Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Michel Tournier: The Magic of the Tarot

“All this may seem to you a meaningless farrago,” resumed Van Deyssel. “But it is a part of the wisdom of the tarot cards that they do not predict our future in precise terms. Think of the dismay if they did! They do no more than afford us, at the best, an intimation. My brief lecture is in some sort a coded message, and the key to the cipher is your future itself. Each forthcoming event in your life will in its occurrence reveal the truth of one or other of my predictions. Prophecy of this kind is not so illusory as it may at first appear.” – Friday or The Other Island

Translator’s Introduction

One of the few recent authors to have earned both popular appeal and critical praise, Michel Tournier‘s works are well known and appreciated in France, and in consequence, are well represented in translation. His creative and personal retellings of myths, legends and old stories, including those of Robinson Crusoe, the Erl King, Tom Thumb, Bluebeard, among many others, have become staples of contemporary French fiction.

Tournier’s first novel, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday or The Other Island), won the prestigious Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1967. In the beginning of this reworking of the story of Robinson Crusoe, Tournier includes what is perhaps the classic example of a Tarot reading “telegraphing” the narrative twists and turns as the novel unfolds in ways unexpected but wholly consonant with this initial Œdipal prediction.

Tournier’s use of the Tarot for narrative purposes has been extensively documented in studies such as Robinson et le tarot : étude sur la signification de Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique de Michel Tournier by Mikko Kuusimäki (cf. book summary), Michel Tournier – la séduction du jeu by Lynn Salkin Sbiroli, and “Michel Tournier et l’accent grave du jeu” by Jonathan F. Krell. English readers may consult the section “Textual Metaphors: The Tarot and the Bible”, in Michel Tournier and the Metaphor of Fiction by David Platten. Another of Tournier’s novels, Les Météores (Gemini), is also Tarot-inflected and has been the subject of a couple of studies in French.

To paraphrase the man himself, it is not surprising that the author of Friday or The Other Island, The Erl-King, Gemini, etc., should have become fascinated by the undertaking dominated by combinatoric intelligence and a taste for emblematic figures that is Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies. Once again, far from being a mere book review of Calvino’s inevitable booklet, Tournier’s piece bears witness to the multiplicity of manners in which the Tarot may be used as a creative tool, and its timeless appeal as the ferment of the imagination.

“La Magie des tarots” was first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 21 December, 1974.

The Empress, Grimaud 1930, courtesy of the BNF; Italo Calvino, photographed by Sophie Bassouls.

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The Magic of the Tarot

Michel Tournier

One of the preferred occupations of the mind consists in making waffle-makers destined to dry out and harden, and above all, to bestow a precise and immutable shape to the flaccid and swarming matter of immediate experience. The ten categories of Aristotle, the twelve of Kant, the fifteen of Hamelin, thus relate to this categorial activity of the intelligence concerned with realising itself in the marshes of unshaped experience.

But the net of logical categories may itself seem too abstract. Characterology offers a more palpable table with its human types, and above all, it opens up the way to a sort of combinatorics for the first time. For after having distinguished the primaries and the secondaries, the actives and the non-actives, the emotives and the non-emotives, it ends up, for instance, with the choleric character which defines itself as an emotive-active-primary (Danton), or with the apathetic character which is a non-emotive-inactive-secondary (Louis XVI).

It is to an undertaking of this type that the Tarot cards respond, in any case, such as Italo Calvino deals with them in the very handsome book which Franco Maria Ricci proposes to us in this holiday season, with the exception that each character is not only surrounded by characteristic attributes but moreover finds himself placed in a situation which may be complex and dramatic. And there is magic. For the seventy-eight figures of the Tarot cards – whose sources trace back beyond the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the Arab or even Chinese origins of cartomancy – possess a mysterious charm and a gift of eternal youth.

Aside from their incomparable beauty, these miniatures observe us with familiar gazes. The juggler, the man hung by his feet, the madman with the triple goitre, love brandishing the purple mask of the sun, the popess with the triregnal tiara, the twin guardians of the celestial Jerusalem, all these enigmatic and royal beings speak to us in an immemorial language which our heart understands. These cards may provide each of us with a commentary on our past and a prediction of our future which raise our destiny to the level of the golden legend. Italo Calvino, for his part, ushers us into the Castle of Crossed Destinies.

A mysterious citadel lost in the forest night. Wanderers gone astray – ladies, knights, couriers, pilgrims – encounter each other therein. Yet this disparate assembly gathered round a table is struck with mutism, and if each guest tells his story in turn, it is simply by arranging Tarot cards on the table… and of which everyone immediately understands the signification. When the second guest begins to narrate his adventures in turn, he does not disperse the cards of the first; he articulates his story on a part of the preceding combination by giving to understand that the reading must no longer be effected from top to bottom, but horizontally, from left to right, each card taking its signification from the one which precedes it and the one which follows, like the letters of a crossword grid. In this way, Italo Calvino turns the Tarot cards into a sort of narrative machine, combining characters and situations into a great, but not infinite, number of destinies.

It is not surprising that the author of the Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics, t Zero, etc., should have become fascinated by this undertaking dominated by combinatoric intelligence and a taste for emblematic figures. Like that of Jean Giraudoux, the work of Italo Calvino is also short on personal confidences as it is revelatory of a certain psychology by its symbols and bizarre logic. What all categorial thought – from Aristotle to the Tarot – has in common is the concern to advance in the discovery of things only by holding strongly to the railings of the rational method, the taste for complete enumerations, the fear of losing oneself in the infinite. We are here in the antipodes of empiricism and naturalism, always eager to plunge into the quagmire of experience, without return. The most famous of Italo Calvino’s heros is a Lombard aristocrat who had decided to spend his entire life in the trees. To never touch earth. Such seems to be the first principle of Italo-calvinism. His “Tarots” provide us with the most sumptuously illuminated illustration.

– Michel Tournier

of the Académie Goncourt

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P. L. Travers: The Hanged Man


Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899-1996) was an Australian novelist, actress and journalist, most remembered for her series of novels about the magical nanny Mary Poppins.

In 1925 while in Ireland, Travers met the mystic poet George William Russell [Æ] who, as editor of The Irish Statesman, accepted some of her poems for publication. Through Russell, Travers met William Butler Yeats and other Irish poets who fostered her interest in Celtic folklore and world mythology. Later, the mystic Gurdjieff would have a great effect on her, one that would last the rest of her life.

But Miss Travers was more than a children’s book author. She was a brilliant essayist on all things mythical and mystical. A collection of her spiritual essays have been published in a book entitled What The Bee Knows.

Most of the essays were first published in the journal Parabola, which was devoted to the scholarly exploration of myth and tradition. Miss Travers was a contributing editor of the journal. (Source)

The foregoing presentation of P.L. Travers and her work succinctly expresses the background and thrust of the following piece, namely, an exploration of “myth, symbol, and tradition,” in her own words. The articles compiled in What The Bee Knows attest to Travers’ extensive readings and personal knowledge of spiritual exercise, in addition to a certain knowledge of the Tarot and its symbolism, perhaps through the influence of WB Yeats; indeed, one will note the Yeatsian allusions below. As to the significance of the bee itself, one will find it dealt with more extensively in the eponymous essay of the anthology.

In spite of her notoriety, Travers’ interest in the Tarot appears to have gone largely unnoticed in the world of Tarot. References to Tarot cards are to be found scattered throughout the articles compiled in What the Bee Knows, and perhaps even throughout her novels. Better documented is her contact and studies with the teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. The following articles provide further discussion of the influence of Gurdjieff’s teachings on Travers’ work:

In a related article, On Unknowing, the reader will once again encounter the images of the tree, the ideas of sacrifice, and the gnosis beyond unknowing.

This piece was first published in Parabola, on the theme of Hierarchy, 1984, and later compiled in What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol, and Story, Codhill Press, 2010.

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The Hanged Man

P. L. Travers

The Twelfth Tarot Card

‘Oh, young man, why do you hang there upside-down, smiling and seeming to dance? Your blood will all run into your head. You will have no chance of growing old if you persist in such folly.’

‘I have already been old,’ said the young man. ‘And it does not appear to me that I am upside-down. The blood has indeed run into my head but it has also run out again, leaving it all but empty.’

‘Empty? But you are not the Fool. The number of the Fool is zero, and zero contains all numbers.’

‘Not the Fool, but a simpleton, set free of his too-much knowledge. Oh, there was nothing I did not know, no question I could not answer. I was ancient and heavy with my learning; knowledge ever breeding knowledge; propositions, measures, degrees; sciences, lore of every kind; the old and the new mixing, adhering; affinities and parallels begetting themselves eternally. Many men came to me for teaching. The universe was my bedside book. I elaborated on the secrets of life and death. What was above and below I knew. I was a prodigy among scholars.’ He swung to and fro on his rope.

Nicolas Conver Tarot. Courtesy of the BNF.

‘And there came to me one who asked, “Who is it, sir, that knows all this? What sustains your learning?” And there, for the first time, was a question I could not answer. No lexicon had prepared me for it. I looked within and found no-one. “Who am I?” I inquired of myself and nothing made reply. Oh, then indeed, I was upside-down, a mere head walking the earth. “What shall I do?” I demanded of my erudition, aghast at the discovery that far from being more than a man, I was less than half. But my erudition could not tell me. It does not deal in such things. Then deep within me something swept – I who had never wept before, nor needed the gift of weeping – and I knew what had to be done. A tear is an intellectual thing, opening doors no knowledge can broach. It gave me the grace to remember Plato: Man is a heavenly plant and what this means is that he is like an inverted tree of which the roots tend heavenwards and the branches down to earth. And I said to myself, “I will be rooted.”

‘My tear also brought me to Lao Tzu, whom before I had thought of as merely a book. The man of learning increases every day, the man of Tao decreases every day. And I said to myself, “I will decrease.”

‘And that is why you find me here, foot-fast to the celestial root, swinging between Nonexistence and Existence. And while it is more difficult to decrease than to increase I find that daily something falls from me, daily myself grows nearer to me. If there is anything I need to know, a passing bee will apprise me of it.’

‘But was will happen to you at last, hanging there, prey to every wind?’

‘I do not know. The dancer and the dance are one. And, anyway,’ the young man said, ‘the matter is not in my hands.’

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Michel Bulteau: The Alchemical Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

The advent of the so-called “occult “Tarot” in the late 18th century saw all manner of connections and correlations being established between the cards of the Tarot deck and various other divinatory methods and hermetic sciences, alchemy being chief among the latter. Typically, these efforts have consisted in attempts to match or map the cards of the Tarot trump sequence to the stages of the path of alchemical perfection, or to read the symbolic images in the same manner as the alchemical allegories.

