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Aleister Crowley & the Devil’s Picture Book


Aleister Crowley

1,734 words

When I began reading Counter-Currents, I was quickly drawn to the commemorative pieces, not least because many of the deceased were completely new to me, and have since led me to new intellectual pastures. The late, great Jonathan Bowden was correct in describing CC as an online university. One commemorated figure, however, although very familiar to me, surprised me as figuring in the pantheon.

I have been interested in Aleister Crowley since I began studying the occult some 30 years ago. Somewhere in my mother’s attic in England are my copies of Magick in Theory and Practice and The Book of Thoth. The latter is of particular interest as, for all the chaos of his personal life, Aleister Crowley was possibly the greatest scholar of a discipline in which I have a particular interest: Tarot.

Tarot is familiar, as a word, to everyone. Mention Tarot cards to any person you meet and they will have at least a sketch of an idea of some mystic fortune-telling deck, or perhaps of hippie paraphernalia left over from the 1960s, or of a strange cultural artifact containing devils and fools, lovers and death. Everyone has some idea, at the very least, of the existence of something called the Tarot, a field of studies for which the famous cards are, as it were, the provisional wing. But as the kindliest and possibly wisest Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, famously said (and The Emperor is the fifth card in the major arcana of the Tarot): “Ask of each thing; what is it, in itself? What is its nature?” And so what is Tarot?

Firstly, the 78-card Tarot deck is a historical phenomenon, not some new board game from the makers of other popular board games. There are dreadful and vulgar modern decks, but the three standard and best-known are the Ryder-Waite deck from the 1930s (the name unfairly leaving out artist Pamela Colman Smith and including only publisher Ryder and Arthur Edward Waite, who knew Crowley from The Order of the Golden Dawn), the late Medieval Marseilles deck, and the Crowley-Harris deck, worth buying simply for the art.

What is the history of the Tarot? The origin of Tarot cards is a chaos of conflicting and ultimately pointless theories (as Crowley recognized) and, at the end of all this conjecture, the cards still stand before us. And so we will not concern ourselves with where Tarot came from, or who first wrote this Devil’s picture-book (as the Catholic Church once described cards), whether they were invented by Egyptian shamans, the Chinese, Roma gypsies, or the Knights Templar, but rather the fact that Tarot is here. What is it doing here, in this world of telephones, celebrities, shopping malls, and training shoes? Whatever the cards are, they are not of this world.

I have studied Tarot for around 25 years, but have only read the cards for querents for around six or seven. This is not the place for a full explanation of Tarot but, as I say to querents, there are three popular myths about Tarot which are not true: The cards do not tell the future, they are not black magic, and individually they are symbolic, not literal. To unpack this, I would say that the cards help to organize the present rather than predict what is to come, that they are far closer to meditation or a psychological exercise than magic, and that if you draw the Death card you are not going to be hit by a truck that same afternoon. Death, in the medieval mind, was linked to rebirth, not the finality of the grave.


You can buy Mark Gullick’s Vanikin in the Underworld here. [3]

I can’t tell you why Tarot readings work, just that they do. One woman I read for did become ashen-faced when I told her after the first three cards were drawn that she was involved in a court case involving her mother. (She was. I had never met mother or daughter). But quite apart from the mysterious image Tarot has, it is also a philosophical system, and this is where Crowley becomes such a crucial part of the Tarot tradition. But what of the man?

Myth and reality concerning Aleister Crowley are difficult to disentangle, much like the Tarot itself. Certainly, his reputation as a narcotic hell-raiser — quite literally, if his demon-summing in Paris is to be believed — who followed a chaotic and debased lifestyle which led him to be described by British newspaper The Daily Express as “the wickedest man in the world” was irresistible, particularly to the easily-shocked British. But Crowley also had an intensely focused, organized side to his personality. His exploits with syringe and pentagram have tended to obscure his position, at one time, as one of the world’s leading mountaineers. His deportation from Sicily by Mussolini makes us forget that his patriotism led him to spy for Britain (although not terribly successfully). But his work on Tarot is extraordinary.

Crowley centers his theory of Tarot on correspondences. This idea has a long history, which is essentially Platonic and Neo-Platonic, and reaches its peak in the Renaissance. Correspondence is based around the working belief that “things” in the simple sense “correspond” with one another by virtue of differing orders of similarity. The most famous description of correspondence — and the essence of astrology — is captured in the famous alchemical formula quod superius sicut inferius: As above, so below.

