Etteilla v. Waite: Part II

In Part 1, I established that I intend to study the Grande Etteilla (GE) in comparison with the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS).

For this part, I’ve chosen to focus on the first eight cards of the Major Arcana. There is a reason for this. The first eight cards of the Etteilla deck are the cards that portray Creation, and the RWS splits very nicely into three groups of seven. Add the Fool to the first group of seven, and you get an even eight, just perfect to match the GE. The Fool in the RWS is numbered zero, so it makes sense to put it at the beginning. The Fool in the GE, on the other hand, is numbered 78, which is very interesting in its implications, but we’ll wait until we get there to examine them in detail. The next two posts after this one will deal with seven cards each.

Before I get started on the cards, I want to briefly discuss the mythic themes which underlie each of these two decks. I have been taught that at their core, all myths can be classified as either Creation myths, or Hero’s Journey myths.* Put in the simplest terms, Creation myths attempt to answer the basic question “Where did we come from?”, while Hero’s Journey myths attempt to answer “Where are we going?”, or even more basic, “Who am I?”. Creation stories try to explain the nature of the world and how it became the place it is today, and Hero’s Journey stories try to explain the nature of humanity. It shouldn’t be assumed that all creation myths just deal with the literal creation of the world. There are many Greek myths that explain how specific trees and flowers came into existence, for example. Also included in this category are stories that explain why certain aspects of society are as they are – it’s not just limited to nature. They are all considered creation myths; there are many, many different variations of this type of myth. Hero’s Journey myths, on the other hand, all follow a basic formula. There are variations from story to story, but they all can be reduced to a common structure. Aspects of this structure have already been discussed in various posts on this blog about the Major Arcana (and I will continue to do so as I write about other cards), and we’ll see a general outline of this structure laid out throughout this study.

In short, the typical Tarot deck, represented here by the RWS, encompasses the Hero’s Journey, while the GE provides a very basic outline of the Creation. There is some crossover, especially within the first eight cards, which will be made clear shortly. Overall, though, it seems to me that the RWS and other more traditional Tarot decks are generally more concerned with the human condition, while the GE appears to concern itself more with the nature of our world.

The first four cards of the GE (top) and the RWS (bottom).

The first thing to notice when looking at these cards together is that, for the first four cards at least, there are no people in the GE while the RWS is dominated by them. For the first three cards, though, that difference is only superficial, and we will actually see that there are a lot of similar ideas conveyed in each respective card. It becomes clear, however, that the GE shows these ideas as they relate to the macrocosm, and the RWS as they relate to the microcosm.

  1. (I will be using the GE numbering throughout this study. This may get confusing, because when I say “card 1”, most people think of the Magician for the RWS, while in this instance, I’m actually referring to the Fool. It’s something to keep in mind as you read on.) Here we see Chaos in the GE, or the time before the World was created. This idea is mirrored in microcosm in the Fool: the time before consciousness awakens. The Fool is the pure, un-tethered soul of the Hero, the moment before he steps off the cliff (symbolic of its descent into consciousness, or the departure of the Hero from the Ouroboros,** and the beginning of his story). Chaos is the Ouroboros, where everything is one. The trademark characteristic of the Ouroboros is its roundness: Chaos is surrounded by circles in the card (and the Fool’s number 0 is symbolic of the same).
  2. The first thing that usually happens to break up the Ouroboros is the split between light and dark. Here we see light, in the form of the Sun. Light is often considered a male characteristic, and the dark female. So in the RWS, we see the Magician, a man who embodies the masculine principle of activity.
  3. Here we see a couple of things going on. First of all, we see the Moon, compliment of the Sun in the previous card. We also see that another binary opposition has occurred: the separation of Earth and Sky. Considering the High Priestess’ significance as the card of binary opposites in general, as well as the female principle of passivity opposite the active Magician, these two cards do indeed match up.
  4. Though the last card showed that the Earth and Sky are both now in existence, it’s focus was on the feminine Earth. Now our attention is turned back towards the masculine side of opposites in the Sky. In other words, the course of the cards after Chaos so far has gone thus: Light – Dark/Earth – Sky, illustrating two pairs of opposites across the space of three cards. This is where the RWS begins to diverge from the GE in its symbolism. The Empress represents the natural world. This includes the sky, as symbolized by the twelve stars of her crown, but the focus remains on the living Earth. After the Fool (unconsciousness) so far we have: Male – Female – Nature.
Cards 5-8***

5. Back down to Earth, we see that it is now being populated with people and animals. The man’s place in the center of everything else makes it clear that humans are thought to rule over the other animals. In a sense, the Emperor of the RWS illustrates a similar idea. It is the masculine compliment to the feminine Empress, and is symbolic for the structure of civilization in contrast to the wildness of nature.

6. And back again to the Sky, we see that it is now populated with the celestial bodies. Notice the astrological signs; this suggests the belief that the Heavens rule the Earth. In the RWS, we have the Hierophant, who acts as an intermediary between the two realms, reinforcing the notion that there is a higher power than us humans.

