Etteilla v. Waite: Part IV

In the previous installment of Etteilla v. Waite, we saw the two decks diverge and take different directions. While the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) follows the path of the individual, the Grande Etteilla (GE) sets up a framework for a morally functioning society.

The RWS so far has shown us the early stages and maturation of the Hero on his personal mythic journey, followed by the shedding of his Personal Father and his crossing of the threshold of Death. When we left him, he was being guided through the Underworld towards his greatest test. We will meet this obstacle shortly.

The GE, on the other hand, has a much broader scope, beginning with nothing less than the very creation of our entire world. Once the world has been created and mankind has eaten the mythic Fruit of Knowledge, thereby separating themselves from lowly animals, four pillars of a moral society are established in the form of the female personifications of the four virtues of Justice, Temperance, Strength, and Prudence. The sign of this successful society is the Great Priest, connecting man and woman in marriage, and on a greater level, mankind with the Divine. Despite all this, mankind is still plagued by the Devil, and now, back on the individual level (because society generally rejects it), the Magician signifies the pathway of the occult and the enlightenment that can be obtained through it (or does he?). To get to this point, one must still obey the laws of society and of God, which is why (I suspect) the Magician is found so far down the line, past all of the religious imagery (much of occult philosophy appears to have its origin in religious thought). We will see here what becomes of the occult initiate, which will not be entirely unlike what becomes of the Hero in the RWS.

In this part, we will study the last seven cards of the Major Arcana from each deck, beginning with the GE. You will notice the general trend of both decks move from the worldly concerns we have seen previously towards more spiritual concerns. While this has already begun (starting with the Hanged Man in the RWS and with the Devil in the GE), we will see it swing into full force in the last cards.

Cards 16-19 of the GE (top) and the RWS (bottom).

The next several cards of the GE are somewhat disturbing, beginning with Judgement. While the concept behind this card is familiar, the imagery is much different. Rather than an angel raising the dead from their graves with a blast from a trumpet, we see an angel brandishing a sword and descending on a group of people. There are seven people in the picture. Only one of them seems to notice the angel, with arms raised in praise or fear. This card is followed by Death. After Death is the monk, who appears to be the same person as the high priest performing the marriage we saw earlier. This time, the monk is labelled a traitor, a false devotee, and is pictured leaving the monastery. The next card is the monastery or temple collapsing to the ground in a fiery blaze. The fire seems to be coming down from the sky. Is this the end of the world? It certainly seems so, and it would balance the Creation shown in the first eight cards. Why do these cards follow the Magician? Is he being punished for his occult ways, or is there some other explanation? Is the priest the Magician, leaving the monastery after having a vision of the end to come? We’ll come back to these questions with the next three cards and I’ll see if I can’t work something out that makes some sort of sense.


 The RWS also begins this round in a bleak spot. The Devil symbolizes the great obstacle or antagonist the Hero must face before he can complete his task. This is the most difficult test for him. Once he vanquishes the Devil, he must make his escape amidst the crumbling situation around him (the Tower). If we liken the Hero’s Journey to Jungian psychology, the Devil usually represents the Hero’s own dark side, which he must confront. If he does so successfully, the worldview he would have held up until this point will come crashing down. This can be traumatic, but it is for the best. The Star comes next, and stands for the purpose of the Hero’s quest. In some myths, it’s a magic, life-giving plant, in others, it’s a princess. The variations are virtually endless, but the general archetype is symbolized in this card. It is also a moment of rest after the ordeal with the Devil, although the Hero is still in the Underworld at this point. After obtaining what he’s come for, he must make his final escape, which is pictured in the Moon. This part of the journey is very dangerous, but if the Hero remembers the teachings of his personal father (the Hermit), he will succeed.

The final three cards of the Major Arcana.

