Missing Witches

Missing Witches – Lady Frieda Harris: I Wish I Could Paint In Crystals

The struggle to see the patterns in the violence and beauty of life consumes her. 

Risa Dickens
Mar 24, 2019
18 min read
PodcastDivinationArt WitchcraftSTEM MagicWitch HistoryTranscripts

We started season one by telling the story of the artist, woman, witch behind the world’s most famous tarot deck, Pixie Coleman Smith, and so it seems fitting that to spark season 2 we dig into the life of another spectacular and forgotten tarot artist.

Lady Frieda Harris was perhaps the best friend The Beast Aleister Crowley ever had and she used her own art, financial resources and strength of character to convince him to collaborate with her. A project they thought would last months turned into years, and resulted in the luminous Thoth Tarot deck.

NB: This episode was originally published in 2019. We are going back and posting our early episodes here now in an effort to make our work more accessible. The ideas in these episodes evolved into our two books: Missing Witches: Reclaiming True Histories of Feminist Knowledge and New Moon Magic: 13 Anti-Capitalist Tools For Resistance and Re-Enchantment.

New Moon Magic:

Missing Witches:

Works Cited

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, Lon Milo DuQuette 2003. Red Wheel / Weiser Books.









Projective Geometry and the Origins of the Dirac Equation Tom Pashby – /content/files/news/workshops/hq3/hq3_talks/25_pashby.pdf


Richard Kaczynski, “Projective Geometry in Early Twentieth Century Esoterism” in Mathematics in Popular Culture: Essays on Appearances in Film, Fiction, Games, Television and Other Media. Jessica K. Sklar, Elizabeth S. Sklar, McFarland, Jan. 10, 2014



We started season one by telling the story of the artist, woman, Witch behind the world’s most famous tarot deck, Pixie Colman Smith, and so it seems fitting that to spark season 2 we dig into the life of another spectacular and forgotten tarot artist. This queen, this Lady, in her sixties, as bombs rain down on London, dies her hair red and navigates the night streets between the Lord’s of London, the world’s most famous magician and satanist, a feminist secret society, and a couple of young mathematicians drawing a new world with new geometry.  Lady Frieda Harris walked this crooked path in order to summon the knowledge she needed to bring a bright new divination deck to light. And then she retired to India to live on a houseboat. 

Lady Frieda Harris was perhaps the best friend The Beast Aleister Crowley ever had and she used her own art, financial resources and strength of character to convince him to collaborate with her. A project they thought would last months turned into years, and resulted in the luminous Thoth Tarot deck. 

Two minutes on Crowley - according to Lon Duquette:

“(H)e was a world-class mountaineer, chess master, painter, poet, sportsman, novelist, critic, and theatrical producer. He introduced America to astrology, Isadora Duncan to the I Ching, and the poet Victor Neuberg to hiking and high magick. As an agent provocateur writing for an English-language German propaganda newspaper in New York, he penned outrageous and inflammatory editorials that provoked a reluctant United States Congress to enter World War I on England’s side.

During World War II, at the request of friend and Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, Crowley provided Winston Churchill with valuable insights into the superstitions and magical mind-set of the leaders of the Third Reich. He also suggested to the Prime Minister, if reports can be believed, that he exploit the enemies' magical paranoia by being photographed as much as possible giving the two-fingered “V-for-victory” gesture. This sign is the manual version of the magical sign of Apophis-Typhon, a powerful symbol of destruction and annihilation which, according to magical tradition, is capable of defeating the solar energies represented by the swastika.”

Just for balance, since Duquette thinks Crowley is a prophet and as such is a little biased we should note that:

“Crowley described democracy as an "imbecile and nauseating cult of weakness",[269] and Biographer Lawrence Sutin calls Crowley "a spoiled scion of a wealthy Victorian family” who “embodied the contradiction that writhed within many Western intellectuals of the time: deeply held racist viewpoints courtesy of society, coupled with a fascination with people of colour".[282]  Crowley also exhibited a "general misogyny" and described women as "moral inferiors" who had to be treated with "firmness, kindness and justice".[288]

Crowley was also a desperate heroin addict and at times a wonderful poet in the visionary style, and an unavoidable character in the recent history of magic, at least in the life of Lady Frieda Harris who, despite the rollercoaster of arrogance and neediness and insight and hilarity that was her friendship with him, remained a good friend to the end of his life. And she was truly inspired by the ideas he brought into harmony for her, from the Kaballah to astrology, numerology and Egyptian history, spirituality and symbolism. 

