The Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot

Review by Lee A. Bursten

 

This deck is an historical reproduction of a deck published in 1870, originally entitled Grand Jeu de Oracle des Dames (“Great Game of the Oracle of Ladies”), and is not to be confused with Aleister Crowley’s and Lady Frieda Harris’s Book of Thoth deck and the accompanying book by Crowley which were created in the 1940s.

 

This deck is one of a series of related decks which are known as Etteilla decks, since they all derive from the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), who wrote under the name “Etteilla” (“Alliette” backwards).  Etteilla is an important figure in Tarot history.  After Court de Gébelin “discovered” an occult significance to Tarot cards and speculated on an Egyptian origin, Etteilla was the first person to popularize these ideas and incorporate them into a newly-designed deck, and the first to combine occult ideas with divinatory practice.  He first wrote of the Tarot in 1785, and published his first deck in 1788.  Since then numerous variations of his deck have been published, of which this latest historical offering by Lo Scarabeo is one.

 

Etteilla is important because many of his divinatory meanings were taken up by S. L. MacGregor Mathers (thus contributing to the development of the Tarot concepts used by the Order of the Golden Dawn, upon which were based the two most influential modern decks, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck) and by A. E. Waite, who used many of Etteilla’s meanings to determine the pictures which he and Pamela Colman Smith placed on their Rider-Waite-Smith deck.

 

However, while Etteilla’s decks and books were quite popular when they were published, and while many of his divinatory meanings for specific cards are still used today through the influences of the Golden Dawn and specifically A. E. Waite, Etteilla’s Tarot system as a whole has lost favor with most tarotists, and is in fact largely unknown.  Etteilla, while adhering to a standard 78-card format (22 Majors, 56 Minors), radically changed several of the Major titles and images to suit his own system.  In contrast, Waite and Crowley, while imposing their own ideas on their decks, took care to maintain, for the most part, the traditional imagery and titling from the Marseilles-type decks which de Gébelin first wrote about.

 

The Etteilla decks also suffer in comparison to the Golden Dawn decks (including the Waite and Crowley decks), in that Etteilla used a rather haphazard system of astrological correspondences which doesn’t seem terribly well thought out compared to the Golden Dawn’s remarkably thorough and complex series of astrological and Qabalistic correspondences.

 

Nevertheless, the Etteilla decks are interesting from an historical perspective.  It’s fun to try reading tarot in a way similar to how one would have read them in the 18th or 19th century.  The French publisher Grimaud still publishes a version of the Etteilla deck, and there are a few French books written to accompany it which are currently in print, which indicates Etteilla decks still have some popularity in Europe.

 

Historians categorize the Etteilla decks as follows:  Etteilla I decks include the original deck from 1788 and a reprint by one of Etteilla’s students in 1804.  The Etteilla II deck was published in 1840 and contained some variations from Etteilla’s original titling and imagery.  The Lo Scarabeo Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot is a reproduction of an Etteilla III deck, originally published in 1870, containing still more variations from Etteilla’s original standard.

 

The modern reader perusing an Etteilla deck for the first time may be somewhat bewildered.  Some of the familiar Tarot images like the Chariot, Death, the Tower, and Justice are still here, but there are also Chaos, the Sky, Birds & Fish, Prudence, and many other new cards.  The numbered Minor cards are pip cards.  All the cards contain both a title and two key words, one upright and one reversed.  All words are in French, since this is a reproduction of a French deck. 

 

The artwork seems to be a workmanlike, if uninspired, example of illustrative styles of the time.  There are many elaborate curlicues which give an impression of richness, and the predominating dark red and olive colors make me think of Persian carpets.

 

I had some problems with the Little White Booklet (LWB).  I liked the historical introduction, but the “Divining Instructions” I found to be unhelpful.  The introduction implies that the meanings given in the instructions were taken from the book written by Julia Orsini in 1840 to accompany the Etteilla II deck, but this is an Etteilla III deck, which contains differences from the Etteilla II.  The English titles and keywords in the LWB are often different than the French ones on the cards.  Perhaps this is accounted for by the variations between the Etteilla II and Etteilla III decks.  Card 5, for example, is identified in the LWB as “Person,” with upright keywords “Favorable Moment” and reversed keyword “Difficulty.” However, the French title on the same card is “L’Homme et les Quadrupedes” and the keywords are “Voyage” for upright and “Terre” for reversed, which even I with my high school French can translate as “Man and the Four-Footeds,” “Voyage,” and “Ground.”

 

Further, it would be rather difficult to memorize these meanings, as there is often no discernible connection between the meanings given and the French titles on the cards, the translated titles in the LWB, or the images on the cards.  For instance, card number 1 shows dark clouds surrounded by concentric circles, and is titled “Chaos.”  The meanings given are “Loyalty.  Diplomacy.  Sincerety.  Generosity.”  It’s a mystery to me how anyone would draw a connection between such concepts and the image or the title on the card.

 

Frankly, I prefer the other Etteilla deck currently in print, which is Grimaud’s Grand Etteilla ou Tarot Egyptiens.  I find it more esthetically appealing, and it is reported to be a close, if not exact, reproduction of Etteilla’s original deck.  Despite the elaborate curlicues, the art on the Etteilla III deck is rather coarse, while the Grimaud artwork is more refined and is executed with more flair.  I also like the white borders on the Grimaud.  A benefit for English speakers is that the Grimaud deck has both French and English titles on the cards.  Also, for those interested, the Grimaud cards include symbols indicating Etteilla’s astrological attributions, such as they are.

 

The Grimaud LWB, apparently written in 1977, contains extremely elaborate methods of laying out the cards, as well as pompous card titles which do not appear on the cards (such as “Hiram’s Freemasonry” and “The Order of the Mopses”), along with straightforward meanings which include directions for interpreting specific cards which appear with specific other cards.  I’m not sure how historically accurate the Grimaud method is, but at least it appears to me that the author of the Grimaud LWB took divination with this deck rather seriously and had spent quite some time with it.

 

I’m indebted to James Revak’s Villa Revak site for the historical information.  Revak’s very comprehensive site contains much, much more information about Etteilla, his decks, and their influence on subsequent Tarot authors and deck designers.

 

The Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot

Historical introduction by Giordano Berti

Divinatory meanings by Rodrigo Tebani

Published by Lo Scarabeo, distributed by Llewellyn Worldwide

ISBN No. 073870410-5

 

Grand Etteilla ou Tarots Egyptiens

Published by Grimaud

 

Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages.  He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot.


Images © Lo Scarabeo and Grimaud
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes