Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Leave a comment

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Leave a comment

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.

* * *



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.

* * *

Leave a comment

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)

* * *

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.

Leave a comment

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.

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

Leave a comment

The Isis of the Tarot, or the Birth of a Myth

Translator’s Introduction

A subterranean current is awakened by the growing prestige of an unknown civilisation to become a genuine obsession. Begun in a mixture of folk and classical traditions, the Egyptian tale takes shape and develops beneath the sign of erudition. All the ancient and modern writings, unknown authors, are all gathered and methodically commented, to which are added exegeses and scholia. An archaeology and an iconography of monuments, whether authentic, imaginary or false, linguistic, ethnological and scientific systems are all set to the task. It is a baroque architecture in the making to the glory of a fantastic Egypt. The legend of a myth, which was itself a work of poetry and a novel, often reaches the domains of the absurd, and evolves in the impossible. This is why the mythographers of our time have generally excluded it from the fields of their preoccupations, or neglected it.” – Jurgis Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, Flammarion, p.13.

Statue of Isis

The phenomenon known as “Egyptomania” is the subject of a growing body of literature, from various points of view, from among which the interested reader may consult the following general works: Bob Brier, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, St. Martin’s Press, 2013; Ronald H. Fritze, Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy, Reaktion Books, 2016; James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival, a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, Manchester University Press, 1994; or the following articles: Claudia Gyss, “The Roots of Egyptomania and Orientalism: From The Renaissance to the Nineteenth Century,” in Desmond Hosford et Chong J. Wojtkowski eds., French Orientalism: Culture, Politics, and the Imagined Other, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010 [pp.106-123]; Jean-Marcel Humbert, “Egyptomania”, in Michel Delon (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, vol. 1: A-L, Routledge, 2001, or Antoine Faivre’s entry in the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, s.v. ‘Egyptomany,’ Brill, 2005. On the subject of the hieroglyphs and their study, one may profitably consult The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition by Erik Iversen, Princeton University Press, 1993. More directly relevant to our subject is Erik Hornung’s The Secret Lore of Egypt, Cornell University Press, 2001. For a scholarly translation and analysis of the myth of Isis and Osiris, see the works Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride (1970) and The Origins of Osiris and his Cult (1980) by J. Gwyn Griffiths. Incidentally, Isis Studies is a growing academic discipline in its own right, with a concomitant body of literature.

The study of the influence of this Egyptomania on the Tarot, its iconography and its historiography, has not escaped the attention of scholars, and there are now a number of works dealing with this aspect of Tarot history and myth in some depth. A Cultural History of Tarot by Helen Farley is one such example. Unfortunately, this work is very uneven and marred by all manner of mistakes. One example, not to labour the point, is that the crude illustrations in volume 8 of Court de Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif are attributable – “probably” – to … Jean-Marie Lhôte! No one would be more surprised to learn this than the man himself, still among us, at over 94 years of age, although he would no doubt be delighted at this circular turn of events, he himself being responsible for identifying the artist, one Mademoiselle Linote. The article Out of Africa: Tarot‟s Fascination With Egypt by the same author is little more than a descriptive and uncritical list of dates, names and books, without any serious analysis, although it may be useful as a reference timeline.

For an in-depth examination of the origins and development of the so-called “occult Tarot,” one must turn to A Wicked Pack of Cards. The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, Duckworth, 2002; and for a fairly comprehensive overview of the general background and later fortune of this “occult Tarot”, A History of the Occult Tarot by Michael Dummett and Ronald Decker, Duckworth, 2002. These two books, along with Dummett’s groundbreaking The Game of Tarot, may be considered the fundamental works on the subject in English, although they very much focus on the personalities behind the writings on the occult Tarot rather than on the milieu that gave rise to them. Typically, works on the subject tend to focus on the Renaissance and the hermeticising or neo-Platonic circles of the time, rather than on the more pertinent developments of the Enlightenment, most notably Freemasonry.

The book by the Egyptologist, Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt, Cornell University Press, 2001, is perhaps the work that comes closest to providing the most comprehensive examination of the Egyptian question from the point of view of cultural and intellectual history. However, despite containing one chapter devoted to Freemasonry and another to the Tarot, only one line in each mentions the subject of the present article: Court de Gébelin’s singular and seminal contribution, the two essays on the Tarot found in the eight volume of his Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne [“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”], published in 1781. The chapter on Freemasonry provides insight into the early Egyptian-inspired Masonic rites and regimes, but otherwise focuses on the figure of Cagliostro, while the chapter on Tarot focuses on later periods, from the Parisian occultists of the Belle Époque and the Theosophical Society to more recent developments. This is all the more regrettable in that Baltrušaitis’ earlier work, cited in epigraph, also lacks a chapter on the subject, as the author of the following piece notes.

A more recent work, Napoleon’s Sorcerers, by art historian Darius Spieth, sheds light on the murky world of the Sophisians, an obscure sect of para-Masonic origin, who had concrete links to Egypt by way of Napoleon’s military campaign in that country. Although that work does not mention the Tarot, and the society in question in fact very slightly post-dates Court de Gébelin’s work, it provides extensive insight into the origins, members, activities and goals of a contemporaneous secret society entirely taken by the myth of Egyptian wisdom. One must bear in mind, in this respect, that the theory of the supposed Egyptian origins of the Tarot is coterminous to that which imputes the same origins to Freemasonry, as well as to the elaboration of the first rites of so-called Egyptian Masonry by the adventurer known as Cagliostro, which we may date to 1781. (Leaving aside putative predecessors, information on which is scarce and subject to caution, and which will be the subject of a future essay.) On the links between Freemasonry and Egypt, whether real or imaginary, one will consult the book by Barbara De Poli, Freemasonry and the Orient: Esotericisms between the East and the West, 2019, especially chapters 1-3.

This is by no means an exhaustive, or even a critical bibliography. One of the most fundamental works on the subject remains unavailable in English translation, La Quête d’Isis by the Lithuanian art historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis. Similarly, a serious and scholarly edition of Court de Gébelin’s 40-odd pages on the Tarot in English is as yet a major desideratum, despite an annotated edition by one of the leading scholars being available in French for four decades. The translations of the essays by Court and de Mellet by the polemicist Jess Karlin (pseudonym of Glenn F. Wright) in his Rhapsodies of the Bizarre, and the very recent publication of Donald Tyson’s Essential Tarot Writings, go some way to address this lacuna, and generous excerpts are provided in the works by Dummett et al. listed above. We have already noted that a period manuscript translation has also been recently digitised. This is to say that, despite this profusion of works on the subject, there is very little to definitively give the lie to Baltrušaitis as quoted above.

The context provided by works such as those listed above, and especially, those by Lhôte , Hornung, Spieth, and Baltrušaitis, to which we may also add the 2 volumes of Auguste Viatte’s Les sources occultes du romantisme, sheds much-needed light on the manner in which what may now appear as merely “bad history,” conjectural speculation tarted up as fact, or even deliberate mystification, managed to mask itself to later generations of researchers and historians, with the predictable result that it would be first assigned – faute de mieux – to history, and later, written off by serious scholars as pertaining to the domain of fiction – rather than being dealt with, as it behoves, as an attempt at historiography, or a fortiori, mythography.

Knowledge of this context is crucial in order to arrive at a critical understanding of the accumulated elucubrations of almost two and half centuries of Tarot literature, which is the point of the following article, the signal importance of which consists in, not in the mere lining up of a series of facts and conjectures, but in interpreting the facts such as they are known, with close reference to the primary text, the sources upon which the author drew for its elaboration, its presiding ideas and thrust, as well as the uses to which it was put. That is to say that it conclusively demonstrates Court de Gébelin’s writings as being the articulation of the founding myth of the occult Tarot.

Portrait of Court de Gébelin

One serious flaw in the existing Tarot literature, whether popular or scholarly, has been to neglect to examine Court’s writings on the Tarot within the context of his greater body of work, a most unfortunate omission. Added to this, taking his speculations on the Tarot at face value, or by the same token, rejecting them outright, has also resulted in some equally unfortunate misunderstandings. The purpose of publishing this translation is to present a more nuanced view of the origins of the so-called occult Tarot, and to provide further indications which the interested reader may choose to pursue.

Bucking the trend, mention must be made, once again, of Dummett, Decker and Depaulis, who call Le Monde Primitif “a monument to misdirected erudition” (op. cit. p. 56), an assessment that is harsh but fair, though, as we shall see, it is perhaps the latter who are misdirected as to the true intent of the work. In any event, A Wicked Pack of Cards (pp. 56-57) gives a very brief overview of the work and its content. Ronald Grimsley’s From Montesquieu to Laclos: Studies on the French Enlightenment (Droz, 1974, pp. 23-26) provides a good summary of Court’s ideas, although citations are left untranslated. We have adapted his opening summary and translated the citations into English.

“Convinced of the universality of language, he proposed to seek “the analogy of all languages,” which were ultimately to be reduced to a single form – “the primitive language bestowed by nature.” More especially, he insisted on the idea of a universal order and harmony in which every particular element had its appointed place. Language therefore, was not the result of mere chance but followed the universal rule that “everything has a cause and a reason.” Moreover, since the spoken word is given by nature herself, “nature alone can guide us in the search for all she has produced, and alone can explain the wonders of speech.” Gébelin believed that with “nature” and “primitive religion” as his guide, he could make an illuminating philological study of ancient religion, mythology and history.”

Another reason Court’s work has been systematically overlooked in the Tarot world is the fact that the only serious attention it has received has been in largely unpublished doctoral theses, unavailable to the general reader, and treating of philology, linguistics and seemingly unrelated specialised subjects. Let us cite a couple, for the enterprising reader: Joseph George Reish, Antoine Court de Gébelin, Eighteenth-Century Thinker and Linguist. An Appraisal, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1972; William Henry Alexander, Antoine Court de Gébelin and his Monde Primitive, Stanford, 1974. For more in-depth analyses of this dense work, one must consult Gérard Genette’s ‘Generalized Hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995; and especially, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre’s important body of work, notably, ‘Le Monde primitif d’Antoine Court de Gébelin, ou le rêve d’une encyclopédie solitaire,’ ‘Antoine Court de Gébelin et le mythe des origines,’ in Porset and Révauger, Franc-maçonnerie et religions dans l’Europe des Lumières, Champion, 1988; ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gébelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, 1997; Un supplément à « l’Encyclopédie » : le «Monde Primitif» d ‘Antoine Court de Gébelin, suivi d’une édition du « Génie allégorique et symbolique de l’Antiquité », extrait du «Monde Primitif» (1773), Champion, 1999; and, in English, her biographical entry on Court in the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Brill, 2005.

The idea that secular Masonic ideals sought to replace Christian values is one dear to Catholic apologists, repentant (or unabashed) Freemasons and conspiracy theorists of all stripes, beginning with Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme in 1797-1798, Cadet de Gassicourt’s Le Tombeau de Jacques de Molay, ou Histoire secrète et abrégée des initiés anciens et modernes, templiers, francs-maçons, illuminés, 1796-1797, and John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, 1798, to name but a few. Although this theory of the Masonic origins of the French Revolution has been disproved in its particulars, there is nonetheless a certain commonality of purpose among these movements and societies that must be examined, pace Albert Soboul and his La franc-maçonnerie et la Révolution française, as shown by Charles Porset in his Hiram Sans‑Culotte ? Franc-maçonnerie, Lumières et Révolution (Honoré Champion, 1998). This is equally true of what may be called the “myth of Egypt” and its contribution to Enlightenment or revolutionary ideals, a contribution detailed in the article by Michel Malaise, La révolution française et l’Égypte ancienne.

This is also the view of mainstream scholars, such as Claudia Gyss, who writes that: “Concurrent with the evolution of views on Egypt from the fantastic to the scientific and Orientalism, Egyptian art also served political functions. […] Egyptian art became an instrument of propaganda, and antiquity became the object of a true cult.” (op. cit., p. 116.) Dame Frances Yates notes that, “The cult of a Supreme Being, using Egyptian symbols, was the religion of the Revolution.”  Baltrušaitis, for his part, states that: “The Revolution combatted the Church by reanimating the Egyptian divinities” (op. cit. p. 46); “Egyptian theogony became a instrument of atheism, and at the same time, a temptation, and a secret belief” (p. 79); and “Egypt is no longer a myth that rubs shoulders with the Old Testament and which is elevated by the vision of the Gospels, which it prefigures. The Egyptian myth now serves to dismantle Christianity, reduced to the category of a primitive religion. […] Every anti-religious struggle ends in religion. It is less the destruction of one cult than its replacement by another. Christianity being, for the theoreticians of sidereal dogmas, a later, disfigured form of the first theogony of man, the truth is reestablished in a return to the origins. […] A Freemasonic fantasy? Perhaps… but beneath the signs of the times, for all the promoters of these intellectual systems, from Court de Gébelin to Lenoir were Freemasons.” (pp. 307-308.) As far as Court is concerned, as Baltrušaitis says, “by his encyclopaedic spirit and his liberalism, he belongs to the line of philosophers and economists who prepared the Revolution.” (op. cit. p. 28.) Frances Yates will not say otherwise: “Gébelin died before the outbreak of the Revolution but he held an important position in the intellectual world of liberals and philosophes which was moving toward it.” (op. cit.)