Notable efforts in this domain include Jollivet-Castelot’s Comment on devient Alchimiste; the article L’Alchimie devant le Tarot by the pseudonymous Auriger published in Le Voile d’Isis in 1928; and more recently, the essay by the Kabbalist A. D. Grad which proposes to assimilate the Tarot trumps to the little-known hermetic text known as the Book of the 22 Hermetic Pages by one Kerdanec de Pornic.

Another example of this analogical thinking is the following article by the poet Michel Bulteau. Dense and allusive, it bears witness to an extensive reading of the alchemical literature, and it will be for the sympathetic reader to judge of the appropriateness or usefulness of the connections it draws. Although many of the hermetic texts cited are now available in English, including online, some of them will only be found in rare or out-of-print works. As a result, we have not seen fit to include references each time, with the exception of the lengthier citation from the works of Nuysement.

The author, Michel Bulteau (b. 1949), is a French poet, essayist, musician and experimental filmmaker. On the subject of alchemy, Mr Bulteau has also penned a couple of works on the hermetic architecture of ancient French castles; Le Plessis-Bourré : Alchimie et mystères (Livre-Essor, 1983), and L’hôtel Lallemant de Bourges (Garancière, 1984).

This article was originally published as “Le tarot alchimique,” in Question De n° 51, 1983. The original French may be read here. We have been unable to contact the author to ask for his permission to publish this article.

Michel Bulteau, portrait by Antoine Rozès, 1995.

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The Alchemical Tarot

Michel Bulteau

How might we go from a game of cards to arrive at the philosophical soul? Certainly because the future and the symbolism of the Great Work are to be found on the same stone, as in the words of the Zohar: “In future times, each will be able to see the soul of Writing.” Each here will put on the cloak of the Mage, will rely on his staff and will hold up a lantern. Thus one passes from the black earth to the solar light. The Tarot, in effect, vehicles some of the secrets of the chymical Art.

“Alchemy is the immutable science which works on the body by means of theory and experience, and which, by a natural conjunction, transforms them into a superior and more precious type,” said Hermes Trismegistus. Metallic bodies and human bodies. I do not know if the Tarot really was a game played in taverns (“giuochi da taverne” according to the expression of Tommaso Garzoni), but in any case, its hidden keys indicate the path of perfection. Does the saga of the Tarot find its source in the Egyptian Word? In its arcana, other mysteries have embedded themselves, like the Steel in the belly of the igneous dragon, so true is it that the “flowers of wisdom” grow in the compost.

The Illusion that Manages the World

Thoth, Hermes… The Tarot is a plant that grows at the doors of the Kingdom… The arcana of the “game” in which we find the Pole Star and the Movement of the World have come down to us thanks to the Image-makers of the Middle Ages. I have already denounced the caprices of the imagination: the guardrails of Tradition are there to hold back the mind that would let itself be fascinated by the turbulence of false science. The path of perfection quickly shows itself to be of good counsel: it will show the possible happiness or how to “avoid the misfortune which all wise men must know to dread” (Nicolas Salmon). But Heaven watches. “Remember, child of Science, that the knowledge of our Magisterium comes rather from the inspiration of Heaven than by the lights which we might acquire by ourselves,” writes Limojon de Saint-Didier. This Sacred Art which the Crusaders and the Templars brought back in triumph finds, for its chymical flowers, its most beautiful garden in the 14th-16th centuries.

The wisdom of the hermeticists is a form of recollection. Alchemy not being solely a secret code covering a material quest, but indeed “the conquest of the divine light,” we understand that the mute book of the Tarot could have received its invariable symbolism alongside the observations of the kabbalah and the auguries of astrology.

The symbolism of the Chymical Art is a ray of light falling from the Garden of Eden. The demon has not placed his evil designs therein. It is the glorification of the Holy Spirit. It is up to the Adept to accomplish himself thanks to this pilgrimage bordered by images (the ornaments of the Holy Mass), and of writings “verified by reason and by experience: in which one must not lose faith,” specifies Michael Sendivogius. The image-makers have sown the golden seeds of this work at the same time “earthly and heavenly” within the Unity of the Tarot. It is up to us to receive the Holy Spirit.

Might we not, as certain authors do, establish a correspondence between the Evangelical words and the stages of the Work? Thus, for example, the sublimation which the card of Justice covers would refer to the teaching delivered by Our Lord in the temple, and multiplication – card of Temperance – would be connected to the miraculous catch of fish.

Alchemy delivers one from the weighty illusion of the world. In this way the Adept liberates matter: “That is to say, free me from my prison, and once you have gotten me out of there, I will make you master of the fortress where I am.” (Nicolas Valois). The imaged support of the Tarot was needed to receive the “beautiful truths” of the Great Work of the Sages, as the Dominican Albert Belin writes. Naturally, “all these marvels which have charmed the heart of the Sages, have irritated the minds of the ignorant.” The incredulity of men, if it makes many avoid the steep path of Knowledge, deprives them of beauty and truth, and has them stew in an unhealthy grey bath. It is a terrible sin to neglect the grace of God! No labyrinth is so complicated that it might lead astray the worthy and pure servant of Our Lady Alchemy: “it is of no use to the Philosophers to wish to hide Science in their Writings, when the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is at work.”

One must not follow the disordered path of “those of Babel, who think to possess the stone and who preserve but a piece of rubble wherein lie venom and death.” Virtue is absent. Woe to he who cannot conceive of the reunion of the celestial and the terrestrial. “It is therefore fitting for the sage seeker of truth to immediately consider the humanity of Christ, from his manifestation in the body of the Virgin Mary, until his resurrection and ascension,” writes Jacob Böhme. The seeker will be comforted when he discovers that “Paradise is still of this world,” and will change “the misfortune of the world into a benediction.”

We shall examine five of these emblematic cards, guided by the hermetic Star, and “not be affected, because contradictory things, sometimes, manifest themselves.” (Alexander Seton).

The Juggler

The Juggler is the Mage, pointing with his right hand to the terrestrial world, and with his left hand to the celestial world. This gesture is that of separation: “You shall separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the cross, gently, and with great industry. It ascends from the earth to the heavens and again it descends to the earth and receives the force of things superior and inferior. (Hermes, the Emerald Tablet.)

The Juggler is the affirmation of the Unity of Matter: “All things come from the same seed, all were originally engendered by the same mother.” (Basil Valentine, Triumphal Chariot of Antimony)

But this person, capped with infinity, is an illusionist, and only reveals the letter to the profane, and not the spirit. Thus, from the outset, manifests the One who has solved the prodigious mystery. What a marvel that wand he holds between his fingers and which became a serpent before Pharaoh. Here is the first gift from Heaven, Manna, the Revelation.

His table is an altar and a stone. The altar onto which, during the sacrifice of the Mass, descends Our Lord Jesus Christ. “Offertory: the stone, which the builders rejected, has become the corner stone. This was accomplished by the Lord, and this is admirable to our eyes,” writes Nicolas Melchior. Our Lord who was the philosophical stone which the Wise Kings came to adore. “Petra erat Christus.” (Saint Paul) This magical stone, of which Joannes de Lasnioro sings the praises: “I tell you in truth, if a man half-dead could contemplate the beauty and goodness of our Stone, every kind of infirmity would depart from him; even were he in agony, he would resuscitate.”

The three pillars supporting the table are the three Principles: Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. Before the Juggler, the three elements are set out; he holds the fourth in his hand. He is the horseman of the Great Work: the Staff becomes sceptre; the Coin is his shield; and the Sword, after having been conquered, guards the Cup of immortality. The Juggler is a man of faith: the purifier with eyes of light. He is the Alchemist. Wisdom and patience accompany him like two stars. He knows that the spirit governs the word and that the light falls from the Eye of God.

The Empress is the Queen of Heaven and earth. She is a sovereign of Science, as the fleur-de-lys to her left shows. A flower that Our Lord offered to Clovis after his baptism, through the intermediary of a hermit. Let us recall that “the Fleur-de-Lys” was the house which Nicolas Flamel had built “on an empty space he had purchased.” The lily symbolises purity, the accomplished Work. It is the marial flower. The Empress is the Immaculate, Holy Virgin, “the Sovereign of the forces that constitute the Universe.”

This arcanum is to be put in relation with the medallion of Dame Alchemy situated on the great doorway of Notre Dame de Paris. The open book she presents – matter penetrated by the Spirit – makes one think of the open book of the Annunciation. The Empress protects the Eagle: she has fixed the Mercury. The sceptre she holds in her left hand is topped with the globe of the world in which is found “the Unity of the three divine Persons” according to Anne-Catherine Emmerich. The left hand is that of Wisdom, and contains treasures, and the right hand “assures long days of healthy life.” According to Solomon, lightness and joy accompany Wisdom.

Her Excellency places her foot on a lunar crescent with its tips turned downwards. She protects and raises her sons like the Virgin whose heart “is but love and mercy” and “so tender that those of all the mothers put together are but a piece of ice next to hers,” as the Holy Curate of Ars wrote.

“The Holy Virgin being the perfectly pure flower of the human race, blooming in the fullness of time,” noted the abbot de Cazalès after the meditations of Anne-Catherine Emmerich, and later adding: “She was the only pure gold on the earth.”

The Wheel of Fortune

There is the Wheel of Fortune. The Rota Fatalis. It unites water and fire. Its rays, to paraphrase Pontanus, “do not burn matter, separate nothing from matter, neither divide nor part the pure parts from the impure,” and reply to no questions.

Mercury seems to reign on this harmonious vessel: at its base, the double moon and the interlaced serpents sometimes keep watch, a winged sphinx dreaming up above, but the captain of the ship is Sulphur. He climbs the wheel, “that spiritual metallic sulphur” which “is truly the first motor which turns the wheel and turns the axle in circles.” (Eyræneus Philalethes). It is the Wheel of Fire. De Nuysement writes:

Run where thou seest the marks that I have made
With these same wheels; and that thou maist evade
The danger of burning Heaven, Sea, or Earth,

Do not heat too much, under pain of drawing down the wrath of Heaven:

Flie not too high, nor yet stoope down beneath
This tract; for if too high you soar, you’ll fire
The Heavens; if too low, the Earth you’ll move with ire;
Keep then the mean, as safest, in your gyre.

