Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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René-Louis Doyon: A Little History of Playing Cards: From Puzzle to Prophecy

Translator’s Introduction

The writings by René-Louis Doyon on the subject of playing cards and the Tarot have already been presented and published on this site in the form of excerpts on the decks used for cartomancy and Aluette. 25 years later, Doyon could return to the subject and give freer reign to his penetrating insight and taste for paradox, and without overly repeating himself.

We have already noted Doyon’s exceptional capacity for research, and his likely access to the treasures of the Marteau collection, but alas, the tale of his protracted stay in the Bibliothèque nationale during the war years, outstaying his welcome and becoming persona non grata in that august institution for “having had words” with a librarian must regrettably go untold.

The obscurity of certain references, not to mention those that go unnamed – Ménestrier, Aretino, to cite but two – bears witness to the depth and breadth of his learning as far as the history of playing cards is concerned. To be sure, the history of the Tarot was most thoroughly set out by the late Sir Michael Dummett in his monumental work, The Game of Tarot, some two decades later, but it is nonetheless interesting to note the lengths to which an enlightened amateur could go and the conclusions he could reach in pursuit of this arcane aspect of intellectual and art history.

Elsewhere, we have remarked how Doyon proceeds to analyse the very idea of the analogical correspondences of the Tarot, tongue firmly in cheek, pre-empting the type of argument advanced by Umberto Eco in his writings (e.g. L’idea deforme and Foucault’s Pendulum), and historical analyses which foreshadow those employed by later generations of historians. Yet for all his critiques of confirmation bias and semantic slippage, Doyon’s own position is less than clear.

Indeed, in spite of his demonstrated ability to burst the bubble of occultist pretensions and mystification, Doyon’s parodic excess and mordant wit sometimes lead him to engage in a little confabulation of his own, hence, we are presented with the somewhat endearing – though wholly baseless – scene in which Court de Gébelin conspires with his hairdresser Alliette (whom Doyon persists in calling Aïttelli throughout) to concoct a divinatory Tarot and to provide it with a venerable pedigree, all for pecuniary gain!

Although Doyon sometimes labels the Tarot as “Egyptian,” there is no reason to believe that this reflects anything other than a commonplace usage to refer to the specifically divinatory use of the Tarot rather than to a supposedly historical origin; that much is made clear by the irony in which his disquisitions are coated. Having said that, it is unclear whether Doyon subscribed to the same origin story as his friend Marteau, since he heavily relies on the latter’s interpretation as far as the symbolic content of the Marseilles Tarot is concerned, and goes so far as to label Marteau’s book “a monumental and minute study.”

In that regard, Doyon’s edition of Willermoz’s Les Sommeils (La Connaissance, 1926) contains a lengthy introduction by the historian Émile Dermenghem, close to René Guénon, and which posits the existence of a “dual doctrine,” including an esoteric one reserved for a small number of initiates, transmitted orally throughout the ages. As the publisher, we may speculate as to whether Doyon was more or less in agreement with such views, yet even this notion is not sufficient to admit of the idea of a continuous transmission by means of the Tarot since, with respect to Freemasonry, Dermenghem states that, “It is impossible to establish a link between the mysteries of Memphis, the Gnostics, Pythagoreanism, the Rosicrucians, the alchemists, the kabbalists, the Neo-Platonists, the mystics of every kind, although one might conceivably establish certain categories, certain general and vague currents. The chain, if it exists, between contemporary Freemasonry and one of these ancient initiations or another escapes us, and those concerned themselves have lost it.” (op. cit. pp. 10-11) In this perspective, we may assume that Dermenghem, and by extension, Doyon, considered the same principle equally applied to the Tarot.

This article was originally published as ‘Petite histoire des cartes à jouer: du casse-tête au prophétisme,’ in Les Livrets du Mandarin, 6e série, no. 8, September 1962, La Connaissance, pp. 37-46. The title given on the cover of the journal varies slightly, being ‘Petite histoire des cartes : Casse-tête chinois et prophétisme’ [‘A Little History of Cards: Chinese Puzzles and Prophecy’]. Doyon somehow, perhaps after being unceremoniously ejected from the Bibliothèque nationale, managed to garble a great many of the personal names, so we have silently corrected the typos based on his principle source, D’Allemagne’s Les cartes à jouer du XIV au XX siècle, and provided the titles of the decks and works referred to within square brackets, along with some minor additions to clarify the text. (Many thanks to Ross Caldwell.)

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A Little History of Playing Cards: From Puzzle to Prophecy

René-Louis Doyon

From the moment there are numbers, there are combinations; but those that are born of chance intrigue and provide statistics that lend themselves to diverging conclusions. The cards therefore are of four suits; even though we remain ignorant of their origin and the conceptions of the Creator, if they even had an inventor, analogies were immediately sought out: 4 suits, therefore a correspondence with the 4 Seasons; it is a recourse made all the easier in that the 52 cards also fit some representation of the 52 weeks of the year. At this point, with seven days per week, we are able to count down to 364 days; the English, more skilful, will say 365 by adding their Joker and without taking leap years into account. Now what does the number 364 give if we were to break it down and add up its constituent parts? We obtain this: 3 + 6 + 4 = 13; 13, which as it happens is the number of lunations in a full year. Nice parallel!

Let us continue with these approximations: by adding up the values of one suit, then of all 4, starting from the ace for 1 and the king for 13, the result is 91 per suit and 364 for the whole set. If we divide 91 by 7, we arrive back at 13: now, by adding the two figures in 52 we obtain: 5 + 2 = 7. It is logical; it is unrelenting.

We are spinning in a vicious cycle or, in any event, we find an exact and well-conceived calculation; analogy, seasons, years, weeks and days are in no way bothersome; the strangeness of these results becomes more pertinent if we add up the number of letters which are used to denote the sequence, and this operation is just as valid in German as it is in French or in English. By this system, each of these additions gives 52! And here is how:

English German French
ace 3 as 2 as 2
two 3 zwei 4 deux 4
three 5 drei 4 trois 5
four 4 vier 4 quatre 6
five 4 fünf 4 cinq 4
six 3 sechs 5 six 3
seven 5 sieben 6 sept 4
eight 5 acht 4 huit 4
nine 4 neun 4 neuf 4
ten 3 zehn 4 dix 3
Jack 4 Bube 4 Valet 5
Queen 5 Dame 4 Reine 5
King 4 König 5 Roi 3
52 52 52

By compressing this figure 52 in turn, we obtain: 5 + 2 = 7.

These are perfect correspondences whose balance must be admired. These conjunctions are not a random creation. If the figures reveal a meticulous concern with precision and correspondences, would the images partake of no less science? The stairway of figures leads to the veil of mystery; it is the images which will play, with more or less joy, and especially, with more or less clarity, the role of Sesame! And the Sesame has called itself Divinatory Tarot.

We will not unquestioningly accept the explanation given by Court de Gébelin, Royal Way! Wherever did he find such a facile etymology to denote a mysterious operation? (1) The Tarot is, if we wish, an alphabet for the language of mystery, whether oblique or not, composed of 78 characters or images; characters, images, hieroglyphics, or, as the eminent philosopher of language Jean Paulhan finely puts it, pictograms. (2) Obviously, they have an appearance, a quotation both mysterious and naïve at the same time, disconcerting and intriguing.

As with the Hebrew alphabet and its 22 letters, they are composed of 22 arcana, which already has an image of mystery. They are also called triumphs and atouts, even though this Italian word atutti which would signify ‘for every use’ would thereby constitute a challenge. The 56 others are the minor arcana and are numeral. Their European origin is incontestably Italian; the game has the same suits as the Spanish cards which were copied; but Spain never produced a divinatory Tarot. There are three original Italian tarots: the Venetian or Lombard Tarocco with 78 cards, the Tarocchino Bolognese invented by the Pisan Fibbia with 62 cards, the Florentine Minchiate with 97 cards; the ones and the others have some variations but they have their images in common. Writers have spoken of them; the Venetians have set a curious symbol:

“The swords recall the death of those whom gambling has driven to despair; the staffs indicate the chastisement deserved by those who cheat; the coins are the very fuel of the game, and the cups the drink that appeases the players.” (3)

Another vague explanation assigns the 4 suits to the 4 social classes: ecclesiastic (cups), warrior (swords), merchant (coins), and peasant (staffs). (4) We discover new figures, the three theologal Virtues, Prudence, the Four Elements, the 12 signs of the Zodiac. As to the deck drawn by Gringonneur for the king of France, Charles VI, it is a stylised copy of the Italian tarot. Venice had made it a lucrative specialty. We know of that belonging to Filippo Maria Visconti, born in 1392, drawn by Marziano. Antonio Cicognara of Ferrara drew the images of the deck destined for Count Colleoni. The choice of the other images [in the Leber deck] is highly eclectic and leaves contradictions in its borrowings: the Pope, a fanciful fool; kings Alexander, Midas, Ninus; Thamaris, Pontifex Pontificum, Marcus Curtius Romanus, Castor Amigleus, etc. … The emblems have varied little and the users do not like – as has been pointed out after every vain innovation in favour of new orthodoxies – to change images.

Deck engraved by François Isnard.

A revolutionary tarot of 78 cards was indeed published in Strasbourg [by François Isnard], but what wretched replacements! The Genies, the Liberties, the Equalities for Kings, Queens and Valets! The knights have not undergone any alteration, but the Popess has become Juno; the Empress, the Grandmother; the Emperor, the Grandfather with a Phrygian cap; the Pope is called Jupiter; the Hermit, the Beggar; Judgment, the Trumpet!

Deck engraved by François Isnard.

Lefer, a cardmaker at the time of the Revolution, puts his characters standing up and assigns hearts to the Persians, clubs to the Chinese, spades to the Africans, and diamonds to the Europeans.

The images, become classics, are more or less universal and are of mystico-pagan inspiration. The Popess is Isis, the Wheel of Fortune has a slightly Egyptian look; Cupid, Fortune, the Chariot appear to be Greek in origin. The Crayfish, the Gemini, the Pleiades are borrowed from astrology. To be sure the Pope has Christian origins, but he is between the pillars Jachin and Boaz! And alchemy has a place. The devil, a man hanged by his foot, and the virtue of Prudence, all this constitutes an apparent hotch-potch with a juggler on a mountain, wearing a lemniscate cap, that is to say, in the shape of the sign of infinity. Would the Diviner be God? The Mate is without number; Death without a name; the Moon has a crayfish; Fortune is an androgyne. What does it mean? Is there a secret? Is there a mystery? There are both, and the origin? Paravey and Moreau de Dammartin (5), both learned men, incline towards the hieroglyphy of the Tarot, thus to its Egyptian origin, but as nothing remains to certify this, we may suppose that Egypt no doubt borrowed the Tarot from another civilisation, and by changing the scenery, we go back in time. In so doing, we may conclude that the arithmetic perfection, the profusion of symbols, the singularity of the analogies, allow us to deliver very ancient patents of nobility to the Tarot. It thereby becomes a curious imaged synthesis of history, and it may present itself beneath 3 aspects: the symbolic, the divinatory, and the combinatoric, in other words, it justifies the initiatory, cartomancy, and the game properly speaking.

The so-called Tarot of Marseilles which completes them all, is certainly the richest in analogies and the most delicate in interpretations. The very colours possess importance: yellow signifies intelligence, spirituality; blue, the psyche, mysticism; red, passion, the appetites, impulsivity; and white, the abstract, the void, repose! In this language, the Popess signifies the universal womb-matrix; the Juggler, the primary emanations; the Empress, [one of] the Parcae [Fates], Gestation; the Emperor is a symbol of construction, fleeting reign, and these meanings may be modified according to their position and their surroundings; the numeral cards are without denomination, they are the troops.

If we have emphasised the Tarot of Marseilles, it is because it provides the greatest historical security and the surest traditions for it was published as it still is, by the Master cardmaker Nicolas Conver in 1761 and its imagery, itself going back to a distant past, is still the same in the Grimaud edition. To interpret the assemblages of chosen cards, for the rank novice who does not know them, there is a code, a veritable treatise, contained in the learned work of Mr Paul Marteau, although interpretation is also a matter of intuition and almost of inner vision. It is only charlatanry in certain cases of professional abuse, and a sort of dichotomy of the spirit by ‘hired readers’ (6); but the initiate may yet read in this ancient grimoire with decisiveness and truth.

