By Christine Payne-Towler
Among the Tarot decks made in Continental Europe from the late 1700's until into the early 1900's, there is a very strong thread that can be classed as Martinist Tarots. This stream was publicly inaugurated by Etteilla, is epitomized in the Papus tarot, and has been supported in print by commentators from de Gebelin and de Mellet (le Mond Primitif) through Paul Christian, Levi, Papus, Wirth, Tomberg (writing as 'Anonymous'), Zain, Valcourt-Vermont (writing as Saint Germain), Mouni Sadhu, Haich and Hall...
What distinguishes these decks is their loyalty to the tradition that places the roots of the Trump lore in Egypt. These writers are reporting on a stream of Tarot mysticism that has been appearing on the faces of the cards since at least the 1660's. In this article we will highlight those individuals from this period who were active in the Orders while simultaneously developing the interest of the lay public in the Tarot.
To place ourselves in context and remember ground we have covered in previous ArkLetters, let me make a condensation from Faivre's Access to Western Esotericism (SUNY Press, 1994). This is just a small segment of the trajectory that Faivre covers in this book, but it just so happens that the French Illuminists was the subject of his PhD thesis, so we can have a high degree of confidence in his research in this area.
Faivre's Part Two, chapter Three is about "Esotericism in the Shadow of the Enlightenment." First Faivre points out the Illuminist movement, which he calls "theosophy with mystical leanings". Then he separates out a unique thread within Illuminist theosophy, this one "in the wake of what is at once Boehmian and Paracelsian, closer to the occult sciences. The initiatory societies will be considerably influenced by this theosophy oriented towards magic." While citing the birth of modern Speculative Freemasonry on the next page, he says "Thus in the [1730's] appear, mainly on the continent, systems of 'Rites' (rituals) consisting of High Degrees (...superior to the three standard degrees of Apprentice, Fellow Craftsman, and Master Mason...) very propitious to accepting an esotericism with connotations that are sometimes chivalric or Christian, sometimes 'Egyptian' or neopagan."
Faivre then goes on to "what is appropriately called in French 'Illuminisme' (in the esoteric sense of the word)." Here he introduces Emmanuel Swedenborg, who informed the whole tradition with his tremendous compilation of the correspondences among the historical worlds-within-worlds scheme. Swedenborg's work impacted Masonry, the Anglican Church, and generations of philosophers and theurgists to come. Faivre also introduces Martinez de Pasqually, founder of the theurgic Order of the "Elected Cohens," whom Faivre praises as "the author of the Triate de la reintegration des etres, one of the masterpieces of modern theosophy." Further, "Under [Martinez de Pasqually's] influence, [emerged] Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin), the so-called Unknown Philosopher"... (about whom Waite wrote a biography by that name, published 1970 by Rudolph Steiner Publications). Faivre says, "Saint-Martin is...undoubtedly a great French writer, and the most important Christian esotericist of his time.... He has left behind interesting correspondence not only with Masons, but also with Elected Cohens..." (p.73) The tradition of these two eminent French theosophers became known as "Martinism,", and it found affiliations with various Masonic, Cohen, and Rectified Scottish Rite lines.
First sighting of the Masonic/Martinist lineage in Russia
On page 78, Faivre says "Under the name of 'Martinism' the Rectified Scottish Rite quickly won adherents in Russia, where the Gold- and Rosenkreutz (Golden Rosy-Cross) Order also made its way, and where Nicolai Novikov is a central figure in this double movement."
Fascinating! Already in the 1780's we see evidence of a developed and formalized High Degree Masonic affiliation taking hold in Russia, schooled in the Elus Cohen's Tarot-inflected theurgy. This is the tradition that Mouni Sadhu and Valentin Tomberg later encountered, from which their respective writings emanate. Apparently, this connection was formalized at the Masonic Convention of 1782, at Wilhelmsbad.
