Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Monique Streiff Moretti: The Isis of the Tarot, or the Birth of a Myth

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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.) Florence Quentin summarises the issue by saying: “The egyptomania of the 18th century and the beginnings of Masonry were contemporaneous, they mingled all the more easily in that the role of religion and its institutions were then being debated.” (Isis l’Eternelle) 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. For a comprehensive summary of the thought of Court de Gébelin in English, one must consult F. E. Manuel’s ’The Great Order of Court de Gébelin’ in the work The Eighteenth-Century Confronts the Gods, Harvard University Press, 1959. 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, by and large, 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.) Similarly, Florence Quentin notes that: “All these fables (which relate, as we have see, to egyptomania) will fuel a revolutionary movement which will seek to emancipate itself from Christian authority by attempting to establish a syncretism which would unify all the cults of humanity. … In its effort to struggle against Christianity all the while opening up other symbolic and religious (in the sense of religare, “to bind”) fields, the Revolution will in its turn make use of Isis.” (Isis l’Eternelle) 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.) F. E. Manuel sums up the nature of their works accurately when he states that, “The writings of Court de Gébelin and Dupuis … are memorable more for their influence – like the revolutionary oratory they resemble – than for their intrinsic worth …” (op. cit. p. 249) 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 says 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) And as the Masonic historian Gérard Galtier states, “There exists, thus […] a revolutionary element in the Egyptian Rites which is their spiritual reference and their desire for an attachment to a non-Christian tradition. Note that during the Revolution itself, the Egyptian influence affected the revolutionary cults, such as that devoted to the goddess Reason.” (Gérard Galtier, ‘L’époque révolutionnaire et le retour aux Mystères antiques : la naissance des rites égyptiens de la maçonnerie,’ in Politica Hermetica n°3, « Gnostiques et mystiques autour de la Révolution française », 1989, p. 124)

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. Florence Quentin, for her part, will state that: “In Masonry, the goddess always appears beneath the surface, as though it were impossible to get rid of the feminine from every initiation or authentic spiritual path, were they “reserved” to circles of men… […] It is difficult, as we see, in a period in which the Convention has overthrown the dominant religion, to escape symbolisation (which has been definitively shown to structure society), especially if it takes the shape of the universal Great Mother…” (Isis l’Eternelle) 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.

The ultimately socio-political nature of Court de Gébelin’s enterprise is further underscored by Sophia Rosenfeld, who writes that:

“many of the initial members of the Loge des Neuf Soeurs […] manifested a profound interest in prescriptive language planning and semiotic experimentation, moving away from “usage” or “custom” toward an historic notion of “nature” or “reason” as a guideline. Furthermore, the members of this latter group tended to see their plans for improved communication as efforts on behalf of the good of the public as a whole. Indeed, some even argued that rational language reform would ultimately be instrumental in bringing about cognitive and, consequently, social and moral transformations in the future.

Especially important in this regard was the work of Antoine Court de Gébelin, whose home has become the meeting place for the lodge beginning in 1778. Throughout the decade of the 1770s, in a series of massive volumes entitled Le Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, Court de Gébelin had set about trying to rediscover and to catalogue the original, universal mother tongue, the collection of radical sounds and images he took to be given by and representative of nature – or, in Genette’s terms, “mimological” – rather than arbitrary. […] But it is important note that what drove Court de Gébelin in this quest was not simply antiquarianism or a fascination with the burgeoning field of comparative linguistics. The physiocratic philosopher believed that the discovery and reconstruction of this original idiom, or protolanguage, would allow modern men nothing less than a chance to uncover the timeless, natural laws governing human happiness, and thereby to restore peace and prosperity on earth. For Court de Gébelin insisted that this lost knowledge, both visual and aural, would provide the key to the construction of a superior, modern language, one which would aid in restoring the purity and perfection of an earlier golden age in which people communicated without impediment and easily realised their common bonds.” (Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 113-116)

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], Les Météores [Gemini]; 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

* * *


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