As most of you probably know, Ankhie has recently started pulling a daily tarot card from the Thoth deck and posting a photo, along with the erudite musings of Lon Milo DuQuette, here, on Facebook and Twitter.
The Thoth Deck itself has been shrouded in fabulously dark misinterpretation for years, which makes looking at it card-by-card an exciting and educational experience. (Somewhere inside me there is a good little Catholic-ish Ankh crying out “Don’t look at it. It’s evil!” How irresistable!)
In his memoir, My Life With the Spirits, Lon Milo DuQuette (master of Thoth interpretation) humorously relates his own inauspicious first encounter with the Crowley Tarot.
“Eventually I came upon an early edition of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. The name Aleister Crowley sounded familiar and I vaguely recalled seeing his name footnoted in a Qabalah book by Frater Achad. I referred to my occult dictionary and discovered to my horror – “Aleister Crowley – famous Scottish Satanist…”
I may have been a wild crazy heretic but I sure didn’t want anything to do with Satanism. Knowing my brother had The Book of Thoth (the deck’s companion text), I promptly gave the cards to him – good riddance!”
DuQuette would soon come around, but it is notable that the first thing that drew him to the cards was the incredible artwork. And it is incredible – even more-so when one considers the artist – a London socialite and M.P.’s wife. Not the sort of company one necessarily associates with “the wickedest man in the world.”
But just as Crowley was much more than a “famous Scottish Satanist”, so Frieda Harris was much more than a “Lady.”
Given the impact of the artwork in this deck, DuQuette devotes an entire chapter of Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot to Lady Harris herself (entitled “The Lady and the Beast” the chapter that follows is ‘The Art”) and gives us insight into how this strange and fruitful collaboration came to be:
“Dear Aleister, say ‘like me a little.’ If I may aspire to such a position, you are my friend and when my friends are rude to me I cannot remember it. They remain the cone, the eye, the node, from which is ground all the pleasure I have in life.” – Harris to Crowley, January 28, 1940
…it was Harris, not Crowley, who first suggested that he redesign the traditional tarot images and write a book about it, which she would illustrate with seventy-eight paintings. Crowley flatly refused, suggesting simply that they “get hold of the best available old pack and have them re-drawn with occasional corrections and emendations.” A project like that, he speculated, would take only six months to complete. Harris was adamant, however. She insisted upon painting entirely new tarot images that would illustrate a comprehensive new book from Crowley. She eventually made and offer he couldn’t refuse. She would pay him a weekly stipend of 2 pounds a week to teach her magick. Crowley was bankrupt. He acquiesced.
Harris was introduced to Crowley by artist friend and London socialite Greta Valentine. They were all mutual friends of Clifford Bax, former co editor of the literary and art magazine The Golden Hind.
Harris was a Co-Mason and no stranger to esoteric subjects and ritual work, but at the beginning of the project she was a complete magical novice and by no means a tarot expert. Nonetheless, she said she felt impelled by her Holy Guardian Angel to create images that most accurately conveyed the deepest magical and spiritual meaning of each card. She thoroughly aquainted herself with the traditional tarot images and the descriptions found in The Equinox. She worked tirelessly from Crowley’s sketches and notes, and thought nothing of repainting a single card as many as eight times to satisfy his demands.
Crowley, displaying an uncharacteristic level of gracious candor, readily admitted that Harris’s genius forced him to apprehend each card as an individual masterpiece, and that her energy, not his, was the impetus that saw the enormous undertaking through to completion. It was truly a dynamic partnership of two brilliant and intensely motivated artists.
Lady Harris exhibited the paintings on at least three occasions; first in June 1941 at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, then again in July 1942 at the Berkeley Galleries on Davis Street, London, and in August 1942 at the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours on Conduit Street,London. At Harris’s insistence, Crowley was not in attendance, nor does his name appear anywhere in the program essays.
In 1944, Crowley published the first edition of The Book of Thoth, the textbook the card were to illuminate. Assisting him financially with this project and several others was a young American soldier, Lieutenant Grady L. McMurtry, a member of Crowley’s magical order, Ordo Templi Orientis. In 1969, he would also be instrumental in arranging to have the seventy-eight paintings photographed and published as a deck of tarot cards.
McMurtry was the only person I have ever talked to who actually met Lady Harris. He first met her at Crowley’s flat at 93 Jermyn Street, Piccadilly. Shortly afterward, Crowley moved out of the city to Buckinghamshire. McMurtry and Harris would meet once again at her home in London. It was a brief encounter, but his description of the event (which I heard him recount at least a half-dozen times) is such a charming peek at Harris’s character and so indicative of the milieu of the times that I cannot resist attempting to retell it here. I hope Crowley biographers will forgive if my recollection of McMurtry’s oft-told story differs with their understanding of objective history.
It was late May 1944, less than two weeks before he would be part of the D-Day Normandy invasion. Lieutenant McMurtry visited Crowley at his home at the Bell Inn in Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. Because McMurtry had access to a jeep and petrol, Crowley asked him if he could deliver some papers to Lady Harris in London. Excited at the thought of seeing Harris again, he readily agreed.
It was early evening and the city was blacked out by the time he reached the Harris residence at 3 Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone High Street. As he approached the door, he heard piano music and the sweet tones of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” from inside the Harris home. (McMurtry told me he remembered thinking what an awkward contrast he made – a lanky American soldier in jump boots standing at the door of a genteel gathering.) He knocked, and soon a man dressed in evening-wear opened the door. It was obvious there was a party in progress; a pianist was entertaining guests. McMurtry stated his business and was asked to wait outside the door. In a few moments, Lady Harris opened the door, greeted him politely, and accepted the paperwork with thanks. Then, as she was about to close the door in his face, she turned for a moment and gazed upon the bright warmth of her party – the quiet talk, the Debussy. For a moment, McMurtry was sure she was going to invite him in. Then she turned to look at him, in his uniform and boots and said, “You do understand, of course, I can’t invite you in. It would spoil the mood of the evening.”
Contrary to the absurd published statements that Crowley grew rich from the sales of the Thoth Tarot while Lady Harris went unrecognized and unpaid, neither Harris nor Crowley would live to profit financially from the project, or ever see the paintings properly manifested as tarot cards. Crowley died in December of 1947. Harris visited him a few days before he died. He did not recognize her. She became a co-executor of his will and was among the handful of people who attended his funeral. She also hosted a lavish “curry” wake in his honor in her home in London.
Frieda Harris died in 1962. Crowley, who was noted for rarely saying anything nice about anyone, paid uncharacteristic tribute to her with adulation in the biographical note from The Book of Thoth:
“She devoted her genius to the Work. With incredible rapidity she picked up the rhythm, and with inexhaustible patience submitted to the corrections of the fanatical slave-driver that she had invoked, often painting the same card as many as eight times until it measures up to his Vanadium Steel yardstick! May the passionate “love under will” which she has stored in this Treasury of Truth and Beauty flow forth from the Splendor and Strength of her work to enlighten the world; may this Tarot serve as a chart for the bold seamen of the New Aeon, to guide them across the great Sea of Understanding to the City of the Pyramids.”
Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo DuQuette
For more information on Lady Frieda Harris