Tarot Divination:
Three Parallel Traditions
Edited & Translated By
James W. Revak



This brief work comprises a compendium of divinatory meanings (DMs) for Tarot cards compiled from three important and related sources:

  • Etteilla and his school of disciples (late eighteenth century);
  • Mathers’ The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling, and Method of Play (1888); and
  • Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911).


The major change in Version 1.1 comprises the addition of images of eighteen cards from an early edition (c. 1910) of The Rider Tarot Deck.  The editor is indebted to Holly Voley who graciously permitted him to include these images from the complete deck in her private collection.

Many of the images in Version 1.1 are significantly smaller to improve download times.  However, in such cases, readers may click the small image to view a larger one.  The reader may also click any image from The Rider Tarot Deck to view a larger one.


Experienced students of Tarot and scholars may find this work helpful because, apparently for the first time, it includes, in English translation, DMs from Etteilla and his school of disciples.  They may also find that the presentation of DMs side-by-side, permits easy, informal comparison of them.

New students of Tarot may find this work helpful as a source of important historic DMs with which they may wish to familiarize themselves.  However, they should exercise caution.  A significant portion of the DMs may not be regularly used by Tarot practitioners today.  Additionally, the sources sometimes contradict each other and themselves; no collection of DMs can be definitive, including this one.  Finally, each source was written with a kind(s) of deck in mind.  The School of Etteilla (SE) addressed Etteilla’s Tarot;   Mathers addressed certain traditional decks, e.g,. the Tarocco Piemontese and Tarot de Marseille (TM).  Waite, addressed the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot, but also regularly included DMs associated with older decks.


Portrait of EtteillaEtteilla & His School of Disciples

One of the most important practitioners of the early esoteric Tarot (including a system of DMs), was French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), also known as Etteilla (his surname spelled backwards).  In 1785, he published the first known book to treat divination by Tarot, Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nomées Tarots [How to entertain yourself with the deck of cards called Tarot].  In it he assigned DMs to each of the Tarot cards (both upright and reversed orientations) and presented card spreads.  He published c. 1788 the first Tarot deck specifically designed—not for gaming—but for occult purposes, including divination.  Upon his death at age 53, he was succeeded by his disciples, including La Salette and D’Odoucet, who extended and further popularized their master’s teachings.

Illustration (above): Etteilla at work, frontispiece (detail) from Cour thèorique et pratique du Livre du Thot, 1790 (Decker, Depaulis & Dummett’s A Wicked Pack of Cards, pl. 4).

In 1791, Dictionnaire synonimique du Livre de Thot, précédé d’un discours préliminaire, par un membre de la Société des interpètes de cet ouvrage [Thesaurus of the Book of Thoth, Preceded by a Preliminary Discourse, by a Member of the Society of Interpreters of This Work] was anonymously published; however, it has been attributed to Etteilla’s disciple La Salette.  Essentially, the work was a thesaurus or compendium of DMs for Tarot divination and served as a companion to Etteilla’s deck.  During the period 1804-1807, another disciple, D’Odoucet, published Science des signes, ou médecine de l’esprit [Science of signs, or medicine of the mind], which included a summary of Dictionnaire synonimique with only minor divergences.

In 1909 the renowned French occultist Papus reproduced the synonyms or DMs found in Dictionnaire synonimique and Science des signes in Le Tarot divinatoire: Clef du tirage des cartes et des sorts [Divination by Tarot: Key to Reading Cards and Lots].

Mathers & Waite

Meanwhile, across the channel, in Britain, S. L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) and A. E. Waite (1857-1942) began to influence significantly the use of Tarot for purposes of divination and spiritual growth.  Both were members of the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (GD).  Mathers, with W. Wynn Westcott and A. F. A. Woodford, founded the order in London in 1888; Waite joined in 1891.

Portrait of MathersIn the same year he helped to found the GD, Mathers published the booklet The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play, which was apparently sold with Tarot decks.  He included DMs for each card (both upright and reversed orientations).  Mathers’ booklet continues to influence Tarot practitioners to this day; it has been republished multiple times, including in 1993 under the title The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards.

