Daily Reading with the Thoth Tarot: Learning to Lose

Every morning, I usually do a daily reading–a practice that has evolved over time for me. I do these readings primarily as a way of studying the cards, but when I get a deck that I feel really connected to, the reading usually offers some good guidance, too. While I’m not too crazy about the common tarot blog practice of posting a card and calling it “Your card of the day,” I do hope to post more of my daily readings as a record of my practice and life.

So here we are: I am defending my dissertation tomorrow. TOMORROW. Less than 24 hours from now, there will be a Ph.D. behind my name. (Well, not legally–I don’t officially graduate until December 20th, but it’s common practice for people to call you Dr. So-and-so after the defense.) The few weeks leading up to the defense have been a strange mixture of doing nothing—after submitting my dissertation for my committee to read on the 1st, I didn’t touch it again until yesterday—and doing a lot of thinking about big issues in my life. It’s a good time to be using the Thoth tarot for daily readings, then, because while my outer life has been quite lazy, my inner life has been intense.

I wanted to share this morning’s reading, not only because I love the guidance I gave me, but because it shows off this deck’s strengths. For now I have settled on a simple 4 card spread for morning readings: top row is the check-in or weather report (what things are looking like for me right now) and the bottom row is advice.

sept 22 readingWeather report: The Chariot and the 8 of Disks (Prudence.) In this deck, the Chariot is about victory, so victory plus prudence: looking good! All my ducks are in a row with paperwork and preparations and I feel pretty confident about the defense tomorrow. I still have a little work to do, but I plan on doing it. These cards strengthen each other, since the Chariot is water and the 8 of Disks is earth, and these two elements like each other a lot.

But then we get to the advice: 5 of Swords (Defeat) and the Tower! Had these two cards been part of the weather report, I would have raised an eyebrow. But I think the advice they give can be summed up in three words: “Learn to lose.” That is, on the eve of this most important event, victory may be right around the corner but that victory will mean not only happiness but change. I am about to give away my identity as a graduate student and an academic. I am about to let go of this degree that I have been working on for six years. I am about to make final revisions to a dissertation that I will then shelve. In the 5 of Swords, I see the acceptance of loss, and in the Tower I see the breaking down of old forms and identities to make way for the new. (By the way, the Tower in this deck is my favorite of any I’ve seen.) This is only the part of what I take away from these two cards of advice–the rest I can’t put into words.

I think many people might be made uneasy by seeing the 5 of Swords and the Tower before their dissertation defense. However, for me it feels like excellent advice–what I needed to hear but didn’t know that I needed it. I have no road map in front of me like I would if I had been applying for academic jobs. The world after December 20th is exists past the edge of the earth. Learning to lose, learning to let go will be, I think, the most important lesson for me but it might have taken longer for me to see that I hold this wisdom if the Thoth tarot hadn’t brought it out.

Some First Thoughts on the Thoth Tarot

When I first began reading about tarot, I came across references to the Thoth deck and was not interested at all. A deck by Aleister Crowley about some Egyptian god? I’ll pass. But one day a few months later, I googled the deck for some reason and was amazed by what came up on image search–whatever I had been expecting, this wasn’t it at all. The images were colorful, surreal, evocative. Still, I held off of buying the Thoth deck because it seemed advanced and intimidating . And while the Waite-Smith deck, despite its connection with occult societies, has been fully integrated into several cultures of tarot-reading, from fortune-telling to intuitive psychological reading, it seems like the Thoth deck is still pretty closely associated with the occult, in which I personally have no interest. And then of course, there’s the big sticking point: Aleister Crowley. No, I do not think he’s a baby-eating Satanist, yes, I can appreciate his brilliance, but I have very short patience for rich white boys who claim that a new religion has been revealed to them.*

Recently, however, I have been wanting to expand my tarot knowledge into systems other than the tradition of the Waite-Smith deck. All of the decks that I owned up until a few weeks ago were variants–some radical, some less so–on this tradition. While I’ve by no means mastered the art of reading with these decks, I have become comfortable enough with them that I started looking for something new. So I ordered three decks at the same time: two historical reproductions (a 1709 Marseille deck, and the Visconti-Sforza deck) and the Thoth tarot.

I decided to order the large Thoth deck because I was so drawn to the images and wanted to see them in as much detail as possible. The deck is big and unwieldy and riffling it is out of the question, but I can still do hand-over-hand shuffling with it just fine. The cards are pretty thin, which is a good thing because if the deck were too thick then it would be difficult to shuffle at all. The cards are quite slick, flexible, and resilient.

