Tarot cards are used both for card games and for divination. A tarot deck typically contains 78 cards, including 56 cards belonging to a suit plus an additional 22 cards not part of a suit. The 56 suited cards include ten numbered cards and four court cards in each of four suits. This part of a tarot deck bears obvious resemblance to a standard 52-card deck of ten numbered cards (ace through ten) and three court cards (King, Queen, and Jack) in each of four suits (Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs). The 22 unsuited cards are also known as the trump cards. One of the trump cards is known as The Fool, and it is sometimes not considered a true trump card as its role varies depending on the game being played.
When used for divination or other esoteric purposes, the trump cards (including The Fool) are often called the Major Arcana and the 56 suited cards the Minor Arcana. Different styles of tarot cards use various names and pictures for the trump cards, the suits, and the court cards. One of the most thoroughly researched and carefully drawn type of tarot card deck is Thoth Tarot, designed by famed occultist Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris.
Aleister Crowley, born as Edward Alexander Crowley, was a prolific writer of novels, poems, and esoteric texts. He lived from 1875 to 1947 and is often thought to be the most influential occultist in history. Crowley traveled widely, spending significant amounts of time in Egypt, the United States, and many other countries in addition to his native England.
Crowley worked on developing the Thoth Tarot for five years, with artist Harris creating the card illustrations according to his instructions. Often the artist created multiple paintings as drafts before the team was satisfied with the work. The design of the card reflects Crowley’s painstaking research in the Qabalah, alchemy, and other esoteric tradition.
In 1944, Crowley finished writing a scholarly book on his proposed tarot deck. The Book of Thoth was originally published in a limited edition of 200 signed copies, and it remains in print today in an inexpensive paperback edition. The actual card deck was not published until 1969, but it has been continuously in print since that date.
The Major Arcana of the Thoth Tarot are slightly different from the set used in other popular tarot decks. The Major Arcana cards are The Magus, The Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Adjustment, The Hermit, Fortune, Lust, The Hanged Man, Death, Art, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, The Æon, The Universe and The Fool. The artwork on these cards is very detailed and full of esoteric meanings as described in Crowley’s The Book of Thoth.
The Minor Arcana include the ten numbered pip cards and the four court cards in each of four suits. Each of the numbered pips is assigned an attribute following the ten Sephiroth of the Qabalah. For example, Kether is associated with the Ones and Malkuth with the tens.
The four court cards in a Thoth Tarot deck are Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess. These figures represent the Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter, and they also correspond to the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.
The four suits in a Thoth deck are designated as Wands, Cups, Swords, and Disks. Each of these suits also represents one of the four elements. Wands are for Fire, Cups for Water, Swords for Air, and Disks for Earth.
The Thoth Tarot is used for card readings in a manner similar to any other tarot deck. The Thoth Tarot deck comes with a pamphlet of instructions, and Crowley’s The Book of Thoth is available for detailed guidance. With the meticulous research underlying its detailed symbolism, the Thoth Tarot is often considered more complex but potentially more rich as an aid to divination to help guide seekers towards the best path. Tarot teachers often recommend that students start with a more basic tarot deck and move up to the Thoth Tarot deck after gaining some experience with a simpler tarot deck. Crowley’s text The Book of Thoth is highly recommended for those who want to learn the most from a tarot reading.
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