As a self-taught reader, I remained unaware of the weight the Thoth deck carries for a very long time. It was my first deck and, for several years, the only one I used to read cards. My reading skills developed gradually, over time, first by trying to apprehend what the hell Crowley wanted to say when he described the cards; then by taking a more visual approach and finally, by developing a personal set of rules, somewhere in between what Crowley had pointed out, with things I picked up from various sources (whether tarot-related or not) and instinct / inspiration or whatever you want to call it.
My first clue about the way many people regard the deck came when I heard about the U.S. System version which had the three Magus versions. At the time, I tried to buy the deck here in Oporto, at a tarot shop. Obviously, the shop didn’t have it. The attendant was extremely nice and said that even though they didn’t had it, I could order it and they would find a copy. A later visit, several weeks later, the same attendant informed me that the owner thought the deck a “devilish one” and didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so they would not even try to hunt a pack down.
Fast forward a few years. The year is now 2011. I was attending my first Tarot Convention, mainly wanting to see just how good my reading skills were. A convention seemed like a good idea, as it would present me with different people with different skills and would allow me to somewhat measure my progress since the early days of “if I don’t know what to say about the Strength card, then it’s probably someone born under the Leo sign” type of thinking.
During that event, either at the sessions or at social gatherings, I could always register some astonishment or surprise because I was using a Thoth deck. Something that I would counter with “well it’s just a deck” type of response to which I would get “yeah.. but it’s Thoth!…”
Well, yes, it was Thoth. It was also my deck and I had already passed that stage of “how can I read it?” I then spent a good amount of my time there giving people some pointers on to how they could approach the deck. Was it really necessary to know all the Cabalistic / esoteric / astrological meanings? Could it be approached in simpler terms? Where do we start looking? and with such intricate images, what should we value the most?
When I started, I read the Crowley book about the deck. At the time, all that stayed present was the astrological attributions and a few meanings per card. I didn’t have a system and all that mystical talk about Sephiroths, visions, mythology or insights like the Naples arrangement seemed so out there that they didn’t really register.
Eventually I decided that any of that wasn’t for me, and so I went for the only thing that remained: the images. The first and main reason for me to buy the deck in the first place. Again, my reasoning was simple: If this was the way the cards were supposed to look like, then everything I need to know is right there, in some level or another. This was complemented with another notion that was that the bigger the symbol, the more importance it has in the overall reading. So the Charriot card was, at the time, obviously about cars and means of transportation or travels. Of changing places. But then, there were the sphinxes, each pointing to different sides and I would think about indecision, paralysis, struggle, or the lack of ability of the driver to actually conduct such a vehicle. Or… maybe it was about that Cancer person, when nothing else could felt right.
The Magician was about this young kid who was always on a wire juggling things. Playing with possibilities, not much caring about what could come out of it. But then, there was that monkey who could fly like Superman, but was headed straight for the kid, as if to throw him off balance. Not that it should matter, as the kid possessed some nice wings on his feet, so the wire thing was probably show off.
In time, and with hundreds of readings, my ability to read cards became refined. I would start to notice other things, and to relate some cards with others. Little by little, I ended up encountering so many texts about Cabala and its relationship with tarot, those concepts became more understandable. But I never diverged from this picture analyzing path.
In fact, I still hold the belief that anyone can read with the Thoth deck without any knowledge of any type of matter other than the usual image analysis skills. Does this means that any of the mystical things Crowley keeps mentioning doesn’t matter? No, it doesn’t. It just means that you don’t need that system to work with the cards. Arthur Koestler, in his book “Sleepwalkers” points out that even though we thought the Earth revolved around the Sun and didn’t know the actual movement of the planets and stars, that didn’t stop us to use stars as guides to travel around the Globe. To put it in another way, we don’t have to know how things actually work to be able to extract meaningful information and act upon it. In fact we never know if the systems that we use do indeed correspond to the actual events that we see. We just know that it’s the best system that we could find that can explain said events. However powerful the cabalistic system might be, it’s still just a system. A map, if you will, of how the Universe might function. Other people, other cultures might have other views which are just as valid.