The peculiarly mythographic type of subversive undertaking was further developed by Charles-François Dupuis in his ambitious Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle, published in 1795 to Masonic acclaim. Incidentally, Dupuis’ work also allegedly contributed to spark Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign – yet another Egyptian connection, although the political, military and commercial reasons for the campaign remain much more prosaic. (On the Egyptian Campaign, see Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, Napoleon’s Egypt by Juan Cole, Bonaparte in Egypt by J. Christopher Herold, and Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt by Nina Burleigh. On Freemasonry and the Egyptian expedition, see Les francs-maçons de l’Expédition d’Egypte by Alain Quéruel.) Dupuis, writing in the Revolutionary era, was able to go further than Court had in his critical interpretation of religion and myth. Dupuis, “disciple of the astronomer and Freemason Lalande and successor of Court de Gébelin, is frequently quoted with approval in the freemasonic writings. He also thinks that the base of all religions is exactly the same. It is simply sun-worship, or the worship of nature or the generative forces, born in Egypt. The various fables and myths, including Christianity, are but astronomical allegories, of which the most recent are the most bizarre. In effect, the dominant idea of his Origin of All Religious Worship is that Christianity is but a fiction or an error, a sequence of allegories copied on the sacred fictions of the Orientals. Even more critical than Court de Gébelin, Dupuis describes religions as diseases to be eliminated.” (Helena Rosenblatt, ‘Nouvelles perspectives sur De la religion: Benjamin Constant et la Franc-maçonnerie’, Annales Benjamin Constant, N° 23-24, 2000, p. 146.) Dupuis’ lasting contribution to religious studies, in one way or another, will have been the elaboration of the controversial ‘Christ Myth‘ theory.

Another eminent Freemason and Egyptianising savant, Alexandre Lenoir, would also follow more or less directly in the Court’s footsteps, elevating the myth of Egypt to ever more dizzying heights in his work La franche-maçonnerie rendue à sa véritable origine, and in his numerous other works of Egyptology. The works of Freemasons such as Nicolas de Bonneville, Lenoir, Ragon, and the other successors of Court explicitly outline the perceived elective affinities between the hieratic initiatory institutions of ancient Egypt, on the one hand, and the progressive and equally initiatory Masonic values on the other. Rosenblatt (op. cit., pp. 148-149) provides entire pages of relevant – and highly telling – quotations, which only serve to highlight the fundamental  and inherent contradiction between the elitist, esoteric, nature of Freemasonry, and its professed egalitarianism and rationalism. This paradox forms the basis for the detailed article by Michel Malaise, La révolution française et l’Égypte ancienne.  Another contradiction, symbolic this time, is further underlined by Hornung when he notes that the orientation of the modern Masonic myth of Egypt “is not toward the “Beautiful West” of the ancient Egyptian afterlife but rather toward the “Eternal East.”” (op. cit., p. 127.)

Je suis toujours la grande Isis! Nul n’a encore soulevé mon voile! – Odilon Redon, 1896.

As Dame Frances Yates noted in her review of Sir Michael Dummett’s book, “The role of Freemasonry, with its Hermetic-Egyptian rituals, is a force very much to be reckoned with in all this movement.” (In the Cards, New York Review of Books, February 19, 1981.) Further examining the matter, Jean-Marcel Humbert states that, “The ties uniting Freemasonry – which officially drew its vital strength from the sources of ancient Egypt – to Isis are of course very close, as with Egyptomania in general.” (Jean-Marcel Humbert, ‘Les nouveaux mystères d’Isis, ou les avatars d’un mythe du XVIe au XXe siècle,’ in L. Bricault ed. De Memphis à Rome, 2000, p. 171)

The question then arises as to how and why the Freemasons of the late 18th century became associated in such an enterprise, namely, the reanimation of an Egyptian deity, to use Baltrušaitis’s terms, when many of them were in fact devout Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, and in some cases, churchmen themselves. One must bear in mind that the anti-clericalism associated with French Freemasonry only took off in earnest from the mid-nineteenth century. The schism within Freemasonry, resulting in the so-called Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions, dates to 1869, then 1877, when the split was fully consummated on account of the French Grand Orient removing the need for candidates to profess a theistic belief. This answer to this question lies both at the periphery, and paradoxically, at the heart of the matter.

One may surmise that perceived deeper affinities between religions of antiquity and the Christian faith led to a certain Masonic form of perennialism, following which the outward religious form was considered but a simulacrum; changeable, replaceable, and ultimately disposable. This notion of elective affinities between Freemasonry and the reanimated goddess, so to speak, or so-called Goddess worship, has even led some to think that the phenomenon was a conscious and deliberate one. See, for example, the decidedly unscholarly but nonetheless interesting work by William Bond, Freemasonry And The Hidden Goddess, which elaborates considerably on this point. The article by Jean-Marcel Humbert, ‘Les nouveaux mystères d’Isis, ou les avatars d’un mythe du XVIe au XXe siècle,’ (in L. Bricault ed. De Memphis à Rome, 2000, pp. 163-188) provides a thorough academic overview of the process of this “reanimation” and its various avatars.

Further considerations of this type lie beyond the scope of the present introduction, suffice to say that the use of myth, in this respect, could be examined more closely in the Sorelian perspective, to name but one, in addition to that of Lévi-Strauss.

Baltrušaitis’s concluding remarks are worth reproducing: Egypt, he states, “remains always a composite of singularities, of paradoxes, of rigid reasonings and of poetic falsifications… […] The legend of the Egyptian myth is not only the nostalgia of a Paradise Lost. It is also the implacable logic that rubs shoulders with unreason, and an erudition placed in the service of dreams. The whole belongs to a chapter of the history of human thought gone astray.” (op. cit., p. 321.)

These dreams, as Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre has demonstrated in her article, ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gébelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, are “a dream of return to a (mythical) past which would become a reality. For Court de Gébelin, it is not only a matter of giving a reading of the symbolism and language of the ancient world, but also of reforming the modern world. … It is not a matter of doing archaeological research by deciphering symbols, but of changing the relationship of modern man to his language, and thereby to the world and to time.” (p. 53)

This essay was first published as « L’Isis des Tarots ou la naissance d’un mythe » in “Isis, Narcisse, Psyché entre Lumières et romantisme. Mythe et écritures, écritures du mythe,” edited by Pascale Auraix-Jonchière and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2000, pp. 35-48. The author, Monique Streiff Moretti, was a professor of French literature at the University of Perugia, and is the author of works on Nerval and Artaud, among others, in both French and Italian, as well as some articles on the Tarot in the works of Artaud and Robbe-Grillet. Our notes or additions are within square brackets or marked with an asterisk. We have been unable to contact the author to obtain her approval of our translation of this article.

* * *

Statue of Isis

The Isis of the Tarot, or the Birth of a Myth

Monique Streiff Moretti 


If we accept, on a synchronic level, the definition of myth as “belief of the other” (*), it is possible to affirm that the Tarot cards present an example of a well and truly living myth of Western culture. The oldest known decks date back to the 15th century and are Italian. In France, Rabelais mentions the “taraux” for the first time in the history of literature. But it is the Egyptomania of the 18th century that is responsible for them becoming extremely productive at very different levels of culture. (**)

The Tarot deck (whose composition has varied over the centuries, but which, in general, consists of twenty-two allegorical cards, in addition to the cards of an ordinary deck) may in effect be used as a popular instrument of divination as it can be as a support for meditation on the symbol. It is sometimes proposed nowadays as a model of the path of initiation, but it has also been used as a strategy for writing, and this since the 16th century, with Pietro Aretino who, in 1521, published a collection of sonnets in which the cardinals gathered in a conclave are ironically designated by the names of each of the cards (then known as Triumphs). (1) In the 20th century, it has also been systematically used by authors as different as Pierre-Jean Jouve or Louis Guilloux, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Michel Tournier, Paule Constant (to which we could add Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco in Italy), without, of course, forgetting the renowned Arcanum 17 of André Breton, where the central figure of Isis is interpreted as an allegory of the eternal feminine.(1*)

By virtue of a tradition which, like all traditions, is periodically reinvented, the Tarot thus saw itself attributed an Egyptian origin at the end of the 18th century. From Court de Gébelin onwards (1781), lovers of mystery have dwelt on the unbound pages of the Book of Toth in which they see a symbolic representation of the Universe, one which would have survived the shipwreck of civilisations and would have been handed down to us in the shape of a game. They divulge, for the wider public, a revelation which they claim is reserved for a few initiates and teach how to read the future in “the most ancient book in the world.” Over the course of the years, the symbolic signs continued to sediment onto the drawings of the cards and voluminous manuals are printed, more often than not compilations of compilations, of which some nonetheless deserve to be studied as independent works. Osiris continues to be unanimously identified as the Sun in card XIX, the allegory is facile, whereas the attribution of Isis to one card in particular is a cause for hesitancy, which here confirms the multiplicity of aspects beneath which the Great Goddess presents herself. (1**) In effect, she is identified, in turn, with the cards of the Moon, the Star, the Popess, or the Empress, or even with the feminine figure which is depicted in the centre of the card of the World.

A myth being, if we limit ourselves to the definition of Lévi-Strauss, made up of the set of all its variants (1***), I propose to examine here the figure of Isis in some significant variants of the myth of the Tarot, from its first appearance in Le Monde Primitif [The Primeval World] by Court de Gébelin, until the birth of the great occultist movement which led to the elaboration of complex astrological systems by Éliphas Lévi (1855) and Paul Christian (1863). (2)

As Jean-Marie Lhôte, who republished, in 1983, the passages of Le Monde Primitif concerning the Tarot, noted, these 45 pages – of which 15 or so are borrowed – will have been enough to ensure its author, renowned in his day for his vast erudition, an influence which will have lasted two full centuries. (3) Antoine Court, who added “de Gébelin” to his commoner’s name to facilitate his social ascension  (3*), was born in Switzerland towards 1728 (3**), of a Protestant father exiled from France by the Catholic persecution. He obtained Swiss nationality, before settling in France, around the age of 40 years old. His first work was a book on the Calas affair. (4) Ambitious, gifted with remarkable interpersonal skills (4*), he becomes a pastor (without ministry),  tasked with representing Protestants in France. In Paris, he joins Freemasonry. (4**) He is first a member of the lodge of Les Amis Réunis – the Reunited Friends, then becomes secretary of the lodge of Les Neuf Sœurs – the Nine Sisters, the most famous of the time, where he will welcome Voltaire in 1778. (4***) He leaves it to take charge of the presidency of the new Société Apollonienne – the Apollonian Society, which will later become the Musée de Paris – the Museum of Paris, of which Court is, at the time of his death in 1784, the perpetual honorary president.

Court’s signature on a Masonic document.

This Masonic affiliation of the first known author of the Egyptian theory of the Tarot brings us to the heart of the dispute between the partisans of Tradition and those of Invention: does Court owe his knowledge of the symbolism of the Tarot to an initiation bestowed upon him by a Master? Or is it simply a purely personal, and manifestly false, intuition? In the first case (Initiation), this would confirm that the Tarot belongs to a Tradition transmitted from generation to generation by societies of initiates. In the second case (Invention), we are witnessing the birth of a myth. Lhôte tends, with enough plausibility, towards the second hypothesis, but the issue for him, as we shall we see, is but displaced:

“In the first instance, it does not appear that the Art of the Tarot had been truly taught before [Court]. On the other hand, if [he] had gathered this knowledge as the heritage of a long occult tradition, we cannot clearly see why he would have taken it upon himself to divulge a secret so closely guarded until then. We may above all think that the writing of this text would have been very different: instead of a succession of diverse and diverging notes, we would have had a more coherent text, or even a genuine treatise. Nothing of the sort, and this fact is made all the more obvious by comparing the two parts of this chapter on the Tarot, the first being by Court de Gébelin himself, but the second being by a different author, who, for his part, seems on the contrary to have received a tradition.” (5)

Here, we find ourselves back at square one (we shall return to this second commentator). Court effectively seems to have discovered the game of Tarot in the years 1775-1776, at the very moment when he became affiliated to Freemasonry. But his interest in symbols goes back much further and the dissertations on the Tarot contained in volume VIII are perfectly integrated into the ambitious synoptic outline constituted, ten years earlier, by the gambit of Le Monde Primitif. From 1771, the very year in which the last volume of the Encyclopédie was published, Court launched a subscription for a grand undertaking whose goal was diametrically opposed to the analytic and rationalist approach of the Encyclopaedists. A title like Le Monde Primitif already indicates a spiritualist approach or neo-Platonic inspiration: man’s becoming is inscribed within his origin.

The work is based on the postulate of universal harmony and on the homology of the parts to the whole. His methodology is therefore a search for symbolic significations and correspondences, beginning with the symbolism of numbers and letters (corollary to the hypothesis of a primitive natural language, born of the universal needs of men), to continue with the allegorising interpretation of mythology and by a study of the allegories of heraldic coats of arms, which immediately precedes the chapter on the deck of Tarot cards. (5*)

If it is not likely that the author of Le Monde Primitif was initiated into the symbolism of the Tarot by a Master, the influence may have been effected in the reverse direction. Court de Gébelin, in effect, would have been an eminent member of the l’Ordre des Philalèthes – the Order of the Philalèthes, or the Friends of Truth, which had been constituted in 1775 and was derived from the lodge of the Reunited Friends, which he had joined at the same time. The Philalèthes had also called upon esotericists from elsewhere to help further their goal, which was to seek within the Masonic catechism the traces of a forgotten knowledge. (6) It is likely that Court, as author of Le Monde Primitif, then in course of publication, had been coopted to participate in this research. (7)(7*) This would explain how the considerations on the Tarot, which had not been mentioned in the synoptic outline of 1771, were published in 1781, in the eighth volume, at the same time as a fairly explicit homage to the ideals of Freemasonry. (8)(8*) And, as such,  the myth of the Tarot remains a myth of essentially Masonic inspiration. (8**)

Let us say from the outset that the cards reproduced in Le Monde Primitif provide no new elements. It is the cards from the deck later called the “Ancient Tarot of Marseilles” in the 20th century which are depicted, very clumsily traced. In a prefatory note, Court announces that he intends to prove that the Tarot deck (9) is “an Egyptian book in which that people has transmitted its civil, political, religious ideas to us, that it is an emblem of life, and that it became the origin of our playing cards […]” (10) A book representing “the entire Universe, and the various Stages of life to which Man is subject” (11), a book composed of loose leaves, which may be read in ascending or descending order, and which is presented in the form of pictures to be deciphered.