This “conversion of the philosophical elements” is to be put into relation with the frenetic dances around the fires on St John’s Eve. Round dances which were tributes to the Tree of the World, the axis of life, thus to the Divinity. And fire has always been close to the Tree of Life: “the Tree of Life was the source and the centre of all of nature. The fire, purifying the heterogeneous, shows Purgatory very well. And the fire, during the Judgment, purifying the excrements of nature, by universal calcination, the same fire of Hell. And the purity of our stone relates to our immortality,” specifies the Unknown Knight in his treatise. Here too, it is a matter of directing the wheel and to have “the axle turn in a circle,” according to Philalethes’ expression.

The Hanged Man

Does this arcanum not constitute the scourge of the scales of the Wise whose two plates would be the Juggler and the Fool? The Hanged Man’s torso and his arms form a triangle, and with his right leg folded behind his left, form the hieroglyph of Sulphur. The Hanged Man “is not the last of the three Principles, since he is a part of the metal, and even the principle part of the Philosopher’s Stone.” (The Cosmopolitan) He is moreover the prisoner we find in the dialogue between the Voice and the Alchemist in the “New Chemical Light.” The Hanged Man’s punishment finds its solution in a game of mirrors. In effect, this Sulphur, guarded by Saturn, and which will be delivered by the Wise, possesses a mirror of Sapience in its kingdom.

The Hanged Man is a magician: “he knows how to improve the metals, correct the mines; he gives understanding to animals; he knows how to make all sorts of flowers from the plants and the trees; he dominates over all these things.” Thus his head finds itself in the treetops of the trees with pruned trunks. On the subject of those twelve cut branches, could we not evoke the twelve foundations of the City of gold at the end of the Apocalypse? The Hanged Man is ungraspable: “it is he who corrupts the air, then, purifies it afterwards; he is the author of all the smells of the world, and the painter of all the colours.” He is also the sower: the grains that fall from his pockets seed metals. He is the counter-shoot, the peaceful prisoner awaiting his reign.

The World

A naked woman – Truth – modestly veiled by a piece of fabric, holds two magic wands in her left hand. She seems aerial, surrounded by a crown of leaves. Around the garland shine the four animals of Ezechiel, symbols of the four Evangelists.

The eagle-bird of light is the “volatile part of their matter”: it is the Mercury. It “flies away and resolves itself in the air,” (Cosmopolitan), and as in the Gospel according to Saint John, the darkness cannot stop it.

Mercury has “a nature that dominates All.” (Geber) “When the mages speak of their Eagles, they speak thereof in the plural, and they count them from three to ten,” specifies Eyræneus Philalethes in the “Open entrance to the shut-palace of the King.” When the chemical hermaphrodite is purified, there is space for the sublimation, “in order to bring its nudity into the light of day, which manifests its beauty,” writes Kerdanec de Pornic in “The Book of 22 Hermetic Leaflets.” “Thus each sublimation of the philosophical Mercury corresponds to an eagle,” adds Philalethes.

The winged young man rushing forward amplifies the idea of sublimation. The bull, guardian of the labyrinth, is sometimes replaced by a horse.

The lion represents Sulphur. “The philosophers have attributed to it the first degree of honour.” Thus the king of the animals is the most noble of the Principles. His roar indicates he wishes the leave the body of metals which tyrannically restrain him. A curious note: “The wind is his meat; when he is free, he eats cooked wind; and when he is imprisoned, he is forced to eat it raw.” (Cosmopolitan)

The four elements are present here: air (the eagle); water (the winged young man); the earth (the horse); and fire (the lion).

The garland and the woman depict the symbol of nitre. This “aerial nitre” of which Copponay de Grimaldi suggests it is the “magnesia of the Philosophers, and the silver from which they make up their dissolvant, or philosophical mercury, which opens the mixture until its centre, to have this pure fire that is the soul, and the principle of life, and the actions of all things, which is in a way, the key that opens the secret doors to decompose the mixture, and to reduce it to its first principle.”

This enchantress is carried by the wind of knowledge, as her billowing veil shows. “The Twelve Gates of Alchemy,” according to George Ripley’s expression, have been crossed.

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Claude Aveline: Aluette, or the Game of the Cow

Translator’s Introduction

Aluette, or the Game of the Cow, has already been the object of two publications on this site; the brief but charming overview provided by René-Louis Doyon, and the more substantial article by Alain Borvo. Aluette is one of the most ancient card games still in play, with devoted practitioners of the game to be found along the western seaboard of France, although only one publisher produces a deck, notably Grimaud, incidentally the publisher of the Ancien Tarot de Marseille.

Part of the attraction of this peculiar game may well reside in the fact that it must be one of few games which manages to combine elements of all four of the major classifications of games drawn up by Roger Caillois; namely, agon, or competition/combat; alea or chance; ilinx or vertigo/risk; and mimesis or mimicry. In effect, the competitive nature of the game corresponds to the manifestation of agon; the random factor that lies in the luck of the draw to alea; the thrill of gambling to illinx; and the curious grimaces used to signal one’s cards to one’s partner, to mimesis.

Although Aluette is much less popular and has given rise to very little speculation compared to the game of Tarot, some of the intriguing theories put forth about its origins and significance are worth dwelling on, such as those expressed by Dr Marcel Baudouin. Prior to examining some of these speculative ideas, it is not without interest to further develop the rules of play of this curious game.

Claude Aveline (1902-1992), was a prolific polymath; author, critic, publisher, painter, poet, his biography and extensive literary activity is well detailed on his French Wikipedia page, and to a lesser degree, on its English equivalent. It is noteworthy that Aveline’s most reprinted work is his book on games and their rules, Le Code des Jeux, first published in 1961 and subsequently republished many times, becoming a classic work found in many French homes. Along with Guy Rebour’s classic booklet La crapette et le jeu de l’aluette, it forms one of the most frequently cited set of rules in this regard.

We present here the entry on Aluette, noting simply that the theory of the Spanish origins of the game is now no longer held by playing card historians.

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Aluette, or the Game of the Cow

Claude Aveline

The game of aluette owes its name to the Celtic participle al luet, “the cheated one.” It is also known as the game of the Cow, from the name of one of the major cards.

The cards follow Spanish suits, for the game was brought from Spain by sailors and the colonists who settled on the Atlantic coast from the 15th century, in particular along the Poitou and Vendée seaboard. (Was there not, in Nantes in 1566, a mayor of Spanish extraction?)

When Pantagruel wanted to visit the universities of France, “he took to sea and sailed to Bordeaux, where he did not find much sport except for some stevedores playing the luettes on the shore.” 

Vendée remains the country of predilection of aluette. Sailors still continue to play the game with gusto.

Aluette uses a deck of Spanish-suited cards which includes 48 special cards. The suits of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs are replaced by the categories of Coins, Cups, Staffs and Swords. The deck does not include any tens. At a stretch, one could play the game using a French-suited deck by taking out the tens.

It is a game for two players in two teams of two. The game consists of five rounds. Each round is won by the team which tots up the greatest number of points, each trick giving one point. In case of a tie, the trick is taken by the team which reached the total first. Contrary to the rule adopted in other team games, the tricks taken by the partner do not count: the trick is always taken by the one who played the strongest card. Another characteristic trait of aluette is the possibility accorded to the players of letting their partners know their cards, by means of conventional signs and mimics. The entire art consists then of observing one’s opponents’ signs and of making one’s own as discreetly as possible.

Value of the Cards

The cards are divided into four categories: 4 Aluette cards, 4 Doubles, 16 medium cards, and 4 low cards. Peculiar names have been given to the highest cards. Here is their order, beginning with the strongest:

Aluette cards: Monsieur, 3 of Coins; Madame, 3 of Cups; the One-Eyed Man, 2 of Coins; the Cow: 2 of Cups.

Double cards: Big Nine, 9 of Cup; Little Nine, 9 of Coins; Two of Oak, 2 of Staffs; Two of Writing, 2 of Swords.

Medium cards: The Aces; the Kings; the Queens or Horsewomen, the Valets.

Low cards: The 9 of Swords and the 9 of Staffs; the 8 (Coins, Cups, Swords, Staffs); the 7; the 6; the 5; the 4; the 3 of Swords and the 3 of Staffs.

Throughout the entire game, and even during the deal, each player makes use conventional signs to tell their partner the cards they have in hand. Here are those which are generally used for the strongest cards (Aluette cards, Double cards, and possibly the best medium cards); but the players may think up others, which will be applied to the other medium cards.

  • Monsieur: Raise one’s eyes to heaven.
  • Madame: Lean one’s head to one side.
  • The One-Eyed Man: Close an eye.
  • The Cow: Pout.
  • Big Nine: Thumbs up.
  • Little Nine: Show the little finger.
  • Two of Oak: Show the index or middle fingers.
  • Two of Writing: Pretend to write or show the ring finger.
  • The Aces: Open one’s mouth.

If a player wants to signal to their partner that they have a weak hand, they shrug the shoulders, more or less, according to whether the hand is bad, or simply mediocre.

When two players of a team both have weak hands that leave no chance to win the round, they may decide not to play and may choose to give the point to the opposing team.

The Deal

The teams may be formed according to the cards drawn by each player. The players who draw the two strongest cards will play against the two others. The dealer will be the one who drew the highest of the four cards.

One may – it is the classic rule – deal all the cards one by one by turning them over in front of each player. In this case, the dealer will be the one who draws Madame. This player will team up with the one who receives Monsieur. The other team will be formed of the players who draw the One-Eyed Man and the Cow.

For the following rounds, the cards are distributed by each of the players in turn.

The dealer shuffles and cuts the cards. He deals 9 cards to each, 3 by 3, in a clockwise direction. The 12 cards left over, the pile, will then be the object of a supplementary deal called the Song [fr. Chant]; they are distributed one by one, face down, to two of the players: the opponent to the left of the dealer, and the dealer’s partner. Following which, both of those players will take out 6 of their cards (the worst), which will be then placed in the pile. In this way, all the players will each have 9 cards.

The Game

The first to play is the player to the left of the dealer. In general, he plays a low card, but there is no obligation to do so. As the points scored by the team are not added up, one tactic consists of leaving the conduct of the manoeuvre to the partner with the best hand. Thus the fourth to play may, following his advantage, take the trick by playing a higher card, or leaving it to his partner or to the opposing team. He may also neutralise the latter by doing as much, which consists of playing a card of the same value as the highest card played by the opposing team. In this case, no one takes the trick and the four cards are placed in the pile.

The cancellation of a trick may equally be favourable to the player’s hand.


This is a supplementary challenge in the game of aluette. One may decide to “play mordienne” either by declaration, either by a simple sign to one’s partner: one bites one’s lips.

The winning team of the round is then the one in which one of the players will have scored the greatest number of the last tricks without interruption (the tactic consists of not taking any tricks at the beginning, but instead trying to take the last two, three or four). This scores two points. When the mordienne has been declared and accepted, the game is played over 10 points. If the opponents do not agree, they propose to not play that round and to concede one point. This proposition may be refused, but in that case, if the team does not succeed in the mordienne, it will be the opponents who score the 2 points instead.