Getting back to the Thoth deck, it means that whether you use what Crowley left us as he intended or you use it in your own way, you can still extract information from it. As an example, here’s a reading I recently made to a woman who wanted to know if her sister’s boyfriend was betraying her. Here, I purposely used only image analysis techniques and not anything else.
Three cards were drawn: the Ace of Clubs, The Hierophant and the Ten of Cups:
It is evident from the very first card (the Ace of Clubs) that he is betraying her. In fact, this card is so affirmative, with its phallic club cracking with energy, that we wonder why do we need any additional cards.
But more surprising is the presence of the Hierophant in the middle, as we’re dealing not with a relationship, but with a betrayal of said relationship. In fact this card has such a strong pull that it immediately becomes the center of the whole reading, as it seems to suggest that such betrayals are not only known, but permitted. How so? Well, the card represents a pope. Someone “appointed” by God itself to be its agent on Earth. Someone whose sole job is to point out and enforce the Divine teachings. A pope can then represent a guide. Someone who is there to advise you on how to act. In this particular case, this interpretation is reinforced by the presence of the 10 of Cups, aptly titled “Satisfaction”, where we see 10 cups, laid in such a harmonious way that one can get the idea that the relationship doesn’t suffer because of the guy’s betrayals. This is also reinforced by the water that comes forth from the cups. As if everything is bright and shinning, no matter how you look at it.
But then the question arises of why doesn’t this situation seem to bother the querent’s sister. It certainly does bother the querent enough that she has to ask about it. And again, the answer lies in the Hierophant card, since it is the only card with human figures. There’s the obvious pope, which fills the whole card, and then, right at his feet, there’s a woman in blue. Both seem in harmony with each other, as can be seen by the diamond that connects the woman heart to the pope’s heart.
However, the difference in sizes is too obvious to miss. It is not so difficult to see the querent’s sister as the woman and her boyfriend as the pope. Some obvious signs would include the halo around the pope’s head which is positioned at the same level as the center of red cloud in the 10 of Cups, from which sheds all the water of this relationship or top of the Ace of Clubs. The woman’s size is just enough for her to fill the lower part of the Ace of Clubs and the lower cups, thereby suggesting that even though she is content with what she gets from him, he certainly is not.
The cards seem to suggest that he seeks more, sexually speaking, than what she is willing to offer. And so, he simply accepts this and goes to find what he craves elsewhere. As for her part, she seems content in being by her side. In being there for him whenever he needs. In a sense, in being the base from which he can grow. This is something that the querent agreed on, at the time. She described her sister as someone quiet and more interested in maintaining a relationship than it actually living it to the fullest. As putting her boyfriend in a pedestal and being pleased with just his company.
And if this fulfills her, why would she look for anything else? Why would she look for the energy and activity that comes forth from the Ace of Clubs? She doesn’t need to and, even though he still has to find sexual fulfillment elsewhere, this relationship still provides a stability and a sense of well being that makes the guy want to keep it going.
Crowley’s tarot deck might have complex imagery. You might be aware of all the things Crowley wanted to include in the deck and feel a little frightened about the amount of information that you have to work with. However, it’s also true that the cards can function at various levels. And that even if you don’t want to work with all the things Crowley did work, you can still use the deck to have insightful readings.
A simple way to work with it is simply noticing the first thing that you see and try to figure out why you see it. It might be a card or a detail in a card. Chances are that’s the most important thing and where most of the answer lies. That is your point of entry to the story at hand. You then just have to pull that thread and see where it leads you. In this case, the whole reading came forth by noting the Ace of Clubs (the answer to the question the querent asked) and then the Hierophant (the answer to the question the querent really wanted to know). Then it was just a matter of pattern matching and looking at the same positions of each card to find out what could be said.
That said, if you know Cabala, you’d recognize the pattern in the Ace of Clubs and the 10 of Cups as the Tree of Life. And that the woman’s size amounts more or less to the distance between Malkuth (The Kingdom, or Earth) and Yesod (Foundation, the sphere of the moon, where dreams and illusions, which form the basis of our reality, lie). However, we managed to get to similar conclusions without it.