The Influence of Etteilla &
His School on Mathers & Waite
By James W. Revak


The subject of this study is the influence of the eighteenth-century French occultist Etteilla and his school of disciples on S. L. MacGregor Mathers and A. E. Waite.  Specifically, the author analyses their influence on the divinatory meanings (DMs) assigned to Tarot cards by: (a) Mathers in The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play; and (b) Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination).  He also analyzes Mathers’ influence on the DMs of Waite.

Results show strong support for the idea that the School of Etteilla (SE) significantly influenced the DMs of both Mathers and Waite.  They also show modest support for the idea that Mathers influenced Waite.  Implications for Tarot scholars and practitioners are also discussed.

During a review of relevant literature, the author begins to place Etteilla in historic perspective by reviewing his career, assessments of him by his peers, and his influence (direct and through his disciples) on later generations of esotericists.

Three hypotheses, suggested by the review, are tested:

  • The SE significantly influenced Mathers’ DMs;
  • The SE significantly influenced Waites’ DMs; and
  • Mathers significantly influenced Waites’ DMs.

The hypotheses were tested by detailed textual analysis and comparison of 624 DMs from Mathers, 1,115 from Waite, and 2,417 from selections from Papus’ Le Tarot divinatoire: Clef du tirage des cartes et des sorts [Divination by Tarot: Key to Reading Cards and Lots].  The latter was chosen as the source authority for the SE’s DMs.  Each comparison was judged as a strong match, modest match, or no match.

Quantitative analysis of the resulting data set shows that approximately:

  • Two out of five (38%) of Mathers’ DMs strongly matched those of the SE;
  • One half (49%) of Waite’s DMs strongly matched those of the SE; and
  • One out of ten (9%) of Waite’s DMs, which do not match (strongly or modestly) those of the SE, nevertheless strongly matched those of Mathers.

Coupled with the historic record and other studies, results support the idea that the SE played a pivotal role in the development of Tarot theory and praxis.  Scholars, therefore, may wish to study the SE in greater depth to evaluate further other possible contributions.  Additionally, practitioners may wish to study the output of the SE and apply it to enrich their use of Tarot.

Copyright © 2000 James W. Revak.  All rights reserved.  Version 1.1 (8/19/00).