Court tells how he examined the Tarot deck for the first time at the home of Madame Helvétius (12) and that he undertook its symbolic deciphering on the spot: “within a quarter of an hour, the deck was perused, explained, declared Egyptian […]” (13) The author of Le Monde Primitif attributes to his knowledge alone of the symbolic language the merit of this illumination: “[…] the shape, the layout, arrangement of this Deck and the figures it presents are so manifestly allegorical, and these allegories are so in conformity with the civil, philosophical and religious doctrine of the ancient Egyptians that we cannot but recognise that this is the work of that people of Sages […]” (14)

Examining the cards in an approximately ascending order, Court expresses the opinion that the names of the Pope and Popess were due to a Christian interpretation of the original characters by Italian or German card makers. He therefore replaces the ridiculous name of Popess by the Great Priestess, whereas the Pope becomes the Head of the Hierophants or the Great Priest. They form a priestly couple because, he says, “we know that for the Egyptians, the Head Priests were married.” (15) Some symbolic signs, which would have been preserved in spite of the transformations due to the card makers, allow him to retrace the ancient origins of the cards and to confirm his identification of the Popess with an Isiaic priestess: “The Great Priestess […] has a double crown with two horns, as had Isis.” (16)

Priest of Isis

The assimilation of the Moon to Isis is notably found in Plutarch, who specifies that the horns which are to be found in certain images of the goddess represent the moon in its waxing phase. (17) It was the Florentine neo-Platonists of the 15th century who rediscovered Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. Starting with the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum by Marsilio Ficino and on the basis of his works as well as those of Pico della Mirandola and of Giles of Viterbo, began, in the 15th century the process of restoration of the prisca theologia, the primitive religion which would have been revealed to the Egyptians by the god Thot and from which all later religions would have been derived. (18)

Equally, one ought to find – according to Court de Gébelin – beneath the Western drawing of the card of the Pope, a priesthood consecrated to the cult of Osiris: “As to the Sceptre with the triple cross, it is an absolutely Egyptian monument; we see it on the Table of Isis, beneath the letter TT; a precious Monument which we have already had engraved in full to present some day before the Public. (19) It is related to the triple Phallus which was paraded in the famous feast of the Pamylia in which they rejoiced at having found Osiris, and where it was the symbol of the regeneration of Plants and of Nature as a whole.” (20)

The Bembine Tablet, or Table of Isis

The seventh card is the Chariot, also called the Triumph or the Victor. It depicts a king on a chariot drawn by horses. It was already a classical representation of Apollo. The commentator sees there an allegory of the resurrection of Osiris in Spring, after the symbolic death of Winter, and he names it Osiris Triumphant (Jean-Marie Lhôte remarks in this respect that the appearance of Egyptian symbolism in the iconography of the Tarot goes back at least to 1660, date printed on the famous Viévil Tarot – which Court apparently did not know about – where the horses are replaced by sphinxes). (20*)

The Chariot, Vieville deck; The Pope, Anonymous Parisian Tarot.

Court’s reading is a syncretic reading, the Egyptian interpretation coexisting, among others, with the four cardinal virtues. We find Osiris once more in the cards of the Sun (XIX) and the Moon (XVIII). Let us note that the author inverts the order of the cards in such a way as to give the priority to the male figure. Citing Pausanias, he sees in the coloured droplets depicted on the card of the Moon a sign of the flooding of the Nile, represented by the pond in which a crayfish swims:

“Pausanias tells us in his Description of Phocis that according to the Egyptians, it was the tears of Isis that swelled the waters of the Nile and thus made the land of Egypt fertile. The accounts of that Country also tell of a Drop or a Tear, which falls from the Moon at the moment when the waters of the Nile will swell.” (21)

The card of the Moon is interpreted as a zodiacal allegory:

“At the bottom of the picture, we see a Crayfish or Cancer, either to mark the retrograde progression of the Moon, or to indicate that it is at the moment that the Sun and the Moon leave Cancer that the flood caused by their tears occurs, at the rising of the Dog Star which we see in the following picture.” (22)

Here, Court advances the hypothesis which enables us to see the installation of the process of symbolic accumulation which will become a characteristic of the design of the Tarot. On the other hand, this symbolic overdetermination is justified in the name of the magical determinism which all esotericism presupposes. Court thus expresses the opinion that the Crayfish or the crab (Cancer in the vocabulary of astrology) could represent at the same time the retrograde progression of the Moon as well as the sign of the imminent flooding of the Nile: “We could even unite both reasons together; is it not very common to be persuaded by a host of consequences which form a mass which would be quite bothersome to sort out?” (23)

The Moon, Charles VI Tarot.

Court therefore interprets the card of the Moon in an astrological sense. (24) It is in this way that he sees the two crenellated towers as being an allusion to the two pillars of Hercules “below and beyond which those two great luminaries never pass” (25) (the Sun and the Moon). As to the two dogs which, between the two pillars, “seem to bark at the Moon and to guard it,” he affirms that these are “perfectly Egyptian ideas.” And here is his interpretation: “This people, unique for allegories, compared the Tropics to two Palaces, each guarded by a dog which, like a faithful Gatekeeper, held back the Heavenly Bodies in the middle of the Sky without allowing them to slide towards one or the other Pole.”

At the moment when the explanation may appear extravagant to the contemporary reader, Court names his source, which is none other than the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria:

“These are not the visions of Commentators whose names end in –us. (26) Clement, he himself Egyptian, since he was from Alexandria, and in consequence ought to have known something about it, assures us in his Tapestries [i.e. Stromata] that the Egyptians depicted the Tropics in the form of two Dogs, who, like Gatekeepers or faithful Guardians, prevented the Sun and the Moon from going any further, and to go as far as the Poles.” (27)

Clement of Alexandria owes his name to the fact that he lived for a long time in Alexandria (he was probably born in Athens, towards 150 AD). His Stromata are a genuine monument of Christian antiquity. Chapter 7 of Book V is dedicated to the symbolic language of the Egyptians. Court translates almost faithfully a text of which he must have had first-hand knowledge, but he effects a condensation which enables him to insert into the sentence he cites the name of the moon, which Clement only mentions in the following phrase. The author of the Stromata, after having affirmed that the Egyptians carried four golden statues depicting two dogs, a sparrow hawk and an ibis, gives the following interpretation of these symbols:

“[…] the dogs are the symbols of the two hemispheres, like the guardians and the overseers, the sparrow hawk is that of the sun, because it has the nature of the destroying fire. As to the ibis, it is the symbol of the moon. […] There are those who maintain, however, that the dogs indicate the tropics, because, precisely, they oversee and guard the doors of the passage of the sun towards the south and the north; whereas the equator, high and ardent, would be indicated by the sparrow hawk, the same way as the ibis indicates the ecliptic. […]” (28)

For the card of the Star, Court recalls Plutarch more directly (whom he does not take the bother to cite). He names this card: The Dog Star. Here is the description he gives:

“Here, we have before our eyes a Picture no less allegorical, and absolutely Egyptian; it is called the Star. We see, in effect, a bright Star, around which seven other smaller stars are gathered. The bottom of the Picture is occupied by a woman leaning on one knee, holding two upturned vases, from which two Streams of water flow. Next to the woman is a butterfly on a flower.

It is pure Egyptianism.

This star is pre-eminently the Dog Star or Sirius: the Star which rises when the Sun leaves the sign of Cancer, which ends the preceding Picture, and which this Star immediately follows.

The seven Stars around it, and which seem like its court, are the Planets: it is in a way their Queen, since it fixes, in that moment, the beginning of the year; they seem to come to receive their orders and to regulate their course on it.

The Lady who is below, and who is very attentive at that moment to pour the water from her vases, is the sovereign of the Heavens, Isis, to whose benevolence they attributed the flooding of the Nile, which began at the rising of the Dog Star; thus this rising was also the herald of the floods. It is for this reason that the Dog Star was dedicated to Isis, of which it was pre-eminently her symbol.”

And as the year is also opened by the rising of this Star, it was called Soth-is, the opening of the year; and it is under this name that it was dedicated to Isis.

Finally, the Flower and the Butterfly it supports, were the emblem of regeneration and of resurrection: they indicated at the same time that, due to the benevolence of Isis, at the rising of the Dog Star, the Egyptian countryside, which was absolutely barren, would become covered with new crops…” (29)

Plutarch effectively relates the poetic belief according to which the demigods go take their place among the stars after their death. It is in this way that the “soul of Isis, for example, was called Dog by the Greeks and Sothis by the Egyptians.” (30) During the Alexandrian period, Isis-Sothis was depicted as a woman seated upon a dog (Sirius, the chief star of the constellation of the Greater Dog, Canis Major), with a star above her head and bearing the horn of plenty and the ear of corn, or the sistrum and the patera, or again, the sceptre.

The Popess, Tarot de Marseille, Grimaud; The Moon, Tarot Italien, Lequart; The Star, Tarot Italien, Grimaud.

To sum up, Court de Gébelin saw an Isiaic symbolism in the three cards of the Popess, the Moon, and the Star. He furthermore identifies the figure on the card the Devil with Typhon, “Brother of Osiris and Isis, the evil Principle, the great Demon of Hell,” which confirms to us that his essential source is indeed Plutarch. This dualist interpretation of the universe does not, effectively, come from the Egyptian religious traditions, for which Seth-Typhon was a figure hostile towards the superior divinities, always vanquished and always reborn. It is in Plutarch that Seth becomes the principle of evil opposed to that of good. (31)

Court concludes that “this Game, entirely allegorical, can be but the work of the Egyptians alone.” (32) The myth is therefore, from its first appearance, an attempt at a response to the search for a system of values antagonist to the dominant values. What is left unsaid in the myth of the Egyptian Tarot is the will to overcome Christian values. (32*)

The Devil: Vieville, Noblet, Anonymous Parisian, Falconnier.

As to the anonymous author of the second part of the chapter devoted to the Tarot in Le Monde Primitif (33), considering that the Egyptian writing was read from left to right, he gives a reading of the cards in descending order, which he arranges into three groups, to have them correspond to the Golden Age, the Silver Age and the Bronze Age. (34) He begins with the twenty-first card (which would then be the first), the World, which he calls the Universe, and in which he sees “the Goddess Isis in an oval, or an egg, with the four seasons in the four corners […]” (35) This reading of the card of the World, which makes Isis the hieroglyph of the Universe, is in conformity with the interpretations of Fludd and Kircher (36), following a tradition which goes back to Servius and to the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and which enjoyed great popularity until the end of the Renaissance.

The card of the Judgment would have indicated, for this second commentator, “the Creation of Man through the painting of Osiris” (37), before the card makers, who could not have known the Egyptian wisdom, turned it into a picture of the Resurrection. On the other hand, if the Devil is Typhon, for him too, our author establishes no correlation between Isis and the cards of the Moon, the Star or the Popess. And only the fact that the Emperor is identified by him with Osiris allows one to infer that he also saw in the card of the Empress a representation of the goddess.

For the rest, as to the hypothesis (formulated by J.-M. Lhôte) of an oral tradition, the knowledge of the anonymous collaborator of Court de Gébelin seems to me to pertain more to that of an experienced fortune-teller than that of speculation on the symbol. (37*) Among the minor cards examined, and which do not belong to the game of Tarot but to the Spanish game of Aluette (37**), we find a few allusions to Isis. It is the Three of Cups, called the Lady (“Madame”), which is “dedicated to the Queen of Heaven” (38), in the same way that the Two of Cups or the Cow is “dedicated to Apis or to Isis” (39). The erudition of the commentator shows itself somewhat hesitant here; we know that Serapis was identified with the ox Apis, whereas Isis was sometimes identified with the heifer Io (the mythographers of the Middle Ages had insisted particularly on this aspect of the myth). (39*) Let us finally note the mention of the “mystical Belt of Isis” (40) concerning the Two of Coins, ornamented in almost every deck with a phylactery in which the name of the card maker is inscribed.

2 of Cups (the Cow), 3 of Cups (Madame), Aluette, Arnoult.

Leaving aside the common postulate on the Egyptian origin of the game, the two readings of the Tarot, proposed by Le Monde Primitif, attribute, as we have seen, an Isiaic symbolism to different cards. Neither of the two authors seems to have been bothered about these divergences, which confirms that both of them felt that they were in the domain of free research, and not in that of the transmission of initiatory knowledge. (40*) The essential difference appears to me to consist in the fact that Court de Gébelin’s collaborator has a much more pragmatic attitude and subordinates the noting of some mythological correspondences to the elaboration of an immediately applicable taxonomy for divinatory purposes.

Two of Coins, Noblet.

The theories expounded in Le Monde Primitif would go on to be popularised by Etteilla. The latter had already published, in 1770, a volume on playing cards in which the Tarot cards were only mentioned at the end, among the methods of soothsaying. (41) From 1783 to 1785, he published three Cahiers [i.e. Notes or Notebooks] on the Manner on How to Entertain Oneself with the Game of Cards Called Tarot. (41*) Taking up the convenient hypothesis that the cards had undergone some deformations over the centuries, he recreated them in his own way, adding an obelisk here, a crocodile there, or the T of the god Thoth… In 1787, another step was taken: Etteilla would now only speak as an Initiate of the Book of Thot. (42) These are but credentials of nobility destined to facilitate the commercial exploitation of popular credulity, and Etteilla shows no curiosity at all whatsoever towards this tradition for which he professes a reverential admiration. (42*)

We nevertheless find an Isis hieroglyph of the Universe, in the centre of the fifth card of the so-called Etteilla deck. It is the re-elaboration of the card of the World of the Marseilles deck, a card which Etteilla calls the Gospel. On the inside of the circle formed by the serpent Ouroboros is a naked woman bearing a belt of roses. She is sallow, her long hair is loose, a veil falls from her shoulders, and she holds an ear of corn in her right hand. Two little pyramids are found to her left and right. The card reads, prosaically: “Travel, or rural Property” (43) …

The World, 4 of Coins, Grand Etteilla.