Faivre's survey goes on to include the Comte de Cagliostro and his Egyptian Rite, Eliphas Levi, Papus, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Ordre Martiniste, the Order of the Golden Dawn, Rudolph Steiner, Madame Blavatsky, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the Theosophical Society, and the Brotherhood of Light. About Etteilla, Faivre says:
"One captivating and unsettling individual personifies the diverse forms of this state of mind [of Illuminism] on the eve of the Revolution: the Frenchman Alliette (alias Etteilla), who is a combination of charlatan and theosopher as well as alchemist (Les sept nuances de l'oeuvre philosophique, 1786), one of whose claims to fame is having contributed to making known the divinatory Tarot. " (p. 75, Access to Western Esotericism)
Encountering Faivre's cryptic analysis, which shows Etteilla to be both "captivating and unsettling," highlights the reactivity that seems to always appear at the mention of Etteilla by writers in the early generation of Tarot commentators. Here, for example, is a selection of remarks by Eliphas Levi about Etteilla, drawn from a number of his books:
Levi says in The Mysteries of Magic:
"...Thence have come those Tarots the antiquity of which, revealed to the learned Court de Gebelin by the science of numbers and hieroglyphics itself, so much exercised at a later period the questionable perspicacity but persevering investigation of Etteilla. Etteilla or Alliette, an illumine hair-dresser, exclusively engrossed by his divinatory system, and the emolument he could derive from it, neither proficient in his own language nor even in orthography, pretended to reform. and thus attribute to himself, the Book of Thoth. On the Tarot which he published, which has become very scarce, we find the following naive advertisement: 'Etteilla, professor of Algebra, reformer of Cartomancy, and correctors (sic) of the modern inaccuracies of the ancient Book of Thoth, lives in....’ Etteilla would have certainly done wisely not to have corrected the inaccuracies of which he speaks; his works have caused the ancient book discovered by Court de Gebelin to descend into the region of common magic and fortune-telling. He proves nothing who tries to prove too much, an axiom of logic; of this Etteilla is another example, but his efforts, nevertheless, led him to a certain acquaintance with the Kabbalah, as may be seen in some rare passages of his unreadable works.
The true initiates, contemporaries of Etteilla, the Rosicrucians, for example, and the Martinists, who were in possession of the real Tarot … were far from protesting against the errors of Etteilla, and left him to re-veil, not reveal, the arcanum of the veritable claviculae of Solomon. " (p. 270)
On page 316 of the article "The Adepts and the Priesthood" from The History of Magic (Kessinger edition), Levi says:
"In the Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic, we have shewn how untoward in their results were the labours of Etteilla or Alliette in respect of the Tarot. This illuminated hairdresser, after working for thirty years, only succeeded in producing a bastard set, the Keys of which are transposed, so that the numbers no longer answer to the signs."
Quoting Doctrine and Ritual, p. 177-8, we read more of Levi's attitude about Etteilla:
"... Alliette, who, in the last century, from a hairdresser became a Kabalist, and kabalisticlly called himself Etteilla, reading his name backwards after the manner of Hebrew, Alliette, I say, after thirty years of meditation over the Tarot, was on the threshold of discovering everything that is concealed in this extraordinary work; but he ended only by misplacing the keys, through want of their proper understanding, and inverted the order and character of the figures, though without entirely destroying their analogies, so great are the sympathy and correspondence which exist between them. The writings of Etteilla, now very rare, are obscure, wearisome and barbarous in style; they have not all been printed, and some manuscripts of this father of modern cartomancers are in the hands of a Paris bookseller who has been good enough to let us examine them. Their most remarkable points are the obstinate perseverance and incontestable good faith of the author, who all his life perceived the grandeur of the occult sciences, but was destined to die at the gate of the sanctuary without ever penetrating behind the veil. He had little esteem for Agrippa, made much of Jean Belot and knew nothing of the philosophy of Paracelsus; but he possessed a highly-trained intuition and great persistence of will, though his fancy exceeded his judgment. His endowments were insufficient for a Magus and more than were needed for a skillful and accredited diviner of the vulgar order. Hence Etteilla had a fashionable success which a more accomplished magician would perhaps have been wrong to renounce, but assuredly would not have claimed."
"Etteilla, a confused, obscure, fantastic but persevering Kabalist, reproduced in alchemy the eccentricities of his misconstrued and mutilated Tarot; metals in his crucibles assumed extraordinary forms, which excited the curiosity of all Paris, with no greater profit to the operator than the fees which were paid by his visitors. " (D & R, p. 287)
Boiling Levi's Remarks Down
Ever since I started reading Levi in the late 1970's, I have responded to these remarks with resistance. Methinks the man protesteth too much! It is overkill, from the perspective of what we know in the 21st century, to spend so much energy on a person whom one seemingly completely dislikes and disrespects in public, while secretly emulating and flatly copying them in private. The fact is, the last two hundred years of Tarot decks, and certainly every one of the Martinist series, are utterly beholden to Etteilla for the divinatory pattern he codified. Even those modern deck-makers who rebel against his overt influence do so in the footprints of the conventions he set! Therefore Levi's exaggerated negative reactivity should act in our minds like a red flag before a bull -- "what is that thing doing here?!"
