Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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

Translator’s Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The 2 of Cups, “The Cow”

* * *

Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)


by The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

The Cow (West)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

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

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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.

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