So much for the Tarot, regardless of whether one will use it for a little draw [petit jeu], or, in a hurry to elucidate a mystery, one goes all in with the Great Game [grand jeu]. To “play the great game” has entered into the vernacular to denote a supreme attempt, for the cards, as we shall see, have brought an intelligent baggage of words, formulas, and images into language. The Egyptian Tarot is both a compendium of secrets to be interpreted and a compilation of solutions to conjectural problems; not just anyone may consult it. There is, to know it, a part of technicality and of intuition, of gifts and of acquired skills; a secret psychic disposition between the one who wishes to know and the one who seeks to situate the becoming, to approach it. Whence these rituals, cutting the cards to establish a sort of current from the unknown to the querent or vice versa, the position of the cards according to their established value or their contingent signification, the way contingent colours change the tone of the principle colour and the general tonality of a painting.

In the important work devoted to the subject, and sponsored with authority by the philosopher Jean Paulhan and the mathematician Eugène Caslant, Mr Paul Marteau apologises for the language used in his explanation, but this science offers no hold in its explanations to rhetoric, or to fantasy; he establishes the orientation of the figures and the symbolism of the arcana, then examines each card by exposing its principle, its general signification, its abstract signification, its analogical particularities, its particular and concrete signification; he finally concludes on the utilitarian significations in the three planes, which gives each card a specified psychic, emblematic and practical value, and which will adopt different significations according to the surrounding images and after a minute analysis. We shall refer to this precious compendium which leaves no less primordial a role to that of intuition. Such is the great book, the great divinatory game. It is really only fit for initiates, but the cartomancers, the professional fortune-tellers for this card-related dichotomy indeed have a great many tools at their disposal. Among the most ancient divinatory decks, we sometimes find the Grand or the Petit Albert. This familiar sorcery, of no great scope, is attributed to the great medieval theologian, the Dominican Albert the Great. His learning was so vast, his credit so universal that they have been applied to esoteric practices as has also been done for Blessed Raymond Lull. From there to lend to the saintly man some maleficent learning was but an easy step, but one without effectiveness; and in this way his venerable name has been popularised in another of ill augur: Mauvais Albert [Evil Albert], applied to games, to invocations, and finally this forgotten evil renown dwells but in the place name of a once ill-frequented Parisian square, Place Maubert, that is, of Mauvais Albert; in the Middle Ages it was disreputable and perilous; there remain some ill-effects of the Society which composed it. (7)

Court de Gébelin, on a streak of initiatory discoveries, invented a divinatory deck with his hairdresser, who was able to use cards for divination. (8) This Alliette designed a deck of 78 cards, and with his writer, guaranteed that it had been revealed by the lost Egyptian mysteries, and he created a large and a little deck, respectively called the Grand and Petit Etteilla; this term being the anagram of the hairdresser Alliette. This latter gained some renown and a guaranteed greater income than with his skilful perms and curls. Some fortune-tellers still use the Etteilla key, whose decks have become very rarefied nowadays.

Some time after the hairdresser, a fortune-teller whose name still endures, invented in her turn a tarot used just as much as a society game as for secret practices. Mademoiselle Lenormand; her authority was so great, her clientele so select, that she was able to write her Memoirs in two volumes in which she had little difficulty showing her knowledge, the accuracy of her predictions, and the disaccord of her prophecies and the deeds of her posh clientele. Napoleon I, who had the Grand Etteilla done for him, often consulted with Mlle Lenormand, and she could write, without surprising anyone, that had the Emperor listened to her warnings, he would not have known the misfortune of Waterloo and the miseries of Saint Helena! The tarot of this great sybil is complicated: she labels her cards astro-mytho-hermetic, recommends card combinations such as the Grand Coup of 48, proposes numerous games of patience, and establishes certain exercises with information on plants and animals? It is a learned and complicated conception of a minutely established and questioned deck. To which, one may be certain, only its creator had the secret.

There existed, not so long ago, a very well composed Astrological Tarot: the cards, half figurative according to the tradition, half astrological. In this genre, a no less curious deck was the Game of the Hand [Jeu de la Main]. Instead of celestial cards, the card, in addition to its emblematic markings, included chiromantic diagrams which, coming from the chance of shuffling and according to their position, took on a prophetic signification to be interpreted. This new Chiromancic Game [nouveau grand jeu chiromancique] is due to Madame Adèle Moreau, student of Mlle Lenormand and to A. de Para d’Hermès.

We could also cite the Sybil of the Salons [La Sybille des Salons], The Book of Destiny [Le Livre du Destin], the Little Cartomancer [Le Petit Cartomancien], and the Ancient Destiny [Le Destin Antique]; and there are assuredly others, but they are all destined for the same use. These decks do not all have the same number of cards. The Egyptian Tarot, the Grand Etteilla, the Grand Oracle des Dames all have 78 cards, the Game of the Hand [Le Jeu de la Main] 56, the Grand Jeu of Mlle Lenormand 54, the Sybil of the Salons 52, the Petit Oracle des Dames 42, the Little Cartomancer 36; the others 33. It is common that the sybils begin their prospections with one deck and synthesise their inventory with a small and ordinary pack of 32 cards. It is to be noted that manufacture of all these subsidiary decks has been abandoned, whence the generalised search for them by certain practitioners.

What may we conclude from these rarefactions? That the Etteilla, the Sybil or Mlle Lenormand are no longer questioned? There is some truth to it, but it is no less true that the manufacture of these well-designed cards is so expensive that it surpasses at the same time the credit and the possibilities of both producer and buyer. Divination, however, loses nothing in the process since it has, and everywhere, priests and priestesses, that their clientele has not dried up, and that the Grand Tarot is sufficient for their business, all the more so if the soothsayer has genuine gifts of sight or of divination, any deck whatsoever will suggest to them a plausible and often accurate interpretation, for the gifted minds, according to a patient analysis of one of them, lead to interpret thusly the physiology of their science: a true cartomancer, from the animic [psychic] contact established with the querent by cutting the deck with the left hand, thereupon sees cloudy occurrences like shadows on an opaque pane; the cards chosen by the interested party may also shed some light and give a signification, a life, an outline, to these images; and this is how the cards play a useful role.

It is by no means established that the invention of divinatory decks is over. Recent evidence confirms the continued practice of these decks, it is that of the advertisement offering to the curious and the concerned an individual means of questioning the unknown: the Belline Oracle [L’Oracle Belline]. Here is how the publisher gives a foretaste: “This deck is unique in the world by the evocative power of its drawings and colours, by the logical sequence of the ideas it suggests, by the simplicity of its interpretation, thanks to a very clear booklet accompanying each deck.”

The invention of this deck would date back to a visionary healer of the previous century and his model deck would have reached the hands of its owner after some racy adventures! Finally, it has been published and anyone might acquire it for thirty new francs and to the greatest displeasure, no doubt, of the professionals who are duly licensed to interpret the various tarots in their own way, according to their instinct, their inspiration, and perhaps, their knowledge; after all, if we consider them as the intermediaries with the mystery, mediums, a manner of visionary, they may lay claim to a monopoly.

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  1. Doyon is here conflating the “traditional” etymology for Tarot, given by Court de Gébelin, and the term “arcana,” later proposed by Paul Christian.
  2. Cf. Jean Paulhan’s preface to Paul Marteau’s book, Le Tarot de Marseille.
  3. An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, (cited in D’Allemagne’s work).
  4. An allusion to Ménestrier, Bibliothéque curieuse et instructive (1704), pp. 180-181 (also cited in D’Allemagne’s work).
  5. Charles-Hippolyte de Paravey, 19th-century French engineer and thinker known for his works on mythology and antiquity. Moreau de Dammartin, author of an extremely rare work, Origine de la forme des caractères alphabétiques de toutes les nations, des clefs chinoises, des hiéroglyphes égyptiens, etc., 1839, in which the earliest correlation between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot trumps appears. This book has been published recently in English as Origin of the Hieroglyphical Characters of all Nations, Hell Fire Club Books, 2017. (Doyon is merely citing Marteau’s references here.)
  6. Pun on the French term for “hired killers.”
  7. The conventional etymology for this place-name is simply ‘Maître Albert’ – Master Albert.
  8. On Court de Gébelin and Jean-Baptiste Alliette, see here and here.

Images of the deck engraved by François Isnard courtesy of the BNF.

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René-Louis Doyon: Aluette, the Game of the Cow

Translator’s Introduction

In an article on the supposedly Egyptian origins of the Tarot, it has been shown how the French game of Aluette, with its deck of Spanish-suited cards, was also considered by Court de Gébelin and his collaborator as containing symbols of ultimately Egyptian provenance; Isis, Osiris, Apis the ox, etc., alongside other figures from the Greco-Roman pantheon such as Mercury or Apollo. Naturally, these assertions are just as extravagant as many of the other claims made by that learned savant. This game of Aluette, which has largely escaped the attention and speculations the Tarot has been subjected to, has nonetheless been the object of a handful of very detailed and penetrating studies, notably those by Dr Marcel Baudouin, cited in the following piece, as well as a very interesting monograph by Alain Borvo. Latterly, play card historians have also examined the unique problem this unusual game of cards poses.

This brief presentation of the game by René-Louis Doyon, alias The Mandarin, also taken from his article on card games in France, provides an insightful and witty overview of a game whose popularity endures along the western and north-western seaboard of France. In fact, the only commercially available deck of Aluette at present is that manufactured by Grimaud, better known for their edition of the Tarot of Marseilles designed by Paul Marteau. We are not aware of any divinatory tradition or usage associated with the Aluette deck, in passing, although Spanish-suited decks have of course been put to this use. In effect, the unusual deck used in Aluette “retains a great many sixteenth-century details which have long since disappeared from use elsewhere” and include “many other features found on old Spanish cards, although some have become so exaggerated or distorted that they are not immediately obvious. They now also contain many bizarre details which are purely French inventions and they are especially appropriate to this game, employing as it does elements of shameless cheating aided by the use of facial grimaces as integral parts of its rules.” (Trevor Denning, The Playing-cards of Spain: A Guide for Historians and Collectors, 2003, p. 48)

This codified mimicry to signal one’s hand to one’s partner forms part of the game’s unique charm. As another author notes, “The trick, it goes without saying, consists in making the signs without them being seen by one’s adversaries. Therefore, as soon as the cards have been dealt, each player is attentive to seize, at the same time, the almost imperceptible signs of his partner and of his opponents. […] The game of luette is very complicated, and requires a lot of practice. Nothing is more comical to observe than the zest with which the Maraîchins conduct a game. They thrash about, strike the table with their fists and debate each trick, with everyone talking at the same time. As a result, it is difficult, except if one is deaf, to sleep in the room of an inn in which there are five or six games of luette in play. The scene would be worthy of the brush of a Rembrandt, that artist of the taverns.” (Ch. Édouard Gallet, La ville et la commune de Beauvoir-sur-Mer (Vendée), 1868, pp. 75-76.)

Lest we believe that Doyon had been taken in by the mystification of Court de Gébelin, for whom he had but short shrift, it is worth pointing out that the theory of the astro-mythical origins of Aluette is attributable to Dr Baudouin, whose writings present a learned blend of historical research mixed with more fanciful speculations. Aluette aside, Dr Baudouin is perhaps best known for his scholarly work on the peculiar local custom known as Maraîchinage, or what the doctor, ever the medical man, calls “intrabuccal cataglottism,” in other words, so-called French kissing. For those who read French, the two articles by Dr Baudouin, L’archéologie de la vache : la luette caractéristique du jeu de cartes vendéen“, and “Les origines de Bise-Dur ou “Cinq de deniers” : archéologie du jeu de carte d’Alluette, are online, and the originals will be found in the regional archives of the Vendée here, the first being in 3 parts, the second in two parts. Since then, the only serious study of the subject is that by Alain Borvo, Anatomie d’un jeu de cartes – l’aluette ou le jeu de la vache, Librairie nantaise Yves Vachon, Nantes, 1977. Let us also mention an older article by André Viaud-Grand-Marais, Un vieux jeu de cartes vendéen : le jeu d’aluette, Revue du Bas-Poitou, 1910, 2° fascicule, pp. 186-200, and a more recent article by Alain Borvo, “Découvrez l’aluette”, Jeux et Stratégie, n° 4 Août 1980, which may be downloaded from this website or read here: part 1 and part 2.

