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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