In order to pull it off, the player must hold enough strong cards in hand to guarantee him a a certain number of tricks. His partner may help him in two ways: firstly, by having the opponents try to take tricks at the beginning of the round; or by doing as much for the first rounds. Doing as much presents another advantage moreover: it forces the player who played first to put down the first card in the following round. This manoeuvre therefore enables one to avoid having to uncover one’s own hand.

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Geneviève Béduneau: Tarots and Marvels III

Tarots and Marvels

(Part III)

Geneviève Béduneau

In spite of the absence of written documents, we may consider that the divinatory use spread along with the game itself, whose figures first of all spoke from the depths of our imaginary. Yet no clear allusion to the Tarot exists in the minutes of the witchcraft trials of the 16th-17th centuries. Between Charles VI and the first Masonic speculations on the Tarot-Book of Images of the Occult Tradition, there stretches a hiatus of 300 years.

At the end of the cultural blending of the 18th century, cartomancy develops. Court de Gébelin will be at the origin of the earliest syncretism which assigns the paternity of the Tarot to the “Bohemian” fortunetellers. Yet it is still not known precisely when the Gypsies adopted it. Over the few centuries they have wandered throughout Europe, their own legend has become embellished: first of all Egyptian – another way of calling them Mohammedan or pagan, fascinating and dangerous rabble – they have been made to play the bad role in the construction of the Temple where they would have betrayed Hiram, the good role with the Black servant Sara in the tale of the Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer. They have become the damned and blessed wanderers, guardians of the Secrets and snatchers of children, initiators into Wisdoms a well as perversions – the Fools? The Tarot they would have brought back from Egypt, that alchemical land. Although they remain marginal, the elements of the myth are in place. 

They arise once more with what Gilbert Durand calls the fourth period of Egyptomania, at the end of the 19th century, in the movement of Freemasonry. This is the age in which each master, Papus, Éliphas Lévi, Oswald Wirth, will redraw the Tarot, as “authentic,” Egyptian, Celtic, or mediaeval. Papus, like Éliphas Lévi, grafts on the Hebrew alphabet and the Kabbala, corrected according to their own ideas, onto the numerical sequence of the cards, based on the assimilation of Hebrew to Egyptian and the philosophical translation of Genesis due to the learned Fabre d’Olivet. A whimsical etymology, in the shape of wordplay, introduces the equation TAROT = ROTA, a solar wheel linked to the magic square.





R O T A S 

= Book of Hermes, ultimate book of secrets.

They become amplified in our era. From Egypt, the origin of the Tarot becomes Atlantis. Another way of calling it originary. It is sought and found everywhere men have carved, painted or drawn, from Etruscan tombs to Chinese palaces, from the temples of India to the walls of Babylon. Another way of calling it universal. Thot is turned into an extra-terrestrial, a modern remake of the beings from another world. If such naïveties allows one to smile, it behoves us to decode them. In their way, they express the intention of the painters of Charles VI, the Tarot as emblem of a cosmogony, drawing from the deepest and most enlivening layers of our imaginary. 

From embellishments to flourishings, syncretism little by little englobes all the divinatory arts. Decks are now sold which bear, in addition to the Hebrew letters, the signs of the Zodiac, the hexagrams of the I Ching, the geomantic figures. Everyone draws and redraws their own vision of the Book of Images, sometimes superb, sometimes mediocre. For the connoisseurs, or those who think of themselves as such, the Marseille deck is the object of a veritable cult. Tchalaï, after Jodorowsky, has declared its anonymous authors inspired. Piek Anéma does not hesitate to see it as the icon of the angelic hierarchies. Divinatory game then book of philosophical and magical teaching, the Tarot becomes operative, therapeutic. Jodorowsky recommends the contemplation of mandalas created by means of the cards. Tchalaï proposes to live it within one’s own body by adopting the postures of the figures.

To be sure, from the historian’s gaze, the legend of the Atlantean-Egyptian origins does not hold any water. The earliest known deck is indeed that of Charles VI, or at least, that of a contemporary, and we have seen to what extent it is inscribed within the cultural atmosphere of that era. It is nonetheless the case that a foundational Gnostic intention cannot be dismissed, and that the figures are powerful symbols. Tchalaï is right to evoke the Jungian archetypes, matrices of the imaginary. The power of the images and the magical power of the game interact in a living and flourishing tradition which each century enriches and metamorphoses.

Among these metamorphoses, the Trumps of the saga of the Princes of Amber by Roger Zelazny reveal themselves to be singularly rich in mythical potential. Each of the sons of Oberon, like the king himself, possesses one of these operative decks, the magical portrait of himself and others. By concentrating on the image, he can see, converse at a distance, and even teleport to meet the one he is calling (or who is calling him). Time and space are abolished. Now Amber is the matricial reality of which every universe, our own included, turns out to be a shadow, a projection. It recalls the demiurgic creation of Plato, made of successive layers progressively distanced from the divine Centre, and increasingly entropic as the distance increases. For the one in harmony with the Pattern, in the heart of Amber, for the one thus who has knowledge of the Centre, the Trumps enable to transcend the illusions of the Shadows, to return to the primordial reality. The theme of the Trumps dovetails with that of the hidden King, signified first by the disappearance of Oberon, and the rivalry of his sons, then by that of Corwin. If the latter renounces the visible throne, and thus, power, is it not, like Ogier, in favour of a redeeming royalty? Corwin was able to recreate a Pattern, to interiorise and exteriorise the Centre. Through this deed, he stripped himself of the temptations of the ego, which shows his renunciation to rule. Does that not make him the true king of Amber, the one who accedes to beyond the Images themselves?

Trumps and Pattern, figures and diagrams that structure space: each time one draws the Tarot, one becomes the echo of a Prince of Amber. Every reading involves the manipulation of the circle and the cross which is its centre. The position of the cards is as significant as their content. The process is akin to astrological or geomantic domification, it places two worlds into relation; the one, down to earth, of our daily life, and the one which Corbin termed the Imaginal to differentiate it from fantasy. Shadow and. Amber, in sum. Beyond the divinatory “draw”, Papus, Éliphas Lévi, Jodorowsky, Tchalaï, or Yolaine Cantalejo, who uses it for the interpretation of nocturnal dreams, amplify the diagrammatic aspect.

Neither the image nor structured space can be entirely translated by a verbal language. They speak directly and their contemplation may induce unfamiliar processes of consciousness within us. The image transforms us affectively, intellectually, in our entire relation to the world. It enables us to accept and to recognise what discourse cannot cover (except if, poem, it opens onto the Wedding of the image and the concept): “life, death, love, the void and the wind,” according to the flashing insight of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.

To assign an Egyptian origin to the Tarot is to anchor it on an ambiguous, mythical land, an Orient from whence the sun rises, the site of the tombs, land of demons, gods and hermits, at the same time the accursed kingdom of Pharaoh, the place of deathly slavery from which Moses had to rescue his people, prefiguring the Resurrection in Christianity, and the kindly land which welcomed the Christchild hunted by Herod’s minions. To push back this origin to Atlantis, a recent myth correlated to the development of our scientistic rational and technician society, is to place it in an amplification of babel, recalling the ambiguity of all knowledge. “Science without conscience is but ruin…”, the continents sink into a deluge of water and fire, those universal purifiers; the differentiated languages forming a barrier to dialogue; science-fiction prophetises post-apocalyptic twilight worlds. And if Atlantis only sunk into our inner oceans, Hiroshima and Chernobyl warn us very concretely of the real risk of playing with matches.

Mandalas and diagrams, ambiguity of the origins, ambiguity of the figures, ambiguity of the Ultimate Game, revelation of the yet-to-come or the dynamisms of being, the tarot condenses within itself the interaction of the transpersonal Imaginal and the individuated imaginary. The seer/consultant relation resembles the psychoanalytic one – and goes beyond it: yet it is always the future that is exorcised by retracing the sources of memory by means of a work undertaken in tandem. Theory, or classic rationalisation, would have it that the consultant’s unconscious “knows” the cards at the moment of the blind choice. This strict determinism is of less interest than the real work of imaginal/imaginary arousal beginning with the randomness of the draw. “An uninterpreted dream is nothing,” say the Talmudists. An uninterpreted Tarot is but a collection of coloured pieces of cardboard drawn at random. What use is rationalisation? To make a cock-a-snook-concession to scientism, by “explaining” by means of the unknown (the unconscious) a choice based on a dual ignorance: sensorial ignorance of the cards, of which only the backs are seen; and an existential ignorance of the future? In fact, the dialogue that sets in around the diagram would be a magical act of mastery of chance: “to wish what will happen,” as the Stoics say, coinciding with the event in order to transform it into an advent.

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Part I ; Part II

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Geneviève Béduneau: Tarots and Marvels II

Tarots and Marvels

(Part II)

Geneviève Béduneau

Arid is number. It structures. It dynamises too. Let us dare penetrate into this dryness; like the desert, it too conceals its fresh water. So, 78 cards, of which 22 major arcana, and 56 minors divided into 4 suits. Among the 22, one remains without number, the Fool.

What is a Fool? A wandering jester, suggests the image. A fool, says the tradition of popular fortunetellers. A king’s fool for a mad king, excluded, out of play, but madness refers back to the sacred, to divine possession, the madman marked by God rejects in his turn the wisdom of men in confession. With neither rank nor place, he may occupy any of them, and players have turned him into the Excuse or the Joker.

22 major arcana = 2 x 11. Leaving aside the Fool: 1 + 21, or 1 21, 121, = 11 x 11; 121, 1 + 2 + 1 = 4; 121, 12 + 1 , the Zodiac and its Centre, 13 like the Arcanum Without Number, which everyone spontaneously sees as death; 121 the divine feminine between the pillars of the Temple, like the Popess with the number 2. Let us add that 5 + 6 = 11. A supplementary key will be given by 7: 3 x 7 major arcana plus the Fool; 4 x 14 = 4 x (2 x 7) minor arcana.

In the Tarot, 11 is Force, and 7 is the Chariot: in most decks, twin alliance of human and animal, the Woman tames the savage beast, the man holds the reins of a yoke in which we will easily recognise the Platonic metaphor of the rational and the passional. These cards are the only ones with the Fool in which humanity and bestiary interact. Chance? Unconscious logic of Myth? Learned arrangement in a mathematical language which has now become foreign to us?