In English, interested readers will wish to read the arguments put forth by Sir Michael Dummett as to the origins and evolution of the deck and the game on pages 18-19 of his Game of Tarot, as well as the detailed appendix on pages 29-30, and may also profitably consult the entry on Aluette in the comprehensive work The Playing-cards of Spain: A Guide for Historians and Collectors by Trevor Denning (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003). Online, the following links may be helpful: Aluette, L’Aluette à travers les âges, Aluette.

The 2 of Cups, “The Cow”

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Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)


by The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

The Cow (West)

It now remains for us to speak of the most curious, the most entertaining of all provincial games, and also the most difficult to learn and to play for those who do not have two or three centuries worth of ancestral ties to the Marais [Poitevin] or the Bocage [Vendéen]. It is the game of Alluette (or Aluette more simply). To tell the truth, it is the ancient game of The Cow, probably very widespread in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Our Rabelais, that incomparable connaisseur of his age, cites them both, without appearing to confuse them, in the nomenclature of the numerous games taught to Gargantua, after the worthy student of Ponocrates washed his hands with fresh wine, picked his teeth with a pig’s trotter; in effect, we read: “au luette,” “au tarau” … and further… “aux vaches” [the cows]!

One will not expect to find here the very complicated history of this game, indeed more ancient than the precious remains which form the collections of the British Museum (3 decks), the Bibliothèque Nationale (Marteau collection), and a few private collections. Two learned monographs will enlighten those concerned erudite minds without perhaps satisfying them completely; those by Dr Marcel Baudouin, from Croix-de-Vie, strongly attached to the customs of the Lower Poitou, whether immodest Maraîchinage or mimed Luette.

No one can deny the connection between the current Cow, lying below the 2 of Cups, and the Ox Apis or the zodiacal Taurus. It is undeniable that the cards are inspired by Astrology: their esoteric origin is nowhere in doubt. The cards of the Luette have thus come from the same symbols like the others. They present a difference with ordinary playing cards in that they are of the Spanish type, which singularly complicates the history of their introduction into a country where the incursions of the English were much more frequent. Nevertheless, they have received, along with a mysterious and confused contribution, tense markers and a national prestige: the 2 of Coins bears the heads of a royal couple; the 5 of Coins is highly singular with its two faces in its central oval; this is the card called “Bise-Dur” [Kiss-Hard], one of the most popular of the game, along with the Cow reserved to the 2 of Cups; Storks are also depicted in the ace, the 2 and the 3 of Cups with drawings of more ancient symbols, more misunderstood and degenerated, but accepted by successive cardmakers and destined to satisfy the ever-increasing number of practitioners of a clearly local game. On the other hand, the queens advantageously supplant the Spanish horsemen; no doubt due to French gallantry! We must leave it to the learned to shed light on the question of its origins and to the collectors the useful task of discovering, with these remains, the witnesses of the transformations undergone by a secular idea come down to us after a great many travels and a great many amputations.

The 5 of Coins, “Kiss-Hard” (“Bise-Dur”)

The particularity of the game of Aluette, and which justifies its name more than its aim, is that it is played without saying a single word, without luette. Aluette is already a deformation and luette is another one; properly speaking, it is “l’uette,” avita in Latin; this cascade of deformations of uva which means “raisin,” comes to denote the appendage that bars the entry to the throat, then, more plainly, speech. A game without words, without interjections, without recourse, without invective nor curses, now there is a curiosity! And that is a fact. But if, in The Cow, one chews ones words, on the other hand one must explain oneself using gestures. There is an entire convention of mimicry which makes the game very attractive for the spectator; for the partners are not, one may assume, students or disciples of the great mime artists, such as Debureau, Séverin or Wague!

The head, the eyes, the lips, the fingers, the mouth, everything comes into play. Each card has its sign, just as it has its own colloquial terms. The 3 of Coins is Monsieur: one must raise one’s eyes to heaven; Madame (the 3 of Cups) will have one tilt one’s head to a shoulder; the One-Eyed Man (2 of Coins) will have one wink; the Cow requires a pout. One gives the thumbs up sign to announce the Grand Nine (of Cups); the Little Nine (of Coins) is signalled by the little finger. One opens the mouth for the four aces. One puts on a good face for the 4 kings, fairly indifferent features for the 4 ladies, and a rather dissatisfied frown for the valets. For the point cards, no sign. The winner makes a mordienne, an old French word which indicates its mixture of swear word and of siesta! But let us leave it to the philologists and the folklorists to seek out its origins; we are but profane observers.

The 3 of Cups, “Madame”, or The Storks

But what a scholar will not know, is how to knowingly play this game in the silence of a village of the Marais, where the autumn sounds the bell for the migratory birds and blows the bitter wind from the Ocean. One of the most curious games; a sport, or I dare say, a popular art which brings with it a series of grimaces and gestures which would make a mime dream! A tactic which reveals a discrete cunning and mores not really given to outward displays.

Such are the provincial games whose manufacture is authorised in France, and whose practice is is still unequally spread. They are not devoid of interest. They are witnesses; they are also the vehicles of traditions, of memories, of words, of popular learning, which show those who observe them the universality of the deck of playing cards and the interpenetration of all ideologies.

— The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

  • Image Credits: Aluette cards from a deck copied on that engraved by H. Roiné, and which has been called “the most attractive portrait of Aluette, later imitated or copied by other cardmakers.” Images taken from here. Images of Madame and various Aluette cards taken from a late nineteenth-century deck by Grimaud, courtesy of the BNF.
  • Notes: Various etymologies have been proposed for the term mordienne, including méridienne, meaning siesta; a contraction of the swear word mort divine, meaning “the divine death,” not too dissimilar to the Shakespearean ‘Swounds, among others.

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André Derain: Criterium of the Aces

Translator’s Introduction

“The only matter in painting is light.” — André Derain

The creative and intellectual ferment of the first decades of the twentieth century gave rise to some of the more daring and thought-provoking theories of the Tarot, speculative, to be sure, but otherly engaging than the occultist elucubrations of the preceding century. At the centre of the interlocking circles of mysticism, avant-garde literature, and the arts, to give but one example, we find the person of André Derain. Derain is best known as an artist, one of the chief representatives of Fauvism, before becoming an exponent of classicism and of a ‘Return to Order.

Derain, like many of his contemporaries, had an abiding interest in things esoteric, notably the Tarot, and this interest extended beyond the confines of text and the printed page to the card- and Tarot-inspired prints he produced for an edition of Rabelais’ Pantagruel, to the costumes he designed for the ballet La boutique fantasque (the subject of an exhibition held in recent years in the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer in Issy-les-Moulineaux next to Paris), and indeed, to actual cartomancy and fortune-telling, according to anecdotes related by André Breton, among others.

Breton recalls: “I place highly the memory of those hours spent alone with him in his workshop on the rue Bonaparte where, in between two soliloquies on medieval art and thought, he read the tarot for me.” (« C’est à vous de parler, jeune voyant des choses… », XXe Siècle, n° 3, June 1952, p. 29.) (In passing, the relations between the Surrealists, for instance, and the occult are well-documented and need not detain us here.)

As one art historian notes, “Derain’s notebooks and letters reveal that he had studied the Cabala, astrology, Pythagoras, Buddhism, the Tarot, Charles Henry’s mathematical theories, numerology, Wagner’s operas, Nietzsche and Plotinus (neo-platonism was one of the few constants in Derain’s ideology). […] Derain had the advantage of perceiving how philosophical theories and mystical beliefs of the most diverse kind could be woven into a personal aesthetic, just as antithetical styles could be welded into a pictorial synthesis.” (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Vol. II: 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life, Pimlico, 1997, p 74.)

One will find a more extensive examination of some of Derain’s arcane influences, and his own thoughts, in the detailed article by Rosanna Warren, A Metaphysic of Painting: The Notes of Andre Derain. According to Warren, “Derain made the dynamic relation between the individual soul and the world spirit the central metaphor of his life.” (op. cit. p. 98) Nowhere is this ‘dynamic relation’ more apparent than in the ‘divinatory support’ or medium, of which the Tarot is the pre-eminent example.

This article, Critérium des As, was published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, n° 3-4, December 1933, Éditions Albert Skira, supposedly at the request of André Breton. The title of the article is a reference to a famous French bicycle race, the Critérium des As (Race of the Aces), which was held from 1921 to 1990. The word ‘criterium’ denotes a bicycle race of a specified number of laps on a closed circuit. In French, As, no more than the English ‘Ace’, also means a very skilled person. In addition, Derain also designed the Tarot-inspired cover of the issue in question.

This piece allegedly “made a lot of noise at the time,” although we have been unable to find any evidence for this assertion by Jean Laude (in La Peinture française (1905-1914) et l’art nègre, Klincksieck, 1968, p. 149, n. 86). It has also been labelled “a little treatise on the Tarot,” and in spite of its brevity and its airs of modernist blank verse, that is precisely what it is. One specialist, Simone Perks, has described it as “a highly recondite reading of four ancient playing cards […] which reads as a delirious poetic extemporization.” Patrick Lepetit calls it “a poetic text with highly esoteric connotations.” Looking carefully at the text and images, it appears to us that beneath this poetry lies a meticulously crafted piece with a rigorous underlying logic.

In effect, rather than reflecting an essentialist conception of the four immutable elements of classical antiquity, Derain’s view of the four Aces is to be put in parallel with the Chinese cosmological theory of the five phases and their sequences of mutual generation and destruction. It is not known whether this is what Derain had in mind, but his taste for collecting Chinese artwork is well known and it is possible he may have read something on the subject. (The monumental work on the subject in French, La pensée chinoise by Marcel Granet, was only published the following year, in 1934, although there were plenty of outlines of Chinese thought available prior to that.) A similar idea would later be proposed, for instance, in the article ‘The Tarot, the Seasons and the Five Chinese Elements’ by Swami Prem Sudheer, published in the Hermetic Journal, n° 10, Winter 1980, pp. 39-42. On the other hand, one could argue that the four Aces, rather than representing the four elements in a pure, abstract state, represent instead manifest, tangible and therefore mixed forms, and are thus subject to the Aristotelean scheme of generation and corruption, thereby undergoing the evolutionary cycle.

Whatever his ultimate sources, Derain’s notion of the transformative potential of the Aces of the four suits is to be related to a view of the elements-phases that may best be described as operative. As Rosanna Warren says, “Derain’s world is one of Baudelairean correspondences. Every thing becomes meaningful through its perceived relationship to other things and to other realms of experiences.” (op. cit. p. 96)

The idea that the implements on the Juggler’s table and the wand held in his hand are the representations of the emblems of the four suits is a staple of the occultist view of the Tarot, one that dates back to the writings of Éliphas Lévi (Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, 1861) and his erstwhile disciple Paul Christian (L’homme rouge des Tuileries, 1863). Moreover, Lévi’s influential work Dogme et rituel de la haute magie contains an allusion to the symbolic slaying of the bull in the tauroctony of the Mithraic Mysteries, correlating the ace of Swords with the element of earth onto which the bull’s blood is spilt. This may provide the connection between Derain’s cover art (and the title of the journal) and the content of his article. Given the foregoing, it is safe to assume that Lévi, Christian, or their followers were Derain’s inspiration in this regard. More hazardous is the tentative idea that Derain’s text contains systematic and meaningful allusions to the other trump cards themselves, although we mention it here in passing, without proposing a hypothesis, for those who love enigmas…

Derain’s cover design has also given rise to some speculation; the Italian art historian Arturo Schwarz suggests that the four cards represent “perhaps an allusion to the four natures of the mythical animal” (‘Minotaure,’ FMR, n°31, 1988, p. 20), without saying what these four natures are: the Minotaur is generally considered as having two natures: man and bull (cf. Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 15.1, citing Euripides). Without pursuing the matter too deeply, it may be the case that the four cards in question represent the combat of Theseus against the Minotaur, an interpretation made possible by following the sequence of the cards in the same order as that of the four Aces: the intrepid Theseus (I) enters the labyrinth (XII), kills the Minotaur (XI), then escapes (XXII). This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Derain himself added the number XXII to the Fool card, thereby giving it the expression of finality.

