Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
Illustrator: Renata Lechner
A review of the Millennium Thoth Tarot will be difficult for me, and I’m quite certain that the review will sadly fall on the more pedantic and comparative side. I hold a great respect, even reverence for the Crowley-Harris Thoth. The first book I was ever recommended on tarot was Crowley’s The Book of Thoth. My crazy and beloved aunt, who had given me my first tarot reading when I was twelve, told me that this was the book to use to learn tarot, and from her rickety two-tier bookshelf, she lent me her worn cerulean-blue copy. I was thirteen. Most anyone who has slogged—I wouldn’t call it an easy read—through The Book of Thoth knows this feeling: when one is finished reading that book, there is a feeling that one either knows everything about the tarot or nothing about the tarot. Crowley’s associations in his various essays on the trumps are far-reaching and illuminating and maddening and often tenuous or simply arbitrary, though he would certainly deny the last. My affection for his system has waxed and waned over the years, but my respect for his vision has never faltered. His new system of tarot and its “inspired” changes and flourishes and embellishments have become foundational to the modern tarot world, and he would be so proud. Given his personality, we should—at the risk of sounding macabre—be thankful that he is dead because I fancy that he would be insufferably and loudly pleased with himself for the tremendous influence that his work has had. I have read his book through a few times over the last thirty years. I think it time to read it again.
His magnum opus (for tarot enthusiasts anyway) is his collaboration with Lady Frieda Harris, the Book of Thoth Tarot or the Egyptian Tarot. In the interests of what may seem like unfairness later in the review, I will admit two personal biases with regard to the Crowley-Harris Thoth. First, no matter the deck, no matter when it was produced or by whom, for the Tarot King of Mississippi, there will simply never be a better Death card ever. Trump XIII in the Crowley-Harris Thoth is the bar, period. Second, the Crowley-Harris Thoth has one of densest, most complex sets of symbolism ever attempted, and while many are put off by the cards, there is a reason, explained to death (with rare exception) by Crowley in his book. This may seem a weak defense later, but Crowley has his reasons, and I will leave it at that. Another bias that I will go ahead and mention—laying all my cards on the table, as it were—is that I am not a huge fan of decks which prominently feature computer-generated images. So there, with all those caveats…
On to new and more slickly packaged digital territory, what are we to make of Lo Scarabeo’s Millennium Thoth Tarot (MTT)? As to the immediate packaging, I am a huge fan of Lo Scarabeo’s boxing format. The sturdy, two-part box is always a winner, and the colors and images that adorn the box are always lovely complements to their contents. The broad sides of the box create a feel for the imagery of the deck before ever opening the package and feature some real winners in the deck: the High Priestess on one side, the Star on the other.
Once inside, the accompanying booklet, itself a thicker multilingual version of the LWB, is written—compiled? aggregated? —by Jaymi Elford with translations into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian by Studio RGE. This is what I have come to regard as pretty standard Lo Scarabeo fare: a pretty good English intro followed by a selection of terse keywords translated for the Romance and Russian-speaking world. The booklet is 128 tiny pages split between six languages, obviously plenty of room to expand upon the tarot world as created by Crowley and Harris. To its credit, the booklet does include the Hebrew letter associations as Crowley determined them to be (specifically that the Emperor is related to the Hebrew letter Tzaddi and the Star to the letter Heh, contrary to standard Golden Dawn teachings); unfortunately, the book does not even bother to explain what the letters mean, literally one or two more words per definition. From the booklet, the Hierophant is associated with Vau, and that is well and good, but what significance does that hold? Other than the name of the letter, what does Vau even mean? Well, it means “nail,” but there are no nails that I can decipher hidden in the Hierophant. And before anyone sounds the alarm, no, I don’t expect all that much from the LWB, no matter how big it may be. Students of the tarot, especially if they are students of the Golden Dawn and Crowley schools, certainly would not stop at any LWB as the final authority on a version of the Thoth or any other tarot.
The deck itself as a whole is lovely. Renata Lechner is the artist, and according to the (big) LWB, this is her third tarot deck after The Thelema Tarot and The Arcanum Tarot, both published by Lo Scarabeo. When laid out, the cards look beautiful. Not only are the images consistent, but the colors are so harmonious that no card looks awkward or out-of-place next to any other. The images are borderless, which I like more than I thought I would. Generally, I like a little border; in fact, I love the borders on most versions of the Crowley-Harris Thoth, which are an obnoxious, ostentatious remnant of the Victorian fetish for exotic Egyptian motif. The enhanced digital images of Lechner are very often cleaner, more consistent, and sharper than Lady Frieda could ever have achieved in watercolor. The Tower and The Hanged Man are good examples. In the MTT, a reader can clearly see the various major images: the crumbling tower, the dove, Shiva’s eye, the mouth pouring flame, the people falling, and the lion-headed serpent. Lady Harris’s version is more of a cubist nightmare in comparison. The Harris version is effective, but at times unclear and inconsistent with the style of the rest of her trumps. The same is true of the Hanged Man. While Harris’s version is skillfully rendered according the groundwork laid down by Crowley, the Millennium Thoth image is much clearer with regard to the snakes and its use of a much less obtrusive grid pattern behind the Hanged Man himself.