It is wise to remember that the history of occult transmission includes countless episodes wherein a few important facts are hidden in a whole haystack of vehement blather. Trithemius taught us this technique, and there's no doubt Levi perfected it with great subtlety. Let’s assume such a thing were happening in this case, and see what we can extract from all of Levi's colorful rantings above:
"Etteilla or Alliette, an illumine... [made] efforts [which], nevertheless, led him to a certain acquaintance with the Kabala ... The true initiates, contemporaries of Etteilla, the Rosicrucians, for example, and the Martinists, who were in possession of the real Tarot, . . . were far from protesting against the errors of Etteilla, and left him to re-veil, not reveal, the arcanum of the veritable claviculae of Solomon . . .. [Etteilla] succeeded in producing a bastard set, the Keys of which are transposed, so that the numbers no longer answer to the signs . . ..
Alliette, I say, after thirty years of meditation over the Tarot, was on the threshold of discovering everything that is concealed in this extraordinary work; but he ended only by misplacing the keys, through want of their proper understanding, and inverted the order and character of the figures, though without entirely destroying their analogies, so great are the sympathy and correspondence which exist between them . . .. [The writings of Etteilla's] most remarkable points are the obstinate perseverance and incontestable good faith of the author, who all his life perceived the grandeur of the occult sciences ... (H)e possessed a highly-trained intuition and great persistence of will ... Etteilla, a ... persevering Kabalist, reproduced in alchemy the eccentricities of his ...Tarot; metals in his crucibles assumed extraordinary forms, which excited the curiosity of all Paris."
In short, the provable data-points here are:
- Etteilla was an Initiate into the Masonic/Martinist stream
- the Rosicrucians and Martinists of Etteilla's era were in possession of the 'real Tarot'
- no Lodge members protested against Etteilla's Tarots, indeed he was left unopposed to say and do whatever served to popularize the cards with the uninitiated public
- the changes Etteilla made to the cards put the Trumps out of order, but did not entirely destroy the analogies that put Tarot in correspondence with the Book of Thoth (explained elsewhere to be the Hebrew Alphabet)
- Etteilla was a single-minded occultist, Kabalist, and alchemist who dedicated the lion's share of his adult life to the esoteric arts
- he was a man of incontestable good faith, highly trained intuition and great persistence of will (in Martinist terms, a 'man of Desire')
Superficially, Levi appears to be damning Etteilla with faint praise. But in point of fact he is also releasing quite a bit of information about Etteilla's role in history, both within the Secret Societies, and in shaping the public face of Tarot. Levi utters these things as asides, between the lines of his downgrades and deprecations. However, nowadays we can find all these data to be confirmable through presently available resources. I wonder why modern Tarot historians are so quick to accept nasty gossip about Etteilla from Levi’s pen, but will repeatedly overlook the biographical and historical information folded into the mix?
Etteilla at Masonic convention in Paris, 1785
By way of killing two birds with one stone, let me now call up Elizabeth Cooper-Oakley in her meticulously-researched book The Count of Saint-Germain, originally published in Milan in 1912, recently republished 1n 1970, '88, and '92 by Steinerbooks. The volume is introduced by Paul M. Allen, who summarizes it as "... the history of 18th century Masonry and ...the work of the Rosicrucians and Alchemists of the period...[facilitating] understanding of the secret factors at work in the major countries of Western Europe in the mid-1700's..."
Two things are of special interest in the following quote. First of all, note the reference to Freemasonic attempts to influence the Masonic record regarding the individual known as St. Germain. I point this out to demonstrate that it such dealings as character assassination and revisionism are not unheard of within the Lodge structure. It is my contention that the same kind of effort was made to diminish the historical profile of Etteilla once his function as a popularizer of Tarot divination was fulfilled. Others who came after him, including Levi and his contemporaries, made the decision that Etteilla was to be viewed in a certain light, and that decision has affected what has come down to us in the historical record. (People who simultaneously claim to have the utmost regard for his legacy do the same to Levi in his turn. 'Twas ever thus, apparently!)
The second thing to note in the following quote is that Etteilla is specifically named as one of the representatives of French Masonry at the great convention in Paris, 1785. This date falls after the Wilhelmsbad linkage with the Russian Masons/Martinists in 1782. This is also years before Etteilla's first deck is published in 1789. Let's also remember that Saint-Martin didn't split away from Martinez de Pasqually until 1790, so at this point what we are retrospectively calling "Martinism" is actually still the overtly theurgic Elus Cohen transmission. Further, the foundations of Martinez' Sovereign Court had been established in Paris since 1767, giving Etteilla plenty of time to be exposed to the Elus Cohen path, either directly or via Scottish Rite Masonry in France.
