Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot alters the structure of the Tarot in several significant ways. His repositioning of the court cards—Princess, Prince, Queen and Knight rather than Page, Knight, Queen and King—is not just a change of titles, but a change in the momentum and influence of these characters.
The Knight is assigned the highest position of the court cards in the Thoth Tarot, replacing the King of the traditional Marseilles decks and Rider-Waite’s cards. In Crowley’s mythology, this faery tale Knight sweeps in to depose the King and wed the Princess to become the new ruler. Crowley says of the Knights, “They are the most sublime, original, active part of the Energy of the Element. … Their action is swift and violent but transient.” The momentum of the traditional Knight (usually the second of the four court cards) is preserved. When the cards are compared, the Thoth Tarot Knights are comparable reincarnations of their Rider-Waite Knight ancestors. The images of the Kings on their thrones is discarded entirely.
Crowley’s cards reflect a world that is changing so rapidly the only way we can truly be said to be the master of the elements is to be swift and adaptable. The Rider-Waite Tarot, released in 1910, is firmly planted in Victorian and Edwardian roots. They reflect a constancy of monarchy, tradition, and history that was shattered in the following thirty years. By the time Crowley developed the Thoth Tarot with Lady Frieda Harris between 1938-1943, the world had changed drastically: rapid technological change, the rise of experimental art and writing, the enfranchisement of women, political upheaval, and wars spanning continents introduced the modern world and it has not slowed down since.
Is this one of the reasons the Thoth Tarot is so resonant with the questions we pose today? Many of our questions deal with how we can adapt to our circumstances. What changes can we anticipate? How do we prepare? How do we move fluidly and masterfully to match our circumstances?
But these concerns may also reflect a time and place where Rider-Waite or similar decks are more appropriate. Looking at the Kings on their thrones—even if their power may be fleeting or transient—they are fully immersed in their moment. They have the peace and tranquility of living in that space where their power over their element is most secure. Looking at those spiritual traditions that ask us to focus on where we are right now, rather than always anticipating the future, who is to say that these kings are outmoded? Though the Knights may usurp the power of these Kings, that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons we can learn from those rulers who calmly and confidently rule over the elements. While we admire those who can seize initiative and channel energy to achieve their goals, perhaps we should equally admire those who can sit quietly and observe and meditate on a problem and master it with their presence.