We are here at the commercial turning point of the myth. With Etteilla, the game of Tarot sees a true launch, in which the Egyptian origin functions like a brand name. The Tarot fashion will take off and will become affirmed by the Sibyls of the Romantic period who, on their side, add a stamp of quality to the traditional figure of the fortune-teller.

I wish to pause for a moment on one of the most well-known of such characters, Marie-Anne Adélaïde Lenormand, to note a significant eclipse of the myth. Mademoiselle Lenormand would have lived at the Court of France before becoming the private cartomancer to Napoleon. She had recourse to Greek mythology, to genies, to different forms of divination, but rebuffs all allusions to ancient Egypt, now inseparable from the attempt at dechristianisation of the revolutionary period. In her Oracles Sibyllins published in 1817, she delivers a Legitimist peroration:

“May the true friends of the King rely on his profound wisdom. May our republicans of good faith abjure the cult of the good Goddess. They must have already found that licence is always the painful companion of, inseparable from unlimited liberty, and that a loose people often and very easily gives in to extreme parties.” (44)

The Book of Thot survives the Restoration. During the Second Empire, beginning with the work by Éliphas Lévi entitled Dogma and Ritual of High Magic (45), a great current of occultist interpretation will begin to affirm itself, one which has lasted until today, and which will result in the purely Egyptian drawings of the Divinatory Tarot of Papus. (46) This new design of the cards will be inspired by the descriptions found in the fictionalised occultist manual by Paul Christian, L’Homme Rouge des Tuileries [The Red Man of the Tuileries], of which the main characters are Napoleon I and his Mage. The book is placed under the patronage of the author of Séraphita (1835) [i.e. Balzac]. The Red Man, that is to say, the Master of the Light, consults therein the “sacred rites of ancient Egypt,” which is none other than reading the cards of the Tarot. (47)

Paul Christian introduces, not only the terms lame and arcana to denote the cards (47*), but also astrological correspondences and an Egyptian transliteration of all the cards. Thus, the Juggler becomes the Mage (“the initiate of the Mysteries of Isis”), the card of the Popess is indicated as being the Door to the occult Sanctuary, in front of which an Isis, veiled for the first time, awaits the initiate; the Empress becomes Isis-Urania, the unveiled Isis who personifies fertility and universal generation; the Emperor takes on a Masonic name: the Cubic Stone, and depicts a “dominator” who holds in one hand the sceptre of Isis-Urania, that is, the “sceptre of nature”; the Chariot is the Chariot of Osiris drawn by sphinxes; the Wheel of Fortune, which is a traditional symbol of fate, is now named the Sphinx, “Throne of Isis, genie of the constellation of Virgo.” The conceptions of Paul Christian are foreign to dualism; the Devil or Typhon is no longer for him the symbol of evil, but that of Fate. On the other hand, his commentaries on the cards of the Star, the Moon, the Sun and the World contain, contrary to all expectation, no allusion to Isis. (47**)

The Tarot will know a great many other avatars, for it is a book offered to the freedom of each of its interpreters. Image of the universe if one wishes, enzyme of the imagination certainly, we could define it, along with Michel Butor, as “the stuff of dreams.”

* * *


*. According to the anthropologist Jean-Louis Siran in his polemical work, L’Illusion Mythique, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1998.- Translator

**. This statement, and the following arguments put forward in its favour, ought to be enough to put paid to the oft repeated and entirely spurious legend concocted by Court that the preservation and dissemination of the Tarot was effected by means of vice, namely, gambling, as opposed to virtue – understood as the moral virtue of Freemasonry, when the reverse, as we shall see, is much closer to the truth as far as the so-called “occult Tarot” is concerned. – Translator

1. P. Aretino, Pasquinate per l’elezione di Adriano VI.

1*. In order to give the minimum of context to this list of authors, we provide the titles of the works in question, with English editions in square brackets where applicable: Pierre-Jean Jouve, ‘Les Rois Russes’, in Histoires Sanglantes; Louis Guilloux, Le Sang Noir [Bitter Victory/Blood Dark]; Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes [The Erasers]; Michel Butor, Passage de Milan, L’Emploi du Temps [Passing Time]; Michel Tournier, Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique [Friday, or, The Other Island]; Paule Constant, White Spirit [White Spirit]; Italo Calvino, Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies]; Umberto Eco, [presumably Foucault’s Pendulum], André Breton, Arcane 17 [Arcanum 17]. – Translator

1**. The attributes of feminine deities are multiple and protean given that the feminine divinities are manifestations of the materia prima, and that matter is multiplicity, a point which seems to have not escaped the author on some level. With respect to Court himself, as Gérard Genette aptly remarks, “Innocently, Gébelin caresses a dream, with somewhat incestuous resonances, of a return to the womb (maternal, of course) of “earliest” indifferentiation.” (‘Generalized hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 114.) – Translator

1***. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ’The Structural Study of Myth’, Journal of American Folklore, vol. 78, n° 270, 1955, p. 435. The interested reader will wish to peruse this seminal essay in order to better grasp the structural underpinnings of the present piece. – Translator

2. A few names of importance for the affirmation of the myth: Etteilla (1787), Éliphas Lévi (1855), Paul Christian (1863), Westcott (1855), Papus (1889), Falconnier (1896), Crowley (1912), Waite (1918), Wirth (1924), etc.

3. Court de Gébelin, Le Tarot, presenté et commenté par J.-M. Lhôte, Paris, Berg International éditeurs, 1983, p. 10. My citations refer to this edition (facsimile). Lhôte remarks, and with reason, that Jurgis Baltrušaitis’s fundamental work La Quête d’Isis lacks a chapter on the Tarot (J. Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis : essai sur la légende d’un myth. Introduction à l’Égyptomanie, Paris, Olivier Perrin, coll. “Jeu Savant,” 1967, republished, Paris, Flammarion, 1985.)

3*. Gébelin being the surname of his paternal grandmother. – Translator

3**. The recorded date of his birth varies from 1719, 1724, 1725, and 1728, as does the place of his birth between Nîmes and Geneva. See Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, chapter 3, for more on this convoluted genealogy. Nîmes and 1725 would appear to be the correct place and date. – Translator

4. Les Lettres Toulousaines, 1763.

4*. That is to say, he was an inveterate social climber. In spite of this, all accounts concord in saying he led a very modest lifestyle. – Translator

4**. The dates of his initiation into Freemasonry also vary; 1771 says one source, 1776 or shortly thereafter is suggested by another. In Gustave Bord’s exhaustive study of Freemasonry in France, a footnote states that Court’s name does not figure on the first rolls of the Reunited Friends lodge in 1774. According to Jean Bossu, he would have joined in 1778. Curiously, in the biography of Court in the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre states that “From 1763 on, Court de Gébelin played a major role in the Masonic lodges in Paris.” This date corresponds with his arrival in Paris. – Translator

4***. Additionally, Court was allegedly a member of a third lodge, that of Saint-Jean d’Écosse du Contrat Social, or the mother lodge of the Scottish rite of the Social Contract, where he gave a series of lectures on the allegorical meanings of the Masonic degrees in 1777, according to Louis Amiable. A number of the officers of that lodge would later go on to found the Sacred Order of the Sophisians on their return from Egypt in 1801. Gérard Van Rijnberk, for his part, goes so far as to affirm that Court was a member of the Élus Coëns founded by Martinès de Pasqually, was a disciple and friend of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, and was the master of Fabre d’Olivet. In his work on the early Martinists, Un Thaumaturge au XVIIIe Siècle, Martinès de Pasqually. Sa Vie, son Œuvre, son Ordre, he states that Court become a Martinist in 1781, as does Robert Amadou. According to Amadou, Court met Saint-Martin around 1775 or shortly thereafter. However, A.-M. Mercier-Faivre disputes this membership. – Translator

5. J.-M. Lhôte, preface to Court de Gébelin, Le Tarot, p. 60.

5*. On Court’s concept of language, sign and symbolism, see Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre’s article, ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gebelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, 1997, and Gérard Genette’s ‘Generalized hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995. – Translator

6. Cf. R. Le Forestier, La Franc-Maçonnerie templière et occultiste au XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris, 1987, I, p. 530 and II, p. 7 (cited in G. Berti, “Il Libro di Thot, ovvero l’interpretazione esoterica del Tarocco” in G. Berti – A. Vitali, Le Carte di corte, I tarocchi, Gioco et Magia alla corte degli Estensi, catalogue of the exposition of Ferrara, Bologna, Nuova Alfa editoriale, 19877, p. 184-190).

7. Baltrušaitis notes that the first Masonic general assembly, in 1777, had been opened by a conference by Court de Gébelin on the esoteric allegories of the order. Alexandre Lenoir later inaugurated a cycle of analogous meetings on the occasion of the general assembly of 1812. (Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, chapter 2, note 16.)

7*. This would appear to be contradicted by the statement that “he had been one of the principal founders of the regime or rite of the Philalèthes,” cited in A. Atger, “Court de Gébelin Franc-Maçon” in Bulletin historique et littéraire (Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français), Vol. 51, No. 11 (15 November 1902), p. 600. Unless, of course, Court, already by then a Mason, had been recruited precisely to help found this research lodge. – Translator

8. “We have had the advantage of being helped by a philosopher full of sense and of reason, whom we have fortunately encountered on our path […] The most simple enunciation of this sublime philosophy was for us a divine torch, a shining source of truth: the complement to our research and our work […] an admirable system, tending towards the same goal, and discovered by an entirely different route. This system and ours have thus been reunited like the two halves of a whole; we have considered it as our own; we have appropriated all that was suitable […]” A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, “Vue Générale,” [i.e. “General Overview”] p. IX.

8*. Decker, Depaulis & Dummett further state that Volume V, published in 1778, contains an entry in which the old-fashioned form of the word Tarraux is listed, in addition to being already labelled an “Egyptian game.” Therefore, Court must have formed his ideas about the Tarot sometime between the publication of volumes I and V in 1773 and 1778 respectively. – Translator

8**. A point which cannot be stressed enough, given the absence of any serious analysis of the matter. – Translator

9. Court only uses the word in the plural. He advances the following etymology: “The name of this Game is pure Egyptian: it is composed of the word Tar, which means way, path; and the word Ro, Ros, Roc, which means King, Royal. It is, word for word, the Royal path of life.” (Le Tarot, p. 380).

10. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 6.

11. ibid. p. 367.

12. “Madame la C. d’H.” See the note by Lhôte in Le Tarot, p. 86.

13. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 363.

14. ibid. p. 366.

15. ibid. p. 370.

16. ibid.

17. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 53.

18. Cf. F.A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, London-Chicago, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

19. The Table of Isis [Bembine Tablet] is currently found in the Museo Egizio [Egyptian Museum] in Turin. It was reproduced life-sized (128 x 75 cm) in 1559, from which an engraving was produced and disseminated in Venice in 1600. The study by L. Pignoria (Mensa Isiaca, Amsterdam, 1670) made it famous. It was reproduced in the work by B. de Montfaucon (L’Antiquité Expliquée, 1719) which is probably the reference work which Court de Gébelin used. As to the triple phallus, this would be an interpretation of the tale by Caylus and Jablonski, concerning the ankh held by Horus, on a statue preserved in the Capitoline museum. (Cf. Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, chap. 2)

20. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 370.

20*. In a related iconographic tradition, a sphinx is similarly found in the Pope card of the anonymous Tarot de Paris, which dates from the first half of the 17th century. – Translator

21. ibid. p. 373.

22. ibid.

23. ibid. p. 374.

24. In the so-called Charles VI Tarot, this card depicts two astrologers consulting the starry sky. It is reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale (Tarot, Jeu et Magie, 1984).

25. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374.

26. That is to say, those pedants who latinised their name.

27. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374. (We now know that those dogs were jackals.)

28. The Greek text is to be found in Clemens Alexandrinus, Zweiter Band, Stromata, Buch I-VI, herausgegeben von Otto Stählin, herausgegeben von Ludwig Früchtel, 4. Auflage mit nachträgen von Ursula Treu, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, “Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte,” 1985, p. 354-355 (my translation).

29. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374-375.

30. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 21. See L. Monte, “Iside in Astrologia e new Tarocchi,” in Iside, Il Mito, il Mistero, la Magia, catalogue of the exhibition of the Royal Palace of Milan, Milan, Electa, 1997, p. 620-621.

31. Cf. notably the digression on Zoroaster (De Iside et Osiride, § 46).

32. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 379.

32*. Cf. Baltrušaitis, op. cit., pp. 46, 79, 307-308. – Translator

33. Recherches sur les tarots et sur la divination par les cartes des tarots, by M. le C. de M.*** (M. le Comte de Mellet, according to Lhôte.)

34. This second commentator gives a different explanation of the word “tarot”: “This Book appears to have been named A-Rosh; from A, Doctrine, Knowledge; and from Rosh (note: Rosch is the Egyptian name of Mercury and of the Feast which was celebrated on the first day of the year), Mercury who, joined with the letter T, means Table of the Doctrine of Mercury; but as Rosch also means Beginning, this word Ta-Rosch was particularly devoted to Cosmogony […]”

35. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 396.

36. R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Historia, Oppenheim, 1617; A. Kircher, Œdipus Ægyptiacus, Rome, 16544.

37. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 397.

