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For the full article, see Mary Greer's tarot blog:
An issue came up on one of the forums about which is the best book from which to learn about the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. The answer for almost everyone is, without question, Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. This, despite the fact that, for most beginners in esoteric studies, it seems impenetrable. Books by Duquette and Banzhaf are proposed as intermediaries and I agree they are good choices, but a problem occurs when Angeles Arrien’s name comes up. Her Tarot Handbook: practical applications of ancient visual symbols takes a completely different approach to the deck, which is often characterized as the “make up anything you want” variety—though it isn’t that at all. I should mention I took several classes with Angie on the Thoth deck starting in 1977, and so I’m not at all objective in my views.
Angie’s approach is based on Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and the meaningful repetition of archetypal images and themes across world-wide human cultures. The statement by Arrien that probably infuriates people the most is: “I read Crowley’s book that went with this deck and decided that its esotericism in meaning hindered, rather than enhanced, the use of the visual portraitures that Lady Frieda Harris had executed.” Of key importance was that Arrien experienced a powerful response to the deck that did not arise from an esoteric OTO or Golden Dawn background. It was not specifically a rejection of Crowley, though it is easy to take it as such.
Instead, Arrien recognized most of the symbols from her study of anthropology and mythology. As a result she felt that “a humanistic and universal explanation of these symbols was needed so that the value of Tarot could be used in modern times as a reflective mirror of internal guidance which could be externally applied.” She believed that the Thoth deck symbols could be read in an other-than-esoteric way—specifically, as cross-cultural psychological symbols (archetypes from the collective unconscious). Her book offers this alternate perspective, based on the work of Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Joseph Campbell, Ralph Metzner, Mircea Eliade and Robert Bly.
In essence, Arrien asked: What do these symbols tell us if we strip away the esotericism and look at them purely as symbols and archetypes from the collective unconscious reflecting myths and images that have appeared across many cultures?
I see this simply as an alternate reading of the deck—not as a demand that we discount Crowley—but, rather, asking what can be seen if we do ignore Crowley? Is there anything else to this deck? Do real ‘true’ symbols transcend fixed definitions? Can they transcend any and all dogma?
We might also ask: If Crowley’s book were lost (along with all other esoteric texts), would future generations be able to reconstitute and find anything meaningful in these 78 images? Would this deck still offer something capable of informing our thoughts and actions?
It turns out that this is a valid question, for at least one person involved in the online discussion (and perhaps many others) felt that the Thoth deck is based on a specific language of symbols, defined by Crowley, such that, without his text the symbolism and the deck become meaningless. To remove Crowley, then, is to kill the Thoth deck—to make it worthless. In fact, as explained to me, symbols contain no meaning outside of the stated definitions of an individual. Strip symbols of definition and they either convey no information or they mean anything one likes.
This is absolutely contrary to the understanding of symbols held by such people as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the French magician, Eliphas Lévi, and countless others who have written extensively on symbolism and who believe that the meaning of the symbol is inherent in its nature. “Symbols can thus be understood as metaphors for archetypal needs and intentions or expressions of basic archetypal patterns . . . which are ultimately inherent in the human mind-brain” (Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind).
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