The Grande Etteilla

The Book of Thoth, or Grande Etteilla III (GE), is the most recent addition to my Tarot collection. It is the version of the Tarot with which I am least familiar.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card – GE

This deck is an odd one. The Minor Arcana is much as it is in any other deck: the small cards are pips, and the court cards show people of appropriate suit and rank. The Major Arcana, though, is very strange to me. For one, the archetypes pictured are in many cases totally different than what I’m used to. For another, the few that are the same or similar have been totally reordered. When I refer generally to the Major Arcana throughout this blog, it can be taken for granted that the exception lies in Etteilla’s deck.

I’m certain Etteilla had very good reasons for the changes he made from the typical Tarot deck, but as of now, I’m at a loss for understanding. There are no books that I can find (in English, anyway) that elaborate on his intended system.

My understanding, limited though it may be, is thus: Etteilla was a French cartomancer who operated in the latter half of the 18th century. He was familiar with the traditional Tarot deck and its potential for divination. The original Tarot, however, was not necessarily intended by its creators for that purpose, so Etteilla devised a system which was. The resulting deck, by which this deck was inspired, was the first Tarot deck created with the sole purpose of divination and occult uses in mind.

Historically speaking, this version of the Tarot is important. Even though most decks available today are not based on this system, but on the more traditional system found in the TdM, Etteilla’s work on the diviniatory meanings of the Major Arcana has influenced the way subsequent Tarot masters viewed their cards. Waite, who designed what would become the most popular Tarot deck over a century later, based many of his divinatory meanings on the GE.* While you can go through your entire Tarot journey without awareness of Etteilla’s contribution to its history and not lose anything really important, I believe that a better understanding of history is imperative to a fuller comprehension of the present in any matter, Tarot or otherwise.

As different as this deck is, study and divination is made easier by the inclusion of both upright and reversed meanings on the cards, including those of the Minor Arcana. These are, however, only in French, so to people such as myself, who do not read French, the meaning is still not obvious (I have enough of an understanding of Romantic languages to be able to glean the meanings from the cards, but they are not as straightforward to me as they would be in English. In a way, though, I actually like this, because it adds a certain mystique to the cards).

There is a discernible pattern to the ordering of the Major Arcana, although it is not the Fool’s Journey that is to be found in other decks. The first eight cards relay the story of the creation of the world, clearly inspired by the Bible, although the archetypes are applicable to most mythic systems. This has some interesting implications for the mythic content of the Tarot in general, because as I’ve discussed in a previous post, your typical Tarot deck contains within it the archetypes which comprise the Journey of the Hero (called the Fool’s Journey among the Tarot community – to be examined in the future). I’ve been taught that, at their most fundamental level, every myth falls into one of two categories: Creation myths (or myths that attempt to answer the subconscious question “Where did I come from?”), or Hero’s Journey myths (or myths that try to answer “Where am I going?”). Most Tarot decks deal with the latter; the GE, by contrast, deals with the former, and thus, it can be argued that the entirety of Mythology (in a very, very general and archetypal sense) is contained within my collection. Now, I suspect that there are some elements of the Hero’s Journey in the GE, and I suspect that there are some elements of the Creation in the others, but I’ve yet to study my decks in-depth with this in mind, so I don’t want to make any claims here. Expect a post or two about this later, though, because it is a question that I intend to answer.

Following the Creation cards are cards representing female personifications of the four virtues Justice, Temperance, Strength, and Prudence. The remaining ten cards of the Major Arcana depict various life situations, which should all be more or less familiar to users of the more well-known Tarot decks, although as stated above, most have different names, they’re all in a different order, and some have been assigned divinatory meanings that are completely foreign.

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I will not call this deck “evil”, but I do get some discomforting vibes from it that are absent from my other decks (yes, this includes the wicked Mr. Crowley’s deck). This is probably the result of one or more of the following reasons: first and foremost, my relative unfamiliarity of the GE and its inherent differences compared to other decks is probably a contributing factor. The art, while beautiful in its own way, is somewhat disconcerting to my taste. This is more true in some cards than in others. I chalk that up to the antiquated style (I’m not art historian, but I saw another blogger refer to this style as “19th century Neo-Gothic”). Finally, I can’t help but notice the amount of negative meanings written on these cards. Many cards that are generally considered positive in other decks are completely depressing in this one (like the Magician, who, whether he’s upright or reversed, guarantees a physical or mental malady for the querent, or the Hermit, who predicts certain betrayal by a trusted friend). I can’t say for sure that there actually are more negative cards in this deck compared to any others, but it does seem to me that the GE is capable and willing to give some quite ominous readings.**

All that being said, though, I do like this deck a lot. It adds diversity and historical perspective to my collection of otherwise relatively similarly-structured decks. Furthermore, its inclusion of the creation myth absolutely fascinates me. All in all, it is an attractive deck (even with its sometimes unsettling pictures – there is a grotesque type of beauty about cards like the Devil in this deck) that is specifically geared towards divination, and I would especially recommend it to any collector or student whose aim is to trace the evolution of the Tarot.

 

 

*There is one specific example of this that is responsible for drawing my attention to Etteilla in the first place: the Hermit. Waite’s description of the Hermit in his Pictorial Key stressed “treason, corruption, dissimulation, and roguery”. I was very confused by this, because at first glance it seemed at odds with the typical meaning of the card. Etteilla called his Hermit “Traitor”, and presumably, this is why Waite described his Hermit the way he did. On a semi-related note, Led Zeppelin’s use of the RWS image of the Hermit for their song “Stairway to Heaven” and the subsequent criticism it garnered as a subliminal call to worship Satan by religious uptights suddenly begins to make sense. Maybe there’s something to those claims, after all. Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence.

**Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. After all, life is not fair, and terrible things do happen to good people for no apparent reason. Why should the Book of Wisdom coddle us? It seems to me that many modern decks try to do away with negativity altogether, renaming Death (to many, the scariest card in the deck) as something watered down like “Transformation”. While this is understandable and not technically an incorrect interpretation, it seems borderline inappropriate to whitewash Death in such a fashion, and I believe that people need to learn to take the good in life with the bad. If you are of weak constitution, though, a deck like the GE may not be for you. Approach it at your own (purely psychological) risk.

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Addendum: Having written out my thoughts about this deck and then going back and looking through it again, I feel that I may have been too harsh when describing my overall impression of it. I hesitate to take it back, but I want to stress one more time: this is absolutely not an evil deck of cards, at least, no more so than any other deck of Tarot cards. Furthermore, these are only my impressions, and what is disturbing for one may very well be a comfort to another. Please take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

Also, if anyone can point me in the direction of any English sources on Etteilla’s Tarot, please do so in the comments. I’m eager to learn more!

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