Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Book Review: Etteilla/Hisler: Theory and Practical Instruction on the Book of Thoth

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Theory and Practical Instruction on the Book of Thoth

by Etteilla, translated into German by Hisler, translated into English by K.A. Nitz

The works of Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, the putative father of cartomancy in general, and of taromancy in particular, have not fared well either in terms of republication nor in terms of translation. In spite of his unchallenged reputation as the creator of the first complete and systematic methodology of fortunetelling with Tarot cards, Alliette’s actual teachings on the subject have for a long time been dismissed as a historical curiosity, known only through piecemeal, secondhand or inaccurate descriptions, often accompanied by an unflattering moral commentary, all of which serve to distort the true import of his contribution to the field.

Recent years, however, have seen the discovery and digitisation of a great many of the original documents involved, and this process is ongoing. In this way, a more complete and accurate idea of Etteilla’s works may be obtained, provided one makes the effort to understand the notoriously difficult prose of the author and piece together his scattered writings. It is therefore no small matter to note the following publication of the works of one of Etteilla’s disciples, the Prussian Hisler, a development which must be welcomed, and all the more so in that it displays a great degree of rigour and exactitude.

The work is titled and subtitled as follows:

Etteilla [Alliette, Jean-Baptiste]. Theory and Instruction in the Book of Thoth. A translation of Theoretischer und praktischer Unterricht über das Buch Thot — neue Auflage published in German 1857 (first edition 1793) in an unattributed translation with additions (possibly by Etteilla’s student Hisler) of the original French of 1790: Cours théorique et pratique du livre de Thot: pour entendre avec justesse l’art, la science et la sagesse de rendre les oracles.

That is to say that this is a translation of Johann Scheible’s 1857 reprint of Hisler’s text. This 1857 reprint seems to be the same as Hisler’s 1793 translation, aside from a few changes in German orthography. Scheible included new wood engravings of all 78 cards in the back of his book instead of issuing them as an actual deck.

Hisler’s version in fact is an abridged edition with respect to the original French, for the Prussian disciple saw fit to skilfully excise those passages extraneous to divination, in order to better focus on the prime subject of the work. Furthermore, Hisler has combined the last two chapters of the French, and added an additional chapter, on dream interpretation using Etteilla’s Tarot.

It is worth noting that Etteilla’s original text included four out of six planned lessons, but he died before he could publish the final two. As a result, there is a ~50 page gap before the final section in his Cours théorique et pratique du livre de Thot. Both Hisler and d’Odoucet added the two missing lessons to their respective versions.

The appendix will also be useful for the reader who wishes to become familiar with Etteilla’s system, in that it includes correspondences for each card taken from a French work attributed to his students.

This translation by K. A. Nitz has a lot to commend itself, cross-referenced as it is against the original French. The translator’s footnotes indicate where the German departs from the French, and add useful information where apposite. Nitz has even caught Johann Scheible’s accidental transposition of Virgo and Scorpio on the cards, thereby showing the degree of care and attention that has gone into this work.

Some minor quibbles might be that a slightly better translation of the title would be “Theoretical and Practical Instruction on the Book of Thoth”. One of the title pages already has “on the Book of Thoth”, but in other places, “in the Book of Thoth” is used instead. Contrary to what the blurb on the back cover states, one should note that Etteilla did not coin the term “cartomancie”, but rather, the term “cartonomancie” which eventually was corrupted into the former.

In the appendix, Nitz has placed card 0/78 (the Fool) at the front of the deck, likely due to the widespread influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith card order. Etteilla and Joubert de La Salette both place the Fool between cards #21 (the Chariot) and #22 (King of Batons). Other works belonging to Etteilla’s tradition place it at the end of the deck. Etteilla and Joubert de La Salette also number the Fool as 0. The original 1793 German deck had no numbers on the card at all. A later edition added the number 78 to the Fool.

Also in the appendix, Nitz translates the first suit as “Sceptre”, but for the Ace, changes it to “Baton”. These might be made the same for the sake of consistency. In the appendix, the Swords appear to be missing labels for the court cards (King of Swords, Queen of Swords, etc.). Similarly, card#6 (Night/Day) ought to include the label “4th Day of creation.”

The translator’s explanation for Etteilla’s “signs of death” numbers seems a little unlikely. Etteilla describes these as the “chain from birth to death”. Nitz instead explains them as the “death” of the other card indicated by the extra number. It seems to us that Mike Howard’s cyclical interpretation seems to be closer to what Etteilla intended. More can be read here. An errata will be found on the translator’s webpage, and these errors and typos are now easily fixed.

These minor issues aside, this work will prove to be a valuable resource for those who wish to more fully understand Etteilla’s system and gain a greater working knowledge of his methodology. For the historically-inclined, it will also provide a greater understanding of the transmission and development of cartomancy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Appropriately, it contains 78 pages. The publisher’s website is here, and the Errata may be read here.

Thanks to the translator for providing a review copy, and thanks to J.C. for his insights.

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