One will note, in addition to the Biblical references to King Solomon and to Aaron’s rod, the references to the constructive symbolism of both Compagnonnage and Freemasonry, and their initiatory allegories such as the Hiram legend. Less obviously, there are references to alchemical symbolism and the Grail myth. Although Derain does not appear to have been a Freemason, his interest in the writings of Martinez de Pasqually is well attested.

Derain’s piece appears to have gone largely unnoticed, although it has been mentioned on a few rare occasions and translations of brief excerpts appear in The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies by Patrick Lepetit, which provides a comprehensive overview of the wider context, and in the dissertation From Ancient Greece to Surrealism: The Changing Faces of the Minotaur by Brenton Pahl (pp. 24-25).

The original punctuation (or lack thereof) and typography of the piece has been preserved insofar as possible, and we have endeavoured to adapt Derain’s free-flowing syntax to the genius of the English language. The original text may be found here on page 8. Due to the limitations of the blog formatting, we have been unable to replicate the particular layout of the piece, with the four cards in the corners and the text in the shape of a cross (see below). The Tarot deck used to illustrate the cover of the journal and Derain’s piece is a Besançon Tarot by Jean Jerger, printed between 1820 and 1845, and the illustrations we have used come from a very similar (if not identical) deck held in the Bibliothèque nationale. The smile on the face of the Juggler on the cover was added by Derain himself, as was the number XXII on the card of the Fool. (The image of the Juggler did not appear within the article itself.)

Minotaure n° 3-4, December 1933, cover by André Derain

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Criterium of the Aces

André Derain

a word to the Wise!

Make way for the unrepentant Juggler, orator painter whose mouth shall be sewn up with strong leather laces, like a shoe, the shoe of the Hanged Man, “twelfth card.”

Here neither Good nor Evil nor Time nor Space nothing but the Eternal Present, privilege of the Image

Image that animates the one who desires it.

Anxious souls concerned with the Future, the Aces will reassure you.

There is no Future, let us predict it !! and let us defy the Devil who deals us the cards.

Table of the Juggler
here then are the four ACES


Flowering branch picked in the springtime of the World!
Magician’s Wand or sorcerer’s lightning-bolt rod you make water spring from the rock you strike.
Beautiful flowering stick of the devouring journeyman in which he will carve his Rule, a Rule which will lead his work to perfection. Forgotten one evening of exhaustion his apprentice will seize it and strike the Master, great Architect of the TEMPLE and kill him.
Sprig of acacia you will flower his grave.
Insignia of command you make Tears spring from the thief you punish as with the Rock and spur on the THE steed you lash.
Companion of the lost traveller, you protect him at night
Finally support of the exhausted old man you are thrown in the Fire when he dies.
You thus rekindle the flames of the burning hearth which will smelt the precious Metal, substance of the coin.


The fire of the Wand smelts the Metal become stream the light Metal fixed in the hollow of the abysses which the fire resuscitates makes supple agile and brilliant your lost drops take as they cool the shape of the Stars and like them at Night are the reflection of the Day.
Chief, powerful and wealthy in artifice you manage human societies, you sustain passion. You are instability even indifference and dispersion.
Alone, in the universe, without vice and without virtue you confer them according to your will to the most disparate beings and objects. making the strong stronger you annihilate the weak.
Great Master of Chance, you go, you come, you disappear without a trace.
Thanks to the flowering Wand the still burning Fire of a tougher metal will melt us.


The Flame fixed in the Steel, the flame that burns flesh with its sharp point. gives its shape to the Sword which pierces provoking Wound and Pain.
The flame crosses THE NIGHT.
In the splendour of the Day. the solar ray Sword of the World transpierces the clouds.
Instrument of anger and of Hatred it engenders Murder and suffering.
It delivers the frightened Hero and arms the hand of the criminal with the same fervour.
Indistinctly it is the support of outraged honour or else the dark tool of crime
It cuts the flowers transpierces the Trees
Scores the Earth cleaves Stones chops Wood.
It finally pierces the Heart whose tearful blood will spread on the ground.
Blood eager to rejoin the Vase which will hold it, a new Wound that desires it. it is


new heart desiring to retain and to keep, thirsty for the liquid passionate for whom abandon is death.
You once were the Bronze vase built by the hands of Hiram to measure those things contained and Measurable concern for Equity obsession of Solomon.
Cup of Dew you are the Red Rose. Mirror of the Sun
You spread yourself over the Fire you quench
You slake the thirst of man till the Drunkenness that brings him closer to his God.
Emblem of the oath and of lasting friendships.
Finally spilt in the Earth you make the flowered Branch reborn New ACE which will open up to us the doors of the next Cycle if the painter does not decide to remain hung between the two Trees.
Head down sleeping the sleep of the bat clutched on to the ceiling of the caverns
The image of the FOOL advises Prudence for the dog cruelly bites the legs of the half-savant.

Let us rest on this Cloud.

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Derain’s original piece

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René-Louis Doyon: Cartomancers’ Decks

Translator’s Introduction

“One grows weary of everything, apart from knowing.”

— René-Louis Doyon

The name of René-Louis Doyon, alias ‘the Mandarin’, is all but forgotten, and yet this obscure literary figure played an important and influential role in the French literature and publishing of the early and mid-twentieth century. Born in 1885, he died in 1966, and as such was the exact contemporary of Paul Marteau, his erstwhile friend, collaborator and benefactor.

Writer, journalist, publisher, bookseller, bibliophile and literary gadfly, Doyon’s career spanned the first half of the twentieth-century literary scene in France, where he exerted an uneven but definite influence. Throughout the course of his variegated editorial career, Doyon published a prodigious amount of works, by himself or others, including novels, literary and artistic criticism, biographies, social histories, memoirs, as well as a significant amount of prefaces and introductions. In addition to republishing editions of the classics, Doyon was instrumental in promoting younger and unknown authors. His literary flair is demonstrated when one considers that his back catalogue was eventually bought out by the publisher Robert Denoël, and that he was the first to discover and publish the writings of both Marcel Jouhandeau and a young André Malraux. Yet Doyon’s career, and indeed, life, was both marked and marred by his combative personality and a taste for polemics and literary feuds that would ultimately alienate him from the cultural establishment.

Perhaps the most succinct portrait of the man is that left by Éric Dussert, who says that, “René-Louis Doyon was an extravagant man of letters; failed publisher, mordant but erudite critic, he leaves behind an often messy body of work whose convoluted style is unforgettable. […] The case of René-Louis Doyon is exemplary of the paradox of those failures who work like maniacs, sometimes with talent, but without ever bending fate.”

In 1920, Doyon founded a literary journal called La Connaissance [Knowledge], also the name of his bookshop as well as his publishing outfit. This journal became more simply known as the Livrets du Mandarin from 1923, and was irregularly published until 1963. Although Doyon’s journal ostensibly focused on literature, the arts and current affairs, he also included a number of articles dealing with more metaphysical subjects, notably some articles by Paul Marteau, to which we shall return.

In effect, Doyon and Marteau were close for a time, La Connaissance was allegedly financed by Paul Marteau, according to François Gibault, biographer of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (cited in G. Beuchet,  ‘Paul Marteau, auteur et éditeur de l’Ancien Tarot de Marseille (1930),’ in Thierry Depaulis (ed.), Actes du Colloque ‘Papiers, Images, Collections,’ 28, 29, 30 avril 2000, Le Vieux Papier n° 358 (October 2000), pp. 33-34), and Marteau began to write a series of articles on esotericism for Doyon’s journal from 1921, although the planned series came to a premature end at the end of the same year after only three articles had been published. Marteau would also contribute an essay on the esotericism of the hermetic novel Le Comte de Gabalis to Doyon’s edition of that work, also published in 1921. Later, when Doyon’s professional and financial decline was fully underway, from the mid 1930s, Marteau would have aided him until they fell out, for reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess.

Both men would later go on to become acquainted with the controversial author Céline after the war, Doyon eventually selling his inscribed copy of a rare edition of Voyage au bout de la Nuit to Marteau. If, in 1935, Doyon could dedicate his study of J.-K. Huysmans, Ombres dans la Cathédrale, to “my friend Paul Marteau,” relations between the two men had soured by the mid-fifties, as is made evident from Doyon’s letter to Jean Paulhan on the 28 of March 1956, when he writes, “There is no one, not even Marteau (that spoilt child), who has not betrayed me with brutality. I am used to it.” Indeed, Doyon’s memoirs, published in 1953, contain but one brief and impersonal reference to his former friend: “Paul Marteau wrote on esotericism, whose arcana were familiar to him and of which he cultivated the bitterest specialities with the learned Caslant.” (Mémoire d’homme: souvenirs irréguliers d’un écrivain qui ne l’est pas moins, La Connaissance, p. 104.)

Doyon’s interest and knowledge of “occult matters,” as his friend Jean Paulhan put it, is attested by  his noteworthy edition of Le Comte de Gabalis by by Montfaucon de Villars, with an extensive introduction and accompanying essays (including the one by Paul Marteau). This was the first of a planned series of esoteric texts, followed by a text by Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, a prominent 18th-century Freemason and Martinist, Les Sommeils, in 1926, obtained through his friendship with one of the latter’s descendants. His 1942 biography of Montfaucon de Villars included an intriguing aside on the occultist author, Grillot de Givry, author of the well-known book Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy, and whose untimely death, according to Doyon, was to be classified as a “mystagogic assassination” for having revealed occult secrets. Doyon also published a pamphlet on the mysterious secret society “Les Veilleurs” [The Watchers], to which belonged Schwaller de Lubicz and the poet Oscar Milosz, whom Doyon knew well and had published, showing his inside knowledge of the esoteric circles of the time (Livrets du Mandarin, n° 3 January 1960), as well as an in-depth biography and study of Joséphin Péladan (La Douloureuse aventure de Péladan, La Connaissance, 1946). Doyon further published an anthology of texts concerning the Compagnonnage and the mysticism of the trades-based initiations (La Pierre, ses fastes et les hommes, Denoël, 1939). On a lighter note, it is also worth noting a booklet on the popular folk legend of the beast of the Gévaudan which terrorised rural France in the mid-eighteenth century, Le Loup du Gévaudan. Variétés sur la légende, La Connaissance, 1936.

Doyon’s knowledge of cards and the Tarot is amply demonstrated by the three very interesting articles he penned on the subject, the first two for the Gazette Dunlop in 1937, and the third, some 25 years later, for his own Livrets du Mandarin. The obscurity of certain references show that Doyon engaged in some serious research and reflection on the subject before committing his thoughts to paper, although as we shall later see, his references were sometimes garbled. (For instance, neither the Grand nor the Petit Albert grimoires deal with cartomancy, nor are they concerned with games.) Be that as it may, the wit and erudition of these articles make them worth presenting to a wider audience.

The first article, La Petite Histoire des Cartes à Jouer [A Little History of Playing Cards], deals with the design, engraving and printing processes of card-making, and even taxation, in minute detail and with great erudition. The second article, Les Jeux de Cartes en France (Types et Varietés) [Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)], describes the types of cards used for both cartomancy and those used for playing, such as the Tarot Nouveau, as well as a number of other regional games, one of which, Aluette, we shall post in the next instalment.

Finally, Doyon’s 1962 article Petite Histoire des Cartes : Casse-tête et prophétisme [A Little History of Cards: Puzzles and Prophecy], taking up some of the observations of the earlier pieces, proceeds to analyse the very idea of the analogical correspondences of the Tarot, pre-empting the type of argument advanced by Umberto Eco in his writings (e.g.  L’idea deforme and Foucault’s Pendulum), and historical analyses which foreshadow those employed by later generations of historians.