37*. Curiously, this uncharitable assessment echoes the statement by Alliette saying that de Mellet had merely learned some card reading from his kitchen maid. (Cited in Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 97.) – Translator

37**. According to Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, Aluette “has never been known in Spain, but is exclusively French.” (A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 63.) On Aluette more generally, see the monograph by Alain Borvo, Anatomie d’un Jeu de Cartes: L’Aluette ou le Jeu de Vache, Yves Vachon, 1997. – Translator

38. Eratosthenes had already identified Isis with the zodiacal sign of Virgo. Cf. P. Castello, “Iside Venerate nel labirinto del sapere tra Medioevo e Rinascimento,” in Iside…, catalogue of the exhibition of Turin, p. 598-609.

39. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 401.

39*. 150 years later, René-Louis Doyon could still write that: “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.” ‘Les Jeux de Cartes en France,’ Gazette Dunlop, n° 202, 1937, p. 23. – Translator

40. ibid. p. 402.

40*. This is all the more evident if we refer to the solemn engagement demanded of members of the very strict lodge of the Nine Sisters, namely, “to never reveal what would be entrusted to them.” (Louis Amiable, Une loge maçonnique d’avant 1789 : la loge des Neuf Sœurs, p. 35.) Moreover, as R. W. Weisberger observes, “In deciding against taking notes, Gébelin and other Secretaries of the Nine Sisters evidently wished to preserve the secret character of the lodge and unfortunately have provided historians with no information about the inner organizational workings and the cultural operations of this Masonic learned society.” (‘Parisian Masonry, the Lodge of the Nine Sisters, & the French Enlightenment’, Heredom, Volume 10, 2002, p. 171.) This militates against the idea that Court was deliberately and openly spreading esoteric knowledge previously kept secret. – Translator

41. [Etteilla, pseudonym of Alliette], Etteilla, ou Manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes, by Mr. ***, Paris, Lesclapart, 1770.

41*. In fact, Etteilla published four Cahiers. Ronald Decker suggests, somewhat gratuitously, that Court, as royal censor, would have been in a position to censor Alliette’s works, one of which was effectively denied publication in 1782. (See Decker, The Esoteric Tarot, chapter 8, Etteilla’s Career.) There is nothing to support such a claim, according to the earlier work by Decker, Depaulis & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 84, and no new information is presented to that end in Decker’s more recent book. – Translator

42. [Etteilla, pseudonym of Alliette], Science. Leçons théoriques et pratiques du livre de Thot [Theoretical and Practical Lessons of the Book of Toth]. The Book of Thot, treating of the High Sciences, 78 pages illustrated with Hieroglyphs 4,000 years ago, and its partial Translation, 1,200 pages, with many illustrations…, 1787. (facsimile of the frontispiece in Le Tarot, Lhôte ed, p. 170). The known copies, as yet still in print, of the so-called Etteilla Tarot, are later.

42*. On the ties between Alliette and Freemasonry, see the article by Jean Bossu and our appendix (forthcoming). – Translator

43. A minor card of little importance (the Four of Coins, no. 74) bears a little feminine silhouette crowned with a crescent; she is naked, draws a veil over her breast with her right hand, and holds a flaming torch in her left hand.

44. Les Oracles sibylline ou la suite des souvenirs prophétiques, with illustrations, by Mlle M.-A. Lenormand, author of La Sibyl au Tombeau de Louis XVI, Paris, published by the author, 1817.

45. É. Lévi [Alphonse-Louis Constant], Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie, 2 vols., Paris, Germer-Baillère, 1856 [translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual, Redway, London, 1896]. Only two “keys” of the Tarot are illustrated: the Devil, depicted as the Sabbath Goat, and the Chariot of Hermes, drawn by two sphinxes (Court de Gébelin, along with Plutarch, identified the Egyptian god of writing with the Greek Hermes and the Roman Mercury). Following Lévi’s description, which here follows that of Court, the Popess “bears the horns of the Moon, or of Isis,” and has a veil tied around her head. The veil is therefore still behind the head and not in front of the face.

46. Papus [Gérard Encausse], Le Tarot Divinatoire, [1889], reprint Éditions Dangles, 1982 [translated into English as The Divinatory Tarot by Beryl Stockman, Aeon Books, 2008]. In 1896 René Falconnier will, in turn, create an Egyptian Tarot, designed by the illustrator Maurice Otto Wegener. (Les XXII Lames Hermetiques du Tarot Divinatoire, Paris, Librairie de l’Art Indépendent, reprint, Nice, Bélisane, 1976).

47. P. Christian [J.-B. Pitois], L’Homme Rouge des Tuileries, illustrated with twenty-two kabbalistic figures, [1863], reprint Guy Trédaniel éditeur, 1977, p. 6.

47*. The term lame, literally ‘blade’ or ‘strip of metal,’ is in fact predicated on Alliette’s asseveration that the original Egyptian Tarot was engraved on sheets of gold (Third Cahier). Arcane, or arcanum, singular of arcana, is a term denoting a mysterious and secret hermetic operation. – Translator

47**. After fictionalising his occult treatise as a novel, Pitois later attempted to dress it up as a serious historical and philosophical work, entitled Histoire de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples, 1870, translated into English as The History and Practice of Magic, Citadel Press, 1969. See chapter 9 of A Wicked Pack of Cards or the blog Egypt in the Tarot for further details. – Translator

* * *


Leave a comment

Jean-Michel Mathonière: Preface to Graal et Tarot by Yves Desmares

Translator’s Introduction

There have been almost as many attempts to elucidate the structure of the Tarot as there have been writers on the Tarot. Beyond the linear numerical sequence of the cards, various authors have sought a more complex underlying structure beneath the trumps, notably. These structures are typically based on some 3×7 arrangement, or less frequently, on a twin decimal sequence, but only rarely on the full set of 22 trumps. In French, some noteworthy efforts to present and to justify these structures include those of Jean Vassel, Armand Barbault, Jean Carteret, Gérard Van Rijnberk, and more recently, Alain Bougearel, or Jean-Michel Mathonière, whose work we present here.

Mr Mathonière is a specialist on the guilds of Stonemasonry, or the Compagnonnage, in French, and has written a number of works on these and connected subjects, such as printer’s or mason’s marks. One of his earlier books concerns the geometrical arrangement of the cards of the Tarot. In effect, Mathonière’s book, L’arcane des arcanes du Tarot, published by Trédaniel in 1985, deals with a proposed circular structure underlying the Tarot, and the manner in which all sorts of interesting connections between the cards may be drawn from this geometrical arrangement.

On the subject of the Tarot, Mr Mathonière has published, in addition to the foregoing book and a number of articles, a short but stimulating booklet by Yves Desmares, Graal et Tarot [Grail and Tarot] in 2001 (éd. La Nef de Salomon), of which we present his preface. Mr Mathonière has also produced, in conjunction with Hugues Gartner, the Tarot des tailleurs de pierre [the Tarot of the Stonemasons], published in 2011 by Trédaniel.

This preface, as well as the article it refers to, are noteworthy in that they represent a departure from the two dominant – and typically mutually exclusive – forms of writings on the Tarot, the historicist approach, and the more speculative genres, and demonstrate that it is possible to posit or to accept both an esoteric significance to the arcana of the Tarot as well as a historical grounding, without abandoning all reason.

* * *

Preface to Graal et Tarot by Yves Desmares

Jean-Michel Mathonière

Published with the kind permission of the author.

Since 1781, the year in which Court de Gébelin published the first book devoted to the arcana of the Tarot, thousands of books and articles have appeared in an attempt to decipher “the” occult message. Only a few authors have dealt with the question from the sole angle of iconography, generally considering the esoteric aspect as being fantasies good only for attracting dreamers.

If I myself have devoted a short book, some sixteen years ago, to the geometric structure of the arcana and to certain aspects of an esoteric order, my later research, whether on the Tarot or other subjects, has led me to take a lot of distance with respect to the occult dimension that is accorded to the game. Little over a year ago, I took up my pen once again to produce a short article in La Chaîne d’Union, in which I denounced the incoherence of certain received ideas as to the antiquity of the Tarot and certain interpretations – all the while drawing the attention of researchers to the neglected importance of the Art of Memory in the constitution of the iconography of the arcana and the structure of the deck.

That is not to say that, beneath its appearance of a game, the Tarot does not vehicle other hidden meanings, on the contrary. But it seems to me that the plurality – of the hidden meanings – must predominate over a deceptive singular one – a hidden meaning – which induces the idea that it is not only a matter of a unique meaning, but especially, of a fully coherent meaning. The study of the history of the Tarot and of the evolution of its iconography indeed quite evidently shows that, regardless of the intentions of its creators, the deck which has come down to us – notably in the shape of the so-called Tarot “of Marseilles” – has undergone, as with every created thing, transformations. If some may be considered as being losses with respect to the comprehension which the imager-makers had of the primary sense of the symbols, others are in reality attempts at “over-symbolisation” which result from the fads of the moment where esoteric doctrines are concerned.

Two particularly clear examples of this manipulation of the arcana of the Tarot in order to have them convey an esoteric message are interesting.

The first, which still largely conditions the majority of studies devoted to the subject, is that of “kabbalisation”: the major arcana being, from a partially erroneous point of view, twenty-two in number, the occultists of the 19th century assigned to each of them one of the twenty-two numbers of the Hebrew alphabet, which serves as a support to an important part of the Kabbalah, one of the forms of Jewish esotericism. Now, the kabbalistic doctrines are not limited to the problematic of the permutations and numerical values of the letters, and the latter fundamentally depend on the ten sephiroth which form the basis of Jewish cosmology. Moreover, if it is probably fitting to search within the Kabbalah for the explanation of certain symbolic aspects of the Tarot, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the latter did not evolve among Jewish Kabbalists – who are divided into different schools – but among Christian hermeticists who were interested in the subject with a view towards better understanding certain aspects of the … Christian tradition. The texts they had at their disposal, from the end of the 16th century on, either in the form of translations of Jewish kabbalistic writings, or, more frequently, in the form of writings speculating on the subject, are often fairly removed from the “purist” vision we can nowadays encounter in the learned works devoted to the… Jewish kabbalistic doctrines!

The second example of manipulation is of that of the colours and of certain details. In 1949, when Paul Marteau published his classic work on the Tarot of Marseilles, he based the greater part of his interpretations on the colours assigned to some detail or other of the arcana. The idea is an attractive one, forasmuch as the book is well written and a pleasant read. Moreover, this Tarot claims to be the faithful copy of the classic edition of “the” Tarot of Marseilles, that of 1761 produced by Nicolas Conver… But it is enough to check some copies of that edition to observe that not only do the colours of the Marteau/Grimaud not match, but that, as was the case for the majority of the old decks coloured by stencil, the colours may vary from one printing to another! Conclusion: Paul Marteau “over-symbolises” the arcana of the Tarot by means of the colours, according to his own conceptions. Another particularly revealing detail of the manipulation is that of the two dice present on the Juggler’s table: the mathematical combinations of two dice are 21 in number, which coincides, by one of those “revelatory” random chances, with the number of numbered major arcana! But seek out the dice on the 1761 edition…

These few limits to the exercise of decoding being set, there is nothing to prevent one from still seeking the traces of hidden meanings in the Tarot. I myself have shown, in Les Arcanes des Arcanes, the very clear existence of geometric structures in the series of major trumps which enable one to arrange them according to “mandalas.” Considering the arcana then not only one by one, but also according to their connections, many aspects (as in astrology) are revealed and which clarify their meanings. The necessary point of departure for this type of attempt is to take into account a set of twenty-one major arcana, and not twenty-two: the Mate is not numbered and does not really belong, as the practice of the Tarot as a game proves, to the series of trumps. Furthermore, the twenty-first major arcana, the World, is manifestly a centre, point of departure and point of return. There remain thus twenty cards with which to form geometric figures bearing significance. And twenty is a geometrically interesting number because, unlike twenty-two and twenty-one, it is divisible by the traditional use of the compass and the square – and we will highlight that the division of the circle into twenty is effected by tracing a cross bearing a five-petalled rose…

Yves Desmares has here taken up the quest I had voluntarily left uncompleted – the aim of a book is not so much to exhaust a subject as to give the reader the desire to pursue the path for himself – and offers us here some other revealing arrangements, notably according to the structure of the sephirothic tree. He invites us to an exploration of the arcana in their relations with Eastern and Western traditions, in particular with what concerns one of the most fascinating expressions of the nourishing and salvific Word, the Grail. It is a stimulating little book, inasmuch as it is less a deliberately exhaustive and ordered discourse than some notes jotted down during the course of a stroll in the mysterious garden of the arcana. The questions and the doubts which some of his interpretations may raise, as well as all that is not dealt with, or that is passed over in silence, are, in the end, so many incitations to pursue the path for oneself.

And, in order to end the “tale,” I present here for your meditation another mandala of the arcana…

From the Bibliography:

Leave a comment

Alain Bocher: The Tarot of Marseilles or the Arcana of Wisdom

Translator’s Introduction

One contemporary French Tarologist whom we must mention is the late Alain Bocher (1935-2014). Bocher’s contribution to recent French Tarology is immense, and a look at his publications will confirm as much. In effect, we find his influential Cahiers du Tarot in 6 volumes, a series of compilations dealing not only with the Tarot, but also including reflections on subjects as varied as colour symbolism, analogy, geometry, number symbolism, astrology, as well as, more unusually, medicine, herbalism and anatomy. (While the first four volumes were printed, the last two volumes only appear to have been sold by the author himself as e-books.) Finally, his more recent Le Tarot : mode d’emploi and the accompanying booklet, Le Tarot-Mémoire (available online courtesy of the publisher) form comprehensive introductions to the study and use of the Tarot of Marseilles, and more particularly, that of Nicolas Conver (1760).