So here it is, a pithy snippet from Cooper-Oakley:
"In modern Freemason literature the effort is made to eliminate [St. Germain's] name, and even, in some Instances, to assert that he had no real part in the Masonic movement of the last century, and was regarded only as a charlatan by leading Masons. Careful research, however, into the Masonic archives proves this to be untrue: indeed, the exact contrary can be shown, for M. de St. Germain was one of the selected representatives of the French Masons at their great convention at Paris in 1785.... [a list of German participants follows.] The French were honourably [sic.] represented by St. Germain, St. Martin, Touzet-Duchanteau, Etteila, Mesmer, Dutrousset, d'Herecourt, and Cagliostro." (p. 129-30)
Several sources are given confirming the participants to this influential convocation, which proved an event of great distress to the Illuminists present. Cooper-Oakley reports that at this convention a controversy erupted, pressed by a group of Jesuits bringing "the wildest and most disgraceful accusations against M. de St. Germain, M. de St. Martin and many others, accusations of immorality, infidelity, anarchy, etc. The Charges were leveled at the Philaletheans, or 'Rite des Philaletes our Chercheurs de la Verite', founded in 1773.... Prince Karl of Hesse, Savalette de Lange (the Royal Treasurer). The Vicomte de Tavanne, Count de Gebelin, and all the really mystic students of the time were in this Order." (p. 130)
As well as demonstrating the presence of political intrigues within and between the Orders, this quote also shows us that, even at this late date, the Church was still occupying itself with persecuting, infiltrating and if possible destroying the members of the occultist Orders, even those who espoused and practiced private or minority forms of mystical Christianity. In episodes like this, the Church surrenders to the image of its projected fears, using the claim of wiping out heresy to perpetrate all kinds of cruelties against the soul and psyche of humanity. Looking back, we remember the persecutions endured by Trithemius, Agrippa, Paracelsus and Boehme, as well as Giordano Bruno's execution in 1600. These are all testimony to Christianity's ongoing crusade against its own magi, and reminders of how lucky we are to be here, now.
Cagliostro was to die sometime in 1795, after years spent in one of the putrid dried-up cesspools used as dungeons during the Inquisition. He is reputed to be the last fatality in the Church's war against the Freemasons. We who read about these events from a comfortable distance in time can easily fail to register the high-stakes issues set loose in the life of a person who was committed to a magical, theurgical, esoteric path. No less than in previous eras, the period leading up to the French Revolution was a dangerous and challenging time to be publicly known as a freethinker, a magi or a Seeker of the Interior Light.
Levi studying with the Russian Masons/Martinists/Rosicrucians
One of my favorite contemporary authors on esotericism, Tarot and occult art is Richard Cavendish. When I looked into his A History of Magic to see what could be found about Etteilla and Levi in there, I found this delicious little morsel:
"Levi read Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme and St. Martin, studied Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala Denudata and acquired a reverence for Paracelsus and Guillaume Postel. He also sat at the feet of an extraordinary Polish sage named Wronski, from whom he imbibed a Polish and Russian strain of cabalistic Martinism and Masonry, itself influenced by the Cabalist religious revival movement in Polish Jewry in the eighteenth century. " (p. 152-3)
Levi first encountered Wronski in 1852, and from him Levi learned how to manage the kind of multidisciplinary, multimodal visualizations necessary to compress the combined Mysteries of the world's religions into a memory map, a Tree, an astrolabe or a pack of cards. Intuition suggests that this signature modality of thinking is one of the hallmarks of the "inner circle" of mystics and theurgists we collectively call the Illuminist stream.
It is apparently true that Wronski was as mad as he was inspired, a fact that was not entirely lost on Levi. But it is also very clear that Levi felt his own calling more strongly when in company with Wronski, since they shared the classic sorcerer's love of that divine machine, the Cosmos. Another of my sources on Levi's formative influences adds Fabre d'Olivet's The Hebrew Tongue Restored to the list. This is a profoundly influential demonstration of the alphabetic mysteries of Hebrew (and many other related tongues) that remains a monument in its field. It's easy to see that Levi's lifetime of writings demonstrate the maturation of the themes he imbibed during these formative years, working his way through the combined works of his spiritual ancestors both at his Armory job and with Wronski.