Doyon died in 1966 in the utmost misery, a victim of his own uncompromising values and prickly personality. A selection of portraits and obituaries are available (in French) at the end of the following article. Aside from his published volume of memoirs, the only comprehensive overview of the life and works of René-Louis Doyon is the article Les chemins sinueux d’un étrange mandarin by Éric Dussert, first published in Le Matricule des Anges n°38, March 2002. Further reflections on Doyon’s single-minded and single-handed publishing efforts may be found in another article by Dussert here.

We present this brief excerpt from the second of his articles on playing cards, an overview of the various decks used for cartomancy. In it, one will find what is possibly the sole mention of the intriguing article Paul Marteau published in the Arts et Métiers Graphiques journal, 15 years before the publication of his book, and which, for reasons unknown, was not included in the final edition of his work. The illustrations accompanying Doyon’s article all come from the Grimaud firm, as do most of the decks cited (links to which may be found below), thereby underscoring his cordial relationship with Marteau, and, presumably, access to his collection.

The journal in which this article was published, the Gazette Dunlop, was devoted to motoring, sports and tourism, and the issues often included a miscellany of thematic articles as well. This was due in no small part to the encyclopaedic and eclectic mind of its editor, Louis Baudry de Saunier, another eccentric gentleman to whom we cannot do justice here. The original article was published in the n° 202 issue of the Gazette Dunlop of June 1937, and may be read here.

René-Louis Doyon in 1922

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Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)


by The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

Cartomancers’ Decks

The card decks destined to the various games played in Europe have always been and still are, more or less, of the same type.

Those destined for divination have much greater variety and their composition is mixed in with an occult science accessible only to initiates, as well as a lot of fantasy useful for impressing the anxious and gullible client. Their common father is the great and mysterious “Tarot” which comes from the Indias and which is generally labelled as Egyptian, as Bohemian, jealously guarded by the Egyptians, and yet known and put to work under the name of Ancient Tarot of Marseilles, with its recomposed colours and its orthodox arcana. Mr Paul Marteau has provided the outline of a very substantial study in Arts et Métiers Graphiques; to which those curious about symbols and mystic secrets may refer.

Some figures from the Egyptian Tarot, or so-called Tarot of Marseilles, which is currently used by Cartomancers

Is it known, for the other decks used by prophets and professional fortune-tellers, that their design and composition reach an entertaining realisation of images whose appearance and shuffling form the entire unexpected part of conjectural revelations? As we have the Grand and Petit Albert, attributed to the genius of the Dominican Albert the Great (and what has he not been attributed, since it is said that his name is to be found in that of the once ill-renowned Place Maubert – “Mauvais Albert” or “Evil Albert”?) We have the Grand and Petit Etteilla, from the 18th century, the work of an ingenious barber; the Tarot of Mlle Lenormand, official soothsayer of Napoleon and of Josephine, is still in use; the Sybil of the Salons, the Book of Destiny, the Little Cartomancer and the Ancient Destiny; a real palette, with impressive or comical images which occupy more space on the cardboard than on the tarotic image itself. That is not all: the Game of the Hand, with its very curious chiromantic diagrams, and the Astrological Tarot, with its celestial diagrams, that is what may yet be found commercially; with the means – for want of sure learning – on how to use them! What a choice! Only surprises and naïve ingeniousness here, and complicated to boot; a little learning and a lot of already outdated opportunism, for our age has become far too distracted or too preoccupied by science and business to seek out the secret and the why of the world by means other than the alembic, analysis and the scales; the most recent creations of these cards are almost a century old!

— The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

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Patrice Boussel: On the Tarot of Marseilles

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Marteau’s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles received widespread praise and a number of positive book reviews, some of which have been presented on this site. They show not only the ‘reach’ which Marteau and his publisher may have had, but above all, the interest which the Tarot aroused, and this from all angles. Effectively, the book was reviewed by art critics, playing card historians, literary figures and critics of all stripes rather than by occultists and fortune-tellers. One extensive, insightful and engaging review, by a critic well-qualified to do so, provides an in-depth view of the reception of this important work, and raises a number of important points in so doing.

The author, Patrice Boussel (1916-1985), was a senior librarian and a specialist on the history of medicine. Boussel was a prolific author, writing with wit and erudition on a great range of subjects; his illustrated histories of medicine, surgery and pharmacy “are considered classics and their rich iconography is often a revelation that bears witness to his curiosity and his artistic sensibility.”

Boussel further wrote works on all manner of subjects, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, the cult of relics, eroticism and gallantry in the 19th century, and guides to the battlefields of France and to the D-Day landing beaches of WWII. Closer to our subject matter, Boussel also penned a series of guides to the local legends and secret histories of a number of regions of France; Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy, are all examined in this perspective; and closer still, Boussel wrote a guide to the fortune-tellers of Paris. Finally, in 1963 Boussel published a Manuel de Superstition, to which we shall have occasion to return.

These numerous and varied publications express the man’s cultured background and wide learning; having graduated in both philosophy and law, Boussel became interested in mathematics and geology, and after marrying a pharmacist, became interested in the medical sciences. He later became the curator of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. A fuller biography of the man may be read here (in French).

Æsculape (pub. 1911-1974), the journal in which this article was published, was a monthly illustrated journal “on literature and the arts in their relations with the sciences and medicine,” founded by Benjamin Bord and later edited by Jean Avalon. The journal, although ostensibly aimed at the medical practitioner (“and his wife and his patients…”), had a much wider readership on account of the variety of its topics, its readability and the wealth of illustrations it contained. The iconographic collection built up by Avalon was highly considered, and the journal quickly became the official journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine. Out of print since 1974, copies have become sought-after items by amateurs of the weird and wonderful.

Æsculape, n° 1, 1950.

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On the Tarot of Marseilles

Patrice Boussel

Georges Courteline, in a masterpiece, Boubouroche, Marcel Pagnol, in another masterpiece, Marius, brought to life men possessed by the demon of cards, and because they were writing comedies, they were able, without concession, without abstract discourses, to show just how serious a thing the game of manille is. They raised laughs, they raise laughs, and they shall raise laughs at their characters, for these fellows are real, reasonable, and tragic, if you like, and yet they do not know it; for they naturally engage in one of the most natural and important acts of man, they gamble. Gambling is a serious matter, much like marriage or death, which explains the involuntary but definitely comical aspect of a gambler, of a cuckold, or of an undertaker.

Reading a medical treatise, a marriage contract, a manual of contract bridge, on the contrary, only very rarely engenders hilarity. The frivolousness of their authors saddens us rather: not only do they take themselves seriously but they wish to be taken as such… and they manage to do so. The reader, forgetful of his human condition, fretfully wonders about the consequences of a bad dose of tuberculosis, of the marital community property regime, or a four no-trump bid, as though, master of his destiny, he considered himself immortal, happy in his domestic life, and unbeatable at cards. He no longer has any desire at all whatsoever to laugh.

The Moon, from the set of so-called Charles VI Tarot cards. This card, as well as the following ones, belong to a series of seventeen conserved in the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothèque Nationale. These cards were, it is thought, executed in 1392 by an artist from the rue de la Verrerie in Paris, Jacques Gringonneur. These figurines are obviously from the 14th century, but nothing proves that they were part of the games created for the mad king and which the head of finances mentions in his accounts. The two astrologers we see here were replaced by two baying hounds in the later decks of the 15th century.

The book which Mr Paul Marteau has just published with Arts et Métiers Graphiques, on the Tarot of Marseilles, is not a joyful book, but it is a handsome book, and even a good book for many reasons, not all of which are those given by Mr Jean Paulhan in the preface he has provided, nor Eugène Caslant in his preliminary exposé.

Le Tarot de Marseille may be considered as being a promotional work, since the cards, published in 1761 by Nicolas Conver, master cardmaker in Marseilles, are currently being republished by B. P. Grimaud, and that “Paul Marteau, master cardmaker of France, is one of the directors of the Grimaud firm, globally renowned for its manufacture of playing cards.”

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a work of erudition, a “scientific” work, since it includes no bibliography, and we find almost none of those footnotes, respected by readers to the point of not reading them.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a history book. The author says nothing of the origin of the cards, nor of the various hypotheses which have been proposed, he even says nothing of the historical position of this Marseilles Tarot.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not the work of an astrologer, for if the author uses the houses for the astrological spread, which is classic, he makes no allusion to the planetary influences, which could be deemed essential.

Finally, Le Tarot de Marseille is not a treatise of arithmosophy, to employ the term coined by Dr Allendy, author of the Symbolisme des Nombres. Mr Paul Marteau’s symbolism seems to be fairly summary: he opposes the Material to the Spiritual, instinct to religious sentiment, activity to passivity…

For all of this, may Mr Paul Marteau be praised.

The Hanged Man, from the so-called Charles VI deck. The Tarot deck is composed of 78 cards: 22 trumps, of which 21 are numbered, and four suits, consisting each of 14 cards. The names of the suits are: sword, cup, staff, and coin. Each suit has a king, a queen, a horseman, a valet, and ten cards numbered from 1 to 10. Of the 22 trumps, one is unnumbered: it is the fool, called Le Mat. The others are numbered from 1 to 21. The first five: the Juggler, the Popess, the Empress, the Emperor, and the Pope, constitute the lesser trumps. The last five, called the greater trumps, are the Star, the Moon, the Sun, the Judgment, and the World. The Hanged Man shown here is the twelfth card of the pack.

In his preface, Mr Jean Paulhan deals with occult matters and writes:

“The least that can be said of the specialists of occultism is that they also go awry, even more quickly than their sciences. I dare not even think of those who wind up in misery, or vile disease: neither Court de Gébelin, nor Éliphas Lévi – nor the Gypsies either, whose mysterious function, it would appear, was to spread the Tarot throughout the world, derived any profit from the riches they kindly promise us. There is worse, and the occultists best-known to us – those of the Enlightenment: Saint Germain, Cagliostro, Mesmer, Casanova, Etteilla a little later – end up in general by living at the expense of naïve elderly ladies seeking immortality. In brief, as happens one day, sooner or later, for the famous mediums, they cheat. When they do not adopt the trade that resembles most that of soothsayer: secret agents, informers; or else spies, turning for the benefit of the State which pays them the trenches they have dug out of the laudable concern of finding hidden treasure.”

The author of Le Tarot de Marseille must not “go awry.” He knows the existence of occult matters, but he wields them with prudence, and above all, with health. The superficial critic could say:

— But it’s a manual – a luxurious one – for beginning cartomancers!

No doubt seasoned professionals already have their own personal keys and have no need for the interpretation proposed by Mr Paul Marteau. This would bother them rather, for they might notice contradictions with what they hold to be true, which would inevitably sow some doubt in their souls, particularly avid for certainty.

The historians – equally professional – will consider this book with neither bibliography nor soothing references useful only for its beautiful reproductions of ancient images. They will not say that they are beautiful, but that they are precise, for beauty can be but foreign or unwelcome for the true historian. They will praise Mr Paul Marteau the technician, “the great master cardmaker of France,” and will only blame him for having had these ideas, and above all – o scandal! – for having presented them without any scientific apparatus.

Death, from the so-called Charles VI deck. Death is the thirteenth card of the pack. If they still play “tarot” in Burgundy and in Franche-Comté, the cards of the deck serve especially for the prediction of the future. The explanation of the “arcana” is, in essence, the aim of cartomancy. The interpretation of the combinations which they may present, of the influence exerted on this interpretation by the neighbouring minor cards, is a more complex matter than the summary explanations given by certain professionals would have one believe. The “science” of the Tarot demands knowledge of the kabbalah, of astrology, and of hermetic philosophy.

The author has “striven to show the reader that nothing in this Tarot has been placed at random, that the drawings have been conceived in such a way as to give significance to the slightest details, that the colours are always suited to the presiding idea of each card, and that the entire set reveals a transcendental philosophy.”

