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.)
* * *
A Little History of Playing Cards: From Puzzle to Prophecy
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:
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.
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!
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.
* * *
- Doyon is here conflating the “traditional” etymology for Tarot, given by Court de Gébelin, and the term “arcana,” later proposed by Paul Christian.
- Cf. Jean Paulhan’s preface to Paul Marteau’s book, Le Tarot de Marseille.
- An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, (cited in D’Allemagne’s work).
- An allusion to Ménestrier, Bibliothéque curieuse et instructive (1704), pp. 180-181 (also cited in D’Allemagne’s work).
- 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.)
- Pun on the French term for “hired killers.”
- The conventional etymology for this place-name is simply ‘Maître Albert’ – Master Albert.
- On Court de Gébelin and Jean-Baptiste Alliette, see here and here.
Images of the deck engraved by François Isnard courtesy of the BNF.