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



Introduction & Importance of Divinatory Meanings

Were it not for Etteilla and a handful of like-minded occultists, the esoteric Tarot may not exist today.  Extending and applying the theories of Gébelin and Mellet concerning the purported Egyptian origins and symbolism of the cards, Etteilla developed and first popularized on a large scale divination by Tarot.  “Had it not been for Etteilla, Court de Gébelin’s speculations about the Tarot would most likely have been forgotten” (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996, p. 166).  If that had been the case, the Tarot pack may have never attracted the attention of Lévi and later occultists.  The esoteric Tarot, including its use for divination, might be unknown today.

Figure 1 (above): Etteilla at work, frontispiece (detail) from Cour thèorique et pratique du Livre du Thot (1790) (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, pl. 4, 1996).

The employment of Tarot for divination or fortune-telling began no later than the late eighteenth century.  It was (and still is) one of the cards’ significant uses.  Practitioners have long used divinatory meanings (DMs) assigned to specific cards (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; Jorgensen, 1992).  The analysis of such DMs will figure prominently in this study; however, the reader should not interpret this to mean that they are the only tools used by Tarot practitioners.  In fact, DMs “are viewed by many occultists as weak meanings; that is, the simplest, most elementary significance of the cards” (Jorgensen, p. 166).  To interpret cards, occultists also used or advocated the use of a grammar to link DMs, intuition, and references to numerous other occult theosophies (e.g., astrology, alchemy, Cabala, and numerology, to specify a few) (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; Jorgenson, 1992).  Nevertheless, numerous occultists developed or published DMs, e.g., Etteilla (1785/1993; c. 1788/c. 1975; see also Decker, Depaulis & Dummett, 1996; Papus, 1909), Mathers (1888/1993, c. 1888a), Papus (1889/1910, 1909), Waite (1909, 1910, 1938), Case (1947), Gray (1960, 1970, 1971), and Douglas (1972), to specify a few, and one may reasonably conclude that numerous practitioners used them.  Even Greer, who generally de-emphasized use of text-based DMs and, instead, advocated an intuitive or meditative approach to the cards, still included brief DMs in Tarot for Your Self: A Workbook for Personal Transformation (1983).  Regardless the limitations of DMs, they do comprise an important aspect of Tarot studies, have enjoyed a long and popular history, and are “especially useful for illustrating tarot meanings to an uninitiated audience” (Jorgensen, p. 166); surely they merit the kind of analysis which comprises, in part, this study.

One of the most important practitioners of the early esoteric Tarot (including a system of DMs), was Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), also known as Etteilla (his surname spelled backwards), who was born the son of a caterer.  Early in life he supported himself and his family as a seed merchant and dealer in antique prints; contrary to reports by Lévi, (1854-55/1910, 1860/1913), Papus (1889/1910, 1909), Waite (1910), and others, he apparently was never a hairdresser or wigmaker (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  He is remembered, however, for his contributions to cartomancy (especially divination by Tarot), which included the setting of multiple precedents, a summary of which follows.

Cartomancer and Author

Etteilla was the first known professional Cartomancer; he earned his living by reading cards (including Tarot) and pursuing related studies (including astrology) for a significant portion of his life, eventually earning wealth, rank, and fame (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; see also Lévi, 1854-55/1910, 1860/1913; Papus, 1989/1910, 1909; Waite, 1910).

He authored, in 1770, the first known book to treat divination by playing cards, Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes [Etteilla, or a way to entertain yourself with a deck of cards] (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  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] (see illustration 2) (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  In it he assigned DMs to each of the Tarot cards (both upright and reversed orientations) and presented card spreads (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; Etteilla 1785/1993; Papus, 1889/1910, 1909).

His approach to Tarot was influenced, in part, by pre-existing cartomantic methods using playing cards (including his own), and comprised, in part, extensions of the theories of Gébelin and Mellet concerning the purported Egyptian origins and symbolism of Tarot (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).

Figure 2 (above): Title page from the third book of Manière de se récréer . . . Tarots (1783) (Papus, p. 4, 1909).