And her tarot deck glows. It’s alien and art deco and mathematical hallucinogenic. Like Pixie Coleman Smith’s deck, every single card is a complete work of art. 

It’s not easy to find info on Lady Frieda Harris, but my favourite little bio comes from the website of the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis. 

Lady Frieda became a member of OTO in 1938 after befriending Crowley.

According to their website today, the order still aims:

  1. To create, maintain, and promote a structured society of men and women within the United States of America, who are united by their acceptance of the Law of Thelema, by a common interest in Magick, Yoga, and Hermetic Science, by the common experience of ceremonial initiation and sacramental ritual, by common pledges of fidelity, cooperation, and mutual aid, and by certain common ideals, namely: individual liberty; self-discipline; self-knowledge; universal brotherhood; and opposition to tyranny, superstition, and oppression.
  2. To manage and govern this society in substantial conformance with the principles set forth in the writings of Aleister Crowley and other historical leaders of Ordo Templi Orientis.

Lon Duquette writes that Thelema - Crowley’s religion, which is actually based on messages initially received by his wife Rose, supposedly from the messenger of the god Horus while they were in Egypt on their honeymoon - has come to be known as the philosophy of life that presumes that each individual, like each star in heaven, is possessed with a unique orbit and function in the universe. A Thelemite is one who attempts to discover then execute their unique will. (OTO)

The OTO bio describes the Lady Frieda as a spiritual seeker. Her son Jack recalls childhood lessons in the teachings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. She studied Anthroposophy and the projective geometry at Rudolf Steiner House under the tutelage of George Adams von Kaufmann and Olive Whicher. 

And oh man I want to do such a long digression on Rudolf Steiner and the origins of biodynamic farming and the Waldorf schools but for now I’ll just say, check out Steiner’s How To Know Higher Worlds, which begins…

 “The capacities by which we can gain insights into higher worlds lie dormant within each one of us. Mystics, gnostics, and theosophists have always spoken of a world of soul and spirit that is as real to them as the world we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. Listening to them, we can say to ourselves at every moment: “I know that I, too, can experience what they talk about, if only I unfold certain forces within me that today still lie dormant there.” All we need to know is how to begin to develop these faculties for ourselves.”

Harris was a Co-Mason - the radical feminist branch of masonry that not only accepted all people equally but also did away with the provision requiring belief in a God, at least for a while.  She designed a set of Masonic tracing boards, she became a student of Thelema upon meeting Aleister Crowley in 1937. Crowley recognized her Co-Masonic degrees as equivalent to those in O.T.O. and from this point, she provided artwork for several of Crowley’s books. On May 5, 1938, Crowley borrowed for Frieda a copy of a secret publication containing “A Description of the Cards of the Tarot.” Harris suggested that she and Crowley create a deck according to these old Golden Dawn specifications, since none existed. 

In her later years, after doing set design for Ram Gopal’s ballet The Legend of the Taj Mahal (1956), “she moved into a houseboat in Srinagar and studied Hinduism.”

This is my favourite part of her biography, and I hope you’ll hold this image of her in your mind throughout the episode. The Lady in her 80s, rocking to sleep at night in a houseboat in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, on the banks of the Jhelum River.

Lady Frieda Harris lived from 1877-1962. She was the wife of British Parliament Member, Liberal Chief Whip and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Percy Harris. 

Percy was a radical liberal passionate about social housing. No doubt they loved each other and had shared values (why not assume love), but we get a glimpse of how she felt balancing political life and her art and magic when she writes to Crowley:

“my spiritual state has been sadly neglected, perhaps because I have been trying to paint & live Percy's life at the same time.

Now these circumstances are giving me a chance. I have had 3 days rest, the first in 2 years & I've even had time to read a bit of Magic & try to assimilate yr. book. How satisfying to ones inside hunger. .. I have tried to cut the jungle round my caravan to look at these glorious apples & pears on my trees. They are so miraculous & so beautiful.”

Lady Frieda was 60 years old when she began to collaborate with Crowley. Crowley was deep into a heroin and cocaine addiction, broke, and infamous for - among other things - painting occult symbols on an island off new hampshire while living there alone for weeks, and getting kicked out of his Sicilian commune with 2 of his lovers and their 3 children after a child and another follower died from the unsanitary conditions, and being dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the tabloids. Alternately desperate for cash, and to pass on the framework of his philosophy and insights into the universe, he begins the work of the Thoth Tarot. 

