We have recently published a lengthy study of the genesis of the myth of the Egyptian origins of the Tarot, and the underlying backdrop of Hermeticism, Egyptomania, Freemasonry, and Revolution. We have also presented a brief series of tentative and necessarily inconclusive texts relating to Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, and his role in this enterprise, and now present a further critical supplement to this examination of the early history of the so-called occult Tarot.
This brief and polemical piece provides an acerbic assessment of the so-called Egyptian Tarot by one of the rare academic Egyptologists who has condescended to examine this game of princes fallen into the hands of scoundrels and mystery-mongers. In effect, we have already noted the work by the Swiss Egyptologist Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt, which, although treating of Freemasonry and the Tarot in two respective chapters, unfortunately does not do so with the depth and breadth which the subject would ideally require.
The author of this piece, Dr Youri Volokhine, is an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva, and has written extensively on ancient Egyptian religion. This article was initially published as “Les tarots égyptiens: une histoire de faussaires“, in Notules d’histoire des religions. Huitième série”, in Asdiwal 13, 2019, pp. 185-188.
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The Egyptian Tarot: the Story of a Counterfeit
Published with the kind permission of the author
Protestant savant; Freemason and a genuine encyclopaedic mind, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784) was highly renowned in his day, and was even considered by some as being the equal of the greatest, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yet, unlike the latter, today his work has been more or less completely forgotten. This is not unrelated to the nature of his undertaking, the fruit of frenzied work: Le Monde Primitive analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, an intimidating mountain of paper, unfinished, as it happens (nine volumes were published nonetheless). This work purported to be an encyclopaedia of the origin of the world: alphabet, history, religion, law, in sum, a history of culture. This work anticipates a number of nascent disciplines such as comparative philology, anthropology, the poetics of language. Alas, this Monde Primitif plunged its roots into the past, so much so that the rapid evolution of the sciences quickly relegated it to the rank of curiosity. Court de Gébelin’s method is the allegorical explanation, that old object of the mythologists, which for him, regrettably becomes the key to everything. It is within this framework that Court de Gébelin becomes the first to evoke the curious idea that the Tarot, and playing cards, would have been of Egyptian origin.
“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book. If we were to add that this book is very widespread throughout the greater part of Europe, and that, for many centuries, it has been in everyone’s hands, the surprise would reach its peak. […] The fact is nonetheless true: this Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, still exists today; it is even so common that no scholar has deigned to examine it, no one before us has even suspected its illustrious origin. This book is composed of 77, or of 78 even, leaflets or pictures, divided into five classes, which each present objects as varied as they are amusing and instructive. This book is, in a word, the Game of Tarot, a game unknown in Paris, it is true, but which is very common in Italy, in Germany, even in Provence, and is as bizarre by the figures represented by each of its cards, as well as by their number. (vol. II, p. 365)
For Court de Gébelin, the allegories of the figures of the Tarot would effectively be in conformity with the “civil, philosophical and religious” doctrine of the ancient Egyptians. The old Egyptian game, in the beginning, would have been for its part an admirable thing, containing “the entire Universe.” It would have been “the Book of Thot” which the cards refer to. Thus, card VII would represent “Osiris triumphant,” on his chariot drawn by two white steeds. Or card VIII, Justice, which would represent the queen “Astraea.” Card XVII, the Star, would be an “absolutely Egyptian” scene, revealing Isis, among others. As to card XV, it is Typhon, the “great Demon of Hell.” This deck, invented then by “a man of genius,” would have been transmitted to the West after the “total destruction of Egypt,” transmitted perhaps by one of those Egyptian priests present in Rome, adept of the cult of Isis. From there, the game spread throughout Europe, but was forgotten in the land of its birth: “[…] Egypt itself drew no benefit from the fruit of its invention: reduced to the most deplorable servitude, the deepest ignorance, deprived of all the Arts, its inhabitants would have been in no state to manufacture a single Card of this Pack.” (ibid. p. 380) As to the meaning of the word, it too would have been “pure Egyptian”: “it is composed of the word Tar which means way, path; and the word Ro, Ros, Rog, which means King, Kingly, Royal. It is, word for word, the royal path of life.” (ibid. p. 380) An interpretation which naturally brings to mind the speculations of the priest Athanasius Kircher, who had preceded him in hieroglyphic exegesis, but which is evidently nothing but pure fantasy.
