Tarot became quite popular – exoteric – in the last few hundreds of years, and we owe that to the French cartomancer and fortune teller Jean-Baptiste Alliette.
Jean-Baptiste was born to working-class parents in Paris in 1738 and worked as a seed merchant.
In 1770, Jean-Baptiste published his first book “Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes” (“Etteilla, or a Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards”). His pseudonym, Etteilla is simply the reverse of his surname.
According to John Michael Green in “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult”, how and where he learned to read the cards remains unknown. However, Green says that “although a comment in one of his books suggests that he was introduced to the art by an old man from the Piedmont region of Italy sometime in the 1750s.”
At this point, Etteilla used a deck of regular playing cards.
In 1783, Etteilla published the first of four volumes of his major work “Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots” (“How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot”).
Etteilla argued for the Egyptian origin of the Tarot deck. According to Etteilla “the Book of Thoth had been engraved for posterity by seventeen Hermetic adepts, priests of Thoth, on plates of gold 171 years after the Great Flood, and that these plates had been the prototypes for tarot cards.”
Court de Gébelin previously presented the hypothesis of the Egyptian origin in his major work “Le Monde primitif” (“The Primitive World”) published in 1781.
On the other hand, Etteila was the first known author revealing the connection of the Tarot deck to the esoteric tradition. Etteilla linked the meaning of the Tarot cards to the interpretation of Astrological and Alchemical aspects.
Etteila considered the images and symbols of the Tarot card as hieroglyphs, images with esoteric meanings hidden from the eye of the ignorant or the uninitiated.
While most of the occultists and card readers are studying the Tarot cards individually, Etteilla seems to be the first one who understood the importance to study the Tarot deck as a whole and subsequently in relation to the other branches of the esoteric sciences such as Astrology or Alchemy.
Another major contribution from Etteilla is the study of the cards in relation to each other. Not necessarily focusing and finding pairs, but finding different sort of connection between some of the cards.
Unfortunately, his, respectively the work of his students and followers, remains unknown or not enough explored while far as I know, it was never entirely and professionally translated from French.
Fortunately, I have stumbled across the blogs of Dr Michael S. Howard, and he did some outstanding research and translations of the major French materials concerning the Etteilla Tarot deck. I warmly recommend reading his blog Etteilla’s trumps (http://etteillastrumps.blogspot.com) which by far may be considered the best book available in English on this subject.
One very important and unique feature of the deck is that all the cards had two keywords representing the divinatory meaning of the cards, one for the straight (upward), the other for the reversed (upside-down) position.
According to Giordano Berti, the author of the historical introduction of the booklet created for the 2003’s edition by Lo Scarabeo, Etteilla also considered that “the Tarot figures had been completely distorted over the millennia.”
Therefore he wanted to restore them to their original appearance and had his own deck designed around 1789.
This first version of the deck was called “Livre de Thoth, ou le grand jeu des 78 tarots egyptiens” (Book of Thoth, or the great game of the 78 Egyptian Tarot cards). From this first edition, only a handful of cards have survived, however, a student of Etteilla, had a complete version printed in 1804. It was called “La Grande Etteilla”.
The architecture of Etteilla’s deck is very interesting.
Before his death, Etteilla has explained how the pages of the Book of Thoth divide into four volumes or books. The first book is the twelve pages from 1 through 12; the second includes the five pages from 13 through 17; the third is 18 through 21 plus the Fool, and the fourth book is the 56 suit cards.
The first card is called “Chaos”, and it represents (the eternal) Truth.
Cards 2, 3, 4 and 5 represent the Four Elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth.
Card 6 is called “Stars,” and represents Day and Night.
Card 7 is called “Birds and Fish,” representing protection and support.
Card 8 is called “Rest.”
There is the thing, according to the Bible, Genesis 1 to Genesis 2:1-3, God has created the world in seven days.
On Day One God created the Night and Day. On Day Two the Sky and Sea. On Day Three the Land and Vegetation. On Day Four the Stars, Sun and Moon. On Day Five the Sea creatures including fish and Birds. On Day Six the Animals and Mankind. Finally, on the Seventh Day God rested.