In terms of the Tarot, which is both a self-contained, self-referential, properly hermeneutic intellectual system and also a portal to thought in general, this can lead the student into as large a labyrinth as he cares to build. So we see Crowley, having forged a connection between The Fool card (numbered zero in the deck) and the Egyptian vulture-goddess Maut (“Fool” in French and Italian Tarot decks is named Le Mat or Il Mato) whose legends are taken up by Crowley. The vulture has a spiral neck in myth, analogous to the form of the energy which comprises the universe. In a short paragraph, Crowley mentions Zoroaster and Einstein. Also, the vulture of legend procreates using the wind, and Crowley directs us to the Greek belief that life was inherent in the movement of air (Crowley is quite right to say this; Plato mentions more than once that the soul is thumos, or breath), and to the pre-Socratic school of the philosopher Anaximenes. This is, if nothing else, fabulous writing.

Everything, for Crowley, leads to everything else. This could lead to ontological confusion and chaos, to a lack of fixed study, but Crowley encourages a cross-pollination with legend as essential to the awakening of an image: “It has seemed convenient to deal separately with these main forms of the idea of The Fool, but no attempt has been made, or should be made, to prevent the legends overlapping and coalescing” (The Book of Thoth).

Crowley, in addition to being an accomplished classicist, allows myth and legend, the zodiac and the Hebrew alphabet, the planets and the metals, to weave one another’s narratives around the others. For Crowley, the Tarot begins as a deck of cards and leads inwards, to the self, and outward, to the world. His scholarship may seem eccentric, but it is informed and masterly.

Despite my presentation of Crowley as a Tarot master, his past cannot be air-brushed. He was certainly a drug addict and abused women both physically and psychologically, and the relation of the use of drugs and alcohol with arcane studies has a literary as well as a real-worldly presence. Crowley combined heroin use and the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs in order better to attend to his Tarot studies, which took him in directions in which his euphoria would be an advantage. There is no such ekstasis (roughly, in Ancient Greek, standing outside of oneself) for the scientist. Thomas de Quincy, who described his own laudanum addiction in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Crowley would write a book entitled Diary of a Drug Fiend), also linked abstruse study with addiction. Addressing an imaginary portrait painter, he instructs:

[Y]ou may as well paint the real receptacle, which was not of gold but of glass, and as much like a wine-decanter as possible. Into this you may put a quart of ruby-coloured laudanum; that, and a book of German Metaphysics placed by its side, will sufficiently attest my being in the neighbourhood.

In case I have given myself airs, a full confession. The first few chapters of The Book of Thoth are the most concise encapsulation of Tarot I have read. The interpretations of the 78 cards, however, are often beyond me because Crowley uses the Kabbalah — as well as a type of Freemasonic code relating to levels of understanding — and I have never studied that system beyond the bare basics. Esoteric mathematics and I do not sit comfortably together. For those of you who know about Tarot, incidentally, I read using a truncated, six-card Celtic cross.

But Crowley is legendary among what I suppose I could call — given the current fad for the word — the “Tarot community” for more than his theory. He designed, and commissioned an artist to paint, possibly the most famous deck of Tarot cards in existence.

Lady Frieda Harris was something of a fraud, never having been a “lady” in the British sense. The wife of a peer of the realm (below the rank of a duchess), or the wife of a baronet or earl (they still exist in Blighty), was entitled to be called a lady. Ms. Harris was none of these, but had the gall to lie about it and carry it off. Perhaps Crowley appreciated the sheer brass neck of the woman, as it reminded him of himself. The pair formed a very close working relationship as Crowley (who was neither an artist or, as W. B. Yeats opined, a poet worth the name) sketched ideas which Harris executed. It is the most beautiful Tarot deck, in my opinion, and I believe the originals are still in the Warburg Institute in London.

So, Crowley was partly truth and partly fiction, part angel and part devil. But his work on Tarot was truly exceptional — my Kabbalistic shortcomings notwithstanding — and his writing style, part esotericism and part jest, makes a good introduction to the mystery of the Tarot, and its contribution to philosophy: “[T]he more one studies the Tarot, the more one perceives the admirable symmetry and perfection of the symbolism.”

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