Etteilla’s Tarot

He published c. 1788 the first Tarot deck specifically designed—not for gaming—but for occult purposes, including divination.  Kaplan (1986) asserted that Etteilla never published a deck, and Jorsensen (1992) implied the same.  However, Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996 (1996) have shown conclusively that he did and that it was very similar to a revised version published by Grimaud in the nineteenth century (see also Lévi, 1889/1910; Papus, 1909; Waite, 1910).  The deck used fresh iconography and titles or keywords for each card.  It and variations on it remained popular for about 120 years, i.e., from the time of its introduction through the nineteenth century (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  To provide perspective, the popular Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been with us for only ninety years, having been first published in 1909 (Kaplan, 1978; see also Waite, 1910).  To this day, a revised version of the nineteenth century Grimaud deck, titled Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarots Egyptiens [Grand Etteilla: Or Egyptian Tarot] (Etteilla, c. 1788/c. 1975), is in print.  Other decks loosely based on Etteilla’s Tarot (ET) also remain in print, e.g., the Antichi Tarocchi Esoterici [Ancient Esoteric Tarot] (Lo Scarabeo, c. 1870/1996), Tarocco Egiziano [Egyptian Tarot] (Del Negro, c.1870/n.d.), and Jeu de la Princesse Tarot [Princess Tarot Deck] (Dusserre, c. 1876/n.d.).  In addition, popular books explaining ET are in print, e.g., San Emeterio (1997) and Silvestre-Haéberlé (1996).

Other Accomplishments

Among additional precedents, Etteilla was the first to incorporate Tarot into a Hermetic system by assigning elemental and astrological correspondences to selected cards (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; see also Papus, 1909; Etteilla, 1785/1993, c. 1788/c. 1975).  For a brief discussion of Etteilla’s integration of Tarot and astrology, see Appendix A.

He also broke ground by creating the first organization whose principal mission was the formal study of Tarot, when he founded the Société des Interprètes du Livre de Thot [Society of the Interpretors of the Book of Thoth] in 1788 (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).

Through his personal practice and books he was the first to popularize cartomancy, including divination by Tarot, on a large scale (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; see also Lévi, 1854-55/1910, 1860/1913; Papus, 1989/1910, 1909; Waite, 1910).

In addition, Etteilla influenced the development of Tarot by training a new generation of card readers.  In 1791, he claimed that he had 500 students, of which 150 were professional cartomancers (L’homme à projets [Man’s Projects], cited in Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).

Etteilla’s School of Disciples

Upon his death at age 53, he was succeeded by his disciples, including Claude Hugend, Pierre-Joseph Joubert de La Salette, and Melchior-Montmignon D’Odoucet, who extended and further popularized their master’s teachings (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  For convenience, this report will refer to them and like-minded Tarot theorists and practitioners as the School of Etteilla (SE).  Hugend (also known by his pseudonym Jéjalel) published, in 1791, a brief book titled Cartomancie, ou l’art de développer la chaîne des événemens de la vie: Récréations astrologiques par le Livre de Thot [Card-reading, or the Art of Developing Life’s Chain of Events: Astrological Recreations According to the Book of Thoth] (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996).  Also 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, Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett (1996) have attributed it to La Salette.  Essentially, the work was a thesaurus, which served as a companion to Etteilla’s Tarot (ET).  Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett reported that:

“The core of the Dictionnaire synonimique du Livre de Thot is a ‘Table des synonymes du livre de Thot’ [‘Table of synonyms of the Book of Thoth’] (pp. 19-57), a systematic exposition of Etteilla’s ‘feuillets’ [leaves or cards], according to Etteilla’s order.  Seventy-eight ‘hieroglyphs’ are described, with their titles as they appear on the engraved cards, of which the Dictionnaire was the obvious companion.  Straightforward synonyms are listed for each one according to its orientation (upright and reversed).”  (p. 110).

During the period 1804-1807, D’Odoucet published Science des signes, ou médecine de l’esprit [Science of signs, or medicine of the mind], which was:

“A compendium of Etteilla’s philosophy, written much in Etteilla’s style and expounding his system of Tarot cartomancy.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“The second volume of the Science des signes is more concerned with the Tarot and is clearly inspired by Dictionnaire synonimique (1791) of which it is a kind of summary. . . .  It only shows some minor divergences. . . .” (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996, pp. 106-107).

Later, 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] (ch. 6, 1909).

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