Madame Blavatsky Studies with Levi, Teaches Egyptian Masonry
"That the Comte de St. Germain was also a Rosicrucian there is no doubt.... Constantly, in the Masonic and Mystic literature of the last century the evidences are found of his intimacy with the prominent Rosicrucians in Hungary and Austria.... Traces of this teaching, as given by our mystic [St. Germain], are clearly found, and are quoted by Madame Blavatsky, who mentions a 'Cypher Rosicrucian Manuscript' as being in his possession." (p, 146)
Imagination races at the thought -- What could this be? A manuscript copy of the Codex Rosae Crucis D.O.M.A.? The Crata Repoa, mentioned by Manly P. Hall and also by C. W. Heckethorn in his Secret Societies of all Ages and Countries? The Fratres Lucis MS referred to by Lewis Keizer, prototype of Paul Christian's Arcana descriptions in his History and Practice of Magic (1870), and later the Falconnier (1896) and St. Germaine (1901) Tarots? We still have a lot to learn about what teachings were in whose hands and when. Inquiring minds want to know!
The first Tarot pack in print that looked the way Christian's essays described them is the Falconnier Tarot, essentially the same deck as we can now purchase as the St. Germain Tarot, the Ibis, and the Brotherhood of Light decks, among others. The images are quite striking and unique in this group, and most of these decks are quoting from a single, coherent source, sometimes word for word. These are the images that I believe have set the "inner-school standard" for the Martinist lineage, since before the French Revolution and possibly since the latter half of the 1600's.
We know from the bio on Papus at the beginning of his excellent Astrology For Initiates that Papus intersected with Blavatsky's works through the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Blavatsky taught from the St. Germaine Tarot in her early years in India (late 19th c), and the Theosophical Society seems to have been instrumental in getting this pack published in the West when she relocated. The text for this deck is found in a monograph that emerged in 1901, entitled Practical Astrology, attributed to the Comte de Saint-Germain. In truth, it was Edgar de Valcourt-Vermont, assumedly a Theosophist who was with Blavatsky in India, who created both the book and the deck, according to Josef Machynka (author of the Ibis Tarot). De Valcourt-Vermont was finally giving a visual form and full 78-card expression to the 22 Arcana described by Christian/Pitois half a century earlier. This sets the Egyptian Tarot into circulation and becomes the inspiration for the writings of Zain, Peeke, Tomberg, Sadhu, Haich, Curtiss, Heline and others.
Students of Theosophy, who have taken the time to trace down the sources of Blavatski's esoteric teachings on Tarot, report that her major resource in occultism was the writings of Eliphas Levi. Here again, the provenance of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor course (and the Brotherhood of Light in America), which includes the Saint Germain Tarot, refers back to the stream of Masonic/Martinist initiates informed by the theurgy of Martinez de Pasqually. All roads seem to lead to Rome.
Another deck from this lineage of Egyptian Masonry first published in Italy and then later in Spain, is the Cagliostro Tarot. This one is a product of the 20th century and purports to be reproductions of Cagliostro's images, thus an interpretation rather than the original art. I have classed this as a Martinist Tarot, too, although it never was printed in France, because Cagliostro is another one of the influential Masons/Martinists/Templars who we see on this roster of Continental Magi of the 1700's. He is most famous for his "Egyptian Rite", which I think we can assume is being pictured on the Major Arcana set named after him. This would account for the large number of feminine figures on these Trumps.
Ultimately, these names are so often heard together -- Saint Germain, Saint-Martin, Cagliostro, de Gebelin, Etteilla -- that we might consider taking any one of them, wherever they appear, as a flag for Illuminist philosophy and praxis.
Papus also studies with the Russian Stream
As we showed last ArkLetter when Papus met Henri Delaage and encountered the latter-day continuation of the Russian Masonic/Masonic/Templar lineage that had educated both Etteilla and Levi, the impulse came around full circle and a tremendous center of attraction was formed. Papus has the distinction of being esotericism's premier networker and community-builder for his day. Jocelyn Godwin, in his The Theosophical Enlightenment, put it this way:
"Papus, the best publicist that occultism ever had, used the many ceremonial and study-groups that he founded or headed as recruiting grounds for the H. B of L. [Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor]. It was the inmost group, differing from the Martinists, the Gnostic Church, the French Theosophical Society, the Kabalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, etc., in the respect I have constantly underlined - it worked. People had amazing experiences from following its instructions." (p. 361).
And now we know why!
Watching the lives of these esoteric Masons unfolding across the generations, it seems that we need to follow not only the "outer" or lay history of Tarot divination, but also the "inner school" or esoteric history of Europe, in order to fully appreciate the reasons and meanings behind the appearances we perceive. The way the overarching Lodge structure worked, one will often see an action taken "right here" that shows results in a far corner of "over there". In the case of Etteilla, he got a pack of cards engraved, printed and distributed, which possessed Hermetic/Alexandrian Trumps and an esoteric, Masonic-inspired pip pack that has been repeatedly copied by every subsequent esoteric Tarot for two hundred years. How did a lower-class pretender from the hairdressing trade manage to do that? Could it be that his Lodge Brothers supported him in his project, because they wanted to have the tool he would produce for them under the guise of "parlor sibyl divination"?
