Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot


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Jean Bossu: Etteilla & Freemasonry (I)

Translator’s Introduction

The article The Isis of the Tarot examined the origins of the so-called “occult Tarot” in some depth, and more specifically, its Masonic origins. One of the slightly later developments of this myth, that spurred on if not created by Jean-Baptiste Alliette, alias Etteilla, was unfortunately only summarily dealt with in that otherwise enlightening article. Pending publication of a more in-depth examination of the relations between Alliette and Freemasonry, we have seen fit to publish a series of short letters dealing precisely with the subject, in order to serve the twofold aim of first of all acquainting the casual reader with the basic facts of the matter, and secondly, in order to provide a variety of views, spanning the spectrum from praise to criticism.

The reason for this is as follows: the source for Alliette’s system of cartomancy is as yet unclear, supposing that one may exist, and the exact nature of his relations with Freemasonry, or para-Masonic associations, is equally unclear. That is not to imply that Alliette learned divinatory techniques in an initiatory setting, or even from a member of one of these societies, for, as we have seen from Streiff-Moretti’s article, the influence may very well have flowed in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, this enigma remains to be elucidated in order to shed further light on the birth of both cartomancy and the occult Tarot in general.

These texts, which may in fact be considered as a composite whole, were published in response to a query by a reader, a certain Cornélius, on Etteilla and his relations with Freemasonry, and were written by the contributors to the journal L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, including Jean Bossu (1911-1985), a Masonic historian and specialist of Masonic biography. Indeed, Bossu’s biographical files – on no less than 130,000 Freemasons of the 17th and 18th centuries – are considered authoritative in the world of Masonic history. These files were bequeathed to the Bibliothèque Nationale and have now been conveniently digitised in the form of a searchable database, while his papers were left to the departmental archives of the Vosges.

Although Bossu did not then have access to his files, it would appear that he never returned to the question of Alliette’s affiliation to Freemasonry, according to his bibliography. Not only that, but Alliette does not appear to be listed in his files either, whether under his real name or his pseudonym. This does not prove that Alliette was not a Freemason, of course, however, some weight must be attached to Bossu’s extensive and encyclopaedic knowledge, and we may consider this absence of evidence to be, on the contrary, an argument from silence – pending further information.

Aside from a brief mention under the entry for the anagrammatic “Elie Alta” (Gervais Bouchet), the only mention of the man in Bossu’s files is in a quotation taken from the biography of Cagliostro by Henri d’Alméras (1904), where he is mentioned in passing, alongside other guests of the Masonic congress of 1785, including the unfortunate Touzay (or Touzai) Du Chanteau, who died in the explosion of the alchemical laboratory which the Philalèthes had installed in their lodge.

In the intervening 45 years since its initial publication, very little research has been done on Etteilla, with the exception of the notable and essential works on the subject by Sir Michael Dummett, Thierry Depaulis and Ronald Decker, which we have cited elsewhere, and especially their Wicked Pack of Cards. Perusal of these works will correct some of the more persistent errors, such as the “wigmaker fallacy,” among a number of other enduring legends. In spite of these minor inaccuracies, we have refrained from cluttering the text with [sic] each and every time, and will instead refer the interested reader to chapter 4 of the aforementioned Wicked Pack of Cards for a comprehensive and detailed biography of Alliette. Readers of French may also profitably consult the early biography by Millet Saint-Pierre, cited below.

These texts first appeared in L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, September 1975,  page 837. Further details on Bossu, and especially, on his Masonic career, may be read here (in French). The second contributor, Georges de Cursac, was a priest with an interest in computistics, who had previously published a study on the dates of Christ, as well as some articles dealing with the “lateral history” of the Avignon papacy. We have been unable to determine the identities of the other two contributors. We have very slightly edited these texts in order to provide fuller references, as well as links to the works cited where possible.

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Etteilla & Freemasonry (I)

Jean Bossu

Alliette, eighteenth-century cartomancer. Until such a time as I am able to consult my files, I will say that the true name of the one who called himself Etteilla has always been known. Here is what René Le Forestier says, in note 57 of page 785 of his monumental work La Franc-Maçonnerie templière et occultiste aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Paris, 1970, in-8), referring to the book by Constantin Bila, La Croyance à la magie au XVIIIe siècle en France (Librairie Gamber, 1925):

Eteila, or better yet, Etteilla, was the anagram of Alliette, name of a former wigmaker who styled himself “professor of algebra” (Kabbalah) and who claimed to renew cartomancy by incorporating “good magic”, astrology, the philosopher’s stone, “the secret of commanding genies and manufacturing talismans” into it … Without being discouraged by political events, he announced, by way of posters, the opening of a “new school of magic.”

It is very possible that Etteilla was a Freemason, since he was the recipient of the proponenda sent by the Philalèthes on the 13 of November 1784 leading up to their congress, for in theory they only addressed them to Freemasons, but I doubt the name of his lodge is known.

— Jean Bossu

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This eighteenth-century wigmaker published a so-called Egyptian Tarot under the pseudonym Etteilla, in which the influence of Gébelin is manifest. He corrected the figures mistreated by the latter’s engraver, but did so in a perspective more artistic than scientific, giving the cards new and less orthodox attributes. Worse yet, he modified the cards, thereby introducing the greatest confusion into the Tarot.

During the Revolution while the guillotine accomplished its work, Alliette, alias Etteilla, gave lessons in kabbalah to the populace. Born towards 1750, he would have died on 12 December, 1791. His deck, the so-called Grand Etteilla, is still in fashion and some users consider Alliette as a great cartomancer. On the other hand, his written work is considerable. The Bibliotheca Esoterica (Dorbon Ainé, 1940) devotes no less than ten analytical articles to it.

— G. De Cursac

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Alliette published all his works under the pseudonym Etteilla. His publications span from 1762 to 1791, with a long interval from 1762 to 1785. He was a wigmaker. All that we know of him has been compiled by Mr Millet de Saint Pierre in his Recherches sur le dernier sorcier.

A letter by de Bonrecueille, tax inspector of Toulon, dated 5 March 1892, and addressed to an adept of Marseilles, designated Hugand, whose pseudonym was Jejalet, as being invested by Alliette. The latter, in a letter signed using his pseudonym, places the death of his master on the 12 December 1791. His succession was contested by a certain Dudoucet.

Alliette’s cartomancy was particularly applied to the Tarots, in their primitive edition, introduced to France no doubt through Marseilles. The decks currently published under this name comprise the hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds of the original playing cards. Alliette has left some very beautiful reproductions of traditional decks. He maintained that the Tarot was of Egyptian provenance, from before the Christian era, and christened his collection the Book of Thot.

Did he belong to Freemasonry? That is for our erudite colleague Jean Bossu to answer, but if, at the end of the 18th century, there were marginal fringes of Freemasonry attracted by occultism, the symbolism of the Tarot – very rich as it is – does not seem to have aroused much interest, and Alliette, if he was indeed a Mason, could only have played but an obscure role.

— Bey

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Better known under the pseudonym Etteilla, deceased on the 12 of December, 1791. A portrait of Etteilla is included in his Etteilla, ou la seule manière de tirer les cartes. An etched frontispiece – a portrait of Etteilla – is twice included in the work of his disciple and heir d’Odoucet, Science des signes ou medicine de l’esprit, Paris, self-published, n.d. (1804).

Perhaps Cornélius will find the answers to his questions in the works by Etteilla and d’Odoucet. These works are not in the library in my town.

— Grib’Oval

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