A love-it-or-hate-it feature of this deck is the large, art deco border that surrounds each card. I like the style of the border myself, but it also holds my least favorite feature of the deck, which is that the title of each card is superimposed over the word Trumps, Wands, Cups, Swords, or Disks, depending on which it belongs to. At first this really annoyed me, but I hardly notice it now. I have seen people trim the borders off these decks, which reduces the huge cards down to a manageable size. I have no plans of trimming the borders myself, but the pictures of these trimmed decks I’ve seen are stunning–the colors of each card seem so much more vivid without the gray border.

The Thoth tarot beside the Universal Waite tarot for size comparison.
The Thoth tarot beside the Universal Waite tarot for size comparison.

The backs of the cards feature a Rosicrucian cross on a checkerboard pattern of the four suit symbols and are not reversible. The Thoth deck was not meant to be used with reversals and, although I love reading with reversals in general, I have no plans to do so at the moment.

Right after I got the deck, I did an interview, took a picture of resulting spread, and put it out of my mind. After having worked with the deck for two weeks, I pulled up the picture of the spread and said to myself, “Oh, yes, this makes a ton of sense.” This is the deck interview spread that I borrowed from Beth at Little Red Tarot, who borrowed it from TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles.)

thoth interview

1. What is your most important quality? XIV–Art.

Art–temperance or alchemy, the blending of various qualities into a tempered, unified whole. I think this means that this is a deck that is going to get shit done at a psychological and spiritual level, that it’s a deck that can lead to understanding and action. I’m not surprised that the Art card came up in this position, since visually it was the one that drew me to this deck the most.

2. What is your strength as a deck? 10 of Wands–Oppression

Okaaaay. Not going to beat around the bush, are we? The 10 of Wands is not a happy card in either the Thoth tarot or the Waite-Smith tarot, but I in this position I think this deck is telling me that its strength is in its power and directness. In working with this deck over the past two weeks, I’ve definitely gotten the sense that this deck demands–and rewards–loyalty. I don’t mean that the deck itself literally does this, but that immersing oneself in the images and systems of symbolism behind them is the way to get the most out of the cards. In that sense, the deck has a feel to it that could be called oppressive–heavy, serious. However, I don’t find it oppressive in a victimizing or degrading way.

3. What are your limits as a deck? I-The Magus

This was something that I found out right away. The Magus is a juggler. He can work with all the different elements and deftly transition from one area of concern to the next. That’s definitely not the case with this deck. In my experience so far, it is really bad for practical, everyday matters and for predictive readings. This deck has one strength: personal meditation on spirituality, creativity, and emotion. It’s a one-trick pony, but fortunately the trick this pony performs will always be useful.

4. What are you here to teach me? VII–The Chariot

In this deck, the Chariot is a card of victory–particularly victory in service, like a knight riding forth.

5. How can I best work with you? 4 of Cups–Luxury

This is not a particularly positive card in general, but an overall theme of the card is abandonment to desire. The best way for me to work with this deck is to throw myself into it and use it when I feel like doing so, rather than leading with some intellectual idea about when and how often I should use each deck.

6. What is the potential outcome of our working relationship? 6 of Wands–Victory

Well–can’t really get a clearer message than this! Working with this deck will be good for me personally and for my tarot practice.

Elementally, this spread is very telling–three fire cards, two water cards, and one air card. The lack of earth tells me that, again, questions about things like finances, housing, employment, etc. just don’t really have a place with this deck. It’s much more concerned with creativity/spirituality (fire), emotion (water), and psyche (air.)**

To my surprise, I have not wanted to use any other deck since I got the Thoth. I’m sure this will change since it’s pretty common to go on deck benders and just focus on one deck at a time. But I really do feel an intense attraction to this deck and honest to god, using it over the past two weeks has helped me understand some emotional and psychological blockages that have been plaguing me for years. I have a lot of thoughts about this deck. A lot of them. I’m working up a couple of giant ass blog posts as we speak, and I will need to add a third to the mix because I got Angeles Arrien’s Tarot Handbook in the mail a couple of days ago, which is currently blowing my mind. In the meantime, I’ll just say to those who are on the fence about the Thoth tarot: if you are hesitating about using it but are drawn to the images, just jump in. This deck is intense, but I find it to be much more transparent than occult and I certainly don’t feel like Aleister Crowley is breathing down my neck when I use it.

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* The rich-boy-as-founder-of-a-religion thing could also be applied to the Buddha, but I think we can all agree that in most cases the Buddha’s personal ethics were a cut above Crowley’s.

** I actually have no idea what element the Magus/Magician is in the Thoth tarot. The Art and Chariot cards are pretty clearly fire and water cards respectively (look at the flames at the base of the Art card and the preponderance of blue plus the crab on the Chariot card.) I learned my elemental correspondences from Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot and she aligns the Magician with Earth, but in my gut I just feel that he’s air. The great thing about tarot is that it can accommodate multiple interpretations like these.