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

INTRODUCTION

DIVERSITY OF OPINIONS CONCERNING ETTEILLA

Scholars and practitioners of the esoteric Tarot have assessed the renowned eighteenth-century French occultist Etteilla in wildly divergent ways; “opinions about him have ranged from cynical to idolatrous” (Kaplan, 1986, p. 398).  How are we to understand this range of opinions?  Was he strictly a fortune-teller who popularized Tarot, or did he make additional contributions?  For example, did he significantly influence other leading practitioners and scholars of Tarot?

On the one hand, occultists have described him as the “Grand Master” (Papus, 1909, p. 36) and “father of modern cartomancers” (Lévy, 1854-55/1910, p. 170).  On the other hand, occultists (and sometimes the same ones) have scorned him.  “Etteilla is held in contempt and widely ridiculed by subsequent generations of occultists” (Jorgensen, 1992, p. 142).  Lévy claimed that “the measure of his intelligence . . . was not of great extent” (1860/1913, p. 316).  Waite characterized him as “the illiterate but zealous adventurer” (1910, p. 48); his ideas, as a “bizarre system” (p. 49); and his books, as mere “colportage” (peddling or hawking) (p. 321).  Papus wrote, “Etteilla did not possess the gift of complete knowledge, which would lead him from writing about pitiful daydreams to the truly marvelous results of intuition” (p. 36).  However, he also noted that he was a gifted cartomancer, achieved professional success, and commanded a faithful following: “Etteilla applied all his knowledge to fortune-telling and, if one believes his contemporaries, he discharged the responsibilities of his job wonderfully.  Also, he became the God of card readers, who swear only by him” (p. 36).

Curiously, some esotericists have even ignored Etteilla in their overviews of Tarot history, although they do discuss the origins of Tarot among ancient Egyptians or gypsies, and other discredited theories, or discuss achievements by others, including Lévi and Gébelin (e.g., Case, 1947; Crowley, 1944; Wang, 1978, 1987).

Recent opinion apparently remains divided.  On the one hand, Giles (1992) wrote that his “primary effect was in popularizing the idea of Tarot, rather than actually contributing to the theory or design of the cards (p. 26).”  Both she and Jorsensen (1992) credited him with little else of substance or historic importance.  On the other hand, Decker, Depaulis & Dummett (1996) concluded:

“Although Etteilla receives little credit in popular literature today, he can be credited with many ‘firsts’. . . .  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 XVIII century).”  (p. 99).

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OBJECTIVES & IMPORTANCE

This paper seeks, in part, to interpret this diversity of opinion by beginning to place Etteilla in historic perspective; it will briefly review his career, assessments of him by his peers, and his influence (direct and through his school of disciples) on later generations of esotericists.  It will also propose and test several pertinent hypotheses concerning the influence of the School of Etteilla (SE) on Mathers and Waite, two highly influential occultists with expertise in Tarot (see Mathers 1888/1993, c. 1888a, c. 1888b, c. 1888c; Giles, 1992; Kaplan 1978, 1986; Waite 1909, 1910, 1938).  Finally, it will propose and test an hypothesis concerning Mathers’ influence on Waite.

This study is important because if it provides support for the idea that the SE influenced Mathers and Waite, it will support the notion that its influence extended well beyond the eighteenth century, into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and widely impacted divination by Tarot.

The balance of this paper comprises a:

  • Review of relevant literature;
  • Detailed description of method and procedures;
  • Presentation and analysis of results; and
  • Discussion of results, including implications for scholars and practitioners of Tarot.


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