To explain the existence of soothsayers, of somnambulists, of fortune-tellers, one must accept that there exists, within every man, something secret, which guards itself and which refuses to be drawn out. The coffee grounds, the crystal ball… and in a more detailed and more precise fashion, the Tarot, enable one to evoke this something by stimulating the psyche of the seer, or of the cartomancer. No doubt the interpretation will always depend on this psyche, regardless of the instrument employed, but if we accept as much, how could we not accept that the perfection of the instrument may facilitate this interpretation? Now, the Tarot seems to be, and by far, the best of the lot.

3 of the major arcana plus the Mate, of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The 22 arcana, of which the first, the Mate, is unnumbered, date back, according to the occultists, to the 22 major arcana of priestly magic.

“The Tarot is a universal vibrating instrument and becomes a source of energy by the fluidic projection of our thought.”

The Tarot provides “the symbolic keys of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of man.” Believe it – or not, the essential is that men would have thought in this way, and they would have summarised their philosophy in a collection of 78 images.

Court de Gébelin began his study on the Tarot pack with this striking phrase:

“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book.”

Rather than making a general, and necessarily superficial, study of all the Tarot decks, Mr Paul Marteau has preferred to take as his subject the one he considers as being the best. From these 78 images, he has derived a philosophy, he has shed light on what one may imagine, by means of the Tarot of Marseilles, “of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of men,” he has therefore accomplished the task which he had set himself, and it must be admitted that those who would think otherwise would be bad jokers.

4 of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The last trump, the World, marked with the highest number, takes all the others. These tarot cards are the faithful reproduction of a deck printed in Lyons in the 18th century.

“It would be imprudent to treat it as a handbook of physics or of geometry,” says Mr Jean Paulhan. “On the contrary. It must not be learned by heart. Nor shown – despite being, in my mind, very accurate and very beautiful – to all one’s friends. It must be read, of course, but to be immediately forgotten, and later read once more (without ever being reread). In brief, to relegate it to that secret part of ourselves, to which the Tarot as a whole is but a constant allusion.”

Le Tarot de Marseille presents itself as “a sort of dictionary, or even an encyclopaedia,” it is as serious as a book on law, a dictionary of philosophy, or a treatise on the game of chess might be, but it is by no means boring; the simplicity, the naïvety of the the engravings is moving, and moreover, the subject of the book – functionality and user’s guide to an instrument to know the unknowable – is entirely alive. To believe that we are about to know what we believe – at the same time – we cannot know, is that not human, “too human,” just as surely as considering oneself to be in love, cuckolded, or mortal?

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Follow the links for further details on: Marcel Pagnol; Marius; Georges Courteline; Boubouroche, Dr René Allendy; Le Symbolisme des Nombres.


Images of the “Charles VI” Tarot and Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille courtesy of the BNF.

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Youri Volokhine: The Egyptian Tarot: the Story of a Counterfeit

Translators’s Introduction

We have recently published a lengthy study of the genesis of the myth of the Egyptian origins of the Tarot, and the underlying backdrop of Hermeticism, Egyptomania, Freemasonry, and Revolution. We have also presented a brief series of tentative and necessarily inconclusive texts relating to Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, and his role in this enterprise, and now present a further critical supplement to this examination of the early history of the so-called occult Tarot.

This brief and polemical piece provides an acerbic assessment of the so-called Egyptian Tarot by one of the rare academic Egyptologists who has condescended to examine this game of princes fallen into the hands of scoundrels and mystery-mongers. In effect, we have already noted the work by the Swiss Egyptologist Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt, which, although treating of Freemasonry and the Tarot in two respective chapters, unfortunately does not do so with the depth and breadth which the subject would ideally require.

The author of this piece, Dr Youri Volokhine, is an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva, and has written extensively on ancient Egyptian religion. This article was initially published as “Les tarots égyptiens: une histoire de faussaires“, in Notules d’histoire des religions. Huitième série”, in Asdiwal 13, 2019, pp. 185-188.

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The Egyptian Tarot: the Story of a Counterfeit

Youri Volokhine

Published with the kind permission of the author

Some commercially-available Egyptian Tarots

Protestant savant; Freemason and a genuine encyclopaedic mind, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784) was highly renowned in his day, and was even considered by some as being the equal of the greatest, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yet, unlike the latter, today his work has been more or less completely forgotten. This is not unrelated to the nature of his undertaking, the fruit of frenzied work: Le Monde Primitive analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, an intimidating mountain of paper, unfinished, as it happens (nine volumes were published nonetheless). This work purported to be an encyclopaedia of the origin of the world: alphabet, history, religion, law, in sum, a history of culture. This work anticipates a number of nascent disciplines such as comparative philology, anthropology, the poetics of language. Alas, this Monde Primitif plunged its roots into the past, so much so that the rapid evolution of the sciences quickly relegated it to the rank of curiosity. Court de Gébelin’s method is the allegorical explanation, that old object of the mythologists, which for him, regrettably becomes the key to everything. It is within this framework that Court de Gébelin becomes the first to evoke the curious idea that the Tarot, and playing cards, would have been of Egyptian origin.

“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book. If we were to add that this book is very widespread throughout the greater part of Europe, and that, for many centuries, it has been in everyone’s hands, the surprise would reach its peak. […] The fact is nonetheless true: this Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, still exists today; it is even so common that no scholar has deigned to examine it, no one before us has even suspected its illustrious origin. This book is composed of 77, or of 78 even, leaflets or pictures, divided into five classes, which each present objects as varied as they are amusing and instructive. This book is, in a word, the Game of Tarot, a game unknown in Paris, it is true, but which is very common in Italy, in Germany, even in Provence, and is as bizarre by the figures represented by each of its cards, as well as by their number. (vol. II, p. 365)

For Court de Gébelin, the allegories of the figures of the Tarot would effectively be in conformity with the “civil, philosophical and religious” doctrine of the ancient Egyptians. The old Egyptian game, in the beginning, would have been for its part an admirable thing, containing “the entire Universe.” It would have been “the Book of Thot” which the cards refer to. Thus, card VII would represent “Osiris triumphant,” on his chariot drawn by two white steeds. Or card VIII, Justice, which would represent the queen “Astraea.” Card XVII, the Star, would be an “absolutely Egyptian” scene, revealing Isis, among others. As to card XV, it is Typhon, the “great Demon of Hell.” This deck, invented then by “a man of genius,” would have been transmitted to the West after the “total destruction of Egypt,” transmitted perhaps by one of those Egyptian priests present in Rome, adept of the cult of Isis. From there, the game spread throughout Europe, but was forgotten in the land of its birth: “[…] Egypt itself drew no benefit from the fruit of its invention: reduced to the most deplorable servitude, the deepest ignorance, deprived of all the Arts, its inhabitants would have been in no state to manufacture a single Card of this Pack.” (ibid. p. 380) As to the meaning of the word, it too would have been “pure Egyptian”: “it is composed of the word Tar which means way, path; and the word Ro, Ros, Rog, which means King, Kingly, Royal. It is, word for word, the royal path of life.” (ibid. p. 380) An interpretation which naturally brings to mind the speculations of the priest Athanasius Kircher, who had preceded him in hieroglyphic exegesis, but which is evidently nothing but pure fantasy.

According to Court de Gébelin, the “Sages of Egypt” would have made use of “sacred pictures to predict the future.” (ibid. p. 404) The Tarot pack, in sum, would deliver a summary of their learning. If Court de Gébelin indeed seems to have been the inventor of the “Egyptian Tarot,” the credit must go to one of his much less learned contemporaries for having popularised it in occultist circles, and above all, for having given it an egyptianising iconography: Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), alias Etteilla. It is sometimes said he was a wigmaker, a merchant, or something or other; in any event, this individual publishes various brochures and leaflets, from 1770 on. A reader of Court de Gébelin, he bases himself on the latter to expatiate on the Egyptian origin of the Tarot, and especially, to produce various decks of cards, for which he will draw (or have drawn), fairly clumsily, figures conceived of “after the Egyptian manner.” Only editions from the 19th century are known, those of the 18th century have apparently become unfindable. The invented iconography of these “Grand” or “Petit Etteilla” cards has been taken up by a good number of “Egyptian Tarots” until now, and which may be found in any esoteric bookshop. This invention is based on fantastic speculations bearing on an Egypt which, at the end of the 18th century, was as yet practically terra incognita for science.

It would be too long at present to present the destiny of the Tarot fallen into the hands of the occultists, notably the French, in the latter half of the 19th century. Let us pause for a moment on what Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse Constant) has to say in his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie [Transcendental magic, its doctrine and ritual] (1854). If he acknowledges the authority of Gébelin for having discovered the great antiquity of the Tarot, he nonetheless considers that the latter erred in not taking into account that the interpretative point of departure was this “universal and sacred tetragram,” which Éliphas Lévi applies himself to shed light on with his bombastic prose. On the other hand, he despises Etteilla, “formerly barber, having never learned French, or even orthography,” whose “books have degraded the ancient work discovered by Court de Gébelin into the domain of vulgar magic and fortune-telling by cards.” (p. 372) The Tarot of Éliphas Lévi becomes kabbalistic-hermetic, and no longer truly Egyptian.

Nevertheless, the egyptianising spring does not run dry and numerous variations will see the day. Thus, for instance, in 1896, an esotericist by the name of René Falconnier, publishes Les XXII Lames Hermétiques du Tarot divinatoire, “exactly reconstituted according to the sacred texts and according to the tradition of the Mages of Ancient Egypt.” He too labels Etteilla a “fantasist,” which is not lacking in spice given that its author is no less given to confabulation. We thus learn, with surprise, on the first page that the word Tarot would come from the Sanskrit “TAR-O, a fixed star,” and that this “theosophic and symbolic synthesis of the primitive dogma of religions” would have been rediscovered by the “Magus Hermes” (Trismegistus), who used it 2,000 years before Jesus Christ as an oracular instrument… The author treats of each card, and presents an illustrated version: “I have reconstituted these 22 cards according to the monuments discovered by Mariette-Bey, Champollion, Heeren, Maspero, etc. […] and according to the ancient papyrus” (p. 57), as well as with the help of “an Egyptologist friend of mine” (who prudently remains anonymous). This Tarot illustrates fairly exactly the fact that anybody at all might create his very own Egyptian Tarot, by surrounding it with a few sentences and formulae. In this way, other occultists produced their own “Egyptian Tarot,” for instance, a certain “Elie Alta” [Gervais Bouchet] proposing the “restituted” work of Etteilla in the form of Le Tarot égyptien, ses symboles, ses nombres, son alphabet (Vichy, 1922). Many other examples could be found. Generally, the ugliness of the engravings does nothing to improve the weakness of the texts.

This is not the case, artistically speaking, for the so-called Thoth Tarot of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), whose cards were painted with certain talent by Lady Frieda Harris (1877-1962), who worked on them between 1938 and 1942. Under the influence of Crowley’s erotico-magical ideas, Lady Harris followed his precise instructions (an entire correspondence has been preserved). The set of 78 cards, in the shape of canvasses, forms the “Book of Thoth,” a set which, in Crowley’s mind, would be more of a support for meditation than for fortune-telling. The paintings by Lady Harris, held in the Warburg Institute, were published in the shape of Tarot cards for the first time in 1969.

