Tarotsmith Blog

Rider-Waite vs Crowley-Thoth

2 Different Ways of Looking at Tarot Reading

There are 2 major schools of thought when it comes to tarot interpretation in today’s tarot community. 2 famous tarot decks were conceived by 2 accomplished members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite. Each man introduced his own innovations into the classic occult tarot deck of the Golden Dawn, resulting in the 2 unique methods of reading we have today. The first deck of the 2 had a major head start, being created 4 decades earlier. However, the earlier publication of the Rider Waite tarot deck also had its drawbacks. Being first to finish by such a long time gave Aleister Crowley a lifetime of experience to advance his own methods far beyond the simplistic machinery of the Rider publication. On the other hand, the Rider-Waite’s simplicity makes it very easy for anybody to learn to do tarot reading.

Rider Waite vs Crowley Thoth

If you are new to tarot cards, the first decision you’re likely to make is between these decks (or possibly their clones). For most beginners, the choice is obvious. Since the Book of Thoth comes with a small library of recommended reading material to familiarize ones self with the deck, learning to read tarot with the Rider Waite (or RWS-inspired deck) is a no-brainer. The Rider Waite tarot deck has one simple instruction book about the cards which can be referred to easily during any reading. This small book is called The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.

For someone looking for the quickest and easiest method to familiarize their self with tarot reading, Crowley’s Thoth deck is not a good choice. This deck is intended for the true student of the occult, unlike Waite’s deck which offers tarot understanding for the layman. To approach the tarot from the beginning using the Crowley-Thoth method would require a lot of preliminary studies, which few students are apt to do.

Card Reversals vs Elemental Dignities

The basic mechanics of each deck both rely on methods of determining 1 of 2 ways to look at each card. Whether or not a card is seen in a positive or negative way is important because each card has both potentialities. The Rider-Waite introduced a method of automating this process by adding the possibility of reversed cards to readings. Crowley opted to follow occult tradition with his Thoth deck, which slows down a reading making the reader label whether each card is well- or ill-dignified before the card can be accurately interpreted.

Reversals really make things simple, so much that they hardly require an explanation. When using this method, if cards come out upside down you leave them that way and read the reversed meaning that has been written as opposed to the regular card meaning. Reversed meanings tend to be in the negative side, but not with every card.

The traditional Golden Dawn method employed by the Thoth deck to determine this factor of tarot readings is known as elemental dignity. This method is not exactly difficult, though it requires a little extra thought. When interpreting each card, the reader must pause to notice the relationship that the card has with its neighbors. If there are cards of the opposite element or suit adjacent to your card, this makes the card ill-dignified. Ill-dignity is similar to a reversed card, giving it the characteristics of the bad side of its personality. On the other hand, cards of the same element give the card more positivity – making it well-dignified. When there are a lot of cards nearby this can get a little complicated, adding and subtracting notches for each factor to make the calculation. Cards of suits that are not the same or opposite are non-factors in this equation.

The Aeon

Another factor in a beginner’s decision which path to take, RWS vs Thoth, is the cards themselves. One of the key cards of the tarot deck is Major Arcana XX: Judgement. This card invariably depicted an image of an angel blowing a trumpet calling the dead, according to an old occult tradition. Ironically Waite stayed with tradition on this card while Crowley threw the card out, replacing it with his concept of the Aeon. Perhaps Crowley did this in order to place his religious ideas where he symbolically discarded traditional Judgement. Crowley’s occultist vision of history may not have placed the tarot’s origins in Egypt so much as it placed the origin of religious practices there. Here he took the visionary opportunity to introduce the dawning of not only a new era, but a whole new Aeon: the Aeon of Horus. (The then-current Aeon allegedly belonged to Osiris, the equivalent of Christ.)

Justice and Strength

Another key aspect of each deck is whether it follows occult tradition as Thoth does, or whether it goes against tradition by inverting the card numbers of Justice and Strength from 8 and 11 respectively to 11 and 8. Waite decided to move Justice from #8 to #11 without divulging the reason why he made the change. It seemed to be a strange move to invert cards in the tarot deck for apparently personal reasons, although an occultist of course has the right to do this. Though his colleagues seemed to disagree with Waite on this, the same could be said for Aleister Crowley on many issues, and differences would only be multiplied in the lodge. Further spreading nonsense is a fun method of shoveling dirt on hidden treasure for the idly wealthy occultist. Arthur Edward Waite seemed to enjoy this task the most. The card numbers probably don’t make much of a difference either way.

Final Judgement

Choice is not always as simple as the illusion that it presents. The choice to learn between one or the other is obvious, or the choice to learn neither or both methods. The Judgement card is a card of choice when you view it as the judge or Angel depicted on the card. Another view is that there is no real choice because the choice that your spirit is meant to take is always taken. Judgement is just an illusion from this perspective, as much as the Angel on the card is to the nonbeliever. As with your illusions, ultimately Judgement is yours too, whether you realize it or not.