Although there might be an allegory between the cards and the Biblical story of creation, I find this allegory at least stretched.
For instance, card seven should represent day five, so should be the card number six if we consider the first card “Chaos” to be the equivalent of “zero”, the Kabbalistic Ein/Ayn Sof, respectively the primordial chaos preceding the act of creation.
Card six may represent the first day of creation, but then it should have been numbered two.
The numbering of the cards does not match the story of creation, however, the allegory may still be considered relevant.
The symbolism of the images shown on the cards also differs from the Biblical story.
On card number eight, signifying “Rest,” is Eve in the Garden of Eden with the Snake and the – forbidden – fruit of knowledge of good and evil in her hand. I really can not see the connection between God resting on Day Seven and the so-called “Original Sin.”
According to Etteilla himself, cards number nine, ten, eleven and twelve, Justice, Temperance, Strength and Prudence, are related to the so-called Theological virtues. The Theological virtues are virtues associated in Christian theology and philosophy with salvation resulting from the grace of God. Traditionally they have been named Faith, Hope, and Charity, which sometimes is also called Love. So, we have four cards to match only three virtues.
Justice may be considered a good match for Faith. Faith is about the revelation of the supernatural truths, not based on evidence but the sole ground of the infallible authority of God.
Temperance may be considered an adequate choice representing Hope. Hope represents our desire to attain everlasting life.
Strength would be my choice for Charity as it represents the “love of God”.
The cardinal virtues cannot be achieved by human effort, but God infuses them into a person.
In a much larger context, there are seven Christian virtues or heavenly virtues, and oppose to them there are also seven deadly sins.
The first card is chaos, the following four cards are the Four Elements, and the next seven cards may represent the seven heavenly virtues.
01. Chaos – Ayn Sof
02. Light – Fire
03. Plants and Birds – Water
04. Heavens – Air
05. Person – Earth
06. Stars – Kindness
07. Birds and Fish – Diligence
08. Rest – Chastity
09. Justice – Faith (Humility)
10. Temperance – Hope (Temperance)
11. Strength – Charity
12. Prudence – Patience
According to Etteila, at number thirteen man became week.
We can only speculate that seven of the following seven cards are related to the seven deadly sins.
13. Marriage – Lust
14. Force Majeure – Pride
15. Magician – Greed
16. Judgement – Sloth
17. Death – Gluttony
18. Hermit – Envy
19. Temple – Wrath
Three cards left: card 20, 21 and 78.
In the spirit of symmetry, I think these three cards represent the Three Qualities.
The Wheel might signify the Mutable Quality; Carriage the Cardinal Quality; and The Fool the Fixed Quality. Although this is only a hypothesis, it makes sense. I always suspected that Etteilla used a double standard. One, the exoteric approach represented by the fortune telling meaning of the card, and the other, the hidden, esoteric interpretation which was never within reach of the large audience.
I never meant to be disrespectful regarding the traditions, but I always said that it is important to understand how things work, rather than memorise “facts” without really understanding their meaning and substance. However, questioning the tradition is the best way to understand it and, eventually, find its faults.
20. Wheel – Mutable Quality
21. Carriage – Cardinal Quality
78. Folly – Fixed Quality
Speaking of tradition, in the conventional interpretation, card 20 is called the Wheel, respectively Fortune. The card signifies both good and bad fortune, opportunities and missed opportunities.
Card 21, called Carriage or “The African Despot” is associated with Alexander the Great. Card 78 is The Fool or Folly. This card, in Etteilla’s view, represents madness: the half wise, half-mad man. Very interestingly he said that to understand its true nature, someone has to study the Fourth Book, respectively “the life of the Mortal”. It seems Etteilla understood that the so-called Numerals represent the day to day life on Earth, while the Major cards represent the heavens, respectively the “divine”, superior forces. This fundamental distinction is still not understood by many card readers.
The Book of Thoth aka. The Grand Etteilla, it is a very interesting Tarot deck, and most probably it still holds many secrets.