In Etteilla's case, it is easy enough to note the Masonry-inflected titles and the planetary references on the faces of Etteilla's pip cards, and several commentators have done so. What is harder is to connect the dots and comprehend the meaning of these details, the references they are making, and the significance of those references in the larger milieu of his times. For example, isn't it clearer now why the Hermit card would be given the titles "Betrayal" and "Falsehood", with divinatory text including such admonitions as "a trap is being laid for you" and "you triumph over a slanderous denunciation"? Knowing more of Etteilla's history helps us to see why he made the end-notes of his Tower card say "Poverty" and "Prison", still too often the choices available to a magus in his time. Realizing that he moved in a Lodge context helps to explain the Templar logo on t he crypt of his Death card, as well as the arrangements of nails at the bottom the numbered cards in the Wands suit. The Planets on his Coin cards, as well as the references to Alchemy on both pips and Trumps, cement the obvious conclusion that Etteilla was straddling the underground and above-ground markets while he taught occultist Tarot usage to the masses.
There is no doubt that Etteilla very cleverly balanced the needs of both worlds with his innovative, hybrid Tarot, and he was the first one to pull this ambitious project off. It might also be true that his decks were so popular in the century after he lived, that others had to be sent out into the field to correct the impression Etteilla had made. I see Levi as having a mission to re-educate the Tarot marketplace to appreciate the Marseilles-style packs again, and to make the historical AAN correspondences available to the Brothers (and Sisters) of his day.
At The Turn Of The 20th Century: the Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences
The reference to Masonic concepts in Godwin's citation prompted me to get out an old favorite reference for Continental Tarots, the Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences (NY 1939, reprinted 1972, 1990). This is a collection of topics assembled by M. C. Poinsot from a wide range previous sources. In the chapter on High Magic, in section IV, The Taroc is discussed (Spanish spelling). This section positions Tarot as "the ancient Occult Science in Brief". Even a century and a quarter after Etteilla's death, Poinsot (or whoever has written this article called The Taroc, The Supreme Symbol, p. 419-421) asserts that it is Etteilla's Egyptian Taroc that is "the best known and largely sold" across Europe right up to the edge of the 20th century. It's possible that these remarks stem from the fact that this book was written with Spanish Tarot audiences in mind -- in Spain and Portugal, the first Tarot decks that circulated were Etteilla decks imported from France. Nevertheless, it is no understatement to say that the Etteilla packs were the most popular cards in Europe for divination over the entire century following his life and teachings.
Poinsot's Encyclopedia presents us with an amazing snapshot of the vitality of the European Tarot scene in the early decades of the 20th century, just before the birth of the English Tarot decks (the prototype of which is the Waite/Smith pack.) The premier resource used in the Encyclopedia seems to be Eudes Picard's Synthetic and Practical Manual of Taroc, whose contribution makes up the entirety of the text on the Minor Arcana. (S. Kaplan lists Picard's book in his bibliography at the back of Vol. 2 of his Encyclopedia, where it says this was first published in Italy in1923.) Aside from Poinsot and Picard, other Tarot writers referenced in the Encyclopedia entry are Papus, Etteilla and his commentator Elie Alta, Eliphas Levi, Oswald Wirth, and Fabre d'Olivet. A graph is also reproduced from Pierre Piobb's The Formulary of High Magic. (S. Kaplan in his Vol. 1 Bibliography says Piobb is a pseudonym of Comt. Vincenti, and the book was published in Paris in 1907.) The excellent and fascinating graph shows the letter/numbers, a list of "usual meanings" for those Hebrew letters (derived from Papus), a list of "correspondence in Taroc" (with the titles as in the Egyptian-style decks), a list of "zodiacal and planetary correspondences" (which exactly match the Dali system), plus a final list of "symbolical correspondences" that give the one-word Principle of each letter/number/Arcana/Astrology association.
Following the graph is a summary of the Major Arcana, derived from the work of Papus, Elie Alta, and Eudes Picard. This section is illustrated with a Marseilles-style deck with the Dali astro-alphanumeric correspondences on the faces, but no title for this deck or author for the line-art is anywhere to be seen. The Trumps section includes a discussion of the possible significance of switching the last card between the Fool and the World. Following upon that, we get a treatment of the Minor Arcana, illustrated with examples from the Etteilla deck. Picard states that he's sorry he can't include images and explanations that detail all the variant meanings between the popular decks of his times. To somewhat redress this lack he took the decision to picture a different set of pips than the ones that were described in the text. The sensation of cognitive dissonance as one reads the paragraph and then looks up the image of the card is strange --- no modern editor would allow this. What's fascinating is that the pips being described here (not the ones pictured) will later be reproduced on the El Gran Tarot Esoterico, released in the 1960's. According to the text, the pips described are those of Eudes Picard. I surely wish I knew someone who owns this deck and would allow it to be copied and put online for the world to study!
