Last week I was pondering my Lenormands and, after reading Decker, Depaulis or Dummett (whichever one wrote the chapter) on Lenormand in A Wicked Pack of Cards, it was natural that I would be pointed towards the Etteillas. I say pointed but neither of these show any actual proof of the other’s existence, and yet each one seems to eerily allude to the other, indirectly, as if through the mist, calling out to one another. It begs the question “did he know about her?” Did she know about him? If someone could prove that a lengthy chat took place on Etteilla’s death bed in 1791 with a 19 year old girl from Alençon, then we might be onto something but, in reality, it really is a case of one person (about whom we know next to nothing) not explicitly referring to another (about whom we know next to nothing). Not much mileage in that, you might think. However, it is enough simply for me to acknowledge that both intrigue. Now there’s something they do have in common. And whilst I was reading about Mme Lenormand last week, wondering when her “Piquet” pack of 32 cards became 36 cards, I was naturally led to the Petit Etteilla (the method laid out in the book above from 1791) and to the man himself. The man whose biography appears to be, by all accounts, a random mass of unproven facts swirling like anti-matter in the cartomantic stratosphere (another thing he has in common with Mme Lenormand). Was he a hairdresser? What was the deck he used really like? Why is it that each time I try to read about his system my eyes glaze over and yet his cards continue to fascinate me? I imagine him with his cupid’s-bow lipstick and powdered face with comely beauty spot, dreaming up fabulous peruques, like this one, whilst working on a cartomantic system that would change the world;
Sadly, it’s almost certainly not true. The only image I know of him (an engraving from a book frontispiece) has him looking pained in a garrett. But his cards fascinate me and I keep coming back to them. Etteilla cards have featured in my New Years’ Resolutions now for – I think – four years and they always defeat me. By the end of January, I think “I’ll learn to read with Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot as it seems more accessible” (Etteilla based in the Minors) and then even that drops by the wayside. Because it is Etteilla’s decks – in all their strangeness - I really want to use, even if there is only one which apparently bears some resemblance to the deck he reputedly used (The Grand Etteilla/Tarots Egyptiens, published by Grimaud and later Dusserre, based on a deck he apparently published in 1789, but more clearly based on one published in 1826.)
This was the first ever tarot deck I bought, aged 13 and a half, thinking all tarot decks were the same, and I couldn’t have chosen a less auspicious deck to try and learn with. I bought it one Saturday morning from Spencer’s bookshop, took it home and did cumbersome readings, using almost all the cards in the deck (the booklet told me to) and in my naivety – I remember this vividly – felt that the tribulations foretold really did refer to the upcoming Geography test and that the agonies of the following week really did predict the unbearable pain of unrequited teenage love (“would he or wouldn’t he look at me?”). It was all there in the cards. So I have a soft spot for Etteilla and this deck is one of my most prized possessions, though it is a deck which can be picked up on ebay for next to nothing as it has been in print for so long now.
I have subsequently learnt that this is apparently an Etteilla I, so called because it is the first one. So far, so good. Then, when I came back into tarot years later, I discovered that the Grand Jeu de Oracle des Dames (a deck from sometime between 1865 and 1870, whose Fool card intrigued me from Kaplan’s Encyclopaedia) had in the meantime been published by Lo Scarabeo as the Book of Thoth Etteilla.
Now here was a deck to tremble at. When the makers of the preposterous Wolfman (2010) wanted a tarot deck that was mysterious, spooky and imbued with gypsy magic, this was the deck they chose. Laid out on brocade in a painted caravan, these cards have never looked more ominous (and as the credits of the film roll at the end, these cards spin out of darkness and Lo Scarabeo is acknowledged). I love Card No 2 in this deck; “Eclaircissement”/ Enlightenment; this is the most beautiful stylised Sun I have ever seen, either in tarot art or any art. It has a benign expressiveness not unlike that seen on images of Buddha. I love how he is turned to the side. This is no mere child’s drawing of the Sun beaming outwards (even the Rider Waite Smith Sun beams head on), he beams discreetly to the side, avoiding our gaze, aloof and deflecting, looking left like so many of the figures in this deck, looking to the mystical side. As this deck was published later (i.e 1865-70), I can see why this is an Etteilla III. As for a mass-produced Etteilla II, I’m not quite sure where to go.
I also rather like the Jeu de la Princesse, published in 1983 by Dusserre and later published, with modifications, as Esoteric Ancient Tarot by Lo Scarabeo (and erroneously described as being published in 1870 when in fact this deck was originally published in 1843). It was also published by Lo Scarabeo/Fabbri/Orbis in 2001 as the Tarot de Thot. slightly narrower cards, slightly bolder font.
As it comes between the two others, I wonder whether this could be considered an Etteilla II? It is more explicitly Egyptian than the Lo Scarabeo Book of Thoth deck, which has more of a late 1800s Neo-Gothic atmosphere. There are so few things I can get straight in my mind regarding Etteilla decks that if I could consider these three decks to be representative of the three patterns, then I could set about comparing them on my own terms. I have a hunch though that the Jeu de la Princesse is perhaps an Etteilla III. There is also a peculiar curio published by Solleone in 1983 in a limited edition of 2,000 copies called Cartomanzia Italiana which has the Jeu de la Princesse Minors and, weirdly, the Gumppenberg/Soprafino Trumps.
This however, despite it’s gentle colouring and beautiful cardstock, is an invented hybrid of no great interest to someone who wants good solid examples of the classic patterns and they appear to be the three already mentioned. Of the three classic ones, I think I like the Book of Thoth Etteilla deck best. Yet the name is very confusing. One could be misled into thinking that Crowley had a hand in it. I rather like these 19th century ladylike name which nobody wants to use anymore, when cartomancy was supposedly something silly that women did of an afternoon. Never mind the fact that Etteilla was a man. Maybe the myth of him as a hairdresser came about to try and dismiss the fact that a man would busy himself with something so silly as card reading, hence the attempt to emasculate him. It is time to reclaim these names, release the inner petit dame and princess in all of us and love these cards. And there is much to love in them. The mystery and spookiness for a start.
It is interesting to note how both Etteilla decks and Lenormand decks have a Significator, something which promptly disappeared from tarot for a long time afterwards. I like having a Significator, as I like doing the Lost Man spread (so named by Ana Cortéz) when you shuffle your deck and locate your Significator and read the surrounding cards to get a sense of what atmospheres surround you right now. It is also interesting how the Etteilla deck (card No.3) makes use of birds (and fish) like Lenormand and, among other meanings, birds can mean “prattle, discussion, comments, discourse” and in the Lenormand deck it can mean conversation and talk. I love how the first 7 Trumps in the Etteilla deck reflect the creation myth, from chaos to light, explosion to living creatures, earth, fixity, support and stability. It feels like a dramatic overture to the deck, establishing order before we get started. It makes sense when you think of it; the creation myth should be in there before we start our journey. Let there be light. I think having a card to represent chaos is something other deck creators would do well to emulate. There are moments in my life when only the chaos card in a reading would do. I have an urge to look closer at these decks, my III Etteillas (I have a few more but these are enough to be going on with). The original names may be frivolous, the system a little fusty and academic but I am drawn to them because so few people dare tackle them. We’re almost at the end of the year, winter drawing in, and I can feel another New Year’s resolution coming on.