7 refers us back to the notes of the scale, by reminding us that it was then modal, that there existed 4 modes, 4 scales doubled up into authentic and plagal tones. Without going into the technical details, let us note the coincidence. Music formed one of the disciplines required of a courtier. 4 x (2 x 7) notes, 4 x (2 x 7) minor arcana. Now, in all traditions, and especially for Pythagoras, 7 are the creative Forces which emanate from the divine, a divine which India, the Celts and Christianity sensed as a triad.

More subtle: the musical minor arcana are organised into 10 simple cards, which one may read as the “trigon” of the Tetraktys, or 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10 and 4 court cards, the Tetraktys itself. We are in full Pythagorean numerology.

For number brings us back to the image, just as the image confirmed the number. The four court cards reproduce the ideal hierarchy of the chivalrous novels of which the age was fond. The King is David, Arthur, Charlemagne, Caesar. The royal function, lest we forget, was sacred. The one who embodied it concretely often reflected nothing but the bastardised image of an ordinary mortal. And so the imaginary developed an archetypal King in whom the person and the function coincide. A flourishing of figures will root themselves in this exigency.

David/Arthur: the anointed shepherd of the Bible becomes the anointed varlet in the Breton cycle. Nathan the prophet resonates in Merlin. The secret King, the unknown King, the chosen child magically reveals himself and reveals the Kingdom.

Ogier/Charlemagne: the emperor beneath the mountain, sleeping within stasis and opposed to death, ready to arise when the Kingdom is under threat, ultimate saviour come from beyond, transfiguration of the power of the ancestors.

The interlacing of these two mythical poles will fuel an entire legendary and prophetic cycle, which for us [in France] will be that the Great Monarch (forgotten progeny of the Lily, revealed during an invasion, victorious and regenerator, deposing his crown like Godfrey of Bouillon on the Mount of Olives), still alive, as witnessed by the ravings of [Jean-Charles de] Fontbrune on Nostradamus.

The Lady at his side recalls the courtly imaginary. She would be Eve, Mary, Sophia in the mythical order, Guinevere the mistress-queen, Vivian or Morgana the enchantresses. The Tarot, like the court, puts her in second place in the masculine circle completed by the Knight (in which we would see Lancelot, faithfulness of love, Gawain, lineage and solar heart, Galahad the celestial) and the Varlet (Perceval, child or kidnappee bearing the truth). But the symbol is always ambiguous, light side, dark side. How could we not think of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in addition to the four sons of Aymon? Ambiguity of the giver of death – regenerator of the world.

So, a social hierarchy, or rather, its ideal matrix exalted to the point of incandescence, but also a theological quaternary: Father-King, Son-Knight, Spirit-Varlet, completed by Our Lady, the Virgin-Mother. We are faced with overdetermined images. To deepen them would require evoking all the cultural references of the time.

With the major arcana, the Trumps, we penetrate into the heart of the myth. The game reveals to us a complex and coherent vision of the world, an emblematic gnosis in which a number of pathways and a number of readings become possible. One would have to explore them figure after figure, in all their resonances which refer back to legends, to History reappropriated by the imaginary, to alchemy, to astrology in the proper sense of the language of the stars, to hagiography, to number. Why, for instance, a Popess, if not in reference to popess Joan, who weds wisdom and blasphemy, prosperity and transgression, birth and death? The legend of Joan seems spicy to us. For the Middle Ages, it was a horror story. Beneath men’s clothing, she followed the entire ecclesiastical career as far as the papal election, by means of her intelligence and her virtues. Yet it was not enough to desecrate thus the liturgical mysteries. She took on a lover, and one day – scandal! – she gave birth to a son in the middle of a procession. The mob tore her to pieces. Can we sense the abysses covered by this theme?

Let us attempt to follow some clues, and let us follow the Fool on his wanderings. 7 cards, from the Juggler to the Chariot, reveal human functions, communication, power, affective interactions. Then 9 emblematic cards, from Justice to the God-House, present the virtues in their primary sense of forces, everything that impresses upon man, outside of his will. As they say, one must put up with it. The Star, the Moon and the Sun refer to the sphere of the stars, to an inscription within cosmic rhythms, to the alchemical transmutation. The Star, let us recall Nicholas Flamel and the path to Compostela, marks the end of the Nigredo, the Moon, the silver of the Lesser Work, and the Sun, the gold of the Great Work. The Judgment and the World accomplish destiny in eschatology: resurrection of the dead, celestial Jerusalem. 7 human cards, 9 allegorical cards, 3 cosmic cards, 2 cards of the Apocalypse on the path of the Fool.

From the court, the game passes on to the common folk, or inversely. The engravers of popular peddlers’ images will turn it into the Tarot of Marseille or of Épinal, which stylise the figures and modify certain cards of the Tarot of Charles VI. Documents are lacking. Yet these innovations reinforce the coherence of the game. One example. Force and the Chariot, 11 and 7, key numbers, ally human and animality. In the courtly Tarot, Force was hugging a falling column, as though to straighten up the world Axis. The animals multiply in the so-called Marseille version. Let us follow the dog who harasses the Fool. He doubles himself into a wolf to howl at the Moon, card 18 = 11 + 7. Pedagogy of a hellhound, of a conductor of the dead, the crayfish or Cancer in its pool recalls the zodiacal domicile of that planet? Two paths then open up. The dogs hunt the deer: antlers crown the slaves of the Goat-Devil, shadow of Capricorn. Water flows from the vases of the Star and Temperance. Aquarius-Pisces? We leap from one sign of the zodiac to another instead of passing through them. Are the twelve signs there? To be sure, Justice is holding the scales (Libra), Force is taming the lion (Leo), the Sun is shining on the twins (Gemini) (but the Devil casts shade on them, and the Pope blesses them), one could even see the arrow of Sagittarius in the Lover at a stretch, but where would we place the others without forcing the symbols? The Chariot evokes the Pole Star. Should we not read a different cosmogony into this, more Celtic than Mediterranean, and return to agricultural calendars, to the rising and setting of the constellations which rhythm the work of the fields under our latitudes?

– to be continued

Part I ; Part III

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Geneviève Béduneau: Tarots and Marvels I

Translator’s Introduction

In spite of the abundance of literature on the subject, very few books or articles dealing with the Tarot give a comprehensive overview of the various functions to which it has given rise over the course of the past few centuries since its inception – game, divinatory instrument, archetypal set of symbolic images, or narrative engine. One article, as insightful as it is intelligent, happily breaks the mould in this respect. Although the so-called “Charles VI Tarot” has been shown to be of Italian provenance, the author’s considerations on the wider cultural context still stand. Particularly of interest is Béduneau’s take on the analogy between gambling and destiny – and hence, divination, an understanding sorely lacking in the English-language literature given the absence of the Tarot-as-game from anglophone climes.

The author of this article, Geneviève Béduneau (1947-2018), who had a background in theology, was a specialist of parapsychology and hidden history, penning works on subjects such as the enigma of Rennes-le-Cháteau, the Illuminati, runes, paranormal phenomena among others. A tireless writer and researcher, her literary journalism spanned so-called genre literatures such as fantasy, science-fiction as well as esoterica, and some of these articles are currently in the process of being compiled and published. This piece was first published in the magazine Nemo n° 2, January-February-March 1987, pp. 49-55, under the pseudonym of Anne Vève, with illustrations by Marie-Sophie André. It was later included in the journal Historia Occultæ n° 10. We have divided the article into three parts for the sake of convenience and have added some minor notes within square brackets.

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Tarots and Marvels

Geneviève Béduneau

Tarot, you say? Which one? Whichever. Let us joyously burst through those doors we think are open: there is but one. It is first of all used to “strike the cardboard,” as they say in my café. Its ludic function perdures in smoke-filled nights where the beer cans build up; the divinatory one derives therefrom. It remains to be understood how a pack of coloured images destined to distract the boredom of a king could become, aside from a popular game, the centre of an imaginary flourishing in which myths and essential symbols became blended together.

The Tarot is not the only game touched by this metamorphosis. “Ordinary” playing cards, those of belote or poker, dice, coins being tossed heads or tails, the wooden sticks of balancing games, and chess, at least in the universe of folktales, have been invested with a divinatory role. Conversely, the ball, ritual element of American-Indian cultures, loses its spiritual backdrop once it enters the stadiums and schoolyards. Here, we see a privileged relation between games and the sacred being sketched out, a constant and reciprocal movement that it behoves us to explore.

A game presupposes one (or more) opponents, winner and loser(s). A complex dynamic is established between the partners, in turn accomplices and rivals, the pleasure being born of antagonism as much as from a wink, from violence as much as from the rules that contain it. And so the game founds a latent inequality from the beginning, and which actualises itself over the course of the game. It reveals winners and losers, the dominating and the dominated, from a theoretical equality in front of the law. It hierarchises and at the same time allows the fragility of hierarchies to appear: one never only wins but one round or one battle. Let the game begin anew and the victor may well bite the dust, the alliances formed previously may well become undone. It is History as much as the social that it refracts like the glass pearls of Hermann Hesse, each of which reflects all the others. The conniving confrontation of the players would then be the image of a collective destiny, each becoming the bearer of both power and weakness at the same time.

The temptation of the Ultimate Game is sketched out: to be the invincible winner, to affirm one’s power by confronting it no longer against human players but against the transcendental Forces, to defy the gods, the devil, death… The game of chess against the invisible adversary, the dice which of themselves roll out of the shaker, the mysterious partner who turns out to be a demon at the end of the night, so many themes which run through folktales.

Man does not always win the Ultimate Game. Paradox: the more the passion for gambling leads him, the more certain is his fall. Let us attempt a solution to this paradox. The Ultimate Game implies renouncing the game at the end of the game. To reach the magical peak of power is to place oneself out of play at the same time: one does not defy the gods, the demons or death twice. Thus, the only one who can win is the one who is sufficiently detached from the dynamics of power, from the excitement of risk, from the pleasure of the conniving confrontation. The Ultimate Game leads to an inner conversion, the erasure of the ego, or, for the gambler, endless repetition, excess and destruction.

Game presupposes both chance and blind strategy. In the Tarot, chance comes from shuffling and dealing the cards, the blind ignorance of what others are holding. To be sure, observation enables one to orient one’s own responses, to scheme within the constraints. Nonetheless, it is the case that the weight of the cards dealt allows one to deploy a subtle strategy or not. Beyond a fluctuating but real limit, the composition of a hand is of more import than intelligence. The one who would receive all the trumps could lay claim to a grand slam without any risk!

