Etteilla Tarot Reconstruction: First Septenary

I’ve started a new project– a reconstruction of the Grand Etteilla. (The deck name won’t be “Etteilla Tarot Reconstruction,” I assure you. It’ll have some overly fancy name. That’s just a placeholder for now.)

The project premise I defined for myself was “reconstruction of the Etteilla,” but the first challenge presented was, which Etteilla? What do you mean by a “reconstruction” of the “Etteilla”? And then, like, the deeper I tried to philosophize on those questions, the faster my brain melted. =(

Here, I’m saying reconstruction because I will be rebuilding the deck with more overtly Hermetic references from the Divine Pymander, which I believe was Etteilla’s original intention. And while I want to stay true to the original imagery– I do– I’m also adamant that the overall approach needs to be updated.

Livre de Thot Engravings by Pierre-Francois Basan (1723-1797)

Tarot historians designate three major iterations of the Etteilla: the Grand Etteilla I, which would be Etteilla’s own pack and its direct descendants, circa 1791; the Grand Etteilla II published as the grand livre de Thot under Julia Orsini, believed to be a pseudonym for the publisher, circa 1838; and the Grand Etteilla III published as the Grand jeu de l’Oracles des Dames, first printed by G. Regamey around 1865. Both II and III were produced by the most notable students of Etteilla’s school of cartomancy. [Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett]

But… (!!!) there’s no real consensus on that. So you’re going to find different Etteilla I, II, III designations in different places. As if I’m not confused enough. =)

There’s also the Jeu de la Princesse Tarot circa 1843 sandwiched somewhere in between II and III, considered an offspring of Etteilla I. Another edition of Jeu de la Princesse Tarot seven years later changed Card No. 1 from the Male Querent (or The Man who Consults) to Thoth and Card No. 8 (previously the Female Querent) to Princess Tarot–“Princess Tarot” being described as a priestess or seer of Thebes and Memphis. After that there were a few more versions of the Etteilla of varying styles.

Grand Etteilla Egyptian Tarot (France 1969)

A 1969 Grimaud version of the Grand Etteilla features astrological correspondences where the first twelve cards are the zodiac signs, Aries through Pisces. So Card 1: Chaos is Aries, Card 2: Light (The Sun card) is Taurus, Card 3: Flora (The Moon card) is Gemini, and so on.

Then the ten pip cards in the suit of Coins correspond with the Sacred Seven planets, Lot of Fortune, and two lunar nodes. So the Ace of Coins corresponds with the sun, the Two of Coins with Mercury, the Three of Coins with Venus, etc.

From Jeu Des 78 Tarots Égyptiens: Livre De Thot (Paris, 1800-1850) published by Z. Lismon

The first seven cards also signify genesis, expressive of Creation. Then Card No. 8 in the second septenary is the High Priestess (in some versions of Etteilla) or more frequently, titled Rest, for the Biblical seventh day of creation when God rested, which He then made holy.

Card No. 1 In the beginning…
Card No. 2 upright Day 1 of Creation Light
Card No. 3 upright Day 3 of Creation Land, Sea, and the Plant Kingdom
Card No. 4 upright Day 2 of Creation The Sky
Card No. 5 upright Day 6 of Creation Land Creatures & Humans*
Card No. 6 upright Day 4 of Creation Sun, Moon, and Stars
Card No. 7 upright Day 5 of Creation Sea Creatures & Sky Creatures
Card No. 8 upright Day 7 of Creation Rest

And here’s how I interpreted the order of Creation that’s expressed in the first seven cards, per the Corpus Hermeticum:

Card No. 1 Void / Chaos
Card No. 2 Light
Card No. 3 Time
Card No. 4 Space
Card No. 5 Matter
Card No. 6 Quintessence
Card No. 7 The Tree of Life / World Tree

Card No. 1 is the Male Querent while Card No. 8 is the Female Querent. The left two cards above are two different versions of the Male Querent card and the right two are versions of the Female Querent significator card. If you’re confused and secretly wondering if you’re dumb, don’t worry– I’m right there with you. I don’t get it either.

If you haven’t worked with an Etteilla before, then immediately you’ll notice that the card numbering is not what you’re used to, be that TdM, RWS, or Thoth. And texts that explain the Etteilla are hard to come by… in English. Good thing I made it through AP French back in high school. =P

Images from the Lemarchand text, 1867

It took forever for me to initiate because I felt creatively blocked. The weight of all the challenges I could already anticipate in trying to reconstruct an Etteilla Tarot in this century (…for those who know, you know what I’m talking about…) and trying to figure out where my iteration of the cards will be between conservative-preservationist of the Etteilla traditions vs. progressive-socially-evolutionary updates to bring it into the present zeitgest was just more than I could chew.

From Grande Jeu de l’Oracle des Dames (Paris, 1870)

And the guidebook– I wanted to stay true to the card meanings prescribed in classical Etteilla texts like the 1838 Orsini and the 1867 Lemarchand. Except for the guidebook to be usable, I’d have to update it. For one, the way the predictions are gendered don’t always make sense for today’s readership. Two, a lot of the card meanings are… just not as likely to be applicable today. For example Card 7, Birds & Fishes. If you’re a female who gets that card, it can predict that you’re going to get an aviary full of exotic birds. … Yeah. And if you’re a male who gets that card, you’ll enjoy success at your next fishing escapade. Like that’s so literal.

Jeu de la princesses Tarot (Paris, 1843), offspring of Grand Etteilla I

Back to that question of which Etteilla to reference. Even to start, for Card No. 1, do I want to go with Chaos or do I want to go with the High Priest? Allegedly, this card corresponds with the Pope/Hierophant. And do I want to caption it “Etteilla” as is tradition?