The present note would not be complete if it were not finished off with an affair linked to an “Egyptian Tarot,” in which the author found himself unwittingly implicated. It is highly revealing, hence my decision to recount it here. In 2016, a certain esotericist who calls himself Johan Dreue (he appears to adopt other names at times, such as Johann Kirkenes, or Jacob de Kilwinning), published a book entitled Aux Sources du Tarot, a book which claims to take up the work of Court de Gébelin “where he had left off.” These so-called sources of the Tarot, the author thinks to have found them notably on the side of the Egyptian god Thot (an idea of the 18th century, as we have seen). Now, imagine my surprise to discover that the chapter called “Thot, écrire la parole” reproduced verbatim the text of an article I myself had published a decade earlier in the Revue de l’Histoire des religions; a few modifications having been made by the author, such as the removal of the footnotes (a botched job, for what it was worth, he forgot to remove the number pointing to note 82, the number thereby appearing on the bottom of page 77). In this way, pages 72-80 of Mr Dreue’s book are taken word for word from my article. It is not a citation since my name is mentioned nowhere at all. The author, whom I do not know, moreover never contacted me either to ask for my permission to use my text in some form or other. To tell the truth, some quick sleuthing enabled me to discover that this method of “borrowing” is the one which this esotericist prefers, since in the same book he also uses, without citing it either, an old piece by Pierre Saintyves, which provides him with the entirety of his chapter 1 (pp. 41-68). For good measure, let us also note the section on the Egyptian “Four Winds,” which is none other than a plagiarism of an old article by a renowned Belgian egyptologist, now deceased, C. De Witt. One will appreciate the unworthy work methods of this so-called tarologist. This blatant dishonesty will enable us, and definitively so, to affirm that the “Egyptian Tarot” is well and truly — and since its very conception in the 18th century courtesy of Etteilla — the work of ignoramuses and counterfeiters.


On the history of the Tarot, see the remarkable catalogue edited by Thierry Depaulis, Tarot, jeu et magie, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1984; on the “Egyptian Tarot,” cf. notably n° 128-136; on Crowley’s Tarot, cf. n° 140. On the history of the Tarot, for which there exists a plethoric and unequal bibliography, see for instance, Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, London, Duckworth, 1980; Ronald Decker, Michael Dummett, A History of the Occult Tarot, London, Duckworth, 2002; Thierry Depaulis, Le Tarot Révélé: une histoire du tarot d’après les documents, La-Tour-de-Pfeilz, Musée Suisse du Jeu, 2013.

For the older sources cited, see: Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, Considéré dans divers Objets concernant l’Histoire, le Blason, les Monnoies, les Jeux, les Voyages des Phéniciens autour du Monde, les Langues Américaines, etc. ou Dissertation Mêlées, T. 1, Vol. 8, Paris, 1781. On that subject, cf. for instance, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre, “Le Monde primitif d’Antoine Court de Gébelin, ou le rêve d’une encyclopédie solitaire,” in Le matérialisme des Lumières (Dix-huitième Siècle, n°24) 1992, pp. 353-366.

For the “Egyptian Tarot,” see: Anonymous [Etteilla], Leçons théoriques et pratique du livre de Thot, Amsterdam, 1787; Éliphas Lévi [Adolphe Constant], Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, 2 vols., Paris, 1854-1856 (various editions) [translated by A. E. Waite as Transcendental magic, its doctrine and ritual, London, 1896]. On Crowley’s “Book of Thoth” and Lady Harris’ paintings, cf. Marco Pasi, in the catalogue Traces du sacré, Paris, Centre Pompidou, 2008, p. 100; cf. also Master Therion [Aleister Crowley], The Book of Thoth. A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians, Equinox vol. III, n° 5, O.T.O., London, 1944. See Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt: its impact on the West, Cornell University Press, 2002, pp. 173-175.

Finally, see Youri Volokhine, “Le dieu Thot et la parole,” Revue de l’histoire des religions, vol. 221 (2004), pp. 131-156.

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Book Reviews: Le Tarot de Marseille by Paul Marteau

Translator’s Introduction

Continuing in our series of reviews of Paul Marteau’s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles, we present two further instalments, the first, from the journal of the Vieux Papier, an association still in existence, and which aims to study daily life through written and printed documents and iconography, including, incidentally, Tarot cards. It will come as no surprise, then, to discover that the historian Thierry Depaulis, whose works have often been mentioned in these pages, is the current president of the association. Indeed, Paul Marteau himself published a couple of articles in this journal in the 1930s.

This review, presumably by René Thiebaut, appeared on page 118 of the January 1951 issue of the Bulletin de la Société archéologique, historique & artistique le Vieux papier, tome 20, fascicle 154, and the original may be read here. Our few additions are within square brackets.

The second, from the Mercure de France, by the unknown collaborator who signed his [?] articles ‘S. P.’, was published on 1 October, 1949, and may be found on the Retronews website.

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Book Reviews: Le Tarot de Marseille, by Mr Paul Marteau

Mr Marteau has, for a long time, taken pleasure in collecting beautiful modern works, both for the harmony of the texts and the variety of illustrations, but he remains deeply attached to his profession and, if we were to ask him to choose between bibliophile and cardmaker for his business card, we can be assured that he would choose the second title.

His uncle, Mr Georges Marteau, formerly a member of our society, has left to the Cabinet des Estampes [of the BNF] his very beautiful collection of playing cards, which Mr [Jean] Adhémar showed to us in the Reserve.

He himself had begun another collection, and his ambition, he told us one day, would be to see in France the creation of a museum of playing cards, like in Altenburg [the Castle and Playing Card Museum]. In his office, everything is devoted to the glory of the cardmaker: books, regulations, images, decks from every country and from every era, curios, popular objects depicting figures. That is an appropriate ambience for the writing of this learned and beautiful work on the Tarot of Marseille, completed after 20 years of research and study.

Published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, whose very handsome and unfortunately discontinued journal has not been forgotten, this 300-page volume is enriched with 78 colour reproductions of the cards explained in detail. Each one is provided with a definition of the symbolism, the colours, the character, the attributes, the number, etc. … A preface by Jean Paulhan, an exposé by Caslant summarise, for the general reader, the elements which enable one to guide oneself through so many diverse sciences. Then, Mr Marteau analyses each figure, with great sagacity: first, the number, then the general significance, the abstract significance, the analogical particularities, the orientation of the figures, the practical significances on the mental, animic [psychic] and physical planes.

We humbly admit that our lack of knowledge does not allow us to describe this learned work as would be fitting, but those colleagues more advanced in symbolism will appreciate, we are certain, its solidity and clarity.

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Le Tarot de Marseille, by Paul Marteau, preface by Jean Paulhan, introduction by Eugène Caslant; 19 x 27.5 cm; 300 pp.; colour reproduction of the 78 arcana; 2,900 copies; 2,500 francs. (Arts et Métiers Graphiques).

A very curious work, and a very handsome book. The preface is Paulhan at his finest, and goes far. The introduction and the text explain the use of the Tarot, and expand on its symbolism. It is an essay, and it is a treatise. A curiosity? Without doubt, but one of those “curiosities” that have both significance and reach.

—  S. P.

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André Salmon: Cartomancy (excerpts)

Translator’s Introduction

In literature, the Tarot as a narrative machine or as a plot device dates back to Pietro Aretino’s Pasquinate of 1521 at least, and has been put to work in all manner of ways, from formative and conceptual engine as in the work of Italo Calvino, explicit inspiration for William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, an aid to character development in the work of Paul Adam, and as cliché in all manner of recent horror or fantasy novels. Less obviously, it has been an inspiration for poetry, although Aretino’s verses mark the first recorded instance of this particular usage, and Gérard de Nerval’s poems have been thoroughly studied in this perspective (by Georges Le Breton and Jean Richer, notably).

One undeservedly neglected figure whose work makes use of cards as both subject and inspiration for a series of poems is that of André Salmon (1881-1969), a once well-known French poet, close to Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob and modernist artists and authors, and whose work was also well known in English at one point.

Portrait of Salmon by Josette Bournet, c.1947

Salmon’s series of 10 (or 12) brief poems inspired by the semi-historical, semi-legendary figures depicted on the court cards of the pack of ordinary playing cards is entitled Cartomancie, and was published in the ephemeral literary journal Action in 1921, illustrated with woodcuts. An offprint was also produced and one such copy appears in the collection of books, cards and papers donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale by Paul Marteau, director of Grimaud. These poems do not appear to have been republished since, nor compiled in Salmon’s other works, to the best of our knowledge. Moreover, the last stanza of the last poem, Valet of Heart, appears to be missing at least one line. The originals may be read here:

The engravings are also worthy of note in that they were produced by Lluís Bracons (1892-1961), an eminent engraver and lacquerer, founder of the Bracons-Duplessis engraving workshop. Further information on the characters depicted on the cards may be found here, and which are more comprehensively dealt with in chapter XII of W. Gurney Benham’s Playing cards : history of the pack and explanations of its many secrets.

Lest we conclude that cards and cartomancy were only a passing and wholly expedient interest, it should be noted that Salmon devoted a regular column in the newspaper Le Petit Parisien to recounting his investigative experiences among the soothsayers and fortune-tellers of Paris in the 1930s, which pieces were eventually compiled and published as Voyages au pays des voyantes (1932), a book which has been recently republished as Visites aux diseuses de bonne aventure, and which provides a unique insight into the world of early twentieth-century fortune-telling and cartomancy from the point of view of the interested but somewhat sceptical layman. In fact, credit for this type of investigative journalism and social history must go to Salmon, whose command of the French language, superior to the usual journalistic prose, coupled to an acute sense of observation, made him the perfect chronicler of this neglected but enduring aspect of human activity. Furthermore, his erudite historical and literary remarks complete the picture by connecting the divinatory practices and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries with those of his age, giving his work a certain documentary and anthropological value.

Further information on Salmon, his life and works, may be found on the following websites and blogs:

Nowhere is the Italian expression that to translate is to betray no more evident than when it comes to translating poetry, and as one renowned translator has said: to translate a poem, one must write a poem. Without in the slightest claiming to be a poet, nor even a poetaster, we here present fairly literal renditions of a few of these brief and charming pieces. The entire journal containing the pieces may be read here. Further examples of Salmon’s poetry, in both French and English, may be read here. Another English translation of Cartomancy, published by Olchar E. Lindsann, is available here.

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André Salmon

Rachel, Caesar

Queen of Diamonds

Fear the queen with the roses
Dragging you onto her square,
You’ll become her neuroses,
Which she will spread everywhere.

Alexander, Argine

Queen of Clubs

Tobacconist or money exchange?
Gold and banknotes, wines and spirits?
The Queen of Clubs has got heart!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it,
Like a crossed cheque with but one payee.

Lancelot, Ogier


Trifling temporary troubles —
Tears in the night — bereavement and prison
Delays at sea, O passenger
The dark star is above the house.

Plots in the town,
Formed against whom?
A closed circle
Wherein the Ace of Hearts shines.

Bothers, changes, disputes
— The cards never lie;
The black lily of uncertainty
Has corrupted my handsome valet.

Hector, La Hire

Valet of Heart

Gentle, faithful, honest, timid
And among all, the most fatal!
What to do with this heart so candid
O La Hire, so sentimental!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it.

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Paul Naudon: The Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

In another article, we have already begun to note the shift from the invented history or myth of the occult Tarot to a more nuanced approach, one based on a proper historical grounding, but which does not eschew forasmuch the idea that a greater symbolic significance may be found within the Tarot sequence or structure. The present article adopts a similar position, and one which contemporary readers ought to find thought-provoking, if not operative.

The author, Paul Naudon (1915-2001) was a prominent French Freemason and author of a number of works on the subject, dealing mostly with its history and origins, as well as with some of its ritual aspects. One of his works was translated into English as The Secret History of Freemasonry, Inner Traditions, 2005. Additionally, Naudon was also a specialist of Rabelais, and devoted two works to exploring the connections between Rabelais, Freemasonry, and other “occult sciences” in general. The following sub-chapter is taken from one of these latter works, La tradition et la connaissance primordiale dans la spiritualité de l’Occident; les silènes de Rabelais, Dervy, 1973, pp. 77-80.

One will note the references to contemporaneous works on policing, references which betray Naudon’s legal background, and which have proven to be a rich seam of inquiry as far as the serious historical research on the development of the Tarot and playing cards in general is concerned. Indeed, mining the legal and juridical literature is revelatory of the changing status of both games of chance and divinatory processes throughout European society, and provides a wealth of information on the Tarot and early cartomancy.