The collaboration was largely long distance so we have piles of letters to offer insight into their process. Based on the letters the two were great friends with huge mutual respect who sometimes made each other crazy. Harris worked much of the time in a small caravan with the complete darkness of black out at night, and bombs literally falling around her. 

She writes: “I have done the 10 of Swords & promptly Russia takes up arms. Where are we going!”

Then later: “we are driven mad with soldiers here.”

The deck was deeply important to both of them -  Crowley wrote, “It is the vindication of my life’s work for the last 44 years; and will be the Compass and Power of the good ship Magick for the next 2,000 years.” 6)  

Harris struggled with the work, and struggled to manage Crowley who repeatedly asks her for more money than the monthly stipend she was already paying him to work on the cards. Nevertheless, she loves the work and, like every seeker, the struggle to see the patterns in the violence and beauty of life consumes her. 

She writes:

“I have been reading your truly magical Liber L.X.V. Oh no, I do not pretend to apprehend it, only it is like music, and the only kind of writing I want to read, only it makes me feel as if I lived in a desert and I am mighty thirsty. Shall I never get on a bit? Yoga practices I never seem to advance in. I cannot live more quietly, but even then the business of living takes time. I am positively alarmed at the prospect of the end of this work, as if I do not get any more handed to me, I shall have to return to the awful life I have escaped from in my conscience during the last 2 years, and I doubt if I can. I do not think the ritual of Magic is much good to me, I seem to have to draw everything I want to understand. Thank you beyond words for all your help patience and understanding. At any rate, thanks to that, you have penetrated a slight amount and in the far distance I can see a bit what the Wisdom of the past and the present might mean. I do wish I could do better, I feel like a lump of undigested suet.

There is one more thing–I do not think those cards will sell if you include any sort of ritual. People generally are afraid of being made fools of, getting bad luck by associating with black magic, especially at these times, when all the world is crossing itself to avert the evil eye

THE WEATHER. I don't find it too bad. It is really lovely to look at. The trees are incased in ice, I have never seen anything like it, & living & walking, everything ordinary has assumed a rare & dignified aspect with the elements completely out of control. Also, the howling wind, & this new invention “icisny” which is neither raining or snowing, keeps everyone away, so I can read, paint, or cook to my entire satisfaction, also slither up & down the ladder to my studio which provides the necessary exercise & danger to stimulate me & keep me warm.

 (I have put no name for the artist, I don't want to, something informs me that I am lost if I take credit or publicity in designing the cards as an artist). Please understand this, no one else can.

The opposition against you in Oxford is very strong. My business is to get money to publish these cards if possible & this is nearly impossible in the present war-condition. I have been successful thro using what influence I possess in getting at people with money to come & see the Exhibition. This is using my social position foully. If they suspected that the cards were inspired by the Arch Magician of Black Magic (what do they mean?) they would withdraw their patronage. I have had this conveyed to me politely & impolitely. Therefore if you come to the Private View or show up in any prominence this attempt to launch the cards is doomed & all the work & money lost. Can you be so largeminded & detached as to keep away until the thing is launched–If you court notoriety, it is sure to appear ultimately that you are the source because so many people know it & I am really afraid of the avalanche which will fall on me.

I am trying to keep out too because I am bored by occult people, loathe commercialism, do not want fame or notoriety, do not want money, but yearn, long, desire for solitude. Any financial success will be yours. I have had my reward in the work.

I wish I could paint in crystals.

Dear Aleister,

I do hope it is going to come out, I am simply sweating. That Fool won't stand still & I do hope it is going to be alright & you'll be satisfied. I can't do it well enough–every sort of obstacles, damp weather, intense cold, an impossible situation of living in a caravan in mid-winter. I am more than duty [sic] but I dare not leave as I must do this as well as I can without interruption & I can hear the rumblings of a tumultuous world through the apple trees. If only it is alright. It has got all the symbols only I've never seen any traditional card like it & it has gone so far from the little bearded man which it never was for it appears to me as Christ & Budha [sic] & Harpo & Pierot [sic] & Harlequin & the giant Pandah & every other foolish & adorable person & or course I can't make a pastiche of all those tho I try & indeed now I have forgotten how to spell.

Why haven't I got living fire which could weave musically these beauties. I can't do it with pigment I want poetry & music & light, not coloured chalks.

