Great Tarotists of Yesteryear:
By James W. Revak
The First Specifically Esoteric Tarot Deck
In recent years historians have conclusively shown that about three years after publication of his book on Tarot, in approximately 1788, Etteilla published the first Tarot deck designed not for gaming like prior decks but specifically for esoteric purposes, including divination. All previous decks, including the Tarot de Marseille, had been designed primarily for gaming. Thus Etteilla inaugurated the long tradition of decks designed for occult purposes.
His pack was remarkably similar to two contemporary decks: Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarot égyptien [Grand Etteilla: Egyptian Gypsies Tarot] published by France Cartes (Grimaud) and Jeu du grand Etteilla XIXe siècle [Grand Etteilla Deck 19th Century] published by Éditions Dusserre. Etteillas deck was a major success; through the end of the nineteenth century it and variations on it by others were popular throughout much of Europe. In some respects, Etteillas pack was the Rider-Waite-Smith of its day.
Like the Tarot de Marseille, which both Court de Gébelin and Etteilla knew, Etteillas deck comprised twenty-two Major Arcana and fifty-six Minor Arcana. However, Etteilla, claiming to restore the purported ancient Egyptian elements, thoroughly reinterpreted the Majors; he re-ordered them and often applied radically innovative iconography and new names. He did so in part because, as he explained in his book, the first seven Trumps should depict a creation myth. In addition, Etteilla first publicly assigned the zodiacal signs and Four Elements to selected cards. For example, he associated the Trump titled Enlightenment (see illustration right), which corresponds to the Sun of more traditional decks, to the first day of creation, the sign of Taurus, and the Element of Fire. Thus, Etteilla inaugurated the search for meaningful correspondences between Tarot, astrology, and the Elements.
Illustration (above): Éclaircissement [Enlightenment], which is equivalent to the Sun, from Etteillas Tarot (adapted from Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarots Egyptiens, based on Etteillas original deck of c. 1788, published by France Cartes). Click the image for a larger one and explanation of divinatory meanings and correspondences.
Etteilla also redesigned the Minors but his changes were far less radical than with the Majors. He retained the Italian suit system (Scepters, Swords, Cups, and Coins) and each numeric card comprised essentially suit signs. For example, the three of cups showed essentially three cups. The exception was the suit of Coins where glyphs and other design elements, which defined selected astrological correspondences, appeared. For example, the Three of Coins corresponded to Venus (see illustration, left); therefore, it included the glyph of the planet and an image of the goddess.
Etteilla also was the first to use captions on all cards (both the Major and Minor Arcana). Specifically, he included key words or phrases on each for both upright and reversed orientations to facilitate divination.
Illustration (above): The Three of Coins from Etteillas Tarot (adapted from Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarots Egyptiens, based on Etteillas original deck of c. 1788, published by France Cartes). Click the image for a larger one.
Etteilla derived some of his divinatory meanings from those which he had used for the French-suited piquet deck. Keeping in mind that Spades corresponded to Swords; Clubs, to Scepters; Hearts, to Cups; and Diamonds, to Coins; one may compare meanings. For example, both the Ten of Hearts and Ten of Cups implied a city or town. Both the King of Spades and the King of Swords implied a lawyer or a man closely associated with the legal profession. The court cards of the suit of Hearts implied blond people and, with one possible exception, the court cards of the suit of Cups implied the same. Certain numeric cards from both Spades and Swords referenced related notions of suffering, e.g., tears, losses, morning, and illness.
His Final Years
By this time Etteilla was using his knowledge of astrology, Tarot and other occult sciences to earn a living from books, consultations, and teaching. In his final years, with his reputation ever spreading, he trained a new generation of card readers, who, in turn, further developed and spread his methods and deck. In 1788 he even founded the first organization devoted exclusively to the study of Tarot, the Société des Interprètes du Livre de Thot [Society of Interpreters of the Book of Thoth]. Three years later, at age fifty-three, the worlds first known professional Tarotist died.
A N A S S E S S M E N T
Scholars and practitioners of the esoteric Tarot have assessed Etteilla in wildly divergent ways. On one hand, some traditional occult authorities, e.g., Lévi and A.E. Waite, harshly criticized his ideas and deck and faulted him for earning a living as a card reader. They even questioned his intelligence. On the other hand, no less an authority than Papus, despite some criticism of Etteilla, generally praised him for his achievements, especially with regard to divination.
Recent opinion remains divided. On one hand, Cynthia Giles wrote in her popular Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore (1992) that Etteillas primary effect was in popularizing the idea of Tarot, rather than actually contributing to the theory or design of the cards. She credited him with little else of substance or historic importance.