This article ends with a compendium of sources from which to draw the esoteric context to flesh out one's knowledge of this Key, the Taroc, along with reviews of works created in respect of Tarot, (from Raymond Lully!) to the turn of our previous century. All in all this is a very fine contribution to our sense of "traditional Tarot” in Europe at the turn of this century and into the 30's.
One thing I note with interest as I peruse this Encyclopedia’s reporting, derived partially from the writings of Etteilla, is that there isn't a scrap of the usual depreciating, insulting supercilious attitude towards Etteilla's work that infects other commentators. I do not miss the sneers about his being undereducated, deluded, or otherwise deficient. Fan that I am of Levi, I find this aspect of his writings unsuitable, especially considering that the entire modern Continental collection of Tarots takes its divinatory heritage from Etteilla's pips. My supposition is that because he was born into the lower classes and was self-educated, he easily attracted the innate classism that was a fixed feature of the society around him. He may have even volunteered for the role he fulfilled, because he had no family name to besmirch, no past generations of Masons to embarrass by 'outing' what had previously been closely-held material. It would not strike me as odd at all if future research points to the possibility that Etteilla was even party to the overall plan to let him carry the ball, for good and for ill. More than one commentator has wondered in print how Etteilla got the money together to engrave and then publish his deck and books on the evidently small cash flow his official position as hairdresser's understudy would afford.
More Modern Views on Etteilla's Contribution
To square the record and clear up Etteilla's name here on the higher ground of the 21st century, let's seek out and repeat some more sympathetic reports about Etteilla, noting the increased respect and dignity afforded to him in more recent generations. For example, in Etteilla's defense, Papus says:
"Etteilla, whose real name was Alliette, was a hair-dresser's apprentice who lived at the time of the French Revolution. Having accidentally found a pack of Tarot cards, he was interested by its eccentricity and began to study it. After thirty years he believed that he had discovered the secret of this Egyptian book. Unfortunately Etteilla did not possess any synthetic knowledge, and this ignorance led him to the most erroneous conclusions, though many of his intuitive solutions are really marvelous. There is too much inclination to calumniate this ardent worker; and we must recognize the real truths contained in his works without laying too much stress upon the ignorant simplicity which disfigures them." (p. 327 of The Tarot of the Bohemians)
Christopher McIntosh follows this advice when he wrote his bio of Eliphas Levi, called Eliphas Levi and the French Occult Revival. McIntosh dedicated several pages in his chapter 'The Beginnings of Popular Occultism' to Etteilla, culminating with this observation:
"Etteilla's importance lies in the fact that he was the first French occultist to popularize a form of cabalism. Hitherto cabalistic ideas had been the preserve of scholars and esoteric orders. Now Etteilla had made certain cabalistic theories as accessible to the occult-minded public as were his simple forms of fortune-telling and cartonomancy. For example, he used the cabalistic doctrine known as the Shemhamphorasch, according to which there are seventy-two angels who guard over the world, corresponding to the seventy-two names of God."
That's more like it! Finally we read an even-handed overview of the downstream importance of Etteilla in Tarot's evolution. Clean and clear. Also, by including that detail about the Shem angels being part of Etteilla's teachings, McIntosh drives another nail into the coffin of the theory that Etteilla was uninvolved in Masonry and Martinism. The Shem angels are another hallmark, another signal identifying the theurgistic concerns of the Elus Cohens, those "men of desire".
I don't think this point can be overemphasized. Before Etteilla, these topics only appeared within the Grand Orient context, and were therefore only available for study and commentary by others who were also Lodge members. After Etteilla, the topic ran like wildfire through the popular imagination, seemingly appearing everywhere at once. Also, Etteilla is teaching and using the very same types of energy-entities as Reuchlin and Agrippa were recommending, the same ones the Elus Cohen magi are contacting via their theurgic rituals. Is this really a coincidence?