Illustration (above): S. L. MacGregor Mathers (1889) (Gilbert’s The Golden Dawn Scrapbook).

Portrait of WaiteLike Mathers, Waite has significantly influenced practitioners of Tarot divination.  He designed the influential and popular RWS Tarot, which was published in 1910 and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, a fellow member of the GD.  As a handbook to explain the deck, Waite published The Pictorial Guide to the Tarot in 1911, which included DMs for each card (upright and reversed orientations).  PKT has been republished multiple times and remains influential to this day.

Illustration (right): A. E. Waite as Imperator of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (c. 1915) (frontispiece from his A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry).


The editor of this work recently conducted a study of its sources, results of which were reported in the article The Influence of Etteilla & His School on Mathers & WaiteFor it, he compared DMs espoused by the SE, Mathers, and Waite.  He found strong evidence that the SE significantly influenced both Mathers and Waite.  Specifically, he traced roughly half of Mathers’ and Waite’s DMs to the SE.  He also found evidence that Mathers modestly influenced Waite.


Divinatory meanings are provided for each card (both upright and reversed orientations) and selected card combinations from: Etteilla and his school (for brevity this source is simply called Etteilla), Mathers, and Waite.  DMs (or parts thereof) from Mathers or Waite which parallel those of Etteilla, in the opinion of the editor, are highlighted in red. DMs (or parts thereof) from Waite which did not parallel those of Etteilla but did parallel those of Mathers, in the opinion of the editor, are highlighted in green.

The title, numeration, and order of sections devoted to  Trumps follow Waite’s nomenclature.  Wherever Etteilla’s or Mathers’ titles or numeration differ, they are presented as alternates.  Because many of Etteilla’s Trumps differ significantly from those of other decks, including the Tarot de Marseille and RWS, establishing correspondences between Etteilla’s Trumps and those of other decks is necessary.  To this end, the editor has applied the correspondences suggested by Papus in Le Tarot divinatoire.

DMs are presented in their entirety with one set of exceptions.  The compiler of Etteilla’s DMs, Papus, frequently cited D’Odoucet’s Science des signes as his source.  These repetitive citations have been removed for brevity.


Etteilla.  Papus’ Le Tarot divinatoire: Clef du tirage des cartes et des sorts [Divination by Tarot: Key to reading cards and lots] (17th ed.).  St-Jean-de-Braye, France: Dangles.  Originally published 1909; however, chapter six reproduced Dictionnaire synonimique which dates from 1791.  Quoted excerpts translated from the French by James W. Revak (copyright © 2000 by James W. Revak).  The editor included all available appropriate DMs; they comprised part of chapter four (pp. 48-50) and all of chapter six (pp. 112-152).

Mathers.  The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards.  (1993).  York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.  Originally published 1888 as The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling, and Method of Play and republished under this title by Samuel Weiser in 1969 and 1971.  The editor included all DMs in the sections titled Meanings of the Cards (pp. 23-61) and Special Insights (pp. 63-65).

Waite.  The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination).  (n.d.).  New York: Barnes & Noble.  Originally published 1911.  The editor included all:

  • DMs of the Minor Arcana in part 3, section 2 (pp. 170-282);
  • DMs of the Major Arcana in part 3, section 3 (pp. 283-287);
  • Supplementary DMs for the Minor Arcana in part 3, section 4 (pp. 288-293); and
  • DMs for selected card combinations in part 3, section 5 (pp. 295-297).


Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis & Michael Dummett’s A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot.  (1996).  New York: St. Martin’s.

Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923.  (1972).  York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.

James W. Revak’s The Influence of Etteilla & His School on Mathers & Waite.  (2000).  http://tripod.com.jwrevak/

A. E. Waite’s Shadows of Life and Thought: A Retrospective Review in the Form of Memoirs.  (1938).  Kila, MT: Kessinger.

Copyright © 2000 James W. Revak.  All rights reserved.  Version 1.1 (3/27/00).