According to Court de Gébelin, the “Sages of Egypt” would have made use of “sacred pictures to predict the future.” (ibid. p. 404) The Tarot pack, in sum, would deliver a summary of their learning. If Court de Gébelin indeed seems to have been the inventor of the “Egyptian Tarot,” the credit must go to one of his much less learned contemporaries for having popularised it in occultist circles, and above all, for having given it an egyptianising iconography: Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), alias Etteilla. It is sometimes said he was a wigmaker, a merchant, or something or other; in any event, this individual publishes various brochures and leaflets, from 1770 on. A reader of Court de Gébelin, he bases himself on the latter to expatiate on the Egyptian origin of the Tarot, and especially, to produce various decks of cards, for which he will draw (or have drawn), fairly clumsily, figures conceived of “after the Egyptian manner.” Only editions from the 19th century are known, those of the 18th century have apparently become unfindable. The invented iconography of these “Grand” or “Petit Etteilla” cards has been taken up by a good number of “Egyptian Tarots” until now, and which may be found in any esoteric bookshop. This invention is based on fantastic speculations bearing on an Egypt which, at the end of the 18th century, was as yet practically terra incognita for science.
It would be too long at present to present the destiny of the Tarot fallen into the hands of the occultists, notably the French, in the latter half of the 19th century. Let us pause for a moment on what Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse Constant) has to say in his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie [Transcendental magic, its doctrine and ritual] (1854). If he acknowledges the authority of Gébelin for having discovered the great antiquity of the Tarot, he nonetheless considers that the latter erred in not taking into account that the interpretative point of departure was this “universal and sacred tetragram,” which Éliphas Lévi applies himself to shed light on with his bombastic prose. On the other hand, he despises Etteilla, “formerly barber, having never learned French, or even orthography,” whose “books have degraded the ancient work discovered by Court de Gébelin into the domain of vulgar magic and fortune-telling by cards.” (p. 372) The Tarot of Éliphas Lévi becomes kabbalistic-hermetic, and no longer truly Egyptian.
Nevertheless, the egyptianising spring does not run dry and numerous variations will see the day. Thus, for instance, in 1896, an esotericist by the name of René Falconnier, publishes Les XXII Lames Hermétiques du Tarot divinatoire, “exactly reconstituted according to the sacred texts and according to the tradition of the Mages of Ancient Egypt.” He too labels Etteilla a “fantasist,” which is not lacking in spice given that its author is no less given to confabulation. We thus learn, with surprise, on the first page that the word Tarot would come from the Sanskrit “TAR-O, a fixed star,” and that this “theosophic and symbolic synthesis of the primitive dogma of religions” would have been rediscovered by the “Magus Hermes” (Trismegistus), who used it 2,000 years before Jesus Christ as an oracular instrument… The author treats of each card, and presents an illustrated version: “I have reconstituted these 22 cards according to the monuments discovered by Mariette-Bey, Champollion, Heeren, Maspero, etc. […] and according to the ancient papyrus” (p. 57), as well as with the help of “an Egyptologist friend of mine” (who prudently remains anonymous). This Tarot illustrates fairly exactly the fact that anybody at all might create his very own Egyptian Tarot, by surrounding it with a few sentences and formulae. In this way, other occultists produced their own “Egyptian Tarot,” for instance, a certain “Elie Alta” [Gervais Bouchet] proposing the “restituted” work of Etteilla in the form of Le Tarot égyptien, ses symboles, ses nombres, son alphabet (Vichy, 1922). Many other examples could be found. Generally, the ugliness of the engravings does nothing to improve the weakness of the texts.
This is not the case, artistically speaking, for the so-called Thoth Tarot of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), whose cards were painted with certain talent by Lady Frieda Harris (1877-1962), who worked on them between 1938 and 1942. Under the influence of Crowley’s erotico-magical ideas, Lady Harris followed his precise instructions (an entire correspondence has been preserved). The set of 78 cards, in the shape of canvasses, forms the “Book of Thoth,” a set which, in Crowley’s mind, would be more of a support for meditation than for fortune-telling. The paintings by Lady Harris, held in the Warburg Institute, were published in the shape of Tarot cards for the first time in 1969.