7. True to form, we are back again to Earth. Here, birds and fish have joined man and beast upon the earth. Land, air, and water are full of life, and the world is now complete. To be honest, I’m having trouble drawing a connection between the Lovers of the RWS and the Birds and Fish of the GE. The irony here is that, of all the RWS cards, this single card is the closest to actually depicting the Creation, the whole process of which has been drawn out over the last seven cards of the GE. The image of the Lovers shows Adam and Eve, the first people, together in the Garden of Eden. They’re naked, which suggests they have not yet eaten from the Tree of Knowledge (behind Eve). I suppose this card might show completed Creation, and in that way can be associated with the Birds and Fish. But the Birds and Fish themselves are not the completed creation; they’re just the last step the GE shows us to completion. Typically, the Lovers suggests a defining choice in a person’s life. The choice to eat the fruit of the Tree was a defining moment in the mythical history of all mankind. This is the card where the difference between the macrocosm of the GE and the microcosm of the RWS becomes clear. They do not match up anymore. A different story is now being told.

8. Here, the GE shows us a picture that is reminiscent of the Lovers from the previous pair of cards. Eve, the first woman, is naked in the Garden of Eden, while the Serpent tempts her to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This card is called Rest, and it shows the end of Creation. The world is complete, and all is good. At this point, at least symbolically, people are no more than animals. While they are supposed to rule over the animals, they are not really any different from them. It is when Eve, followed by Adam, eats the forbidden fruit that they separate themselves from the animals. The fruit gives them knowledge and wisdom to know what is right and what is wrong. This myth is trying to tell us that the ability to learn and build upon what we learn is what sets us apart from nature. The Chariot of the RWS builds upon the choice made by the Lover in the previous card. The Hero is now on a distinct path; he is growing into the Heroic role. So here we see the path of all mankind laid out in the choice of Eve in the GE, and the path of the individual is now actively being traveled in the RWS as a result of the choice made in the previous card.

To sum up:

In the GE, the progression is thus:

Chaos – Light – Dark/Earth – Sky – Population of the World – Population of the Heavens – Population of the Sea and Sky – Finish/Choice

This is a general pattern for the Creation myth. First is Chaos, or the Ouroboros. The next cards deal with the splitting of binary opposites, followed by the entrance of living beings into the world. The order of these events might be different in other mythic systems, but typically they all would contain the basic elements introduced here. These cards are very general. In some cases, entire myths would be assigned to a single card. For example, all of the Greek myths about trees and flowers would go to the 3rd card (called Plants – this is tied to the Earth nature of the card); the myths about constellations would go to the 6th card; etc. Myths about the awakening of mankind to greater knowledge or understanding would be linked to the 8th card. The mythic content of these eight cards can thus be interpreted in two ways: together, they form a progression that accounts for the literal creation of the world; separately, they each account for any number of individual myths that focus on specific aspects of creation.

In the RWS, the progression is thus:

Unconsciousness – Male principle – Female principle – Nature – Civilization – Religion – Choice – Development of choice

Here we see the beginning stages of the Hero myth. First is the Fool, or the soul of the Hero himself. Again, we see the splitting of binary opposites, but in this case it revolves around the developing consciousness of the individual rather than the World. However, we can look at the Magician through the Hierophant as personifications symbolizing the collective experience of mankind. On the individual level, the High Priestess and the Magician symbolize the awakening of the person to binary opposites, or the awakening of conscious thought. The Empress is the nurturing Mother figure, and the Emperor the law-giving Father figure. The Hierophant serves as the education of the Hero, both on a spiritual and mundane level (in older times, when myths were much more prevalent, there was not much of a distinction between these two levels, hence the Hierophant’s association with them both). On the collective level, the Magician and Priestess symbolize the breaking of opposites almost identical to that portrayed in the GE. This is an entirely unconscious process. The Empress is Nature, the Emperor is Civilization, and the Hierophant is Religion. The Lovers is the transition from collective or individual to strictly individual (although the experiences in the rest of the pack are still shared by everyone, they occur on an individual level, in contrast to the previous cards). The Hero has been raised and educated, now he must make the choice of what the purpose of his life really is. The Chariot shows him setting off down his chosen path to actually become the Hero.


In the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I will discuss the next seven cards of each deck.



*Or sometimes both. For example, Dying Gods myths tend to fit into both categories. The Egyptian myth of the Sun god Ra’s daily journey by boat illustrates this nicely. It is a Creation myth, in that it attempts to explain what happens to the sun each night. It is also a Hero’s Journey, because it follows the basic formula of symbolic death and rebirth that is central to this type of myth.

**The Ouroboros is a very important concept in myth. I have not written about it yet, aside from perhaps a mention here or there. I am saving my in-depth discussion of the Ouroboros for my write up of the World card. If you’re not already familiar with this concept, all you need to know for now is that the Ouroboros is basically the entire Universe before it split into binary opposites, often associated with the womb. It also signifies the endless cycle of death and rebirth that makes the world go ’round. It’s an entirely abstract concept, but you’ve probably seen it represented by pictures of a serpent that is biting or eating its own tail. In fact, you’ve seen it twice in this very post: once in the 5th card of the GE, surrounding the Man, and once in the 2nd card of the RWS, as the Magician’s belt.

***I’m slightly disappointed that cards 6 and 7 in my deck are not colored. I suspect they were supposed to be. The pictures are very beautiful; I wish I could see them in color. Alas!



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