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Oliver St. John is the author of books on Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of Ordo Astri, Thelemic Magical Collegium and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v. New articles and essays are posted at Tantrika Books.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Opening of the Key Tarot Divination

Here is a much-needed clarification of the abbreviated description given by Aleister Crowley in The Book of Thoth, and the longer but somewhat opaque presentation in the Book T of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Thoth Tarot Prince of Wands: Air of Fire

The Prince of Wands Thoth Tarot

The method of Tarot divination used in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and set forth in an abbreviated form by Crowley in his The Book of Thoth, is based on the Orbicular Tree, or Tree of Life in a Sphere. Our rituals are based on the same astrological and astronomical principles; there is some comparison to be made between Crowley’s Liber V vel Reguli and our Rituals of the Pentagram. Regulus, the Heart of the Lion star in the constellation of Leo, is the basis of reckoning. The pentagrams are ‘averse’ or upside down so the location of the magician is transposed from the Earth to that of the Sun. For the same reason, Leo is placed on the Ascendant in the Golden Dawn system of Tarot correspondences.

Owing to its complexity, the Opening of the Key Tarot divination method is frequently overlooked as a practical method. This may also be due to the fact that Crowley’s explanation is too sketchy to be understood without the detailed one given in the Golden Dawn’s knowledge papers—which is itself garbled and confusing. However, the Opening of the Key is an excellent method of Tarot divination when an in-depth analysis of any situation is needed. To employ it accurately, we must be conversant with the rules of dignity. Anyone that is confident of reading two or three cards together using the dignities for evaluation may easily move on to the lengthier reading afforded by the Opening of the Key.

When we enter the Orbicular Tree of Life, time is no longer linear. It is no longer perceived as a past that has ‘gone behind’ and is static, and a future that is ‘in front’ and only exists as a set of probabilities. With the Orbicular method, the past, present and future are a continuum. It is not only an attempt to divine the future in the prophetic sense but is also a magical operation of change in conformity with Will – since the Aces initiate all movement down the planes.

The Method of Counting

  • The Aces count as 11 (we are using Aleister Crowley’s system here)
  • The Knights, Queens and Princes count as 4 (the four elements)
  • The Princesses count as 7 (palaces in Assiah)
  • The planetary trumps are numbered 9, since the Nodes of the Moon are included with the traditional seven planets
  • The elemental trumps (Aleph, Mem, Shin) count as 3
  • The zodiacal trumps count as 12
  • The small cards from 2–9 (decanates) count according to their own number

The Method of Spreading and Pairing the Cards

The inverse horseshoe (Ω) is the only really practical way of doing this; the nature of this method itself is somewhat circular. The relevant pack of cards is spread out, face upward and from right to left, so the two ends of the horseshoe face the diviner. The cards are then counted according to the direction that the Significator is facing.

When counting the cards off using the number system (above), those cards are dignified by the cards on either side, as usual. The Significator is counted as the first card, “1”. So we begin by evaluating the meaning of the Significator using the dignities of the cards that are on either side of it.

When pairing off the cards we begin at both ends of the horseshoe and work inwards until all have been paired. If there is an odd number of cards then one card will be left over; we may determine whether this is pertinent to the reading.

In all of the Operations except the 4th, where a wheel of the 36 decanates is used, we have to find the pile of cards that contains the Significator. After that, we spread out that pile of cards in a horseshoe, face upward for counting and then pairing.

With the 4th Operation, the 36 cards decanate reading, after shuffling we go through the entire deck (face up) to find the Significator. When the Significator is found, then—still holding the deck face up—lift off all the cards that were in front of (or on top of) the Significator. Place those cards beneath the pile that has the Significator on top, face upwards. We now have a deck with the Significator on top, face upwards. Place the Significator in the centre, and deal out the next 36 cards, face upward, starting with the 1st card at the Ascendant (first decan Leo) and proceeding anti-clockwise until the 36th card is placed as the last decan of the 12th sign.

ShMATh: The Opening of the Key (First Operation)

First decide on a Significator. This is usually a court card chosen to represent the Questioner. For example, I might use the Prince of Wands if I have Sun in Leo, or if Leo is the rising sign in my natal chart. After due preliminaries (ritual of invoking, etc.), shuffle the cards and think earnestly on the question.

Put the shuffled deck on the table face downwards. Cut the deck into two. This will be the Shin (Wands) pack, and the Aleph (Swords) pack. Remember that Tetragrammaton ShMATh reads from right to left, so the Shin pack is to your right. Cut the Aleph pack into two, placing the top half of the cards to the left of the Shin pack (in between the Shin and Aleph). That will be the Mem (Cups) pack. Cut the Aleph pack into two, in similar fashion, and place the top half of the cards in the position of Tav (Disks). You now have four packs: Shin, Mem, Aleph and Tav, emblematic of the Name or Word:

Opening of the Key First Operation: ShMATh

Turn all four packs over so they are face up. You can make a preliminary reading from the four cards on top of each pack, using the dignity of whether the card is in Shin (fire), Mem (water), Aleph (air) or Tav (earth) to assess it. Go through each pack in turn, to find where the Significator is. The pack that the Significator is in will show you something of the nature of this question and the way in which it will be answered. For example, if it is found in the Mem or Cups pile, the matter principally concerns the emotional life of the Questioner.

Take the pack that the Significator was found in, taking care not to disturb the order of the cards. Disregard the other packs since they are irrelevant. Spread the remaining pack face upwards in a horseshoe, from right to left, so all the cards are facing upwards. The two ends of the horseshoe are nearest to the diviner. Locate the Significator. Counting proceeds in the direction the Significator is facing in. If the Significator is the Prince of Wands, that counts as 4. (See the table of values, above.) The Prince counts as the first card, number 1. The 4th card will be read, using the dignities of the cards that are on either side of it. Make a story of this as you go.