Additionally, the court cards of the MTT are stunning, all of them. Ms. Lechner really outdid herself with cards that are difficult to begin with given the heavy Golden Dawn and Crowley symbolism. Lechner’s clarity and fidelity within these images are remarkable, and I must admit an indebtedness to Ms. Lechner for allowing me to truly envision much of Crowley’s symbolism and imagery. * In this regard, Harris’s images can be truly lacking because they are either awkwardly composed or poorly executed. I am looking at you, Prince of Swords.
Additionally, the pips are generally well constructed and very faithful to their source material. As a fan of the Crowley-Harris Thoth for literally decades, I appreciate a respect for the original symbolism. I daresay that most of the pips work well as images alone and as recreations of Harris’s original designs. In a comparison that I should probably leave to another review entirely, the pips are the sole reason that I will not use Lo Scarabeo’s Liber T: Tarot of Stars Eternal. As for the backs of the MTT cards, they are reversible, and their composition is a Möbius strip surrounded by uninspired abstractions in various shades of yellow.
Holistically, the MTT is a beautiful addition to anyone’s tarot collection or even just his or her Thoth tarot collection, but I do have a few little nitpicks to mention. Given my caveats earlier, the thirteenth arcanum of the MTT is not only dissimilar to Harris’s original Death, but honestly, just odd. In place of Harris’s majestic and energetic pharaoh, we have a trite grim reaper wearing a bird hat, carrying DNA in his right hand and a sword in his left. He looks like he is getting ready to pose for a heavy metal album cover. And speaking of album covers, the meditating J-Lo on the High Priestess caught my eye as well.
On Arcanum XV, the three-eyed goat of Harris’s original Devil is replaced by a man in MTT. Call me crazy, but there is something much more…sexual…about the symbolism of the goat (already loaded with centuries’ worth of cultural accretion) perched atop the more obviously phallic Harris image (no Mississippi sex-goat jokes). The gym rat of the MTT seems positively uncomfortable trying to lounge seductively on those two rock-hard, crystalline testes with that marble-hard shaft pushing on his back. In this case, the smooth, clear, computerized image just doesn’t work. Speaking of gym rats, the MTT Fool, Magician, Devil, and all the Princes just body-shame the hell out of me. I don’t appreciate it, but that’s just my mid-life crisis talking.
Again to my list of caveats, the MTT did miss what I consider some rather significant bits of symbolism. In the Magician and Wheel of Fortune, Lechner uses the cutest little squirrel monkey in the cards, but in fact, that monkey should quite decisively be the cynocephalus ape. The reason is not that this is the ape used in the original cards, but the cynocephalus (“dog-headed”) ape is the sacred companion and sometimes alternate form of Thoth himself. Also, in the Lovers, the King that is getting married should not be white. Crowley doesn’t just call him the “Black King,” he writes that the King in the image is “Moorish,” and as such, should be much darker than here depicted. I will mention that XI Lust and XX The Aeon are complete misses for me as far as study of the Crowley text is concerned, but the cards still work in and of themselves, and isn’t that all that matters? As I said earlier, Crowley had his reasons, and they are good reasons explained in his rather enigmatic, authoritarian way in The Book of Thoth.
In any case, as a final note, I wonder why, when producing a deck based so closely on Crowley’s own tarot, the artist or graphic designer of the cards would choose to eliminate the esoteric associations listed on the original cards. Occasionally, a symbol is here or there—the symbol of Venus on the Empress and Virgo on the Hermit, to name two—but why not have those associations and the cards’ Hebrew letter associations listed on either side of the title? Perhaps it was a publishing decision. The artist and writer Robert Wang noted in his essential tome The Qabalistic Tarot that U.S. Games made the decision to eliminate esoteric indicia when they published his Tarot of the Golden Dawn. Decisions like these are baffling since I would imagine the people who would search out these decks would want them for this information.
I have used the cards several times now, and they work beautifully. The client even remarked on how different and pretty they were, her being more familiar with her favorite: the Rider-Waite-Smith. She was right. The cards are lovely; they look good together, and I was able to read well with them right out of the box. In fact, I noticed some of the things I mentioned in the review from the readings themselves. I wish Renata Lechner continued success and hope that she may decide to develop a Marseille-type deck in the future. Surely Lo Scarabeo has published enough of those historical reproductions that they can produce an actual new Marseille…In any case, read The Book of Thoth a few times, and grab these decks. Even if you don’t agree with the system, there is always something to be learned by becoming familiar with such a foundational and forward approach to the tarot.
*The original order of the courts followed the standard Marseille arrangement: King, Queen, Knight, Page. The Golden Dawn changed the courts to allow a more gender-balanced system: King, Queen, Prince, and Princess. Crowley infamously changed the court arrangement again to Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess. Crowley’s reasons are essentially the younger Knight’s Freudian sexual usurpation of the older, less “effective” King; his reasoning and his changes are also wholly unnecessary. And the older I get, the more I resent them.