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”

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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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René-Louis Doyon: Cartomancers’ Decks

Translator’s Introduction

“One grows weary of everything, apart from knowing.”

— René-Louis Doyon


The name of René-Louis Doyon, alias ‘the Mandarin’, is all but forgotten, and yet this obscure literary figure played an important and influential role in the French literature and publishing of the early and mid-twentieth century. Born in 1885, he died in 1966, and as such was the exact contemporary of Paul Marteau, his erstwhile friend, collaborator and benefactor.

Writer, journalist, publisher, bookseller, bibliophile and literary gadfly, Doyon’s career spanned the first half of the twentieth-century literary scene in France, where he exerted an uneven but definite influence. Throughout the course of his variegated editorial career, Doyon published a prodigious amount of works, by himself or others, including novels, literary and artistic criticism, biographies, social histories, memoirs, as well as a significant amount of prefaces and introductions. In addition to republishing editions of the classics, Doyon was instrumental in promoting younger and unknown authors. His literary flair is demonstrated when one considers that his back catalogue was eventually bought out by the publisher Robert Denoël, and that he was the first to discover and publish the writings of both Marcel Jouhandeau and a young André Malraux. Yet Doyon’s career, and indeed, life, was both marked and marred by his combative personality and a taste for polemics and literary feuds that would ultimately alienate him from the cultural establishment.

Perhaps the most succinct portrait of the man is that left by Éric Dussert, who says that, “René-Louis Doyon was an extravagant man of letters; failed publisher, mordant but erudite critic, he leaves behind an often messy body of work whose convoluted style is unforgettable. […] The case of René-Louis Doyon is exemplary of the paradox of those failures who work like maniacs, sometimes with talent, but without ever bending fate.”

In 1920, Doyon founded a literary journal called La Connaissance [Knowledge], also the name of his bookshop as well as his publishing outfit. This journal became more simply known as the Livrets du Mandarin from 1923, and was irregularly published until 1963. Although Doyon’s journal ostensibly focused on literature, the arts and current affairs, he also included a number of articles dealing with more metaphysical subjects, notably some articles by Paul Marteau, to which we shall return.

In effect, Doyon and Marteau were close for a time, La Connaissance was allegedly financed by Paul Marteau, according to François Gibault, biographer of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (cited in G. Beuchet,  ‘Paul Marteau, auteur et éditeur de l’Ancien Tarot de Marseille (1930),’ in Thierry Depaulis (ed.), Actes du Colloque ‘Papiers, Images, Collections,’ 28, 29, 30 avril 2000, Le Vieux Papier n° 358 (October 2000), pp. 33-34), and Marteau began to write a series of articles on esotericism for Doyon’s journal from 1921, although the planned series came to a premature end at the end of the same year after only three articles had been published. Marteau would also contribute an essay on the esotericism of the hermetic novel Le Comte de Gabalis to Doyon’s edition of that work, also published in 1921. Later, when Doyon’s professional and financial decline was fully underway, from the mid 1930s, Marteau would have aided him until they fell out, for reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess.

Both men would later go on to become acquainted with the controversial author Céline after the war, Doyon eventually selling his inscribed copy of a rare edition of Voyage au bout de la Nuit to Marteau. If, in 1935, Doyon could dedicate his study of J.-K. Huysmans, Ombres dans la Cathédrale, to “my friend Paul Marteau,” relations between the two men had soured by the mid-fifties, as is made evident from Doyon’s letter to Jean Paulhan on the 28 of March 1956, when he writes, “There is no one, not even Marteau (that spoilt child), who has not betrayed me with brutality. I am used to it.” Indeed, Doyon’s memoirs, published in 1953, contain but one brief and impersonal reference to his former friend: “Paul Marteau wrote on esotericism, whose arcana were familiar to him and of which he cultivated the bitterest specialities with the learned Caslant.” (Mémoire d’homme: souvenirs irréguliers d’un écrivain qui ne l’est pas moins, La Connaissance, p. 104.)

Doyon’s interest and knowledge of “occult matters,” as his friend Jean Paulhan put it, is attested by  his noteworthy edition of Le Comte de Gabalis by by Montfaucon de Villars, with an extensive introduction and accompanying essays (including the one by Paul Marteau). This was the first of a planned series of esoteric texts, followed by a text by Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, a prominent 18th-century Freemason and Martinist, Les Sommeils, in 1926, obtained through his friendship with one of the latter’s descendants. His 1942 biography of Montfaucon de Villars included an intriguing aside on the occultist author, Grillot de Givry, author of the well-known book Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy, and whose untimely death, according to Doyon, was to be classified as a “mystagogic assassination” for having revealed occult secrets. Doyon also published a pamphlet on the mysterious secret society “Les Veilleurs” [The Watchers], to which belonged Schwaller de Lubicz and the poet Oscar Milosz, whom Doyon knew well and had published, showing his inside knowledge of the esoteric circles of the time (Livrets du Mandarin, n° 3 January 1960), as well as an in-depth biography and study of Joséphin Péladan (La Douloureuse aventure de Péladan, La Connaissance, 1946). Doyon further published an anthology of texts concerning the Compagnonnage and the mysticism of the trades-based initiations (La Pierre, ses fastes et les hommes, Denoël, 1939). On a lighter note, it is also worth noting a booklet on the popular folk legend of the beast of the Gévaudan which terrorised rural France in the mid-eighteenth century, Le Loup du Gévaudan. Variétés sur la légende, La Connaissance, 1936.