I do hope you're serious about this. You must be, you couldn't have written Tao Teh King with yr. tongue in yr. cheek even with your beastly cleverness & adroit subtlety.

Yours sincerely,

Frieda Harris

Dear Aleister,

I am very sorry but I am unable to protect you from yourself. Out of the inextricable confusion of your real & bogus financial affairs I find only one thing–that you will always be in a muddle & that to attempt to help you is like filling a leaking cistern & I do not propose to begin to do so. I have told you, always, I have a weekly allowance & that my lessons from you are saved out of that & I cannot draw from the Bank more than I have, & if I can't pay for a thing I do not buy it.

Anything in the nature of a speculation is quite foreign to my nature or my pocket. Your campaign of giving people too much to eat & drink in order to placate them in the Great Work is all wrong, & I expect you know it. If only you could be simple & dignified, people would flock round you to get what they really want in these hard times–that is the help of a colossal brain but, instead you cook for them because you are bored by them, & incidentally would like them to produce the wherewithal to stock your fantastic restaurant & cellar. Can't you stop–I suppose you can't. I think partly Peggy was bewildered by you eloquence, & ordered for you kitchen a great deal more than any one can afford.

This is not my affair, but please do not try to get me to help. You prevent me from doing what I would like to do &, that is work on the Tarot Book with you, as I absolutely refuse to be entangled by your efforts to boost an absurdity. What a pity. I fear even now the work will be unfruitful.

The House of God appears to me as vortex not a mouth, or is it yours which can't be filled by mortal effort try as you may.

Yours sincerely,

Frieda Harris

Around the same time, he wrote to a lawyer friend:

Dear Kerman,

The Tarot is an Atlas of, and Guide Book to, the Universe. It has been my daily study since Feb. '99, and my researches have cost me several thousand pounds.

I have long determined to construct a pack embodying all the new knowledge gained from Anthropology, Comparative Religion, & so forth.

Lady Harris offered to execute the cards from my designs. It was agreed that I should have a 2/3 share in the venture.

From my rough sketches & descriptions, under my continual inspection, subject to my constant correction–I made her do some cards over again 5, 6 even 8 times in one case–she made the set now on show at the Berkeley Galleries. (There is one exception: the card numbered I was not shown to, or authorized by, me. I suspect a trick in this.)

She has damaged the property by offering it for sale at cost price, thus alienating the libraries & booksellers, and reducing my 2/3 interest to nil.

I value the copyright at something like [L]20000. (A crude, vilely drawn & coloured, ignorant, inferior pack, published in 1902 or thereabouts, has sold over 1000 copies every year since then at 15/- a copy. I am quite sure that these admirable cards, with my book on the subject, which was to go with them in an ornamental box, would bring in far more annual receipts. I have a large following in U.S.A.–they send me [L]50 a month or more–which is growing rapidly. Especially now my “Hymn for Independence Day” has been set to music, and will be broadcast by the Cultural Garden League of Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 9. There is also my Free French song (proof enclosed). And the invention of the V-sign will ultimately benefit my work.

I want first to establish my 2/3 claim in the copyright. Secondly, my controlling interest in the cards themselves. If necessary, damages for her sly, underhand, sneaking, dishonourable and dishonest action in giving this show without my approval, and destroying the whole value of the copyright.

N.B. The property right is actually vested in the O.T.O. (Mr. Karl Germer 1007 Lexington Avenue New York City is my Grand Treasurer General, and we had perhaps better sue in his name.

N.B. Lady H's real motive is to conceal her 4 years' close association with me! Rather silly, then, to provoke a lawsuit!

I shall ring up Saturday A.M. early: perhaps you could lunch with me.

Yours sincerely,

Aleister Crowley

P.S. A friendly settlement is being tried; don't do anything until I see you again. A.C.

 Harris set up and funded a series of shows of her works as well as a limited edition of 200 decks of the cards. That was the only time The Thoth deck would be published in either her or Crowley's lifetimes.

After the Tarot project, Harris and Crowley maintained a friendship that waxed and waned but ultimately persevered. Crowley could be a difficult person to like and Harris was a strong enough character to step away from his tantrums (and to throw a few of her own.) Over the years, however, she continued to assist Crowley financially and was one of the two executors of his will. (source)

The way he writes about her makes my stomach churn sometimes, and though his ideas are interesting and helpful to some of my own instincts about magic, I am much more interested in her. In her cards, and the math she studied to make them, and in the world view of a person who has to draw things to understand them. 