Following the destruction of the Temple card in the GE is the Wheel of Fortune. Here we see Lady Fortune balancing upon her wheel. We can take it to mean that the world exists in cycles of creation and destruction, the entire process of which has been drawn out for us in the preceding cards. Next comes the African Despot. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this card or its placement here at the end. It combines the imagery of the Emperor and the Chariot from traditional decks. The despot himself looks very much like the Magician we saw pictured in card 15. Does this mean that, through his occult means, the Magician has survived the trial by fire, allowing him to become king of a new order? Perhaps, but what’s with the term ‘despot’? Not a very flattering designation in my experience. And why he is African makes even less sense. Could this refer to the supposedly Egyptian origin of the Tarot? If so, then we have a story before us of a man who, through his magic (and use of the secrets represented in the Tarot), has removed himself from the ever-spinning cycle of life and death represented by the Wheel, much like the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.

This leaves me with the question of the Priest/monk. Is he also the Magician, who received the Angel of Judgement with open arms, and therefore knew to leave the monastery before the wrath of God brought it down? Or is he rather a different man, a symbol of the failing morals of mankind? It would make sense if we consider the Priest card to be a sign of the epitome of the divine connection to society. This same man has now betrayed his faith, which might symbolize society’s descent into corruption and sin. I think I like the latter interpretation better, because the Priest does look like the Monk, and the Magician does look like the Despot, but they do not look like each other. In that case, this chronicle of the World would have two central characters, who respond to the Devil in different ways. First is the Priest, who symbolizes traditional morality. He meets the Devil and becomes an apostate, and is swallowed in the flames of God’s wrath along with everyone else. Then we have the Magician, who is seen by the likes of the Priest as at odds with his sense of morality. But the Magician doesn’t succumb to the temptations of the Devil as the Priest does, and when God rains down sulfur, he is the one who is not only spared, but made king.

These two pairs seem to show the same two people. Besides the faces, which are virtually the same within each pair, notice the color coordination between the Priest and Monk on the left(brown, white, and yellow), and the Magician and King on the right (red, green, and blue). This can’t just be an accident.

Back to the RWS, the Hero has successfully navigated his way back to the world of the living. He has accomplished his task. The Sun is his moment of triumph and relief. In Judgement (very different than that in the GE), the Hero bestows his boon on fellow man, thus truly fulfilling his role as Hero. The World card sees the Hero, once the Fool, return enlightened back to the Ouroboros, completing the cycle.

There is one card left: the GE’s Fool, called the Fool or Alchemist. This card is separate from the rest of the Major Arcana. He is numbered 78, which places him not only at the end of the Majors, but of the entire deck. As the Alchemist, he has successfully integrated all of the elements represented by the Minor Arcana into himself. Like the Fool of the RWS, society probably does not take him seriously. But he alone is truly enlightened. In this sense, he is like the RWS’ World, which, with its four animals in each corner, also suggests a unity of the elements.


So here we come to the end of the interpretations of each progression of cards. Before I sign off on this installment, I would like to say one thing: I don’t know anything about Etteilla’s deck. Everything that I’ve put forth in the past few posts have been based upon my knowledge of mythology, my knowledge of traditional Tarot, and my interpretations of the pictures. So, because I have found no sources on Etteilla’s intended system to draw from, I have synthesized my results entirely from my own knowledge. As such, I cannot claim that anything I said in regards to the GE has any serious merit (my treatment of the RWS, on the other hand, can be corroborated with any number of sources). In general, I have left out Etteilla’s divinatory keywords from my descriptions, because, while they do connect with each card on an individual level, I found almost no significance towards a cohesive scheme of the entire Arcana, which is what I was trying to construct. Those who are familiar with Waite’s suggested divinatory meanings will notice that I left them out, as well. Sometimes these meanings coincide with the mythic archetype represented by the card; other times, they do not.

In the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I will move away from the established progressions and rearrange all of the cards from both decks in an attempt to establish parallels between specific cards. My goal is to create some associations (as well as establish where there is absolutely no correlation) between the GE and the RWS, which will (hopefully) help me to more fully understand what Etteilla might have intended with his strange cards.


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