The Real Book Of Thoth
Etteilla was the one who first popularized the phrase "Book of Thoth"; he taught that the Tarot is the condensation of a magical "book" (translate: teaching) supposedly originating with Thoth, the ancient Egyptian ibis-headed god of wisdom. Etteilla's wholehearted agreement with the Egyptian/Gypsy theory of Tarot transmission places him squarely among the esoteric Masons of his time, many of whom were looking to Egypt for clues to the historical Mysteries. A century later (and decades before Crowley hit the collective radar), Levi assures us that the real Book of Thoth is the Hebrew alphabet, complete with all of the astro-alpha-numeric coding that magicians have historically append to it. (In the first decade of the 21st century, this strikes me as particularly fateful, given that we can look back and see the confusion that has been projected onto the Hebrew Alphabet in the name of the Book of Thoth!)
Our final clip about Etteilla comes from Paul Huson's Mystical Origins of the Tarot.
"So successful did he ultimately prove in his practice that his decks became known as 'Egyptian' tarots to distinguish them from what were then generally referred to as 'German' tarots (which we would call Tarocks) and also from 'Italian' tarots, that is, decks consisting of the traditional French, Swiss, Belgian, or Italian patterns. Ironically, fashionable Parisian society came to consider only 'Egyptian' tarots suitable for proper cartomancy.
"The first Etteilla deck, probably a reproduction of Etteilla's own engraved one, was published in 1789, two years before his death in 1791. In 1826 a second appeared, introducing titles that evoke Masonic concepts. These can still be seen in B. P. Grimaud's Grand Etteilla ou Tarots Egyptiens deck."
Now, finally, we can claim some perspective on Etteilla, free from the taint of classism and negative implications that have characterized reviews of his life's work since the first century of his popularity. There was a reason that it was the Etteilla pack, rather than any other set available at the time, which was the first to break through and impact the collective consciousness with a passionate desire for Tarot divination. Certainly the little "cheater" words he put at both ends of every card were instantly popular with lay readers. However the deeper reason why his decks had near-instant appeal is that they are made to a system that is internally coherent, based as it is on wisdom-teachings tied to the zodiac, numbers, planets, signs, and elements. It is keyed to a map of the Western psyche that has been in development since the Church Fathers. Further, his insistence that the Tarot comprises the Book of Thoth points directly towards the central mystery of Tarot, which we are still working on solving to this day.
From everything we have learned, it should no longer seem strange to read about titles on the Grimaud Etteilla pack that "evoke Masonic concepts". Etteilla was a Mason, quite likely an Elus Cohen as well! If nothing else, his lifelong interest in cabbalism would have brought him into the orbit of Willermooz’s secret E. C. degrees.
If we take the angle that those who criticize are actually showing a sideways form of admiration, then Etteilla's pack was "severely admired" by all in the Lodge movement who mentioned his name during the century after his passing. This went on even as the decks that followed on his heels were copying Etteilla’s pips pack wholesale, and even as his method of divination was being adopted wholeheartedly by the previously-ignorant masses.
What had happened to cause this change in attitude about Etteilla? Recent research into the inspiration motivating Etteilla to create his deck point to both a strong exposure to Christian Cabalism via Masonic teachings, and an affinity for the Alexandrian Gnosis of the Pymander from the Corpus Hermeticum. This helps us understand that the values and teachings he was trying to convey were not just frivolous "parlor sibyl" mental floss, but were actually drawn from a study of classical sources, grounded in the Western Mystery Tradition. Once all the components of his Trump set were collated back to the Marseilles ordering (done by his Italian students a decade after his death and called the Cartomanzia Italiana), Etteilla's historical contribution was more easily put in context and appreciated by the greater Tarot-using world. It also did not hurt that Etteilla's pip set became a standard model from which many European packs were drawn, most notably the Papus Tarot and the Tavaglione packs. Exegetes Jelial/Hugand, Julia Orsini and O'Odoucet also kept his teachings alive until the 20th century, (when the whole model had a resurgence through the two branches of the BOL). Stuart Kaplan recently reaffirmed the core correspondences that link Etteilla's Trumps back to the Marseilles tradition (see the Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume 1), exactly as Etteilla's students declared them.
It seems that somehow, over the century-odd of time that elapsed between Etteilla's death and the publication of Poinsot’s Encyclopedia, the sheer usefulness of Etteilla's cards as a pack with "training wheels" for divination cemented it in the historical stream. The eccentricities of his personality and the unevenness of his presentation were smoothed over by the appreciation his pack's users felt for having a tool that was set up for ease of use in the oracular situation. Conventions that Etteilla set have produced the basic meaning-structure within the Pips pack used by virtually every Tarot deck grounded in history, whether they declare it or not. To this very day one or another version of Etteilla's cards are in use around the world, wherever Romance languages are spoken.
February 17, 2007
copyright christine payne-towler 2007, all rights reserved
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