Example: Let us say that 4th card was The Empress III. A planetary trump counts as 9; so count 9 more, taking The Empress as card number 1. Read that card, with the dignity of the cards on either side of it. And on you go, until at last you will arrive at a card that has already been read (as a central card in the counting), and this part of the reading ends there. Now pair the cards off starting at the two ends of the horseshoe. Read each pair of cards according to dignity. Go on until you have paired and read all the cards, making a story from this. If there were an odd number of cards, then there will be one card left over. You may determine whether this has special significance, as it stands alone. That completes the First Operation.

Second Operation: Development of the Question

Shuffle the cards (do not cut them this time). Turn the pack face upwards and lay out the cards in a zodiacal circle, commencing from the ascendant (at the 9 o’clock position) and moving against the direction of the Sun (anticlockwise). Keep laying the cards out in the zodiacal fashion until all the cards have been used, and there are now 12 piles of cards. Find the pile of cards that contains the Significator. The signs start from Leo on the ascendant (not Aries), and proceed to Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, and so on.

The sign that you find the Significator in will tell you something about the questioner in relation to the question being asked. Take the pack that the Significator was found in and, disregarding the other piles of cards, spread out this pack in the same way as was done in the First Operation. Then count and pair, making a story of this.

Third Operation: Further Development of the Question

Shuffle the cards without cutting them. Turn the pack face upwards and lay out the cards in a zodiacal circle—this time the 12 packs will represent the 12 houses of astrology, as distinct from the 12 signs. (The values of the houses are not changed and the 1st house is on the ascendant representing the questioner.) The procedure is then the same as in the Second Operation.

Fourth Operation: Penultimate Aspects of the Question

Shuffle the cards without cutting them. Turn the pack face upwards and look through the whole deck until you find the Significator. Having found it, remove the cards that were on top of the Significator (effectively cutting the deck) and place them at the bottom of the pile. You now have the Significator as the top card on the deck, still facing upwards.

Place the Significator in the centre of the zodiacal wheel and deal out the next 36 cards face upwards in circular fashion, commencing from the ascendant. Read the 1st card, the card that represents the first decanate on the ascendant, using the dignities of the cards on either side of it (which will be card 36 and card 2). Then use the method of counting, from that first card, to continue the reading, making a story as you go. When that is complete, pair the cards and read them by taking the 1st card and the 36th card together, then the 2nd and 35th, and so on.

Fifth Operation: Conclusion of the Matter

Shuffle the cards without cutting. Deal out the deck in the order of the Tree of Life commencing from Kether. Once the first ten cards have been laid out from Kether to Malkuth, place the eleventh card in Da’ath. Continue in this way until all the cards have been placed on the Tree of Life and Da’ath. Find which sephira the Significator is in. This tells us something about the nature of the question and the sphere of its operation.

Disregard all other cards and spread out the pack containing the Significator in the usual way. Count and pair, making a story that summarises and concludes the reading.

Symbolism of the Method

Aleister Crowley’s suggestion that we abandon the divination if the Significator is not found in the right pack at the outset renders the method rather impractical. The beauty of this method is that as we go through the process we will discover the truer and deeper nature of the subject of our enquiry.

The Tarot system that we use—which is built into the symbolism, colours and correspondences of the Thoth Tarot cards—begins with Leo (or Regulus) at zero degrees on the ascendant, not Aries as is generally the case with natal astrology.

For example: The Five of Wands, Six of Wands and Seven of Wands correspond to Saturn in Leo, Jupiter in Leo and Mars in Leo. That gives us the three decans (ten-degree portions of the 360-degree zodiac wheel) that make up the ascendant. Next – following the usual zodiacal order of signs—we have the Eight of Disks, Nine of Disks and Ten of Disks corresponding to Sun in Virgo, Venus in Virgo and Mercury in Virgo.

All Twos, Threes and Fours are cardinal signs; all Fives, Sixes and Sevens are fixed astrological signs and all Eights, Nines and Tens are mutable signs. The order of planets ruling the decans follow that of the planetary sephiroth on the Tree of Life, the Lightning Flash: Saturn (Binah 3), Jupiter (Chesed 4), Mars (Geburah 5), Sun (Tiphereth 6), Venus (Netzach 7), Mercury (Hod 8) and Moon (Yesod 9). The next decan in the series will then begin with Saturn again.

The order of the planetary sephiroth from 3 to 9 (descending) and from 9 to 3 (ascending) is expressive of the 93 Current of love under will, and is a practical key to the operation of Hermetic Tantra-yoga.

The Invocation of HRU-HUA

Perform the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram. Place your hand or a wand above the deck and, without hesitating or faltering, intone loudly and clearly the following invocation:
I invoke thee IAO, that thou wilt send HRU, the great Angel that is set over the operations of the Secret Wisdom, to lay his hand invisibly upon these consecrated cards of art. Thus shall I obtain true knowledge of hidden things, to the glory of thine ineffable Name! AUM.
A light should clearly be observed descending and flashing from above to charge the Tarot. Think of the question while shuffling the cards thoroughly, without mental or emotional attachment to the issue or its result. If you cannot do this, then you will not be able to trust in your ability to divine, and it is better if you do not attempt to do so.


This Tarot divination method is from the Second Edition Stella Tenebrae Volume One Number One, released 19th February 2016.

© Oliver St. John 2011, 2018

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