This is a follow up to an earlier post last year in which I wrote about the Etteillas. It was last autumn I think, and the Etteillas always rear their heads as a tempting project for filling those long dark nights with their sombre impenetrability. Plus I also think of them whenever I think of Lenormand cards (something I have been doing a lot of recently). From a historic point of view, they are rather like the central point from which all spokes of the divinatory tarot radiate outwards. For one fascinated by that same divinatory tarot, it is the deck which so many tarot roads should – and do – lead back to. Yet it is the deck which so few of us seem to have mastered and about which many of us would like to understand more. For the moment, it is enough for me to simply get straight in my mind the different types of Etteilla decks out there so as to have a sense of their evolution. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are three main types of decks which can be considered “Etteilla” decks from a historical perspective. I have in my collection what I think are example reproductions of Etteilla type I decks. I also have examples of what I think are reproductions of Etteilla type III decks but until very recently it was very difficult to find an Etteilla type II deck reproduced and easily available. To resume, we can take as an example of Etteilla type I the famous Tarot Egyptians published by Grimaud, which has been in print for years now and is reputedly based on a deck that was created during Etteilla’s lifetime (I’m sceptical of all tarot claims, I should add at this point). I recently bought an older copy of this with square corners but the generally available edition is that pictured here;
An example of an Etteilla Type III could be the one published by Lo Scarabeo as the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot (and originally published as the Grand Jeu de Oracle des Dames 1865-70; I’ve read differing dates). This is perhaps my favourite of all Etteillas and came along relatively late, almost a century after his death. I have written before of how much I love its spookiness and this is the one I clasp to my breast when I say “now I shall study the Etteillas.”
A deck that would fill in the gap between these two is the Z. Lismon Etteilla, restored and reissued by Molly Khan and currently sold through Game Crafters. But beware; they charge quite a lot on postage and send you your deck (cards measure 6.5 cm by 9 cm) in a large boardgame box with excess stuffing and hope you won’t make a connection between the high postage costs and the unnecessary packaging. I managed to get a copy via a friend in the USA who was ordering some other decks from them and kindly tossed this deck in with the order and sent to me, knowing how much I wanted this in my collection. So now I have (at least) one of each type to be able to compare and contrast and hopefully try and get a grasp of Etteillas and start to get my brain around them. Who knows, if I can just get a sense of the progression from type I to II to III, I may be well on the way to being able to read with them. I even have a notebook (pictured below) in which I have translated the titles upright, reverse plus some of Julia Orsini’s own meanings from her 1840 book. It is very much a work in progress and it is very little more than my own tailor-made Etteilla LWB. But I yearn to read fruitfully with an Etteilla deck one day. I know I’m not alone, I know that there are many tarot fans who feel as intimidated – and also as intrigued – as I do by them. Etteilla decks feel like the final tarot frontier yet to be crossed for me. The Marseilles have been conquered, Lenormands are de rigeur, Rider Waite Smith is old hat and even Thoth now has its own hold-your-hand manuals. Many tarot fans, however, are still scratching their heads at Etteillas. Dame Fortune’s Wheel helped a little but only the Minors are Etteilla-based and the Majors still feel set apart, whereas with a true Etteilla the Majors feel more meshed into the whole and you have to take the deck as a whole, not as Majors and then Minors. That is a later invention.
But back to my Lismon, my type II, which was supposed to be the subject of this post. It is a beautiful, boxless reproduction of an 1838 deck reputedly by one of Etteilla’s students (remember what I said about tarot claims). It was reprinted in a short print run in the early 1900s but has never been readily available since. The colours have now been delicately restored to try and preserve their gentle richness. Titles have been added down the sides which is a bit odd but to see a deck this rare in print I can forgive it this quirk. Molly Khan has made the pictures fill the cards more and show off the colouring so it isn’t an exact reproduction and a lot of the space/borders have been lost. White space and borders are quite out of fashion nowadays so I don’t expect it to be a modification that will be much mourned. Molly Khan should be credited for having done a great job on this welcome addition to the Etteilla canon
The overall effect is beautiful. This is the only Etteilla deck I have which has the much cited “African Despot” card as number 21. The Lo Scarabeo reproduction of the Grand Jeu de Oracle des Dames has the title down the side (“Le Despote Africain”) but the image looks like the more familiar charioteer in European dress with plumed hat and sceptre (see scan further up in this post). The images in this Etteilla type II deck are rough and a little crude sometimes – as can be seen in the anatomy of the Roi de Deniers above – but this only adds to their charm. It is wonderful to have a copy of the Grimaud deck, this deck and also the Lo Scarabeo reproduction in order to be able to compare up close. The deck came with the Two of Swords cards duplicated as the original had the landscape background inverted. It has been set right and the amended card included so altogether there are 79 cards. Maybe it’s because the first ever tarot deck which I bought was an Etteilla, so maybe it’s a banal love that can be traced back to mere nostalgia, but thirty years on, still they fascinate me, still they elude me and still I keep vowing to learn them. Until that day, at least I can compare them, even if I don’t get much further than that. But let us not under-estimate the pleasures tarot offers that don’t involve reading. Just looking closely with a glass of good wine or nice cup of tea is – for me – bliss.