S M E N T
Commentators and biographers have assessed Crowley in extraordinarily divergent ways. On the one hand, some have depicted him as a career criminal, Satanist, and the blackest of black magicians. On the other hand, some have depicted him as an inspired prophet, a saint who yearned solely for the Divine, and one of the spiritual titans of all time. This assessment will steer a middle course between these extremes.
Certainly, Crowley was a person of extraordinary contradictions. Although he was never a career criminal or Satanist, and had little use for black magic, he did indeed flaunt beliefs and a lifestyle which shocked and enraged many of his contemporaries and still shocks and enrages some people today.
Crowley was no saint and his status as a spiritual titan is highly debatable. Still, despite his significant character flaws and occasionally deceptive or unethical behavior he accomplished much. He contributed profoundly to the rehabilitation of magic as a serious spiritual discipline, introduced many Westerners to yoga and other Eastern disciplines, acquired significant mystical knowledge thanks to rigorous work and significant risk-taking, shared his knowledge in his prolific writings, and founded the philosophy-religion Thelema.
He could have accomplished even more but serious character flaws sometimes prevented him. For example, his extreme penchant for public controversy and apparent inability to manage others over time without resorting to brutal domination helped to ensure the fast decline of his magical order, the A:.A:., the rapid closure of his magical retreat, Abbey Thelema; and frequent lack of committed long-term students.
However, he was a prolific writer and his ideas, many seminal and/or provocative, have endured in his many books and journal articles which have been frequently republished. Although his style was sometimes overwrought and obtuse, it was frequently elegant, persuasive, and even witty. Although he wrote poetry and fiction he is best remembered for such titles as Magick in Theory and Practice, The Book of Thoth, and the related Thoth Tarot. Any of one of them would have ensured him a place in the history of magic and esotericism. However, to date, Crowley has failed to a significant degree as the prophet of Thelema; nearly a hundred years after he announced the New Aeon, this philosophy-religion attracts few genuine adherents. Still, Crowleys vision of that Aeon replete with its provocative philosophy, mystery, magic, and passion lives. It lives in the hands of Tarotists. It is called the Thoth Tarot.
R E S O U R C E S Books
Crowley, Aleister. (1944). The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians.
Crowley, Aleister. (1929). Magick in Theory and Practice.
Regardie, Israel. (1970). The Eye in the Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley.
Sutin, Lawrence. (2000). Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley.
Crowley, Aleister; Harris, Frieda, Lady. (1944). The Thoth Tarot. First published as illustrations in The Book of Thoth (q.v.). First published as a working deck in 1969. Currently available editions include the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck (Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems; Neuhausen am Rheinfall, Switzerland: AGMüller), ISBN 0880793082.
Crowley, Aleister. Magick in Theory and Practice. An on-line version of this book.
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians. An illustrated on-line version of this book.
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Copyright © 2001 James W. Revak. All rights reserved. Version 1.1 (11/23/01).