The deal only very partially depends on the players since all the operations are done blindly. The analogy between the chance of the cards and the chance of individual destiny very quickly imposes itself: family origins, the chance of education, encounters, unpredictable events with which one must reckon. It imposes itself so much so that it is found in the most clichéd common-places of daily language: one gets dealt a good or a bad hand in life, one holds all the aces, the deck is stacked, etc. The divinatory use pushes this to the limits. One will attempt to read the deal of life within the deal of the cards. Chance is cultivated: another form of the Ultimate Game. The coloured figures manifesting the real cards, there is no further need to theatralise the piece. The gods, the devil and death are confronted on their own ground, we have clearly seen – by breaking and entering – their game.

New paradox: the consultant blindly chooses the cards, effecting his own deal, and thereby draws the trumps from the invisible adversary. A conniving confrontation… which ushers us to the threshold of the third door. The game leads to the stakes. One first of all risks one’s socially exchangeable goods, money especially, then more intimate property, such as one sees with strip-poker. A step further and one’s own body is put into play, the ambiguity of one’s desire, the winner is given the power to abolish the individuality of the loser. Here one must read the interlacing of the sacred, of eroticism, of prostitution, of slavery. One would need to evoke the divine marquis [de Sade] like the Arthurian tournaments. The ultimate stakes would be of life and death, of power fixed for eternity. And so we slide effortlessly from the noctambulist to the oracle.

The Tarot, I was saying, was invented to distract a mad king from boredom, at the dawn of that quattrocento torn apart by plagues and wars and which painfully gives birth to our “western civilisation.” At least, such is the legend, for we do not know what exactly were the “quartes” mentioned in the police orders issued ten years previous. The ones painted for Charles VI bear witness to their time, subtle and refined court game, still marked with the stamp of the graphic style of the mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and already “Renaissance” in their choice of symbols. One must recall what accompanies it, the Ball of the Burning Men, the seraphic song of the castrati, the break with the courtly universe, the closure of a society of men that little by little will exclude women from noble or learned functions, the Hundred Years’ War that is not perceived as such. It precedes by one generation the emergence of lived myths which still haunt our imaginary: the disarmed heir to the throne, the occupation, the liberating Virgin, a hermaphroditic angel whose orgiastic and perverse shadow, Gilles de Rais, is perpetuated as Blue-Beard. 

The court aesthetic manipulates allegories and symbols, alchemical and magical speculations, mixed with wordplay, linguistic puns, and vestimentary whimsy as it wishes. To the lace of flamboyant gothic stone reply the emblems, the obscure poems, the musical subtleties. It is not at all surprising that a game of cards – I insist, a game to be played in between two festivals – might combine enigmatic figures and learned numerical series. From its very conception, the Tarot resonates archetypes, numbers and figures.

– to be continued

Part II ; Part III

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Etteilla and Freemasonry (II)

Portrait of Alliette from his Cours théorique et pratique du livre de Thot, 1790.

Etteilla and Freemasonry (II)

The issue of the cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette’s Masonic credentials is unfortunately not dealt with in the article The Isis of the Tarot as it might have been, nor do the archives of Jean Bossu shed much light on the matter (part I of this series), so we shall attempt to do so here, although the result is necessarily inconclusive – for the time being. We may first of all state that the question as to whether Alliette himself was a Freemason appears more complex than it likely is. Without wishing to become drawn into sterile polemics, for the sake of completion, we shall examine the prima facie evidence, and in the third part of this investigation, attempt to provide a tentative conclusion.

First of all, for Jean-Baptiste Alliette’s biography, see the works by Dummett, Decker and Depaulis, especially A Wicked Pack of Cards, as well as the detailed biographical entry by Antoine Faivre in the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. For an early biography in French, see Recherches sur le Dernier Sorcier by Millet-Saint Pierre.

The moment is also opportune to put paid to the idea that Alliette was a member of the secret society called the Illuminati, or that he was somehow “illuminated,” for that matter, whatever that may mean. In effect, the 19th century French literature contains sentences such as:

“C’est ainsi que, dans son roman philosophique du Tarot, Court de Gébelin fait de ce jeu un livre égyptien, et l’illuminé Alliette, le livre de Toth.” (Leber, Etudes Historiques sur les cartes à jouer, 1842, p. 320.)

“That is how Court de Gébelin, in his philosophical novel of the Tarot, turns this deck into an Egyptian book, and the illuminé Alliette, the Book of Toth.”

As has been made patently clear in the previous articles, while Court’s Masonic credentials were well-known, Alliette’s were by no means established, therefore it would be unusual if only one of the two authors cited in connection with the early development of the so-called “occult Tarot” were labelled in such a way. What some seem to have missed is that “illuminé” here does not mean “member of the society of Illuminati,” much less “enlightened” in some spiritual sense: in addition to the other meanings of the term in French, in a pejorative sense, it also means “a visionary crank,” which is clearly the case here.

The earliest trace of a possible Masonic connection is hinted at in a work which has not gone unnoticed by the historians of Tarot – but the Masonic identity of the author has. Nicolas Bricaire de La Dixmerie (1731-1791), a prolific author, includes a humorous reference to Etteilla in his farce La Comète : conte en l’air, published in 1773, 3 years after Etteilla had published his first work on cartomancy. This suggests that Etteilla had already become a known quantity, known enough to be lampooned in a satirical pamphlet, and one by an author who would shortly thereafter become a prominent member of what was arguably the most influential Masonic lodge of Paris, that of the Nine Sisters (la Loge des Neuf Sœurs), to which Court de Gébelin belonged. Although this lodge was founded in 1776, some three years after the publication of de La Dixmerie’s piece, it is extremely likely that he had a prior Masonic affiliation in order to have been invited to join what was considered to be an elite association. At the very least, this reference indicates  that Etteilla had already come to the attention of a future member of the Nine Sisters lodge, almost a decade before the publication of Court’s work on the Tarot.

The casual reference to Etteilla is signalled with a footnote which reads as follows, with China here being a satirical reference to France:

“Famous Card Reader in China. He prints his Judgments like the Author of the Almanach of the Muses prints his. These two inspired fellows have divided China up between the pair of them.” (op. cit. p. 34)

It is generally held that Alliette that was not a Freemason, and the excoriations aimed in his direction by Éliphas Lévi (another occultist with a brief and problematic relationship with Freemasonry), among others, imply that he was not, contrary to what some appear to believe. Yet there is evidence which suggests otherwise, although, as we shall see, this merely muddies the waters somewhat further.

In effect, in 1784 we find he was a recipient of an invitation to the congress of the Philalèthes for the year 1784-1785, which did not usually invite non-members, according to the Masonic biographer Jean Bossu (L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, September 1975, p. 837), and we find his name on the register of the convention of 1785, showing he attended. For the text of the invitation to this congress, along with Etteilla’s name listed (spelt as Eteilia), see Abbé Gyr, La Franc-Maçonnerie en elle-même et dans ses rapports avec les autres sociétés secrètes de l’Europe, notamment avec la Carbonarie Italienne, 1859, pp. 301-304. The supplement to the Acta Latomorum, vol. 2, lists the names of the participants who attended the congress on the invitation of the Philalethes, as well as the Proponenda (or programme of study). Alliette is listed as: “Eteilla, professor of magic, Paris.” (p. 94.)

He was also invited to the second congress, held in 1787, according to Dummett et al. (p. 89), and the minutes of the congress specify that: “Eteilla (sic) was called to the sessions given his reputation of being learned in the occult sciences. We know that this individual held public courses in magic in Paris, where he worked as a fortune-teller reading cards.” (Thory, Acta Latomorum, vol. 1, p. 176.) Later, Ragon, in his Orthodoxie Maçonnique, fleshes the brief entry out a little: “On the 15th of March, Eteilla was called to the sessions on the strength of his reputation of being learned in the occult sciences; he gave lessons in magic in Paris, and was skilfully employed as a fortune-teller reading cards.” (p. 153)

It is presumably on the basis of details such as these that Gustave Bord, in his otherwise well-documented La franc-maçonnerie en France des origines à 1815 was able to assert that Alliette (among a host of other names) was indeed a Mason, though without providing any specific references to that effect (p. 42).

Given the foregoing, and especially the dates, it is all the more curious to note his statement in the appendix of the work Les Septs Nuances de l’Œuvre philosophique-hermétique, published in 1785, and later related by his biographer Millet Saint-Pierre, to the effect that he was never initiated into Masonry (p. 44). Alliette says:

“… quoique je ne sois point reçu Membre d’aucune Loge, j’ai pour tout ce qui est de vraie Maçonnerie, autant de respect que puisse en avoir un Frère qui en connoit l’origine & en conçoit le but, la Sagesse & les Hautes Sciences.”

“… although I have not been received as a Member of any lodge, I profess as much respect for true Masonry as a Brother who knows its origins and understands its aim, its Wisdom and the High Sciences might have.”

This sentence is immediately followed by an even more curious declaration:

“Toutes les petites dénominations de Loges & de grades, annoncent plus la folie que la sagesse, & tous les simulacres extérieurs annoncent plus l’ignorance que la science. Ce que je dis n’est pas par esprit de critique, mais par sévérité que doit avoir un vrai Disciple de la Haute Maçonnerie.”

“All the petty denominations of Lodges and of degrees announce madness rather than wisdom, and all the external simulacra announce ignorance rather than knowledge. I say this not in the spirit of criticism, but by the severity which a true Disciple of High Masonry must have.”

It is quite possible that those words were written before a supposed initiation, and only published afterwards. Yet those words were published in 1785, the same year as the first congress, and Alliette, who died in late 1791, had had ample opportunity to join afterwards. On the other hand, what may be implied is that Alliette, though not a regular Mason, may have been a member of a Masonic association dispensing higher degrees, as was then the fashion, or even a pseudo- or para-Masonic association, without having undergone initiation into a “blue lodge” beforehand. This notion will be more fully considered in the next instalment.

Assembly of Freemasons, engraving by Michel Hennin, 1774. Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque municipale of Lisieux.

Alliette’s erstwhile biographer, Millet Saint-Pierre, was, incidentally, a member of the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. That he closely follows the foregoing citation would appear to show that he did not have access to other sources of information indicating otherwise, rather than implying some putative rule of secrecy.

Alliette also finds himself embroiled in intra-obediential polemics within continental Freemasonry, as the following critique of Cagliostro’s Egyptian rite by the Masonic historian Thory shows:

“All these details, these excerpts and the citations which we have provided, have without doubt given an exact idea of the entirety of the Egyptian rite. How is it conceivable, after reading this, that such an institution had any sort of success in France or abroad! For the rest, the idlers of the large cities, gullible as a rule, easily adopt new systems when they are presented by skilful swindlers. Did we not see, in the Year 2 [1793-1794], the individual calling himself Eteilla publicly teach magic in Paris, and his lessons advertised on the walls of the capital?” (Annales originis magni Galliarum, 1812, page 428.)