“The Geometry she used was an evolution of strict Euclidian geometry developed by Descartes in the 17th Century. It's called "Projective Synthetic Geometry". Descartes' ideas derived from mathematical and mystical ideas, in particular his non-Eulician axiom of parallels meeting at infinity.” (source)

Harris took courses in Projective Geometry from - and made friends with - Olive Whicher and George Adams. Adams had become interested in Projective Geometry as a path for exploring theoretical physics that didn’t chase the discovery of the atom. Paul Dirac - one of the most significant physicists of the 20th century - formulated the Dirac equation which describes the behaviour of fermions and predicted the existence of antimatter  often said that when he was developing quantum mechanics he used his favourite branch of mathematics - projective geometry.

I find it haunting that this path - the one that doesn’t lead to the atomic bomb - ends up being at the heart of the patterns and equations of quantum mechanics. 

So far I can only scrape the very top of understanding this though, so if you are a math witch who can explain more please write to us at missingwitches@gmail.com.

At any rate, these meetings between Olive Whicher, George Adams and Lady Frieda Harris inspired the complex geometrical patterns in the cards, attempts to illustrate a mathematical revelation about the very nature of the universe. Something about the infinite being inside each of us - as above so below. 

Adams and Whicher proposed mathematically that the infinite midpoint of non-Euclidean space was to be found in the plant world in every bud. This idea was connected with that of the lemniscatory correlation - a figure eight or infinite shape - between space and counter-space.

In Richard Kaczynski’s essay “Projective Geometry in Early Twentieth Century Esoterism” he writes:

“Higher math is, by its nature, an esoteric pursuit plumbed by a relatively small group of scholars and specialists. Projective geometry, after it’s nineteenth-century zenith, found a new incarnation in a different kind of esotericism: the world of mysticism and magic(k). Here, the concepts of duality and of shapes without measure are understood to demonstrate that scientific principles governed growth and beauty in nature; furthermore, these principles apparently exert their generative influence on the world from an ideal, creative space (or counterspace) that is knowable to the trained mind. While the specifics may remain obscure even to many of the faithful, their significance has been preserved in the seminal writings of Kaufmann and Whicher. And courtesy of the imaginative hand and eye of artist executant Frieda Lady Harris, projective geometry has also been disseminated surreptitiously in Aleister Crowley’s immensely popular Thoth Tarot, whose beautiful and mysterious images beckon viewers to explore the depths of its secrets. 


The influence of projective geometry on Harris is obvious when one looks at the Thoth Tarot cards themselves. Although Crowley specified the major design elements for each card, he “left Lady Harris a comparatively free hand in respect of insignificant details” She seized upon this freedom to express her artistic and esoteric interests. Harris was inspired by a large range of artistic influences; her depiction of “Adjustment” recalls the work of Aubrey Beardsley, while “The Tower” is rendered in Picasso’s jarring and disjointed cubism. Elsewhere, she references surrealist, expressionist, symbolist, and art deco styles. As first noted by Hoffman, projective geometry appears throughout, in both striking foreground images and subtle background textures and patterns. While not every card draws on Kauffman’s teachings, geometric designs and arrangements - both projective and Euclidean - are prevalent.”

In a lecture she gave about the cards, Lady Frieda Harris wrote:

Now the Tarot Cards that I have seen seem to represent the thought of the period in which they were designed..I have made an effort in this present pack to embody this current mode of the century. Therefore I have tried to introduce among the cards the element of Time. In nearly all the designs, the straight lines of the former cards – such as the check patterns, the rays of the sun, the chart of the Universe and the stars – are expressed in a curve. I hope to convey the idea of movement. ‘Death’ in Trumps has to suggest the idea of re-incarnation, as opposed to putrefaction, he is weaving with his scythe a geometrical web of new forms.

I think if you are listening to this podcast you are, like the lady Frieda Harris, like Crowley and Amy and I and all the witches we’ve been missing, a seeker. 

Maybe ceremonial sex magic makes sense for you or maybe you are a nature witch most at peace and empowered by the sound of trees, or a city witch, math witch, lab witch, art or activist witch, healer or gardener, solitary or community organizer. Either way, you are like Harris’s figure of death, weaving a geometrical web of new forms. Bringing new life from the dark, new kinds of connection and kindness to light. Returning from wild journeys to meet at the centerpoint of infinity, to rock together in the belly of the houseboat, to paint a better world in crystals.

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