Doyon’s knowledge of cards and the Tarot is amply demonstrated by the three very interesting articles he penned on the subject, the first two for the Gazette Dunlop in 1937, and the third, some 25 years later, for his own Livrets du Mandarin. The obscurity of certain references show that Doyon engaged in some serious research and reflection on the subject before committing his thoughts to paper, although as we shall later see, his references were sometimes garbled. (For instance, neither the Grand nor the Petit Albert grimoires deal with cartomancy, nor are they concerned with games.) Be that as it may, the wit and erudition of these articles make them worth presenting to a wider audience.

The first article, La Petite Histoire des Cartes à Jouer [A Little History of Playing Cards], deals with the design, engraving and printing processes of card-making, and even taxation, in minute detail and with great erudition. The second article, Les Jeux de Cartes en France (Types et Varietés) [Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)], describes the types of cards used for both cartomancy and those used for playing, such as the Tarot Nouveau, as well as a number of other regional games, one of which, Aluette, we shall post in the next instalment.

Finally, Doyon’s 1962 article Petite Histoire des Cartes : Casse-tête et prophétisme [A Little History of Cards: Puzzles and Prophecy], taking up some of the observations of the earlier pieces, proceeds to analyse the very idea of the analogical correspondences of the Tarot, pre-empting the type of argument advanced by Umberto Eco in his writings (e.g.  L’idea deforme and Foucault’s Pendulum), and historical analyses which foreshadow those employed by later generations of historians.

Doyon died in 1966 in the utmost misery, a victim of his own uncompromising values and prickly personality. A selection of portraits and obituaries are available (in French) at the end of the following article. Aside from his published volume of memoirs, the only comprehensive overview of the life and works of René-Louis Doyon is the article Les chemins sinueux d’un étrange mandarin by Éric Dussert, first published in Le Matricule des Anges n°38, March 2002. Further reflections on Doyon’s single-minded and single-handed publishing efforts may be found in another article by Dussert here.

We present this brief excerpt from the second of his articles on playing cards, an overview of the various decks used for cartomancy. In it, one will find what is possibly the sole mention of the intriguing article Paul Marteau published in the Arts et Métiers Graphiques journal, 15 years before the publication of his book, and which, for reasons unknown, was not included in the final edition of his work. The illustrations accompanying Doyon’s article all come from the Grimaud firm, as do most of the decks cited (links to which may be found below), thereby underscoring his cordial relationship with Marteau, and, presumably, access to his collection.

The journal in which this article was published, the Gazette Dunlop, was devoted to motoring, sports and tourism, and the issues often included a miscellany of thematic articles as well. This was due in no small part to the encyclopaedic and eclectic mind of its editor, Louis Baudry de Saunier, another eccentric gentleman to whom we cannot do justice here. The original article was published in the n° 202 issue of the Gazette Dunlop of June 1937, and may be read here.

René-Louis Doyon in 1922

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Card Games in France (Types and Varieties)


by The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

Cartomancers’ Decks

The card decks destined to the various games played in Europe have always been and still are, more or less, of the same type.

Those destined for divination have much greater variety and their composition is mixed in with an occult science accessible only to initiates, as well as a lot of fantasy useful for impressing the anxious and gullible client. Their common father is the great and mysterious “Tarot” which comes from the Indias and which is generally labelled as Egyptian, as Bohemian, jealously guarded by the Egyptians, and yet known and put to work under the name of Ancient Tarot of Marseilles, with its recomposed colours and its orthodox arcana. Mr Paul Marteau has provided the outline of a very substantial study in Arts et Métiers Graphiques; to which those curious about symbols and mystic secrets may refer.

Some figures from the Egyptian Tarot, or so-called Tarot of Marseilles, which is currently used by Cartomancers

Is it known, for the other decks used by prophets and professional fortune-tellers, that their design and composition reach an entertaining realisation of images whose appearance and shuffling form the entire unexpected part of conjectural revelations? As we have the Grand and Petit Albert, attributed to the genius of the Dominican Albert the Great (and what has he not been attributed, since it is said that his name is to be found in that of the once ill-renowned Place Maubert – “Mauvais Albert” or “Evil Albert”?) We have the Grand and Petit Etteilla, from the 18th century, the work of an ingenious barber; the Tarot of Mlle Lenormand, official soothsayer of Napoleon and of Josephine, is still in use; the Sybil of the Salons, the Book of Destiny, the Little Cartomancer and the Ancient Destiny; a real palette, with impressive or comical images which occupy more space on the cardboard than on the tarotic image itself. That is not all: the Game of the Hand, with its very curious chiromantic diagrams, and the Astrological Tarot, with its celestial diagrams, that is what may yet be found commercially; with the means – for want of sure learning – on how to use them! What a choice! Only surprises and naïve ingeniousness here, and complicated to boot; a little learning and a lot of already outdated opportunism, for our age has become far too distracted or too preoccupied by science and business to seek out the secret and the why of the world by means other than the alembic, analysis and the scales; the most recent creations of these cards are almost a century old!

— The Mandarin (René-Louis Doyon)

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