Another work also places Alliette alongside Cagliostro, lambasting them as charlatans:

“… Such as Alliette, barber-boy, whose cartomancy is all the rage in Paris, and whom the Philalethes made the error of inviting to their congress in 1784, risking covering themselves in ridicule.” (Jac Roos, Aspects littéraires du mysticisme philosophique et l’influence de Bœhme et de Swedenborg au début du romantisme: William Blake, Novalis, Ballanche, 1951, page 16.)

Similarly, in the 1865 work De la Décadence de la Franc-Maçonnerie en France, et des moyens d’y remédier by G. Mabru, we find the following passage:

“One can understand that, from the moment when the credulity of the Masons came to welcome such chimera, the lodges were to become the promised land for every charlatan who managed to combine some skill with the art of barefaced lying. And, in that singular age, in which faith and incredulity became confused in the same minds, in which God was denied at the very moment in which one believed in the power of the devil, charlatans of every stripe were in no way lacking. … After Mesmer and the Count of Saint-Germain, we saw Etteilla, the great card reader, show up, that famous author of the Egyptian Tarot. He flooded the lodges with his supposed Egyptian knowledge…” (pp. 134-135)

Viatte in his Les sources occultes du romantisme, not only makes no mention of Alliette being a Mason, he openly derides the “barber-boy” and states that: “One would have needed to have lost all sense to consult him piously, as did the Egyptian Freemasons of La Ciotat. The Philalethes invited him to their Congress, “given his reputation of having learning in the occult sciences.”” These two statements need some clarifying. The “Egyptian Freemasons of La Ciotat” can only refer to Charles Geille, of whom it will be question shortly, although the use of the plural raises questions – and Viatte’s sources in this regard are some personal documents and letters. The second statement is based on the documents detailed above. (Viatte, Les sources occultes du romantisme, vol. 1, pp. 222-223.)

In the standard academic work on the subject, Charles Porset suggests that the reason Alliette was invited to attend the congress was so that the Philalethes might “unmask the impostors.” (Les philalèthes et les convents de Paris, 1996, p. 215) Yet this hypothesis is weakened by the fact that Alliette was later invited to the second congress, in 1787.

Elsewhere in the same book, Porset states: “Let us add that, although invited to the congress of the Philalethes, there is no proof that Aliette was a Mason.” (Les philalèthes et les convents de Paris, 1996, page 524.)

In 1843, Clavel, the author of the Histoire pittoresque de la franc-maçonnerie et des sociétés secrètes anciennes et modernes tells us that:

Letters of invitation had been addressed from 1784 on to all the distinguished masons of France and abroad, and even to all those who, without being a member of Masonic society, professed the occult sciences, or any other science related to the high degrees. Among the latter, we find Eteilla, the cartomancer, and the magnetiser Mesmer. (p. 196)

However, the anonymous editor of Franz von Baader’s Les enseignements secrets de Martinès de Pasqually refutes this argument, once again, without evidence, by saying that:

“The names of certain recipients have made Clavel erroneously believe that the circular had been equally addressed to individuals who did not belong to the world of Masonry. But Mesmer, Eteilla and Saint-Martin were Freemasons.” (Chacornac, 1900, page CXXXIV.)

Another work qualifies this somewhat: “As to Etteila (pseudonym of Alliette), if he says himself that he was not affiliated to any lodge, he was nonetheless in contact with Savalette.” (Didier Kahn, introduction to Thomas Vaughan, L’art hermétique à découvert, J.-C. Bailly, 1989, page 37.) The nature and extent of Alliette’s supposed contacts with Savalette de Langes, the founder of the lodge Les Amis Réunis and the rite of the Philalethes, are also as yet unknown.

Moving forward to the twentieth century, we encounter a rather curious assessment. In the anti-Masonic journal Les Documents Maçonniques edited by Bernard Faÿ during the German occupation of France during WWII, we find an article on the relations between occultism and Freemasonry which contains some remarks worth noting.

“Court de Gébelin had demonstrated, in his Le Monde Primitif, the antiquity of the tarot and its philosophical value. A barber by the name of Alliette, transformed into Etteilla by a facile anagram, explained the tarot according to his incompetence, with prodigious success. He understood nothing about anything, but, with some intuition and a lot of smooth talking, he became the confidant, the hope, the confessor almost, of ladies, and as the fabulist [Courteline] says:

On that note,
I know a good deal of men who are women.

To follow Court de Gébelin, one would have had to have known History, and have some knowledge of philology. Alliette would have struggled to guide his readers along such a path; so he set up the most ingenuous symbolism: “The Hermit is hiding, therefore he is guilty; he shall represent the Traitor.” How is that for clear and easy to follow? In this way, Etteilla found countless readers in the world of divination.” (Les Documents Maçonniques no. 6, March 1942, p. 25.)

The author of these lines, Anne Osmont, was a prominent occultist of the first half of the twentieth century, and although once close to Masonic circles, she remained a devout Catholic all her life, which may explain her contribution to this controversial wartime journal. Had there been any evidence, or even suspicion, of Alliette’s Masonic affiliations, an anti-Masonic publication such as this would have had no hesitation in mentioning it.

In summary, we find four provisional hypothetical solutions to this enigma:

  • Alliette was a Mason, of a lodge yet to be determined;
  • Alliette was not a Mason, and had only been invited to the Masonic congress to expound on his knowledge of the “Book of Thoth”;
  • Alliette was not a Mason, and had only been invited to the Masonic congress to be challenged on his claims.
  • Alliette was a member of an irregular or para-Masonic body.

Pending further evidence, no definitive statement may be made with respect to the first three hypotheses. As to the fourth hypothesis, that Alliette was a member of an irregular or para-Masonic order, in the next instalment, we shall examine some of the more curious claims that have been made in this connection, and which tie Alliette to a little-known Masonic rite of Egyptian inspiration.

– To be continued

* * *

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Jean-Marie Lhôte: Astrology and Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

Jean-Marie Lhôte (b. 1926) is arguably the most important French author on the Tarot of the last five decades. In spite of his massive contribution to the history, theory and symbolism of games, including the Tarot, his name is little-known in English except for some scattered citations to his writings in the works of Michael Dummett, Thierry Depaulis and Ronald Decker.

Learned, ludic, and thought-provoking, Lhôte’s writings wed a suitably playful style to the substance of his discourses on games and deserve to be better known. Trained as an engineer initially, Lhôte soon turned his attention to the worlds of art, theatre, and later, that of games. His encyclopaedic works on the history and symbolism of games are indispensable reference works, and his exhibition catalogues and magazine publications are also sought-after items of Tarot memorabilia. Furthermore, Lhôte produced an annotated edition of Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet’s influential Tarot essays, paving the way for further research on these precursors and early theoreticians of the “occult Tarot.”

Lhôte’s writings on the Tarot and on games in general include:

  • Shakespeare dans les tarots et autres lieux, Bizarre n° 43-44, 1967.
  • Le Tarot, J.-J. Pauvert, Bibliothèque volante n° 1, 1971.
  • Le Symbolisme des jeux, Berg International, 1976, repub. 2010.
  • Brian Innes, Les Tarots : Connaissance et interprétation, Éditions Atlas, 1978. Libre adaption en français par Jean-Marie Lhôte de l’ouvrage original anglais “The Tarot. How to use and interpret the cards” de Brian Innes.
  • Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Tarot, présenté et commenté par Jean-Marie Lhôte, Berg International, 1983.
  • Histoire des jeux de société : géométries du désir, Flammarion, 1994.
  • Dictionnaire des jeux de société, Flammarion, 1996.
  • Histoire du hasard en Occident, Berg international, 2012.

This article was published as “Astrologie et Tarot” in Horizons du Fantastique, n° 20, 1972, pp. 37-39. We have been unable to contact the author to ask for permission to reproduce this piece.

The alleged relation between Astrology and the Tarot is one that appears almost from the inception of the so-called occult Tarot, although astronomical connections had already been noted by Court de Gébelin, among others. While various commentators provide varying and competing systems of correspondences, sometimes noting the reason for their choice, a glance at the comparative tables of astrological correspondences drawn up by Alexandre Volguine (Utilisation du tarot en astrologie judiciaire) and Gérard Van Rijnberk (Le Tarot) will be enough to note that there is very little consensus in this respect. As Jean-Claude Frère notes in his compendium of the divinatory arts, these tables of correspondences “constitute rather a clinical study on the excesses of analogical thinking than a genuine synthesis.”

Yet beyond the mere correlative logic, the very rationale for these systems remains largely unexplored. Lhôte’s article, therefore, has the singular merit of articulating the bases on which such relations lie, and their ultimate usefulness.

* * *

Astrology and Tarot

Jean-Marie Lhôte

From the origin of the known decks, in the beginning of the 15th century, we find references to astronomy, to the planets, to the signs of the zodiac in the Tarot. (1) The so-called “Mantegna” Tarot, which is composed of fifty cards ordered in five series of ten, provides illustrations of the Moon, Venus, the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars… and even that of Astrology in person – situated between Philosophy and Theology, in very good company as we can see!

The Florentine Minchiate, whose origins are also very ancient, consists of 97 cards and provides, in addition to the 78 cards of the Tarot of Marseille, the image of the twelve signs of the zodiac (in addition to Faith, Hope, Charity, and the four elements of antiquity: Earth, Water, Air and Fire).

One will nonetheless note that the oldest known Tarot decks, those of the Visconti family and the so-called “Charles VI” deck, do not directly allude to astrology. (2) The Moon, the Sun and the Star, in particular, are depicted by simple allegorical representations without astrological resonance. (3)

One must wait until the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries to see the Tarot of Marseille appear in France, and which includes undeniable references to Astrology in the design of its cards. It is essential to highlight the fact that these transformations do not occur all at the same time; they take place in at least two phases: first of all, with the transformation of the image of the Juggler, then, with that of the pictures of the Moon, the Sun and the Star.

