A Cartomantic “Marriage” – an exploration of the relationship between Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley during the development of The Book of Thoth
Crowley’s Book of Thoth was the culmination of forty years study and magical practice and he believed it would ‘determine the entire course of mystical and magical thought for the next 2000 years’. The Thoth Tarot and the earlier Rider-Waite deck are the two most popular tarot cards in circulation today. Crowley’s seminal work demonstrates that many aspects of Western and Eastern mysticism, including Chinese divination practices, can be represented in the symbolism in the Tarot.
His quest for a suitable artist to illustrate the work was rewarded in 1937, when he was introduced to Frieda Harris, the wife of a Liberal peer and Chief Whip. From this meeting evolved an extraordinary partnership which led to the completion of Crowley’s ‘Great Work’, and it is through Frieda’s paintings that Crowley’s vision was realised.
Frieda had been seeking esoteric enlightenment throughout her adult life, and in addition to working on the Tarot, she became Crowley’s magical pupil. A firm friendship was established early on, which continued to the end of Crowley’s life. Inevitably, their partnership became a source of friction in Frieda’s marriage despite Sir Percy’s initial acceptance of Crowley. My talk will concentrate on the early years of the Thoth Tarot project, which are brought to light by diary entries by both Crowley and Sir Percy Harris, and Frieda’s correspondence.
I grew up on a diet of myths and legends: Greek, Roman, Norse and Arthurian, and developed an early passion for fantasy novels. I inherited my fascination in the occult from my father, who introduced me to the writings of Colin Wilson and Dennis Wheatley. He also bought me my set of Thoth Tarot cards when they were first available in the 1970s, and my tarot collection has continued to grow ever since.
My fascination with the occult continued but it was only when I was conducting research for a novel that I started to explore the subject in depth. I was assisted by my writing mentor, Liz Williams, who recommended various books, the most significant of which was Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon. My main focus at this point was Aleister Crowley, but once the novel was finished, I started looking into other areas such as the Golden Dawn and Eliphas Lévi. By this time I’d spent over twenty-five years in business consultancy and I wanted a break. Thanks to my husband’s encouragement, and the intercession and assistance of some truly amazing people, I enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, under the supervision of Ronald Hutton. I am now in my final year researching the life and works of Frieda, Lady Harris: wife of a Liberal MP, mother of two, artist, esotericist and suffragette.
In the summer of 2017, I completed an engagement for the Warburg Institute, cataloguing the Frieda Harris correspondence held in the Yorke Collection. During this time, I produced an edited consolidation of the Harris-Crowley correspondence in the Warburg and Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library, together with corresponding entries from Crowley’s diaries, a copy of which has been added to the Yorke Collection.
On a research visit to Chipping Campden, I was invited by their History Society to write a follow up piece to Richard Kaczynski’s article ‘Cartomancy in the Cotswolds’ which appeared in their journal Signpost. My article ‘Rolling Stone Orchard – the Artist’s Wartime Retreat’ was published in two parts and the full article is available from Academia.
I have presented my research at the Theosophical Society in Edinburgh (March 2017) and the Glastonbury Occult Conference (February 2019), as well as local interest groups.
I collaborated with my husband on his science-fiction novel Einstein’s Question, which was published in 2009. Sadly my own novel, The Knight in the Attic, part thriller/mystery, part urban fantasy, remains unpublished.