The present note would not be complete if it were not finished off with an affair linked to an “Egyptian Tarot,” in which the author found himself unwittingly implicated. It is highly revealing, hence my decision to recount it here. In 2016, a certain esotericist who calls himself Johan Dreue (he appears to adopt other names at times, such as Johann Kirkenes, or Jacob de Kilwinning), published a book entitled Aux Sources du Tarot, a book which claims to take up the work of Court de Gébelin “where he had left off.” These so-called sources of the Tarot, the author thinks to have found them notably on the side of the Egyptian god Thot (an idea of the 18th century, as we have seen). Now, imagine my surprise to discover that the chapter called “Thot, écrire la parole” reproduced verbatim the text of an article I myself had published a decade earlier in the Revue de l’Histoire des religions; a few modifications having been made by the author, such as the removal of the footnotes (a botched job, for what it was worth, he forgot to remove the number pointing to note 82, the number thereby appearing on the bottom of page 77). In this way, pages 72-80 of Mr Dreue’s book are taken word for word from my article. It is not a citation since my name is mentioned nowhere at all. The author, whom I do not know, moreover never contacted me either to ask for my permission to use my text in some form or other. To tell the truth, some quick sleuthing enabled me to discover that this method of “borrowing” is the one which this esotericist prefers, since in the same book he also uses, without citing it either, an old piece by Pierre Saintyves, which provides him with the entirety of his chapter 1 (pp. 41-68). For good measure, let us also note the section on the Egyptian “Four Winds,” which is none other than a plagiarism of an old article by a renowned Belgian egyptologist, now deceased, C. De Witt. One will appreciate the unworthy work methods of this so-called tarologist. This blatant dishonesty will enable us, and definitively so, to affirm that the “Egyptian Tarot” is well and truly — and since its very conception in the 18th century courtesy of Etteilla — the work of ignoramuses and counterfeiters.
On the history of the Tarot, see the remarkable catalogue edited by Thierry Depaulis, Tarot, jeu et magie, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1984; on the “Egyptian Tarot,” cf. notably n° 128-136; on Crowley’s Tarot, cf. n° 140. On the history of the Tarot, for which there exists a plethoric and unequal bibliography, see for instance, Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, London, Duckworth, 1980; Ronald Decker, Michael Dummett, A History of the Occult Tarot, London, Duckworth, 2002; Thierry Depaulis, Le Tarot Révélé: une histoire du tarot d’après les documents, La-Tour-de-Pfeilz, Musée Suisse du Jeu, 2013.
For the older sources cited, see: Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, Considéré dans divers Objets concernant l’Histoire, le Blason, les Monnoies, les Jeux, les Voyages des Phéniciens autour du Monde, les Langues Américaines, etc. ou Dissertation Mêlées, T. 1, Vol. 8, Paris, 1781. On that subject, cf. for instance, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre, “Le Monde primitif d’Antoine Court de Gébelin, ou le rêve d’une encyclopédie solitaire,” in Le matérialisme des Lumières (Dix-huitième Siècle, n°24) 1992, pp. 353-366.
For the “Egyptian Tarot,” see: Anonymous [Etteilla], Leçons théoriques et pratique du livre de Thot, Amsterdam, 1787; Éliphas Lévi [Adolphe Constant], Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, 2 vols., Paris, 1854-1856 (various editions) [translated by A. E. Waite as Transcendental magic, its doctrine and ritual, London, 1896]. On Crowley’s “Book of Thoth” and Lady Harris’ paintings, cf. Marco Pasi, in the catalogue Traces du sacré, Paris, Centre Pompidou, 2008, p. 100; cf. also Master Therion [Aleister Crowley], The Book of Thoth. A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians, Equinox vol. III, n° 5, O.T.O., London, 1944. See Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt: its impact on the West, Cornell University Press, 2002, pp. 173-175.
Finally, see Youri Volokhine, “Le dieu Thot et la parole,” Revue de l’histoire des religions, vol. 221 (2004), pp. 131-156.