We shall here limit ourselves to the example of the Juggler, which is highly significative of a link between Astrology and the Tarot. Initially, its image was not very fixed. The Juggler of the Tarot of Charles VI has not been preserved, but that of the Visconti Tarot is known: a fairly enigmatic character seen in profile sitting behind a table on which can clearly be seen the Staff (the wand), the Sword (the knife), the Cup (the cup), and the Coin – the meaning of the depicted pile is difficult to distinguish; giving a very different image to that of the Juggler of the Tarot of Marseille. In another Tarot of the 15th century, whose reproduction can be seen in the work by Henri-René d’Allemagne (4), the Juggler is more similar; it depicts a street magician entertaining passers-by, as does the famous character of the Conjurer by Hieronymous Bosch. In parallel to these two figures, another tradition takes shape at the same time, that of the Juggler evoked by a craftsman. Such is the case with the Mantegna Tarot, and this idea is still transmitted down to the present day, the Juggler of the Italian decks having the tools of the shoemaker’s trade on the table in front of him. This is also the impression of a Juggler-Craftsman left by the handsome image of a 17th-century Tarot held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. (5)

In France, the first known Tarot of which the Juggler is of the “Tarot of Marseille” type was done by Jacques Viévil towards 1660. The significance of this new image will be strong enough to reach us without any further modification.

Now this Juggler is related to certain images presented by Astrology. He is a “Child of the Moon” such as they are drawn by the Italian and German engravers of the 16th century. (6) We shall not seek to discover which of these images preceded the other, that of Astrology or that of the Tarot; it is sufficient to note the connection.

Towards 1700, new borrowings from Astrology will be made to establish the models of the Moon, the Sun, and the Star. It is not without interest to note that this infiltration of details borrowed from Astrology into the Tarot occurs at a time in which the former ceases to be taught publicly and becomes “occult.” 

These few observations, based on the study of the Tarot cards themselves, give a first research path to broach the question of the relations which may exist between Astrology and the Tarot.

Another path consists of querying the commentators.

We are here entering a more delicate domain for the reference works do not present the same interest as the decks themselves. Let us simply say that in France, there are only two authors who published works on the Tarot prior to the Revolution: Court de Gébelin in 1781 and Etteilla in the following years. (7) For the former, the Tarot is of Egyptian origin, and he does not allude to Astrology. Etteilla, on the other hand, develops this point at length; in his Fourth Cahier he even provides a “Chart excerpted from the Book of Thot opened in the manner of the Astrologers”… This is not the place to attempt to unravel what may be either interesting or whimsical in the texts of the famous cartomancer; we will only note that after him, the majority of writers will reference Astrology either to interpret the symbolism of such a card or other, or to experiment with methods of divination with the cards.

* * *

In this way, we may demonstrate that there exist points of passage through which Astrology penetrates the Tarot. Is it possible, forasmuch, to establish correspondences between the two?

There are many who think so. Many seek, for instance, to establish correspondences between each card of the Tarot and the signs of the zodiac. The unfortunate thing is that the results differ from one commentator to another. The result is total confusion. (8)

These variants should already lead us to some reflection, but above all, the notion of “relation” implies reciprocity. For there to be a genuine relation, then not only would the influence of Astrology exert itself on the Tarot, but there would also be the influence of the Tarot on Astrology; these reciprocal influences being the most coherent! But we are far from it: if the majority of works devoted to the Tarot evoke in a more or less detailed chapter similarities in the iconography, or even establish subtle systems of correspondences, or go so far as to propose an “Astrological Tarot”… can we cite as many astrological works which do the same in the opposite direction? And which feel the need to drawn on the Tarot and its symbolism and its resources of every order to renew or simply to sharpen the experience of the astrologers?

Everything appears as though the cartomancers and the tarologists found themselves struck with an authentic case of an inferiority complex with respect to the astrologers. This is moreover very easily explained: Astrology possesses an incomparably richer antiquity and history than the art and science of the cards. In particular, it possesses masters of great stature, whose authority far outstrips the poor pretensions of Etteilla, or the sometimes unconvincing intuitions of Court de Gébelin, to cite but the elders. So, the authors who write about the cards are all too happy to draw on Astrology for succour – a little like a stamp of authority and much like Astrology does with the science of the skies… It is reassuring.

Faced with these observations which show how prudent one must be when it is a matter of broaching this question of the relations between Astrology and the Tarot, a number of hypotheses must be considered: 

  • This relation between Astrology and the Tarot is an illusion maintained by certain adepts of the Tarot, but is wholly without basis.
  • We find ourselves faced with a curious example of a one-way set of correspondences: there would indeed be links from Astrology to the Tarot, but not the reverse. Astonishing at first sight, this phenomenon could be conceived of by thinking of the case of the unrequited lover. In this hypothesis, the Tarot would be the lover of Astrology without being loved in return.
  • The relation is real indeed, but it remains inexpressible.

In fact, we may ask ourselves if we are asking the right question if we are seeking direct relations and correspondences. We seek to have the two experiences coincide, that of Astrology and that of the Tarot, as though placing a stick on top of another stick by calculating the relation of their respective lengths, and we may see that the undertaking is not of the same order. If the results given by Etteilla, Papus, and others are different when they establish correspondences between such a sign of the zodiac and such a card of the Tarot, it is simply because they do not directly establish these correspondences, but instead do so in terms of themselves. The results are no more comparable between one author and another than a mouse, a lion and an elephant are.

If we understand that this Astrology-Tarot relation cannot be directly determined, but only by the intermediary of something else, we would have much greater freedom to undertake a meditation which could well take the form of a personal meditation. So much the better, perhaps, if it is incommunicable.

The main thing is to choose and keep this “something else,” this point of reference, as real as possible. It could be oneself, but it could also be something external. 

Number, for instance. There is an architecture of the Number within Astrology and another in the Tarot. The two architectures are not superimposable, and no doubt it would be a fruitless task to endeavour to adjust them; yet nonetheless experiencing their respective labyrinths enables one to penetrate the Astrology-Tarot relation.

Or, one could choose to explore the experience of “Chance and Necessity” – to quote the title of a recent book. On the one hand, the disordered deck of shuffled and cut cards; on the other, the inescapable seriousness of the planets and their imperturbable clockwork movement. There too, an Astrology-Tarot relation is established through this exploration.

And so on. As far as I am concerned, the first truly sustained experience I undertook with the Tarot was drawn from a work of literature, namely, A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare. It is not inconceivable that one might, from the same work, undertake an experiment of the same order based on Astrology. Another analogous experiment was described at the beginning of the introduction to an exhibition we held at the Maison de la Culture in Amiens; that time, it was an approach concerning the person of General de Gaulle seen through the Fool of the Tarot. It would be easy to undertake a parallel experiment on the same character based on Astrology, and there too, a new experience of the Astrology-Tarot relation would be formed.

For this relation, if it is true, and if it is living, can only be multiple.


  1. On playing cards in general, see the book by Jean-Pierre Seguin, Le Jeu de Cartes (Éditions Hermann, 1968).
  2. The Tarot of the Visconti family has been recently republished in a magnificent edition (Franco Maria Ricci, Parma, 1969).
  3. As an initiation into the Tarot, nothing betters personal study based on the decks themselves. The Tarot de Marseille published by Grimaud constitutes a good starting point. The Camoin firm in Marseille has republished the handsome deck by Nicolas Conver, dating from 1760. […] One may also use the modern Piedmontese tarots published in Italy, and close enough to the tradition, as well as the Tarot Classic by Muller and co. in Schaffhouse in Switzerland. As to lucky or wealthy amateurs, they may hope to find an authentic ancient deck in an antiques shop.
  4. Les cartes à jouer du XIVe au XXe siècle,  Paris, 1906.
  5. For those who wish to study the Tarot in depth using the works of commentators, I can do no better than to note my own essays: Shakespeare dans les Tarots et Autres Lieux and Le Tarot (Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1967 and 1971). It would ill-behove us to omit the renowned Tarots des imagiers du moyen-âge by Oswald Wirth, Tchou [The Tarot of the Magicians], Le Tarot de Marseille by Paul Marteau, published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques (if possible, in the first edition of 1948), and above all, Le Tarot by Gérard Van Rijnberk, published in 1947 by Derain [repub. Trédaniel, 1981, Dervy, 2019]. And without forgetting the chapter on the Tarot in the Encyclopédie de la Divination (Tchou, 1965, Gwen Le Scouëzec ed.)
  6. A number of versions of this engraving exist; the one reproduced here is from the Dürer school. Dürer himself took an interest in the Tarot, copying certain cards of the Mantegna Tarot.
  7. The essay by Court de Gébelin was published in 1781. It is composed of two distinct texts; about 50 pages in total. Etteilla was a lot more prolific, and the set of his writings, which one must prudently sort through, is extremely difficult to compile together nowadays.
  8. Van Rijnberk, by completing Volguine, gives a table of correspondences of the Tarot according to different authors.

* * *

Commenting Lhôte’s article, Jean-Claude Frère adds:

Let us add that, if the soothsayers have developed an “inferiority complex” with respect to the astrologers, it is no doubt because they feel the need to justify themselves on the plane of the intellect – the desire of the esotericists to pass from a supposedly “subjective” science to supposedly “objective” science is permanent and is not new. In effect, if a purely intellectual approach of the Tarot presents but little interest, astrology, on the other hand, may lay greater claim to an intellectual basis, a basis that is arithmetic, geometric and astronomical.
– Jean-Claude Frère, Les arts divinatoires, 1974.

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Jules Bois: My Life is a Gothic Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

Having previously published some excerpts from Jules Bois’ overview of the Tarot, we return to his work with this evocative poem, from his poetry anthology, L’humanité divine (pp. 11-12), published in 1910.

* * *

My Life

Jules Bois

To Mr Paul Hervieu

My life is a Gothic Tarot
In which I have understood naught:
Evil here, Good here.
Within this frenetic grimoire,
All is denied and makes sense.

Turn over the erotic card,
See the stoicism arrive.
After the sarcastic laugh,
Here come the musical tears.
My life is a Gothic Tarot
In which I have understood naught.

Is it the work of a Gypsy,
Or of a whimsical poet,
This candid infidel prayerbook,
A heretic’s black mass
Intoned by a true Christian soul?
Yet holding a mystical torch,
Rushes an angel of pure mien,
And everything ends in a hymn!
My life is a Gothic Tarot.

* * *


Ma Vie

À M. Paul Hervieu

Ma vie est un Tarot Gothique
Où je ne puis comprendre rien :
Ici le Mal, ici le Bien.
Dans ce grimoire frénétique,
Tout se dément et tout se tient.

Retournez la carte érotique,
Voyez : le stoïcisme vient…
Après le rire sarcastique,
C’est le sanglot musicien.
Ma vie est un Tarot Gothique
Où je ne puis comprendre rien.

Est-il l’œuvre d’un bohémien
Ou d’un poète fantastique,
Ce candide missel païen,
Messe noire de l’hérétique
Que psalmodie un vrai chrétien ?
Mais tenant le flambeau mystique,
Accourt un ange au pur maintien;
Et tout finit par un cantique !
Ma vie est un Tarot Gothique.

* * *

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