In effect, Bocher, like a number of others, was of the view that the Conver Tarot was the most perfect Tarot, the work of an initiate, and therefore the one which conveyed the deepest spiritual truths in unadulterated form. The fact that it was not the oldest Tarot on record did not matter; it represented the purest strand of the Tarot tradition and the summit of the engraver’s art regardless. Having said that, Bocher’s Cahiers show a tremendous knowledge of all the tributary streams of the Tarological current. Moreover, he himself was an accomplished artist, and the creator of the charming Tarot de la Réa (1982), pictured below.

Here we present an article which shows, among other things, some similarities to that minute and holistic approach typical of Tchalaï, a deep knowledge of the phonetic and anagrammatic aspect of the card titles, and a concern with the type of visual cryptography that characterises the work of authors as varied as Philippe Camoin, Marc Olivier Rainville (“ROM”), and some others in French and French-inspired Tarot circles.

Due to the close reference to the orthography of the titles of the cards, we have left them in the original French and in upper-case letters, as per the cards themselves. This article was first published as “Le tarot de Marseille ou les arcanes de la sagesse” in the magazine Le chant de la licorne n° 26, 1989. The original French may be read here. In French, the late author’s personal website may be found here; an obituary may be read here; and a tribute to the man by the eminent Tarologist Kris Hadar may be read here.

* * *

The Tarot of Marseilles or the Arcana of Wisdom

Alain Bocher

The Tarot is the book of books, the support for all the Knowledge of the universe, and this book is made solely of images… the text is not legible and appears to remain in the consciousness of the one who uses it.

* * *

And what if the Tarot of Marseilles were not divinatory?

Have you ever purchased 250 grammes of divinatory powder at your local greengrocers? Have you ever picked up, along the foam line of a beach, a handful of divinatory objects?

No? And yet, you have, at some point, once bought a packet of ground coffee! Yet, you have already picked up a handful of pink or yellow seashells on a beach, last summer! Perhaps you even had the idea of reading or attempting to read your future in the bottom of your cup, or again, of throwing that handful of empty seashells in order to discover a secret geomancy…

When you buy a deck of playing cards for playing bridge or canasta, you do not see the words “Divinatory Game” printed on the box. Yet some fortune-tellers use them to that end. And we often see the following phrase on the boxes of the Tarot of Marseilles: “This pack of tarot cards enables you to predict certain events by the association of currents.”

That is, alas, to reduce to very little a veritable monument of our Western civilisation, and to truly underestimate the riches of what we may call a Sacred Book. It is true that some people open the Bible to a random page, in the hope of finding some answer to a question they have, or even an answer to their anxiety in the face of the future, and justify themselves by explaining that all answers are within that Book, and that they are true since spoken by God! Did they go to their usual bookseller to buy the Divinatory Books?…

Why see the Tarot of Marseille as an object designed for divination alone? And what if the Tarot of Marseille were something else entirely?

Elisabeth Leichelbeck, writing in La Lettre de Sophon, tells us: “A Conceptual Tool is a tool to see… It is a means to direct the steps of the spirit… Like any other technical instrument, it is an extension of the body of man to increase his power, by amplifying his natural aptitudes.”

This definition is exactly what could be said of the Tarot of Marseille. It is a conceptual tool, and we could go so far as to say that it is the pre-eminent Conceptual Tool, since it enables us to broaden the mind in domains as varied as mathematics or astronomy, cosmology or paraphysics, the psychic or biological sciences. Nothing appears to be foreign to it.

But in order to use a tool, one must first of all know it perfectly, otherwise one runs the risk of spoiling one’s work, or injuring oneself, or even putting those around us in danger. One must also learn how to maintain it, sharpen it, adjust it, that is to say, to submit oneself to its function. The same goes for the Tarot of Marseilles. It will become necessary to study it in its slightest details in order to know it perfectly, and in consequence, to know how to use it. It is necessary to undergo the apprenticeship of a tool. It is also necessary to undergo the apprenticeship of the multi-purpose tool that is the Tarot.

It is true that we sometimes see someone pick up an unknown tool for the very first time and to create a work of art using it. This happens, but it is even rarer still to see this work of art repeated! And when this is the case, it seems to be the work of a true genius, something which has always been extremely rare in the history of humanity. We may also ask ourselves what would this work have been like had its creator had a perfect knowledge of the tool. It would probably have been even more beautiful still.

It seems obvious that to write a novel or a historical treatise, one must previously have learned to read and write. In other words, to learn the Class 101 of the language in which one wishes to expresses oneself. This is very precisely the sole means of effectively expressing one’s thoughts.

A Hieroglyphic Alphabet

The Tarot of Marseilles is the graphic structure of a language, just as is the Latin alphabet or the set of Chinese ideograms. One must therefore proceed to Tarot of Marseilles 101 before using it. And before learning the basics, it will be necessary to perfectly understand the absolute basics, for the Tarot of Marseilles is none other than a fantastic hieroglyphic alphabet rich of 78 letters divided into 22 principal letters and 56 secondary letters, which we may relate to vowels (that is, to letters used for vocalisation, for the pronunciation and the expression of the consonants). Moreover, it is an extraordinary numerical system, based on a counterpoint of different systems; the decimal and septimal systems being the easiest to grasp immediately.

These hieroglyphs, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, draw upon a symbolism whose basis is extremely simple, but whose reading becomes complex by the play of the analyses on different planes of consciousness. Thus, arcanum III, “LIMPÉRATRICE” (“The Empress.”) It is obvious that, at first glance, this arcanum (we ought to say “arcanum” and not card for the Tarot of Marseille) represents an empress seated in majesty. Yet, by deepening the examination of this image, we note that there is no apostrophe between the “L” and the “I”, and attentive and thoughtful observation will enable us to understand that this omission is deliberate and that it enables the expression of the idea of purity which this arcanum III must contain (in Latin, limpiare means to purify). Moreover, the thin blue serpent uncoiling itself around her feet is there to signify the purity of the subterranean waters. But this little serpent may immediately make us think of the Great Serpent of Genesis, on which Mary-the-Pure, Mary of the Christians, placed her foot. This Virgin-Mother leads us to think of the Virgin-Mothers of Antiquity, which LIMPÉRATRICE also symbolises. There is therefore a relationship between LIMPÉRATRICE and the Virgin, and in consequence, we shall pursue our inquiry by assimilating it to the constellation of Virgo. Continuing our investigation, we note the rectangular jewel she wears on a necklace, and in the midst of which we find a triangle. A minute analysis shows that it one of the constructions of the number Phi, that is, the Golden Number! Similarly, the study of the colours gives us a hint of the alchemical symbolism and gives us some solid information as to the Mercury of the Wise.

A Secret Code

We thus see that each hieroglyph contains a number of interpretative levels, and that it is only after a long apprenticeship that we will know how to handle this set of the Sacred Alphabet. But the reader should not be discouraged, for if the very beginning is somewhat disarming, the spirit lends itself very quickly to this gymnastic which becomes a game. And this game is the source of increasingly intense joy. It would be a pity to become discouraged before having even begun its study. It is then that one will discover even more surprising secrets than this system of games of ideas; for example, the principle of the Barcodes, well known to retailers nowadays, was already well underway in this Tarot in the 18th century!

Thus, some arcana bear, on either side of the title, small bars which are easy to count and which refer the reader to other arcana bearing the same number in their header. So, by examining arcanum VIII, named LA JUSTICE, we can count nine bars to the left of the title, and eleven to the right, which refers us to arcanum VIIII (and not IX, nothing can be negative!). This ninth arcanum is called L’HERMITE, and symbolises, among other things, reflection, retreat from the profane world, the inner flame, the slowing down of time, and in consequence, a certain wisdom. On the other hand, the eleven bars refer us to LA FORCE; which, beyond its signification of force, teaches us silence (the one one voluntarily maintains) and also self-mastery. It then seems obvious that this system of bars has not been fortuitously placed here since it expresses well that in order to render Justice, one must have some reflection, silence and self-mastery. It is then that justice may be rendered. Now if we add these two arcanum together, we obtain twenty, which refers us to arcanum XX, which is called LE JUGEMENT!

A Mine of Knowledge

A great deal of other marvels are, more or less deeply buried, within the bosom of this Tarot. One need but study each arcanum, simply, and with one’s eyes and mind wide open, to discover them. Thus, after what we have seen by solely observing five arcana of the Major Arcana (the 22 principle arcana, which many use by systematically excluding the other so-called Minor Arcana), we may be the same token discover just as much, if not more, amidst the Minor Arcana. For instance, we can see that the REYNE D’EPEE knows how to divide the circle into thirteen equal parts, her horseman divides this circle into seven equal parts, and the VALET into five! Without speaking of the ROY DE BATON who gives us the inclination of the earth, and his VALET who plants Pythagoras’ theorem into the ground…

Mathematics are not the only thing present in these arcana; biology and botany are not forgotten either, no more than astronomy or philosophy or medicine. The Tarot of Marseilles is much more than a mere alphabet, it is a very complete encyclopaedia of the knowledge of the age. Nevertheless, it is important to consider it above all as a very efficient language system, a language which enables us to communicate in a universal fashion, regardless of the mother tongue of one’s interlocutor. To be sure, the Tarot of Marseilles is a game elaborated in French, and it is certain that the word play and play of ideas are more easily perceptible for someone who has perfectly mastered that language. Nonetheless, the quality of the drawing and the various narratives hiding beneath it allow for a very broad grasp of its concepts.

How then might we use it as a language? Exactly in the same way as with any other alphabet. The four letters “O,” “M,” “R,” “A,” enable us to write the words ROMA, AMOR, OMAR, MARO, the first two being Latin, the third in Arabic, and the last one in Breton. In the same way, the assembly of the arcana in one position or another will show one idea or another, and experienced in this reading by a deep study of the basic schemas, we will easily understand the signification of this or that sequence, the first thing to do being to place oneself on a level perfectly defined in advance.

Approximate Copies

Now I can already see you taking a magnifying glass and not finding the little bars in the title header of your deck. They no longer exist in the recently-manufactured decks, as the illustrators who have succeeded each other to transmit this marvel down to us did not always know to look attentively, and often, did not understand that what they took to be printing errors or scribal errors were in reality perfectly deliberate. It is then that the barcodes vanished, that LE TOULE, that natural and beneficial basin of fresh water,* became L’ETOILE, when it was not “Les Étoiles,” or even “The Stars”!

Thankfully, the Bibliothèque Nationale has preserved a number of ancient decks, such as that by Nicolas Conver dating from 1760, and a publisher had the good idea to republish it in its original format (Tarot de Marseille, Héron Boechat). This is currently the only Tarot of Marseilles that is usable for deeply studying the Sacred Book that is the Tarot.

It is obvious that the other tarots, created over the course of centuries by artists in love with these images, all have a great value, not only artistic, but symbolic and initiatory. Furthermore, they have an undeniable function: that of bringing new adepts to the practice and to the reading of the Tarot of Marseille! There are twelve doors to the Temple of the Celestial Jerusalem! Each must be able to choose his own, just as each must be able to choose his own way in order to penetrate the consciousness of the Tarot of Marseilles. For the ones, it will be pure meditation, considering each arcanum as a mandala, for the others, each arcanum will be the reflection of his own mind, or the mind of his interlocutor. Some will even see nothing but a game to win a few dirty coppers, and others yet will find nothing but the means to sate their collector’s passion, but all these uses are a good thing.

In this way, the Tarot of Marseilles has crossed the centuries to come down to us, and we can, at the end of the twentieth century, take it in hand, study it deeply and in profound sympathy, in order to grasp the inexpressible, as Bergson might have said.

* * *

* Note: Le Toule, allegedly a Provençal term meaning ‘spring,’ or ‘small pond,’ although we have been been unable to substantiate this etymology. Typically, this interpretation is used to bolster the theory of a French origin for the Tarot. – Trans.

Leave a comment

Charles Estienne: Assessment of a Year of Painting: Book Review: Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Marteau (1885–1966), heir and director of the Grimaud card manufacturing company, is best known for the deck of Tarot cards he produced in 1930, and the accompanying book he published in 1949. This deck, still in production, is the most widespread and best-known of the Tarot de Marseille type decks. Leaving aside the purely commercial aspect, the extent of his influence on the world of Tarot is as yet still little understood, through lack of research; if not badly understood or even misrepresented at times.

In an attempt to correct the record, and provide further indications in English, we have published a number of reviews of his work, and the perceptive reader will have noted the variety of horizons from which the reviewers hail; occultists, card historians, art critics, writers, poets; the influence of his work extended far beyond the confines of the insular worlds of cartomancy or card specialists, but instead brought the Tarot out into the open, as a cultural object in its own right.

Continuing in the series of book reviews, we present this piece by the noted art critic Charles Estienne (1908-1966). An important and influential critic and writer, Estienne was one of the main promoters of abstract and figurative art in the post-war period, and the author of numerous books on the subject. Close to André Breton for a time, it is therefore no surprise that he turned his attention to the Tarot, and especially, to the novel idea expressed by both Paul Marteau and Jean Paulhan, namely, that the Tarot be approached as an optical language in its own right, and conversely, applying the tarological exegesis to figurative art.

On that subject, it is not uninteresting to note the illustration by the artist Auguste Herbin which accompanied Estienne’s piece, which we have been unable to find, but which we have exchanged for a suitable replacement. The sculptor Jacques Villeglé later remarked that: “Charles Estienne had judiciously illustrated his article on the release of another book, this time dedicated to the Tarot of Marseilles and prefaced by Paulhan, by an Herbin, which, just like an arcana, was composed of simple forms with flat tones, o how resplendent!” (Jacques Villeglé, Cheminements, 1943-1959, 1999, p. 35.)

The following piece was originally published as “L’Art n’est-il qu’un jeu ? Bilan d’une année de peinture (1)” in the journal Combat, 14 September, 1949. It was followed by a second piece on recent exhibitions a week later, further expanding on the author’s views of expressionism and realism in art, but without reference to either the Tarot or to Marteau’s book. The original may be read on the French news archive here.

