Great Tarotists of Yesteryear:
Court de Gébelin
By James W. Revak
The Comte de Mellet
De Mellets esssay appeared next in Monde primitif. Similar to Court de Gébelin, he asserted that Tarot originated among the Egyptians and the correct order of the Trumps was reversed. He asserted that the series began with the World and ended with the Juggler, followed by the Fool. He explained these cards from a perspectives, which included the creation of the world and thee mythic ages.
De Mellet also claimed that the Trumps and Fool systematically corresponded to the Hebrew alphabet. He implied a system, such that: the World = Aleph, Judgment = Beth . . . the Fool = Tau. However, this system apparently never attracted many users, unlike those espoused later by French magus Éliphas Lévi and the Golden Dawn (an influential group of occultists) in the nineteenth century.
De Mellet also briefly discussed using The Book of Thoth (a term he often used in lieu of Tarot) for divination. Purportedly emulating Egyptian priests, he explained how to read Tarot by using a layout of ten cards. He also provided themes for the four suits and divinatory meanings for a few individual cards and card combinations.
With regard to suits, he wrote that Spades (Swords) presaged poverty, worry, pain and death; Clubs (Batons), success, advantage, fortune, and money; Hearts (Cups), contentment and happiness; and Diamonds (Coins), the countryside and indifferent luck. To this day a significant number of Tarotists still use some of these associations at least occasionally.
With regard to individual cards, he wrote, in part:
The Nine of diamonds [coins] implies delay either for good or bad.
The Nine of spades [swords] is the worst Card: it presages only ruin, illness, death.
The Ten of hearts [cups] implies City. . . .
To this day, some Tarotists still use some of these meanings at least occasionally. De Mellets description of divination by Tarot, however, was ultimately vague and incomplete. Working from his essay, one is unfortunately unable to reconstruct his system.
Regrettably, similar to Court de Gébelin, he too generally failed to use rational argument or present even a scrap of convincing evidence for his positions. Modern scholars have also generally rejected his ideas.
According to Court de Gébelin: Le Tarot présenté et commenté par Jean-Marie Lhôte [Court de Gébelin: The Tarot Presented and Commented Upon by Jean-Marie Lhôte], a French pastor of the time waxed eloquent about the book and its author in a letter to a friend. He wrote, M. Court [de Gébelin] is like the sun which sends forth its rays on a dark cloud which it dissolves. . . . [Monde primitif] will persuade you that the first men were sensible and not idolaters as we think..
However, his friend replied, I really wish that he [Court de Gébelin] thought like the ancient philosopher who said that a big book is always a big problem. . . .
Nevertheless, Monde primitif was a success. The public created a significant demand for copies; abridgements were published from time to time and volume eight, which included the essays on Tarot, was republished in its entirety.
Mesmer and Animal Magnetism
In his final years Court de Gébelin was a supporter of the controversial Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer. He was famous in Paris and elsewhere for using his hands and specialized equipment to manipulate an invisible force he called animal magnetism to cure a wide variety of illnesses. Therapy sometimes included connecting the patient to specially constructed tubs filled with magnetized water. For a time he apparently effected some extraordinary cures, attracted numerous patients, and enjoyed a lucrative practice.
In 1783 Court de Gébelin suffered a serious infection in his legs and called upon Mesmer, who apparently cured him. The patient was so pleased that he sent letters extolling Mesmer to subscribers to Monde primitif. Unfortunately, he soon suffered a serious relapse and returned to Mesmer in 1784. While undergoing therapy attached to a tub of magnetized water he died. Having never married, he left no immediate family.
In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Decker, DePaulis, and Dummett reported that an anonymous wag penned the following epithet.
Ci-gît ce pauvre Gébelin,
Qui parloit Grec, Hébreu, Latin;
Admirez tous son héroisme:
Il fut martyr du magnétisme.
Here lies poor dear de Gébelin,
He spoke Greek, Hebrew, even Latin;
Delight in his hearty heroism:
He died the martyr of magnetism.
A N A S S E S M E N T
Today Court de Gébelin and especially de Mellet are largely forgotten; modern scholars typically reject their ideas as absurd and without basis in fact. Even considering that they lived prior to the beginnings of modern Egyptology and the deciphering of hieroglyphics in the nineteenth century, their statements concerning ancient Egypt, including Tarots purported origins there, were absurd.
With specific regard to the essays on Tarot, determining the source of their authors ideas is extremely difficult; they provided virtually no documentation. According to Court de Gébelin, he alone rediscovered Tarot and its esoteric content. However, the failure of de Mellet to credit him with this rediscovery suggests that perhaps he was not the first to speculate on Tarots purportedly ancient history and esoteric content. In addition, the tone of de Mellets explanation of divination by Tarot suggests that perhaps he was reporting on a pre-existing system. Historians do know that divination by Tarot was practiced at least occasionally in Italy prior to Monde primitif; however, what little they do know about the system makes it significantly different from de Mellets.
Occultists, including some members of masonic lodges and similar organizations, may have been exploring and discussing the history and esoteric content of Tarot prior to Monde primitif, and, of course Court de Gébelin was an enthusiastic member of such organizations. Additionally, Monde primitif embraced concepts which did harmonize with known masonic interests. For example, similar to the aforementioned masonic almanacs, it included discussion on the calendar from, in part, a mythological perspective. Like some masonic lodges, it delved into purported ancient wisdom traditions, including the Egyptian.
Perhaps Court de Gébelin first heard of the esoteric Tarot in a masonic lodge or similar environment. However, this and similar statements are strictly suggestive. In reality, no clear documentary evidence exists to support the notion that individuals, including members of masonic lodges and similar organizations, explored or discussed the esoteric content of Tarot to a significant degree prior to Monde primitif. Instead, when people knew of it at all, they typically knew of Tarot as an entertaining game only. However, after publication of the essays by Court de Gébelin and de Mellet public interest in the esoteric content of Tarot and its use for divination blossomed.
Court de Gébelin was an eccentric, slapdash scholar whose ideas are typically dismissed today. However, to his credit, he initiated the public movement to view Tarot as a repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. Although he is largely forgotten today, thanks to the essays on Tarot in his Monde primitif he is remembered by one grateful group, Tarotists, and undoubtedly deserved the title: father of the modern esoteric Tarot.
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.
Lhôte, Jean-Marie. (1983). Court de Gébelin: Le Tarot présenté et commenté par Jean-Marie Lhôte [Court de Gébelin: The Tarot Presented and Commented Upon by Jean-Marie Lhôte]. Paris: Berg International. ISBN 290026930X. This French-language book comprises Court de Gébelin and de Mellets complete essays on Tarot which originally appeared in Monde primitif with commentary by Lhôte.
McIntosh, Christopher. (1972). Éliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. London: Rider. ISBN 0091122716.
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