On the other hand, Decker, DePaulis, and Dummett, writing in A Wicked
Pack of Cards (1996), claimed:
Had it not been for Etteilla, Court de Gébelins speculations about
the Tarot would most likely have been forgotten. . . . There is
something touching in the man, who was sincere and passionate,
generous and enlightened (in all the meanings of the words in the late
In assessing Etteilla the author of this article steers between the two extremes, wherein Etteilla is painted as: (a) an idiot or someone whose only feat was the popularization of Tarot; and (b) the savior of the esoteric Tarot without whom it would have been forgotten.
Clearly, Etteilla popularized Tarot, which is important, but he accomplished much more. To recapitulate, he was responsible for many firsts, including the first:
- Book devoted to divination by Tarot;
- Deck created specifically for esoteric purposes; and
- Correspondences between Tarot, Astrology, and the Elements.
Thanks to his books, deck, and students he impacted leading Tarotists and continues to impact them today. For example, in The Influence of Etteilla and His School on Mathers and Waite, the author of the profile you are reading found that although Waite expressed scorn for Etteilla, approximately one-half of the divinatory meanings in his The Pictorial Key to the Tarot depend from Etteilla and his students.
To this day some Tarotists regularly use some of Etteillas divinatory meanings. For example, every time a contemporary Tarotist, looks at the Four of Cups from a Rider-Waite-Smith or closely related deck and interprets it as boredom, he/she is indebted to Etteilla. Every time he/she looks at the same card reversed and relates it to news or something new, he/she is indebted to Etteilla. These are the divinatory meanings Etteilla assigned to these cards over two hundred years ago. Numerous other examples could be cited.
To be honest, however, Etteilla had his faults and failings. His literary style was crude, turgid, and confusing. His writings make those of Waite appear absolutely lucid. Certainly, like many occultists, Etteilla detracted from the factual history of Tarot with tall tales concerning its ancient Egypt origins.
Finally, although he was responsible for many firsts most occultists eventually rejected the specifics of many of his approaches to Tarot. For example, although Etteilla first showed the way with regard to correspondences between Tarot, astrology, and the Elements, most occultists eventually discarded his system in favor of others.
Furthermore, the persistence of some of his divinatory meanings notwithstanding, Etteilla was probably not as influential on contemporary Tarotists as, say, Lévi, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, Waite, or Aleister Crowley. He probably was not a profound thinker compared to them either. Certainly his education and literary style were inferior to theirs. Still, he was something, none of them were with regard to Tarot: he was a genuine pioneer and, like many pioneers, he had his share of failures and successes.
Etteilla was the first to publish a relatively complete language and grammar for Tarot, a practical methodology for using it; and certain correspondences. Thus, to his credit, he presided over something none of his peers could take credit for: the all-important public transformation of Tarot from a curious purported artifact of an ancient civilization into a contemporary, practical tool of divination related to other forms of Esotericism. Thanks in large part to Etteilla, for the first time many occultists and everyday citizens alike could use a Tarot deck specifically designed for esoteric work, and apply a relatively complete, coherent, and rational method for accessing the its wisdom and power.
R E S O U R C E S Books
Decker, Ronald; DePaulis, Thierry; Dummett, Michael. (1996). A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martins. ISBN 0312162944.
Etteilla. (1785). Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes [Etteilla, Or a Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards].
Halbronn, Jacques. (1992). LAstrologie du Livre de Thot: Suivie de recherches sur lhistoire de lastrologie et du Tarot par Jacques Halbronn [Astrology of the Book of Thoth: Followed by Research Into the History of the Astrology of Tarot]. Paris: Éditions La Grande Conjonction. ISBN 2857075561. This French-language book comprises two parts: (a) book four of Etteillas Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes (q.v.); and (b) Halbronns study of this portion of Etteillas book.
Jeu du grand Etteilla XIXe siècle. [Grand Etteilla Deck 19th Century]. Paris: Éditions Dusserre. This deck is a reproduction of a nineteenth-century deck which is extremely similar to Etteillas original deck of c. 1788.
Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarots égyptiens [Grand Etteilla: Egyptian Gypsies Tarot]. Paris: France Cartes (Grimaud). The iconography of this bilingual (French and English) deck is extremely similar to Etteillas original deck of c. 1788; however, key words and phrases have often been changed.
Etteilla. Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes [Etteilla, Or a Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards]. An online version of this French-language book.
Revak, James W. The Influence of Etteilla and His School on Mathers and Waite.
Revak, James W. Tarot Divination: Three Parallel Traditions. Includes divinatory meanings which depend from Etteilla and his students.
NEXT PREVIOUS CONTENTS E-MAIL AUTHOR HOME
Copyright © 2001 James W. Revak. All rights reserved. Version 1.1 (11/23/01).