* * *

Assessment of a Year of Painting

Book Review: Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Charles Estienne

A curious painting by Herbin. (This is not the exact artwork as reproduced in the original article, which we have been unable to find.Trans.)

Is Art But A Game? – An Assessment of One Year of Painting (1)

Before submitting “my” list of the chief exhibitions of the last season to my readers, I would like to tell a little story that may somehow contribute to articulate its meaning.

Over the course of a conversation on abstract art with the “figurative” artist [Maurice] Bianchon and his wife Marguerite Louppe, also an artist, Léon Degand recalled his reply to [Léon] Gischia during a similar discussion:

“No one, said Gischia, would have had the idea of changing the rules of the game of whist. The same goes for painting…”

— “Well, replied Degand, but what if I wish to play bridge?”

On the moment, Marguerite Louppe could only declare herself in favour of the artist’s “freedom of the game”. But the next day, she declared: “I was thinking that we were not talking about the same thing: because you are no longer playing cards, you are reading them, you abstract types…”

The “Tarot of Marseille”

That this little anecdote might go much further then its superficial sense was confirmed to me recently as I leafed through the very curious work dedicated to the Tarot of Marseille published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, and enriched, as they used to say, with a malicious and profound preface by Jean Paulhan, an exposé by Eugène Caslant (of the École Polytéchnique, as the publisher notes), and finally with the 78 cards of the Tarot pack, reproduced in colour, the main text being by Paul Marteau, director of the Grimaud firm, specialised, as we know, in the manufacture of playing cards.

Now the “Tarot” is also a pack of cards, but of a particular type, since the figures and the suits which it consists of have a precise symbolic significance, and that the “combinations” which its cards may give rise to are supposed to “express the flowing and varying play of the universal forces.” This is why, continues Eugène Caslant, the one who handled these cards considered that their shuffling, if it were done in affinity with the mental and passional prospection of the querent, could discern the cosmic law at work, and reveal, to a certain extent, fate.


Of course, I am not ignoring the fact that broaching the grave and hackneyed subject of the “fate of art” will have me labelled an obscurantist. And yet, close to a very ancient popular practice, the Tarot, of which our current decks of cards are but the degenerate descendants — and without danger, since we no longer play at “fate” — it has been difficult not to make some very simple observations by way of hypotheses or indications…

1. That abstract art presently finds itself reproached for being flat, technically speaking, as playing cards were. The reproach was already classic, in their day, with respect to Manet, Gauguin, those ancestors of abstraction. But an Herbin today, the flat forms and shades he employs, do they not correspond, to his mind, to an alphabet, that is, to a precise symbolism? And is this symbolism not fairly close, in the end, to that of the Tarot, and which gives that strangeness and mystery to some Herbin pieces, for example, the one exhibited recently at the [Salon des] Réalités Nouvelles?

Second observation: Does current figurative art not increasingly appear to you as a “game without danger”, where the rule is to stop at the appearances of the world to avoid burning oneself by seeking what is behind it?

The Secret of the World

It is therefore not absolutely absurd to reproach the so-called abstract painters of violating, to a certain degree, the “rule” of a certain pictorial tradition, for in fact, they are no longer playing at only reproducing appearances; and this in order to “participate in the secrets of the world, — short of understanding them,” as Paulhan remarks. They do not reason by identities, but proceed by analogies: which is the very principle of the Tarot (and of poetry…).

And, still following the same comparison, a non-figurative composition of forms and of colours, if painted by an authentic artist, one in deep “affinity” with his “mental and passional projection,” this “combination” is in greater accord with the “cosmic laws”, and reveals more of the presence of Nature than the repetition or the imitation of forms outside it. In this way, new art, probably unwittingly, reconnects with an even more ancient tradition than that of the Renaissance, and in its own way, it no longer plays cards, it reads them… or it plays something else, that is truly its fate, fused with that of the artist-man.

One will note, I hope, that such principles demand just as much, if not more, from so-called abstract art than from its contrary…

(To be continued)

Leave a comment

Court de Gébelin: An Enquiry into the Origin of the Game of Tharot / Etteilla: The Method of Playing with the Pack of Cards called Tarots


The opportune discovery (or rediscovery, rather) of a collection of pre-existing and contemporaneous translations of what are arguably the founding documents of the so-called occult or divinatory Tarot, the essay on the Tarot by Court de Gébelin and the books on cartomancy by Etteilla, and one by a translator in deep sympathy with the authors and the subject matter involved, must be considered a major breakthrough in Tarot studies, and not only in the English-speaking world where complete and accurate translations of these writings are sorely lacking. This ‘discovery’ is made all the more timely in that it precedes the publication of a critical study on the subject such as has been lacking from the literature thus far, and which we intend to publish towards the end of the present year.

In effect, the recent acquisition of the collection of some 50-odd hermetic books and manuscripts belonging to the family of the Duke of Northumberland by the University of Pennsylvania, followed by the subsequent digitisation of these papers, has meant that texts that were either previously unknown, miscatalogued, or neglected, have now become freely available online.

These papers, bequeathed by their owner – and in some cases, author and translator – General Charles Rainford (1728-1809), in effect, contain four volumes of a handwritten translation of the seminal essays on the Tarot by Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet, followed by the four Cahiers by Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, thereby simultaneously filling a long-decried gap in the cartomantic literature, as well as providing further insight into the Masonic background to the myth of ancient Egypt, as far as the English language is concerned. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of these writings from these two perspectives, but pending the publication of our forthcoming studies on Court de Gébelin and on Alliette, we will refer the interested reader to the comprehensive work on the subject, A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot by Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker, and Thierry Depaulis.

Portrait of Brigadier General Charles Rainsford by Gilbert Stuart.

Although these manuscripts have been latterly catalogued by the University of Pennsylvania and Adam McLean, neither of their respective efforts noted the presence of Etteilla’s works following the essays by Court and de Mellet. This is somewhat surprising for more than one reason. The first is that the manuscripts had already been thoroughly catalogued in 1872 in the Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (appendix to the third report, page 123), which does note Etteilla’s contribution. The second is the sheer volume they occupy with respect to the whole: the two essays by Court and de Mellet only form half of the first volume, out of four. Thirdly, Etteilla’s compositions are duly noted and acknowledged in the text, although the MS does not include a table of contents.

The manuscript, UPenn Ms. Codex 1692, previously Alnwick Castle Ms. 604-607, to give its full details, may be read in its entirety here, and PDF copies may be downloaded from the Internet Archive, alongside copies of the originals, here. Two brief colophons state that the works were translated between 1793 and 1795: Volume 2, page 174: “The rough Translation of this Part was finished at Lymington, Sept 2nd 1793, and copied as it now stands in Gibraltar, & finished Feb 22 1794.” Volume 4, page 110: “”Finished at Gibraltar, 25 July 1795.”

A brief biography of the translator Charles Rainsford may be read here, and a lengthier biography may be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, volume 45, pp. 831-832. More germane to our interests, an account of his Masonic and occultist activities, published in a Freemasonic publication, may be found in G. P. G. Hills, “Notes on some Masonic Personalities at the End of the Eighteenth Century,Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 25 (1912), pp. 152-159), and in the following volume, G. P. G. Hills, “Notes on the Rainsford Papers in the British Museum,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 26 (1913), pp. 93-130. A couple of recent academic publications deal with Rainsford’s occultist activities, namely, The Theosophical Enlightenment, by Joscelyn Godwin (SUNY, 1994), and, especially the chapter by Marsha Keith Schuchard, ‘Dr. Samuel Jacob Falk: A Sabbatian Adventurer in the Masonic Underground,’ in Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture. Volume I: Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World, Goldish and Popkin eds., Springer, 2010, which deals more specifically with his ties to the Jewish Kabbalists in London and the European Freemasons, as does the article ‘Notes on some contemporary references to Dr Falk, the Baal Shem of London, in the Rainford Mss at the British Museum’, by G. P. G. Hills.

Adam McLean’s description and catalogue of Rainsford’s alchemical and occultist papers, previously in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland in Alnwick Castle, now housed in the University of Pennsylvania, may be read here (“General Rainsford. An Alchemical and Rosicrucian Enthusiast,” Hermetic Journal, 1990, 129-134). Additionally, most of Rainsford’s papers and letters are housed in the British Library (Mss Add. 23644-23680), while a small number of alchemical manuscripts are to be found in the Wellcome Library (Mss.4032-4039). Details of the Alnwick Castle collection may be found here and here.

Rainsford’s esoteric interests were quite catholic, and ranged from all forms of Freemasonry to Swedenborgianism, to Islamic and Jewish esotericism, to practical alchemy and astrology, and palmistry and other forms of divination and magic, as attested by his possession, transcription and translation of works on those and connected subjects. His knowledge of these subjects may be gleaned from some of the marginal notes he added to his manuscript, for example: “The Author has here discovered a great Secret, to those who comprehend him.” (vol. 2, p. 27.)

Although Rainsford had been in epistolary contact with the head of the order of the Philalèthes, Savalette de Langes (who offered him honorary membership in that society) towards 1783, and had later attended their congress in 1785, there is no record of him having met or corresponded with Court de Gébelin (who passed away in 1784), nor with Alliette, for that matter. While Alliette had also attended the 1785 congress and at least one session of the 1787 congress, Rainsford does not mention this either in his introduction to his translation, reproduced below, saying instead that he had obtained the Etteilla books from a bookseller in London, who had acquired them from a French émigré, as late as 1793. The identity of this man of letters is not given, although it may be possible to hazard a guess.

Furthermore, although Rainsford claims he himself acquired some Tarot or Tarock and playing card decks, and implicitly, the cards accompanying the Etteilla volumes – there is no record of them in any of the documented collections of his papers listed above. A marginal note on page 8 of the first volume, referring to the composition of the deck of 78 cards, says: “I have a pack of 93. From ” — without providing any further details. (Perhaps from an Italian Minchiate pack missing 4 or 5 cards?) Another interesting footnote to the preface to the Third Cahier says that: “The Troubles in France since the Publication have made it difficult and even impractical to procure these Cards.” (i.e. the Revolution and Etteilla’s own decks.)

Moreover, there is no record of the original books in question in any of the foregoing collections either. That said, the majority of Rainsford’s books were bequeathed to his cousin, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who then left them to the British Library.  While multiple copies of Le Monde Primitif are listed, their provenance is not given, and the two bound volumes of Etteilla’s works do not appear to be listed.

We will also note that these two volumes which Rainsford possessed contained Etteilla’s four Cahiers and their supplements, as well as a number of brief pamphlets and lessons, suggesting that the original owner was a serious student of the art, or at the very least, a serious bibliophile. These two volumes in all likelihood correspond to the edition advertised in the leaflet which accompanied Etteilla’s pack of cards, the Livre de Thot, in 1789 as “2 bound volumes, 1,200 pages, with numerous illustrations, price £12.”

As an aside, it is curious to note the reference to the chapter of Court’s work immediately preceding that on the Tarot, the “dissertation on the Shield of Achilles.” The reason is that an English translation of this piece had appeared in 1784, without any translator being credited, and if Rainsford himself was not the translator, we may surmise that he was aware of it. In fact, the very presentation of his manuscript suggests that publication may have been intended, were it for discrete circulation, a subject to which we may return.

Concerning the translation, it will be noted that Rainsford liberally paraphrases the opening part of Court’s essay, adding some remarks concerning the history of card games in England where apposite, before proceeding to a more faithful, though sometimes augmented, translation of the text. The Hebrew and Greek found throughout the text is his own addition, as are the marginal notes written in a different ink. The blank pages following the very last section, and the lack of an end note or colophon, suggest that Rainsford intended to return to this translation, but for reasons unknown, never did. The answer to this question may perhaps be found in his papers in the British Library. Indeed, much could be said about these manuscripts, but we shall limit ourselves to these preliminary remarks.

We present here a selection of excerpts from Rainsford’s introductions to the works in question, respecting the original spelling and punctuation. Before doing so, however, we have seen fit to draw up a table of contents for Rainsford’s manuscripts, giving the corresponding references to the original works. Generally, Rainsford numbers each separate work beginning from page 1, regardless of its pagination within the manuscript volume, a point the reader will keep in mind when perusing the following catalogue and the original manuscripts.

