I began this series about two years ago. It’s almost as old as the blog itself, and I have to say, it’s kind of odd to be wrapping it up after all this time. It is also a relief, because to be honest, this series presented more than its fair share of problems, and was incredibly tough to work through at times. The time has finally come to set it to rest.
At the start, my goal was to compare and contrast my pack of Etteilla cards (the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot from Lo Scarabeo) with the vastly more popular Rider-Waite-Smith pack. The reason was simple: I didn’t know a thing about Etteilla or his cards, which was a problem because the cards are very different from anything else I had used. This problem was compounded by the fact that I could not (and still can’t) find any written material that elaborated on the intended meanings or patterns of these cards. On the other hand, I knew much more about Waite’s cards, and I figured that I could perhaps suss out some underlying structural cohesion through comparison.
As I progressed, I realized that this method also had its problems. First of all, anything I came up with would not necessarily be true. Everything was based on my interpretations of the art, and nothing more. Now, I knew this going in, but it seemed that the further I went, the more I had to stretch, and at the end I have to admit that I still know almost nothing objectively about these cards, despite having come up with a neat story to tell with them.
That story is the mythic structure of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction (or the “Creation Myth” for brevity), which is a nice counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey myth of the RWS. I like this very much, but I have nothing in the way of written evidence supporting this theory.
The other problem didn’t become apparent to me until I learned a bit more about the deck itself. As I mentioned, this pack is called the Book of Thoth, and it is in fact quite far removed from Etteilla’s original cards. It is based on (how closely, I don’t know) what is known as the Grande Etteilla III, which was not created by Etteilla but by one of his students in 1800s, a few years after Etteilla’s death. The Grande Etteilla II remains an absolute enigma, while Etteilla’s own Tarot cards, the Grande Etteilla I, are available to purchase only by those with a larger purse than I currently possess. Pictures of this deck are hard to come by, so I can’t say one way or the other how faithful my cards are to Etteilla’s original plan (the Major Arcana especially; the Minors are different at least in that Etteilla’s had astrological symbolism on them, which these lack). So for all intents and purposes, my series did little, if anything, towards deciphering Etteilla’s mysteries; it was rather an exercise in familiarizing myself with an odd pack of cards that may or may not be much like his. I just don’t know.
During the course of composing this series, I did learn quite a bit about Waite’s cards and their historical context, but overall my personal interpretations (that is, the Hero’s Journey) remain more or less the same.* Waite’s ideas in this regard were never recorded, so insofar as the pictures of either deck depict mythic themes, I suppose my interpretations of Etteilla are as valid as Waite. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter what Etteilla intended for his cards.
I have learned a bit about Etteilla’s role in the history of the Tarot’s development, as well, but I think that may have to wait for its own post, because it ultimately has no bearing on this series.
Because it did take me so long to compose, this series probably seems disjointed in some places or redundant in others to a passing reader. I did my best to read through previous posts as I wrote new ones, but my thinking changed over time as I learned more, and sometimes it was difficult to keep things straight. When I started, I was only writing what I wished I could read when learning about these cards.** It evolved from basic comparison to a rather more in-depth look at what the pictures on these cards were telling me. I never lost sight of my goal for comparison, though, and every single card I examined came with a counterpart from another deck (usually the RWS, but not always). The counterparts were not always easy to select. In doing so, however, I made some interesting discoveries about many of the cards from traditional decks that I probably would not have encountered had I not tried to match them with Etteilla’s cards.
It is the unexpected revelations about traditional cards and the interesting story that I think the Etteilla cards tell that I found to be the most valuable things I took away from this series. The Book of Thoth Etteilla deck itself did not end up making much more sense to me in terms of divination, like I’d hoped. I do continue to find these cards fascinating, but they are more of a curiosity for my collection than anything I would regularly use.
I think that’s all I have to say in conclusion for the Etteilla v. Waite series. Before I sign off, though, I’ll put an index here for convenient navigation for anyone who’s interested in going back through. Despite the issues I’ve run into along the way, I hope this series was interesting and informative to anyone who, like me, is confounded by these strange cards.
Part I: Introduction
Part II: The First Eight Cards
Part III: Cards Nine through Fifteen
Part IV: Sixteen through Twenty-One and the Fool
Part V: Chaos, Light, and Plants
Part VI: Sky, Man & Beast, and Stars
Part VII: Birds & Fish, and Rest
Part VIII: Justice, Temperance, Force, and Prudence
Part IX: High Priest, Devil, and Magician
Part X: Last Judgement, Death, Monk, and Struck Temple
Part XI: Wheel of Fortune, African Despot, and the Fool
And finally, for a real throwback, my initial thoughts upon first using these cards can be found here.
*These are largely based on Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, an excellent book by Hajo Banzhaf, and one I can’t recommend heartily enough to those whose interest in the Tarot stems from an interest in mythology or Jungian psychology.
**This is actually the motivation behind much of what I write on this blog.