For Naudon, Rabelais and men of the Middle-Ages “did not only think in words, but often in symbols. The symbol does not adopt a significance; it provokes an illumination. It is addressed at the same time to the two poles of thought: intuition and reason. The method it sets in motion, the way of which it is both language and key, are neither didactic nor dogmatic, but esoteric, anagogic, and initiatory. The disciples of this path, the traditionalists, affirm no less that it is the pre-eminent instrument of metaphysical reflection, and the best means of grasping the Principial Truth.” (pp. 15-16)

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The Tarot

Paul Naudon

At the risk of mixing up the chronology, it seems logic and necessary to open a parenthesis on a symbolic form, to which the modern “occultists” attach the greatest importance, and acknowledge as having an antiquity at least as distant as that of alchemy or the Kabbalah. It is the Tarot.

We know that the Tarot is not only a game of cards, but that in the current “mantic arts” it is accepted that the traditional figures of which it is composed, the symbols which it bears and the combinatorics to which it may be lent, confer on it an exceptional value.

From the historical point of view, playing cards did not exist in Europe prior to the middle of the 14th century. It is supposed nonetheless that they may have a more ancient oriental origin. As to the Tarot, its appearance is more recent. Its legendary arrival by way of the Gypsies is very problematic, and we do not find its first definite traces before the end of the 15th century, under a more simple form than that which is commonly known today. (1)

At that time, it was a game and it does not seem to have been used for conjectural purposes. Everything seems to prove that this use is relatively recent. In effect, there are never any allusions in the ancient texts treating of the various modes of divination, no more than there is of cartomancy.

Rabelais, when he lists the multiple games of Gargantua, does indeed count the cards among those games (Gargantua, chap. 23). But in the Third Book (chap. 25), he makes an ample review of all the modes of divination, and cartomancy is not mentioned. At the same period, Josse de Damhoudère, in his Practique Judiciare ès causes criminelles, carefully notes the various forms of the crime of divination, severely punished as “offences against the Divine Majesty and Sovereign.” He too is silent on cartomancy. Better yet, two centuries later, Delamarre, in his Traité de la Police (1722), in which he treats at length of the divinatory arts in the same spirit of repression in order to provide the judges and judicial officials with documentation, observes the same silence. (2)

It is usual, to give the Tarot the highest antiquity, to acknowledge an oriental, and more precisely Hebraic, origin. In support of this, the analogy of the 22 major Arcana with the 22 Hebrew letters is invoked. In fact, this thesis must be rejected. As G. Van Rijnberk has noted, the majority of the figures of the major Arcana, which are the keys of the Tarot, cannot be oriental. Pope, Popess, the Hermit, Cupid loosing his arrows on the Lover, the Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Force, Temperance, Resurrection, “all these images are based on concepts belonging to the West. … They belong, from the iconographic point of view to a purely Western ideography.” (3) On the other hand, from the complex and difficult to read form of the Tarot, this author makes the argument that it represents the most ancient type of playing card, the simple and more convenient cards appearing to him as being more evolved and more recent. The contrary seems to be infinitely more probable to us, the idea being, on the one hand, to increase the interest of the game of cards by increasing its difficulty, and, on the other, to introduce into the game, very simply and very naturally sometimes put to conjectural uses (e.g. the game of patience), elements of a symbolic order enabling the creation of more learned combinations, and of a greater apparent value.

In sum, we think, contrary to most “specialists,” who were guided especially by their feelings or who only repeated their predecessors, that the Tarot is a relatively recent Western composition, formed by the use and combination of traditional symbols, whose formulation is clearly influenced by the Kabbalah. These historic remarks in no way detract from its esoteric value. To a greater degree than the form, and its conjectural, combinatoric use, of no great antiquity, it is the traditional, and in consequence, immemorial, elements and symbols of which the Tarot is a remarkable synthesis that makes it of considerable interest.

As to the signification and the scope of this value, we cannot do better than to quote the opinion of an insightful “occultist” of our time. “Tarology, writes Valentin Bresle, (and not taromancy), is an art and a science to translate thought into ideograms, into hieroglyphs, into letters, into numbers, and into geometric figures, and to draw from these symbols indications on the moral, mental, psychic, cordial and physical state of the being whom we traditionally name the consultant.” (4)


  1. On the tarot, there is an abundant literature of very unequal value. Let us cite only those works which serve to objectively understand its various aspects. G. Van Rijnberk, Le Tarot, histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme, (important sections on iconography and especially the bibliography); Dr Marc Haven (Dr Lalande); Le Tarot, l’alphabet hébraïque et les nombres (symbolic study chiefly based on the Kabbalah); Valentin Bresle, Le Tarot révélé dans son intégralité théorique et pratique, (study of the logic and “combinatoric” of the Tarot as an instrument of access to Knowledge); Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, (remarkable overall exposé, minute description of the 78 cards and of their signification, and practical methods of reading the cards).
  2. Josse de Damhoudère, Practique Judiciare ès causes criminelles, French edition of 1573, and Delamare, Traité de la Police, tome  I, pp. 552-564.
  3. Van Rijnberk, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
  4. V. Bresle, op. cit., p. 29.

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Jean Bossu: Etteilla & Freemasonry (I)

Translator’s Introduction

The article The Isis of the Tarot examined the origins of the so-called “occult Tarot” in some depth, and more specifically, its Masonic origins. One of the slightly later developments of this myth, that spurred on if not created by Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, was unfortunately only summarily dealt with in that otherwise enlightening article. Pending publication of a more in-depth examination of the relations between Alliette and Freemasonry, we have seen fit to publish a series of short letters dealing precisely with the subject, in order to serve the twofold aim of first of all acquainting the casual reader with the basic facts of the matter, and secondly, in order to provide a variety of views, spanning the spectrum from praise to criticism.

The reason for this is as follows: the source for Alliette’s system of cartomancy is as yet unclear, supposing that one may exist, and the exact nature of his relations with Freemasonry, or para-Masonic associations, is equally unclear. That is not to imply that Alliette learned divinatory techniques in an initiatory setting, or even from a member of one of these societies, for, as we have seen from Streiff-Moretti’s article, the influence may very well have flowed in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, this enigma remains to be elucidated in order to shed further light on the birth of both cartomancy and the occult Tarot in general.

These texts, which may in fact be considered as a composite whole, were published in response to a query by a reader, a certain Cornélius, on Etteilla and his relations with Freemasonry, and were written by the contributors to the journal L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, including Jean Bossu (1911-1985), a Masonic historian and specialist of Masonic biography. Indeed, Bossu’s biographical files – on no less than 130,000 Freemasons of the 17th and 18th centuries – are considered authoritative in the world of Masonic history. These files were bequeathed to the Bibliothèque Nationale and have now been conveniently digitised in the form of a searchable database, while his papers were left to the departmental archives of the Vosges.

Although Bossu did not then have access to his files, it would appear that he never returned to the question of Alliette’s affiliation to Freemasonry, according to his bibliography. Not only that, but Alliette does not appear to be listed in his files either, whether under his real name or his pseudonym. This does not prove that Alliette was not a Freemason, of course, however, some weight must be attached to Bossu’s extensive and encyclopaedic knowledge, and we may consider this absence of evidence to be, on the contrary, an argument from silence – pending further information.

Aside from a brief mention under the entry for the anagrammatic “Elie Alta” (Gervais Bouchet), the only mention of the man in Bossu’s files is in a quotation taken from the biography of Cagliostro by Henri d’Alméras (1904), where he is mentioned in passing, alongside other guests of the Masonic congress of 1785, including the unfortunate Touzay (or Touzai) Du Chanteau, who died in the explosion of the alchemical laboratory which the Philalèthes had installed in their lodge.

In the intervening 45 years since its initial publication, very little research has been done on Etteilla, with the exception of the notable and essential works on the subject by Sir Michael Dummett, Thierry Depaulis and Ronald Decker, which we have cited elsewhere, and especially their Wicked Pack of Cards. Perusal of these works will correct some of the more persistent errors, such as the “wigmaker fallacy,” among a number of other enduring legends. In spite of these minor inaccuracies, we have refrained from cluttering the text with [sic] each and every time, and will instead refer the interested reader to chapter 4 of the aforementioned Wicked Pack of Cards for a comprehensive and detailed biography of Alliette. Readers of French may also profitably consult the early biography by Millet Saint-Pierre, cited below.

These texts first appeared in L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, September 1975,  page 837. Further details on Bossu, and especially, on his Masonic career, may be read here (in French). The second contributor, Georges de Cursac, was a priest with an interest in computistics, who had previously published a study on the dates of Christ, as well as some articles dealing with the “lateral history” of the Avignon papacy. We have been unable to determine the identities of the other two contributors. We have very slightly edited these texts in order to provide fuller references, as well as links to the works cited where possible.

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Etteilla & Freemasonry (I)

Jean Bossu

Alliette, eighteenth-century cartomancer. Until such a time as I am able to consult my files, I will say that the true name of the one who called himself Etteilla has always been known. Here is what René Le Forestier says, in note 57 of page 785 of his monumental work La Franc-Maçonnerie templière et occultiste aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Paris, 1970, in-8), referring to the book by Constantin Bila, La Croyance à la magie au XVIIIe siècle en France (Librairie Gamber, 1925):

Eteila, or better yet, Etteilla, was the anagram of Alliette, name of a former wigmaker who styled himself “professor of algebra” (Kabbalah) and who claimed to renew cartomancy by incorporating “good magic”, astrology, the philosopher’s stone, “the secret of commanding genies and manufacturing talismans” into it … Without being discouraged by political events, he announced, by way of posters, the opening of a “new school of magic.”

It is very possible that Etteilla was a Freemason, since he was the recipient of the proponenda sent by the Philalèthes on the 13 of November 1784 leading up to their congress, for in theory they only addressed them to Freemasons, but I doubt the name of his lodge is known.

— Jean Bossu

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This eighteenth-century wigmaker published a so-called Egyptian Tarot under the pseudonym Etteilla, in which the influence of Gébelin is manifest. He corrected the figures mistreated by the latter’s engraver, but did so in a perspective more artistic than scientific, giving the cards new and less orthodox attributes. Worse yet, he modified the cards, thereby introducing the greatest confusion into the Tarot.

During the Revolution while the guillotine accomplished its work, Alliette, alias Etteilla, gave lessons in kabbalah to the populace. Born towards 1750, he would have died on 12 December, 1791. His deck, the so-called Grand Etteilla, is still in fashion and some users consider Alliette as a great cartomancer. On the other hand, his written work is considerable. The Bibliotheca Esoterica (Dorbon Ainé, 1940) devotes no less than ten analytical articles to it.

— G. De Cursac

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Alliette published all his works under the pseudonym Etteilla. His publications span from 1762 to 1791, with a long interval from 1762 to 1785. He was a wigmaker. All that we know of him has been compiled by Mr Millet de Saint Pierre in his Recherches sur le dernier sorcier.

A letter by de Bonrecueille, tax inspector of Toulon, dated 5 March 1892, and addressed to an adept of Marseilles, designated Hugand, whose pseudonym was Jejalet, as being invested by Alliette. The latter, in a letter signed using his pseudonym, places the death of his master on the 12 December 1791. His succession was contested by a certain Dudoucet.

Alliette’s cartomancy was particularly applied to the Tarots, in their primitive edition, introduced to France no doubt through Marseilles. The decks currently published under this name comprise the hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds of the original playing cards. Alliette has left some very beautiful reproductions of traditional decks. He maintained that the Tarot was of Egyptian provenance, from before the Christian era, and christened his collection the Book of Thot.

Did he belong to Freemasonry? That is for our erudite colleague Jean Bossu to answer, but if, at the end of the 18th century, there were marginal fringes of Freemasonry attracted by occultism, the symbolism of the Tarot – very rich as it is – does not seem to have aroused much interest, and Alliette, if he was indeed a Mason, could only have played but an obscure role.

— Bey

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Better known under the pseudonym Etteilla, deceased on the 12 of December, 1791. A portrait of Etteilla is included in his Etteilla, ou la seule manière de tirer les cartes. An etched frontispiece – a portrait of Etteilla – is twice included in the work of his disciple and heir d’Odoucet, Science des signes ou medicine de l’esprit, Paris, self-published, n.d. (1804).

Perhaps Cornélius will find the answers to his questions in the works by Etteilla and d’Odoucet. These works are not in the library in my town.

— Grib’Oval

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