The Contents of the Work

  • Court de Gébelin’s essay, “An Enquiry into the Origin of the Game of Tharot”, is found in volume 1 from pages 1-144; and corresponds to pages 365-394 of vol. VIII of Le Monde Primitif.
  • This is followed by an “Appendix to This Treatise” on pages 145-150, by Rainsford himself, providing further insight into his research into the subject, including references to the contemporary historical articles by Roger Gough and Daines Barrington, published in the eight volume of Archaeologia.
  • De Mellet’s essay “The Book of Thot” is found on pages 150-221; and corresponds to pages 395-410 of vol. VIII of Le Monde Primitif.
  • Etteilla’s “The Method of Playing with the Pack of Cards called Tarots” is from page 222 on until the end of the first MS volume, and continues in volume 2 until page 17. This corresponds to pages iii-96 of the First Cahier of the Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots (1783).
  • On pages 19-174, we find the Supplement to the First Cahier, which correspond to pages 97-182 of the original.
  • The second part, “The Game of Cards called Tarots”, begins in Volume 2 of Rainsford’s MS, from pages 1 [page 176 after the first section, or page 181 of the PDF], and continues to page 135 of Volume 3 of Rainsford’s MS. This corresponds to the Second Cahier of the Maniere de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots (1785), from pages 2-154. (The Supplement to the Second Cahier is lacking.)
  • This is immediately followed by the Chronological and Genealogical Table from Holy Writ, from pages 136-149 of Rainsford’s MS, and which corresponds to the table inserted between pages 154-155 of the original French.
  • Next, we find the “Instructions for Drawing the Cards Called Tharots”, being the Third Cahier of the Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots, from pages 150-254. The last few pages were left untranslated by Rainsford (pages 55-58 of the original French), as he says: “The rest does not seem of Importance to attend to.”
  • The Supplement to the Third Cahier follows on pages 257-230 [the pages are misnumbered from page 328], and corresponds to pages 59-124 of the original. Pages 124-142 of the original have been omitted.
  • It is, however, followed by the “Fragment Upon the Sublime Sciences with a Note Upon the 3 Sorts of Medicine administered to Man, one of which is improperly [laid?] aside”, on pages 231-246 of Rainsford’s MS, corresponding to pages i-viii of the original, Fragment sur les hautes sciences, suivi d’une note sur les trois sortes de médecines données aux hommes, dont une mal-à-propos délaissée. This comprises the preface to this brief work, and ends Volume 3 of Rainsford’s MS.
  • The “Fragment Upon the Sublime Sciences” proper is continued in the fourth volume of Rainsford’s MS, from pages 1-83, corresponding to pages 3-60 of the original, with the last few pages (61-64) omitted once again.
  • Next we find the “The Game of Tarots or The Book of Thot Opened After the Egyptians To Serve For the Interpretation of Dreams & Visions by Day or by Night” on pages 84-161, being a translation of Jeu des tarots, ou le livre de Thot ouvert à la manière des Égyptiens, pour servir ici à l’interprétation de tous les rêves, songes et visions diurnes et nocturnes, corresponding to pages 1-12 of the original.
  • The “Book of Thot” follows, on pages 102-110, corresponding to pages 1-4 of the Livre de Toth (1789), the leaflet which accompanied Alliette’s deck of cards.
  • “The Amusement of the Game of Cards called Tarots”, being the Fourth Cahier of the Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots, is on pages 1 [page 111 of the MS, or page 130 of the PDF] to 141, ending abruptly on what corresponds to page 92 of the original. This means that Rainsford translated approximately 2/3 of the Fourth Cahier, and omitted the Supplement to that volume entirely.

* * *


Excerpts from the preface:

An Enquiry into the Origin of the Game of Tharot

Court de Gébelin

The Origin of the Game of Tharot and the Explanation of the several Allegories contained in it; prove from undoubted Authenticity, that all modern Cards and the Games played with them, derive their Source from these very antient cards.

I had often seen this Game of Tharoth, or Taroque as it is commonly called, played in Italy & Germany; where it is thought a very difficult Game, given the various Combinations of 78 Cards, which this Pack consists of, and my Curiosity at that Time led me to procure the several Species of Cards used by different Peoples; but I paid very little Attention to the Principles of the Game, till I was in Possession of Mr Court de Gébelins Monde Primitif; who treats very particularly of this Game in the 8th Vol. of that Work, immediately after his Dissertation of the Shield of Achilles; and I shall endeavour to elucidate his Observations in the course of this curious Enquiry, with the copious Ideas of another Author in France who has taken great Pains to trace this Game to its earliest Inventors, which may perhaps throw more Light upon Egyptian Antiquity than any Thing hitherto known.  […]

The Explanation of the Cards is accompanied with a very interesting Dissertation, upon the Manner the Sages or Magi of Egypt applied this Game to Divination. And, that this Science has been continued down to our present Cards, which are often employed to what is called in England: Tellers of Fortunes; and in France, Diseurs de Bonnes Aventures.


I first saw it [Tarot] at Naples, in the Year 1771, when there, with the D.[uke] of Gloucester, & afterwards at Florence & Leghorn in 1781.

* * *


The Method of Playing with the Pack of Cards called Tarots


Preface of the Commentator

After having premised the learned & ingenious Dissertation upon the Game of Tharot by Mr Court de Gébelin, who has given such clear and excellent lights onto several Subjects of Antiquity with the very curious Work of Mr Le Comte de M. upon this Game, with the Description of the Cards and the use made of them by the Egyptians for the purposes of Divination; and what has since been derived from them; though much abused by the Sellers of Fortunes, which is still in Practise by the vagabond and singular People called Gypsies of whom more may be said hereafter.

I accidentally met with a modern Publication upon the subject by a Professor of Algebra & Mathematics of Paris, who calls himself Eteilla, and who published his Work in small 8vo. in 1783, and who takes up the Enquiry where Mr Court de Gébelin left it, and carries it on with great Ingenuity, so as to make the whole a very complete Dissertation upon this curious Pack of Cards therefore instead saying any more I shall give the Author himself as I found him under French garb, and have translated into our own Language for the sake of easier Comprehension.

It has been published at Paris at different Times in small Pamphlets, recompiled afterwards in 2 small 8vo. Volumes accompanied by the cards, & were sold in London by a French Gentleman of Literature who came to London in 1793 to escape Persecution to an eminent Bookseller [of] Charing Cross of whom I bought the Work – and amused myself in considering it. It is called, The Recreation of the Game of Tarots By Etteilla.

* * *

Image Credits

  • Manuscript images taken from UPenn Ms. Codex 1692.
  • Portrait of Rainsford by Gilbert Stuart, source and attribution.

Leave a comment

The Game of Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

Despite the abundance of books on the Tarot in English, the aspect of the Tarot most commonly known in Europe – the card game – is almost unknown in the English literature and in Tarot circles beyond Europe. To date, in English, the most notable work to deal with the ludic aspect of the Tarot has been A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack in 2 volumes written and compiled by the late Sir Michael Dummett and John McLeod*. Unfortunately, the prohibitive price of these volumes does little to incite the casual reader to gambling, and is perhaps one reason why these games have remained neglected in the English-speaking world so far. Yet, beyond the simple idea that winning at cards is a sign of election, and therefore a good omen, there are other connections between the game system and the divinatory and symbolic aspects of the Tarot, and knowledge of these connections may further enrich and deepen one’s understanding of the structure of the deck and of the function of its constituent elements. The following piece seeks to address this issue.

The aim of this piece, synthesised from a number of different French texts, is to present, in a clear and readable manner, the relations between the Tarot as game and the Tarot as mantic system, a subject which, to the best of our knowledge, has not yet been made available in English. These observations will further one’s understanding of the structure of the pack, the difference between the trumps and numeral cards, and shed some light on the nature of three of the most important cards: those that begin and finish the deck, and which are also known as oudlers. The game is typically played with the Tarot Nouveau, published by Grimaud. although, as we shall see, there has been some attempt to replace this deck with the traditional Tarot of Marseilles.

The following piece reproduces parts of pages 48-52 of a document in French, itself a synthesis, which is available online here, as well as some additions and excerpts, notably the last paragraph, from the lovingly illustrated calligraphic book, Le Jeu du Tarot Par l’Image by Jacques Massacrier.

* See McLeod’s informative website for further information on the rules of the game of Tarot.

The Card Players by Cézanne

The Game of Tarot

If, as popular legend has it, the Tarot hides a millennial wisdom behind simple images destined for playing games, it is rather logical to think that, proceeding from this aspect, we might have a chance to discover something. The first clue, effectively, is that the game of Tarot cards goes back to a historically verified period, and that its relatively complex rules have not undergone any major modifications over the course of the centuries.

The most important variations only concern the design of the cards, properly speaking. The four traditional suits of coins, staffs, cups and swords have been replaced by the “modern” French suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. In the same way, the images of the 22 major arcana have been replaced by reversible scenes of nineteenth-century urban and rural life. The only card to preserve a design close to the traditional design is the Mate, the arcanum without a number, who is called the Excuse or the Fool. In the beginning of the industrial age, the symbols of the major arcana, judged too esoteric, were replaced by banal scenes of daily life, which is why we find a picnic on the 11th card, Force, a photographer and a landscape artist on the 15th, which is none other than that of the Devil, ice-skaters on the 19th, which is the card of the Sun, and, for the 12th card, the card of the Hanged Man, we have the choice between a soirée or a garden party, etc.

As far as the structure goes, it remains unchanged:

Four series of 14 cards (the so-called minor arcana), having preserved the knight or horseman, who has since disappeared from other decks of cards, placed hierarchically between the Valet and the Queen; the point values of each card, in decreasing order, from the king (5 points) to the valet (2 points), the numeral cards being worth nothing.

One group of 22 cards called “tarots” (or trumps or triumphs in other regions), or atout. Contrary to other games, in which the trumps are chosen by a conventional system of declarations and bids, in the Tarot, the trump is a fixed given, outside of the domain of the classic suits.

The points are always counted in pairs, each honour or court card being accompanied by a numeral card which then does not represent any point: a king accompanied by the two of clubs is worth five points. On the other hand, two numeral cards together are worth one point: the six of diamonds and the eight of spades are worth one point.

In order to assess the strength of one’s hand, as with any game, one must have the greatest number of points, taking into consideration the number of “ends” [Fr: bout] in one’s possession. What is an “end”?

This is the chief originality of the game of Tarot with respect to other card games: it consists of three of the tarots: the One, called the “Little One” [Fr: le Petit], the Twenty-One, and the Excuse. Each is worth five points, and the more ends one has in one’s hand, the less the number of points are needed to take the trick.

The Three Oudlers

The characteristics of the ends are the following: the One takes all the other suit cards, and is taken by all the other tarots, except for the Excuse. The Twenty-One takes all cards indistinctly, except for the Excuse. The Excuse takes no card, and is taken by none, except if it is played as the last card in a round; in which case it is taken by any other card. With the exception of the three ends, the tarots are worth only a half point in the final count of the points.

It is effectively in the game of cards that the Tarot is revealed in all its complexity. Contrary to other games such as Bridge which marks out the contracts with an accuracy due to the rigorous formalism of the conventional declarations whose aim to reduce the element of chance, in the Tarot one might start off with an apparently unproblematic hand, only to end up ruined without being able to do anything about it in the slightest. For this, it is enough, to give an example, that your opponents manage to take the One, the Little One, from you, this Little One which is the secret obsession of every Tarot player, and that the lovely hand you had set up corresponds to the hand of your opponent who has the greater number of tarots in hand…

Let us rewind a little. One must deal the cards to the players, who may number 3, 4, or 5, preferably 4. First, the players choose a card, face down, and the one who chooses the lowest card is the Dealer. The deck is then shuffled by the player opposite the Dealer, cut by the player to his left, and the player to his right will begin the game. The cards are dealt in threes, counterclockwise, and between each round a card is placed in the centre of the table, face down. In a round for four players, each thus receives 18 cards, and 6 cards are in the centre. These cards are then called the “dog” [Fr: chien].

Each player assesses his hand and one of the players declares he will “push.” He will then play alone against the three others, and to compensate this disadvantage, he will take the other six cards set aside, turns them over to show his opponents, then incorporates them into his hand, from which he removes six cards of his choosing, which he will then place onto the table and which will remain his, come what may.

Now, you may of course content yourself with playing your hand, your 36, 41, 51, or 56 points, according to whether you have 3, 2, 1, or no end at all (in which case you must either be a total novice or a dangerous madman…) But the essential lies elsewhere. The goal of the game of Tarot is to “hunt the Little One” if one does not have it, or to “bring it to the end” if one does, that is, to place it on the table as the final crowning piece. The 21 is the atomic bomb: nothing can resist it, and how many Little Ones has it saved when it was well played, right behind the hunter? An easy win in this case, but oh how random if it is not in the right place!

And this Excuse, what use is it? Every player will tell you that it is the most difficult card to play, whether you are the “pusher,” or playing against the pusher.

We have decided to restrict ourselves here to the study of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, and we have enough material to follow our path. What have these observations drawn from the popular game – and not unprovable metaphysical considerations – taught us?

  1. That the major arcana form an entire whole, distinct from the rest of the deck, and to which all possible configurations of the game are subject.
  2. That one of the arcana, the Mate, the Fool (or Excuse), is not involved in the game as such, all the while being one of the 3 most important cards.
  3. That arcanum 21, the World, even if it is the most powerful card, does not have absolute power.
  4. That arcanum I, the Juggler, is the host of the game, the one around which everything revolves.

If we relate these observations to the arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, we will immediately notice, for example, that the animal biting the Mate on the thigh is indeed a dog, since it is the name given to the cards that are out of play. Some authors quite seriously ask themselves what kind of animal it might well be: in my opinion, they must never have “played” the Tarot in the back room of a bar while skipping maths or philosophy class…

But the most important point for the rest of this study is the confirmation of the fact that the Mate “does not play”: this allows us not to count him, to place him win the centre of the circle and to let the 21 other cards turn around him, thereby giving the ternary structure 3 x 7 to the remaining cards. This also defines the profound nature of the Mate, as we shall see.

The World is generally presented as being guaranteed success, the apotheosis, the accomplishment, and it is very logical in appearance, since it bears the highest number. The very existence of the Mate, which does not contest this power, relativises it, and indicates that the Tarot of Marseilles is not limited to an Aristotelian logic of the excluded middle.

The Juggler is also confirmed by what we have observed as being the pivot of the game, the point of departure, and the end of the game, since the supreme reward for the player is to bring the Little One all the way to the end. In other words, and in a more initiatory language, the Juggler is the new initiate, the neophyte, who will have to pass “through” all the other arcana in order to reach his goal.

When we wish to fathom the intangible Universe, to decode the cosmic messages, in order to gain some insight into the circumstances or omens, we can use a deck of Tarot cards. But the same deck of cards can also be used to play the game of Tarot. The game of Tarot is a game without divinatory pretensions. It is a noble exercise in psychology, reflection and intelligence, where the chance factor has but little incidence. To play this game with the traditional images of the Tarot of Marseilles is to reconnect with the essence of the tradition, which gives a symbolic character to the major arcana or trumps once again.  In this way, the game regains the magical and mysterious aspect of the divinatory cards, without upsetting the rules of the game or the legibility of the cards.

Image Credits: