Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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


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

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

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

Portrait of Brigadier General Charles Rainsford by Gilbert Stuart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contents of the Work

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

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Excerpts from the preface:

An Enquiry into the Origin of the Game of Tharot

Court de Gébelin

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

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

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


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

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The Method of Playing with the Pack of Cards called Tarots


Preface of the Commentator

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

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

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

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Image Credits

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

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