Included in the ‘Original Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot’ Neuausgabe edition (2008) companion book there are two essays by Lady Frieda Harris, the artist of the Crowley-Harris ‘Thoth’ tarot deck. The first one is ‘Lecture for the Sesame Club’ (ca. 1942) and the second one is ‘Lecture for the Tomorrow Club’ (1945). On page 50 there is also a picture of Lady Harris (here on the left) which I haven’t seen anywhere else and have no idea where it originally comes from. Unfortunately there is only the German edition of the deck available currently, and no news have been released concerning the English edition. A part of the Tomorrow Club lecture can be found here but finding a complete english version of either lecture was starting to feel like a mission impossible. Therefore I was very happy to discover in “My Dear Aleister – Creating the Crowley-Harris Tarot” by Marlene Packwood (2009) a complete version of the Sesame Club lecture, which I’ll post here.
While there are a few notions which, from today’s perspective, are probably false (Mantegna cards were most likely designed by an anonymous artist from Francesco del Cossa’s school, not by Andrea Mantegna; it is unlikely that Commedia dell’arte originated in the tarot, instead its roots date back to the Greek theatre and Etruscan festivals; the Emperor card as trump No. 17 is an idea from Crowley, in the history of tarot the trump has traditionally been among the first ones) it is nevertheless a unique piece of tarot history. So, take a comfortable seat, have a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy the Lecture.
“Contrary to everybody’s impression, the Tarot Cards were not intended for the purposes of divination. They are a Map of the Universe and they might quite easily be compared with the symbols of mathematics. Regarded as such they represent a convenient means of stating cosmic problems, such as the grouping and regrouping of forces, elements and so on, which have in the last accounted for the course taken by history of the universe and they will probably continue to shape it in the future.
Like mathematics too that admit of numerous different interpretations and just as there have been different forms of mathematical thinking, so the designs used for the Tarot Cards have differed greatly through the ages. In fact the difference between Euclid and Einstein are not greater than the differences between any two sets of Tarot Cards. These packs of Tarot cards have been described as the Tarot of the Egyptians and the Bohemians, in other words the Gypsies.
Now the Tarot Cards that I have seen seem to represent the thought of the period in which they were designed. The 17th and 18th Century have got a definite stamp of the Baroque and are decorated with scrolls and curves. Mantegna has done 5 or 6 which I saw at the British Museum – they are classical, restrained and dignified pictures of goddesses. The earlier and more primitive ones are much simpler and they state the symbol coarsely but frankly; some of them are quite gay and childish, but the meaning is clear. I have made an effort in this present pack to embody this current mode of the century. Therefore I have tried to introduce among the cards the element of Time. In nearly all the designs, the straight lines of the former cards – such as the check patterns, the rays of the sun, the chart of the Universe and the stars – are expressed in a curve. I hope to convey the idea of movement. ‘Death’ in Trumps has to suggest the idea of re-incarnation, as opposed to putrefaction, he is weaving with his scythe a geometrical web of new forms. One must remember in looking at these cards, that they are to convey to the mind the continual play of opposites. The conception was that the Earth is the home of two opposites forces – the active and the passive. This really means that you can look at any of the pictures, thinking in what I may describe as four dimensions. This requires great concentration and is an incentive to meditation. At this moment of great material activity, it is necessary for us to make the utmost effort all day to continue to exist. It may be that we may find relief and balance in passive contemplation of the cards, during which we may learn to understand and submit to the cosmic laws of God. Thus taking the four suits which represent the four elements, earth, air, fire and water we begin thinking like this.
The Wands stand for Fire and they express its contradictory nature, which is at once destructive, purifying, creative and the source of all magical power. In this pack there are three degrees, the Wand of Mercury or the Chief Adept Wand, the Lotus Wand and the Phoenix Wand. Water, which is the second suit is a contradictory one to Fire. It stands for the negative side of the bounties which may be enjoyed; it is the feminine element, its reflective and receptive powers typifying the element of Woman as opposed to the generative power of the Man. It also contains the opposite, though it typifies compassionate, receptive soothing ideas its plenty is an over-copious endowment which destroys effort and it leads to a luxurious-ness in which creative self-consciousness is lost. The Ace shows the Cup of the Holy Grail, where personal individuality is completely lost in ecstasy. Air is represented by the suit of Swords. Air stands for the Intellect and as a sword may be wielded by any hand; Air, the intellect is impersonal, and is at the service of any force, good or evil. The intellect divorced from consciousness is not concerned to distinguish between good and evil.
We can see in the Ace the intellect used to symbolise the highest form of scintillating intellect. The No2 of Swords still shows that the intellect coupled with beauty is a controlled force, but after that we are clearly shown, by the old tradition, a picture of destructive intelligence. The fourth suit is the Discs. They represent passive receptivity, also putrefaction with its subsequent generation. Here again we can get the best aspect in the Ace of Discs and from that right up through the numbers, we see a deterioration of constant elaboration of material until we reach the 10, in which we see the Disc becomes a massive stodgy pile of coins.
With regard to the Court cards in all these suits, the Knight represents the Father, the Queen the Mother, the Prince and Princesses the children, and they represent the uniting of 2 elements and the subsequent generation of a third different element. The Princes may have been introduced by the Adepts as the generation of the heat and electricity which takes place at the birth of the new element and the return of the original ardour. Before coming to the Trumps, I would like to speak of the tradition that the Commedia dell’Arte originated in the Tarot. The suggestion is that Harlequin is to be found in the Trump card called ‘Justice’, its name now changed to ‘Adjustment’ and is the French meaning of La Justesse. This Justice holds a sword and stands tip toe. The Balances are suspended from her headdress and contain the bubble of Illusion or Maya.
Now in the Commedia dell’Arte the Harlequin holds a Wand (it may have been a sword) and adjusts, judges or resolves every incident in the comedy. His diamond check costume may have been taken from the four points of the diamond on the Tarot card and would typify, I suppose, the four elements which are in his command. The first Trump, the Fool, is supposed to be the Pierrot of the Commedia dell’Arte, and I can well imagine his drifting gaily, or dismally, through all literature, unconscious or innocently right. When I was watching a Punch and Judy show the other day the Puppets made me think of the Tarot cards, and as a butterfly floated across the Stage, I discovered the symbol which is in the old card, and it seems patent that these cards were the source of many fairy stories and recognisable in ancient and modern Literature.
There is some tradition about the way these cards are numbered, but I really cannot go into that, because in different ages they have been numbered quite differently. The Position of the Emperor used to be No17 and now he has been reinstated in his proper place as No4. The vale of the Trump cards must be fixed according to the circumstances of their position. This is clearly shown in the Trump card of the Sun, because the strength and nature of the Sun’s influence depend upon its position in regard to the earth. Once more to employ mathematical analogy, the fixing of their value is something like that of the symbol ‘Pi’ which is determined by the use to which it is put.
It would need much more time, and we should be standing here all day long and be bored, to give an adequate description of the Tarot cards. They really must be loved and studied, for each person a new meaning is to be discovered which helps him to solve his own problems and trains him in the art of meditation and disciplined thought. In this pursuit of self-study he will be emulating Shakespeare’s Prospero “Neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness, and the bettering of my mind”, and gaining Prospero’s reward – “by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not but omit, my fortunes
Will forever after droop”“