EXTRACT FROM SECRETS OF THE THOTH TAROT, by Marcus Katz [Publication Date 2018]
The Creation of the Thoth Tarot
Originally the idea was to dash off a pack of cards from (a) the elaborate “Equinox” descriptions (b) mediaeval packs, as The Equinox did not describe the 22 Trumps. We thought that a day apiece would be enough for the 40 small cards; two days apiece for the 16 court cards and 11 weeks for the 22 Trumps. This was thought to be an outside estimate–say 6 months in all, allowing for holidays & interruptions.[i]
It was not until there was an eventual falling out between Crowley and Harris that we read his vehement vindications for the creation of the Thoth Tarot. Whilst they certainly argued over the finances and recognition for the deck, Crowley was adamant that “I will not allow the cards to be issued so that they can be used only for gambling or fortune-telling”.[ii]
In preparation for some possible legal case with regard to his opposition to Harris showing her work at the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, in London, 4th August 1942, Crowley composed a fictious letter to himself from the “Society of Hidden Masters”. Under their name, he states that he had …
…agreed to devote your whole knowledge to the work of designing an entirely original pack of cards, incorporating the results of your 39 years of constant study of the subject with your profound – if at times unacceptably unorthodox – knowledge of comparative religion, mathematical physics, philosophy and Magick. Also that you should compose a Treatise explaining the subject in full. It appears from a notice in the Exhibition that there is a proposal to publish the cards as a pack without this book. To do so would limit their use to fortune-telling, a form of fraud against which you have constantly set your face your whole life long.
Crowley gave two motives for his work to create a tarot deck, also in the fictious letter to himself from the “Society of Hidden Masters”:
That it should serve as a Magical Atlas of and Guide to the Universe, for this “New Aeon of Horus”, that is, for the next 2,000 years.
That its undeniable beauty and majesty should be an intelligible vindication of the whole of your [my] life’s work …
Crowley was drawing on a huge range of influences and experiences in the design of the deck. He stated that he was working to illustrate the doctrines of “Payne Knight, Hargrave Jennings, Arthur Eddington, J.G. Frazer, Bertrand Russell, J.W.N. Sullivan, Eliphaz Levi” and others, whilst also drawing upon his experiences described in “The Vision and the Voice” and “The Paris Working”. These latter two series of visionary experiences are quoted at some length in the Book of Thoth and their further study is essential for any reader seeking the spiritual sources of the deck.
His work with Harris was documented through their correspondence, providing us an unparalleled glimpse into their partnership – unlike that of Waite and Smith, of which we have no known record other than a few lines in a letter and in Waite’s own autobiography, Shadows of Light and Thought.
Crowley describes the working arrangement thus, in his writing to himself under the guise of the Secret Masters:
For the next four years approximately, Lady Harris prepared water-colours of the cards. She did this from your [Crowley’s] rough sketches and descriptions under your continual direction, subject to your constant and repeated corrections. In some cases you made her redraw and re-paint a card which you found unsatisfactory as many as five or six times.[iii]
Their letters are available online and reveal references to everyday domestic life for the both, and certainly a lot of financial concern. They also show how strong Harris was in rebutting Crowley’s more elaborate requests for cash beyond the “stipend” about which they later argued.
Here is an extract from one undated letter, written by Harris, apparently in response to a financial scheme proposed by Crowley:
This is not my affair, but please do not try to get me to help. You prevent me from doing what I would like to do &, that is work on the Tarot Book with you, as I absolutely refuse to be entangled by your efforts to boost an absurdity. What a pity. I fear even now the work will be unfruitful. The House of God appears to me as vortex not a mouth, or is it yours which can’t be filled by mortal effort try as you may.[iv]
It is of interest that Harris is already using the tarot symbolism to model her experience and express it to Crowley.
Her work was meticulous on the cards and they both worked on revisions of many cards. Harris was using books by Crowley such as 777 and Magick – again, unlike Pamela Colman Smith who we believe may have only been working on one set of “Book T” notes given to her by A. E. Waite.
Harris writes one night:
I think I had better have some new notes on Justice. There are the Dove, Raven, Lamed, Sword, balances, anything extra, headdress of Isis?
She goes on to say in another fragment:
I say, what about the Fool’s colours – Air won’t do. You are [?partly right] with your vacuum. I have marked out in my colour scheme – Bright Pale Yellow Sky Blue Blue Emerald green, Emerald flecked gold but surely I can use the purple dark blue, pale blue green, yellow, orange, red of the rainbow.
At the top of the chart are 10 colour sequences which we don’t seem to have used much. We did combine them in the 1st plain card of wands & then what with the governing planet & zodiacal sign we stopped. Anyhow I can’t paint brilliance, white brilliance, can you?
This last comment demonstrates much of her acerbic wit which can be found scattered throughout the letters; she was almost certainly the perfect foil for Crowley.
For Crowley, one of the challenges was “the great difficulty of this whole work is to make a completely harmonious pack”, in terms of both symbolism and style.[v]
[i] Undated letter to Aleister Crowley by Frieda Harris.
[ii] Undated Memorandum by Aleister Crowley
[iii] Undated letter by the “Society of Hidden Masters” [Crowley] to himself.
[iv] Undated letter to Aleister Crowley by Frieda Harris.
[v] Letter to Frieda Harris from Crowley, 19th December, 1939.