The Thoth Tarot and the RWS are sister decks. They were both created by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and used that organisation’s principles and aims; for example, both decks are based on the Tree of Life and the Qabalistic system behind it.
One major difference is, of course, the artwork. But more significantly – although reflected in the artwork – is the extent to which each deck engages with the Tree of Life, and then allows us to do so. I base this theory on the way I use Tarot and the Tree of Life, integrating order and direction into a reading.
Any reading with any deck can look at the order in which the cards are drawn for meaning. In a ‘flow’-style reading, the first card can be regarded as a base or root of the reading, and additional cards giving supporting details on the main point. If you then locate your cards on the Tree of Life bearing in mind the order in which they were drawn, you can then see the movement of energy in the reading in a new way, and even patterns between the cards that give additional information or advice. For example, if the 2 of Cups is drawn first and the 6 of Cups drawn second, placing them on the Tree of Life in the 2nd and 6th Sephiroth shows that these cards are connected by a path ruled by The Emperor. Since cards in the Sephiroth represent the ‘what’ or ‘where’, and the paths represent the ‘how’, the Emperor is very helpful in offering a suggestion about how one might ‘get to’ the 6 of Cups from the 2 of Cups.
Another observation we can make using order is direction on the Tree of Life. If our first card is the 2 of Cups and our second card is the 6 of Cups, we are moving down the Tree. If we drew the 6 of Cups first and then the 2 of Cups, we would be moving up the Tree. This gives us a flavour of the question at hand and its deeper meaning.
When Spirit creates, that flash of Divine lightning starts in Kether and zig-zags down the Tree of Life, Sephira by Sephira, until it gets to Malkuth – manifestation, where we are. Our spiritual aim is to work our way back up the Tree of Life to the 1st Sephira, Kether, where we reunite with Spirit. This is sometimes illustrated with the Kundalini serpent, winding her way up the Tree of Life, Sephira to Sephira.
Of course, not every Tarot reading involves Divine creation or spiritual enlightenment. We can use the Tree of Life as a template for what we do here on earth, too, whether that is the beginning (Kether) and end (Malkuth) of a project, or advancement on our own personal journey (moving upward). Readings can – and often do – revolve around a particular moment, or a stage in a process. How are things going today? For a multiple-card reading that seems to jump all over the Tree of Life, well, that’s life, isn’t it! One step forward and two steps back. The idea is to look at the general direction, and hope that we’re moving in the right one.
The RWS does not really allow for this kind of freedom of movement on the Tree of Life, but the Thoth Tarot does, and it’s all down to their court cards.A quick reminder of each deck’s court cards in descending order:
RWS: King, Queen, Knight, Page
Thoth: Knight, Queen, Prince, Princes
At the bottom of the Tree, we have the Pages and Princesses. Both are cards of beginning, as we start our journey up the Tree. At the top the Kings and Knights act as the final stop before Kether, and as such are higher, purer and more refined than the Pages/Princesses. But the Thoth court cards also let us work down the Tree. To give one example, the Princesses are both the beginning, like the Page, and an ending – they are the culmination of everything that has worked its way down the Tree of Life from Kether. The Princess is the stage of manifestation. We do not have this association for Pages.
I was thinking about all this one day and shifting things around on the Tree of Life – I like to move things around on the Tree of Life and see what happens – and in the context of just having bought the beautiful Deck of the Hebrew Letters by Mick Frankel (link opens to a deck review on this website), and having just had a conversation on Instagram about ‘every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end’ … I thought, what might happen if we flip the Hebrew alphabet as the letters are assigned to the Major Arcana? So that instead of The Fool being Aleph and the Element of Air, it would be Tau, the Moon; The Universe would be associated with Aleph, the Element of Air. An ending in a beginning, and a beginning in an ending. Most people agree, I think, that this is the nature of The Fool and The Universe anyway … so would there be any other exchanges or pairings that would reveal something new?
There are. My knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet is limited, but I can see some fascinating effects on the astrology, which I use quite a lot in working with the Thoth. And we can start with everyone’s favourite conundrum, The Star and The Emperor:
When you flip the alphabet, Tzaddi finds itself with the Emperor, and He is with the Star. Another neat pair is The Lovers and The Devil, which of course are often illustrated as mirror reflections of each other. The letters there are Ayin and Zayin. There is something that feels very smooth and fitting about these changes, like a key turning in a lock.
Another switch that I like is between The Chariot and Art, or Temperance. Traditionally assigned the letters Chess (Cancer) and Samech (Sagittarius), respectively, when you switch them, you find The Chariot ruled by Sagittarius and Art by Cancer. I never really ‘got’ The Chariot being ruled by Cancer. It feels much more natural to have the charging Charioteer associated with Sagittarius, and Cancer associating with the alchemy and care, attention to detail, of Art.
The Wheel and Adjustment (Justice) are another pair whose switch really make sense to me. Adjustment makes sense ruling Libra (and see below re. Lust), and I am very happy indeed with the Sun ruling The Wheel. Where are we really seen in life, really in the Universe’s spotlight, if not when the Wheel is turning for us?
When it comes down to it, what do we do with this information? Explore! Investigate and experiment. If I draw The Magus, what happens in my interpretation if I consider Beth and Saturn, and also Shin, Fire? Fire suits The Magus, being right at the top of the Tree and emanating directly from Kether, the source of Divine lightning. The Magus himself is a lightning rod between heaven and earth (or in this instance, the path to Earth).
Just to touch on the positions of Lust (Strength) and Adjustment. On Crowley’s Tree of Life, he moves Lust to Adjustment’s path, and vice versa. This makes some people very unhappy because it means that Lust/Strength is ruled by Libra and Adjustment/Justice is ruled by Leo. If you put them back – which is what I’ve done – then Lust is ruled by Leo and Adjustment by Libra, which feels more natural. So why did Crowley do it? Some people say it was in order to ‘balance’ the resolution to the ‘Tzaddi is not The Star’ conundrum astrologically, which may be right in principle … but perhaps not in the way it’s usually explained. Personally, I think Crowley did not mean for us to move any of the Trumps – not The Star, not The Emperor, not Lust, and not Adjustment. He says these things to give us clues about the solution to the problem. “Look here, and look here,” he is saying. When you find the solution, these clues will fit.
There’s one more thing that makes me think that this change – flipping the alphabet – is something. If you look at Charts 1, 2 or 3 above, you see that three Atu are represented by the Elements. On the left side of the chart, where everything is in the original order, we have The Fool represented by Air, The Hanged Man represented by Water, and Aeon (Judgement) represented by Fire. When we reverse the alphabet, the cards change, and I still think they work, but that’s not what I want to point out. The amazing thing here is that, in changing the order of the Elements from Air-Water-Fire to Fire-Water-Air, we find ourselves now in alignment with the order of the Four Worlds, which are Fire (Atziluth), Water (Briah), Air (Yetzirah), and Earth (Assiah). It makes perfect sense that the Earth element is not included here because Earth is created from all three of the first Elements: Fire and Water combine to make Air, and it is the combination of all three of them again that gives us Earth. Reversing the alphabet puts us in the right order, regarding the Elements.
I was pretty excited about all this, and I was very fortunate to know an expert on the Hebrew alphabet, Mick Frankel, who I could show it to and ask for his input. It is Mick who told me that flipping the alphabet like this is called the Atbash Cipher. So I had been working with something that was an established cipher and one that I’m sure Crowley, with his vast knowledge of Gematria, would have known about.
So, are we on to something? I do think so. And I would love to know what you think. It might not be the only something that Crowley left for us, but it’s a good place to start looking a bit deeper into what messages might be encoded in the Thoth Tarot.