It turned out that the best thing to do was to slop some colorful crap down on canvas and post it to Instagram to immediately confirm that my first draft direction was crap. But hey, it got me out of my funk. I was so disempowered by the fear of being wrong that I didn’t realize that being wrong was the prerequisite first step.

Card No. 1 Thoth-Hermes is Le Chaos, featuring the numinous void or primordial chaos. Expressing a Hermetic cosmogony, per the Corpus Hermeticum, this is divine spirit, or consciousness, before self-manifestation, before there is any form to that spirit. It’s likened to the Ein Sof or the Tao.

Card No. 2 The Sun & Osiris, or Knowledge of Ra, is the Divine Pymander (Poimandres), where I deviated slightly from the classical imagery.

The most recognizable symbolism for the Etteilla Sun card is the twin naked babies in the foreground, the forebear of the naked baby on some subsequent Sun cards in the tarot.

In the spirit of Hermeticism and popular Euro-Western symbolism, the twin naked babies signify the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. Apollo, the sun god, is order, rationalism, and forbearance. Dionysus is chaos, passion, and instinct. One is intellectually-driven; the other is emotionally-driven. You’ll note how the reversed card meaning is ascribed Passion. Beyond that, the twins also represent the inherent binary necessary for Creation through the Light.

There’s just one problem… I really, really do not like the naked babies imagery.

Nor do I think that imagery automatically communicates what it’s “supposed” to communicate to the modern tarot reader. Certain imagery symbolic for certain popular ideas could be depicted in the 1800s because the majority of the audience got the reference immediately. But times have changed. What made sense to Etteilla’s audience in 1791 doesn’t make sense to the tarot readership of 2022. So to insist on antiquated imagery is a bit dogmatic.

You’ll see how in the 1843 Jeu de la princesses version of Etteilla I, Card No 2 is “Osiris or the Sun.” So I ran with that.

What I considered the crucial symbolic imagery in the Sun card wasn’t the two naked babies, but rather, the five-pointed illuminated star. And the inherent binary in the Sun for the alchemical wedding (one of the divinatory meanings for this card is marriage), I represented that with the crook and the flail for the binary requisite of sovereignty. The Sun card, at its essence, is understanding and attainment of knowledge after no-understanding and un-knowing. So that’s expressive of achieving sovereignty.

Card No. 3 The Moon features Changxi (常儀), the Chinese lunar mother goddess of the twelve daughter-moons. The twelve daughter-moons represent the twelve lunations, or months of the year. (12 = 1 + 2 = 3, resonant with the card #.) This is an Aeon of Time.

The First Septenary expresses the creation myth. Card 1 is primordial Chaos. Card 2 is Light. Here, Card 3 is Time, which in almost every ancient culture was measured by the moon phases.

Card No. 3 in the Etteilla though… so whether you read with a Marseille or RWS, it’s clear this is the Moon card equivalent. Right? But then the card title is… The Plants? My challenge here was wanting to preserve the iconic Moon card symbolic imagery, but pictorialize the card title “The Plants” a bit better.

Speaking of Asian motifs…

Is that supposed to be a Chinese court official? I know the facial features don’t look Asian, but that’s a mian, or the headwear of ancient Chinese noblemen. It even has the right number of those pearl hangy thingies– 9 of them.

For the layout design in some of the cards, I’m playing around with the idea of “breaking the fourth wall.” Earlier in Card 1, Thoth-Hermes appears to be stepping out of the frame. If you look closely at Card 2, The Sun & Osiris, his shirt sleeves poke out just a teensy bit.

Card No. 4 The Stars & Nyx, or in the earlier Etteilla decks, titled The Sky, is still a draft only. Well all of these are still working drafts, but here, I’m still see-sawing between whether or not this card needs a tree. In lieu of the more familiar bird on this card, here you’ll find a butterfly like you did in most of the Etteillas.

In a 1785 comment, Etteilla criticized the removal of the butterfly from certain prevailing versions of The Star card (“the hieroglyph called The Star”) printed by other deck makers of his time. So I definitely needed to keep in the butterfly. =)

Procession of rough drafts for Card No. 5. (See previous image for final version.)

Card No. 5 The World represents Matter. The creation myth so far: Chaos, Light, Time, Space, and Matter. If Card 4 The Stars is the Space above the firmament, then Card 5 The World is the physical manifestation below the firmament.

Ohhhhh how I struggled with this one.

Don’t know why the Etteilla III (I think that third one from the left is an Etteilla III?) doesn’t have the pair of obelisks, but from everything I’ve read, they’re important, symbolism wise.

Card No. 6 The Veil is the in-between firmament that separates heaven and earth, the spirit world and the physical world. In the continuation of the creation myth, this is Quintessence, or gravitational pull, the curvature of Time and Space by which all Matter attracts one another. Depicting twilight and then dividing the card composition into Day and Night is a metaphor for that Veil, or firmament.

Card No. 7 The Tree of Life was originally titled The Birds and the Fish or alternatively, divided so one half is Birds and Sky and the other is Fish and Sea. This is in reference to the Biblical fifth day of Creation, when God filled the oceans with fish and the skies with birds. I kept with that composition, but added a World Tree. Which is fine, right? That Jeu de l’Oracles des Dames version has a tree…

And I completed the First Septenary on the eve of the March equinox. I started the drawings on March 5. So about two weeks to complete these initial seven cards.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the elemental correspondences that’s given in the historical Etteillas:

Card No. 2 (The Sun & Osiris) reversed 2nd element Fire
Card No. 3 (The Moon & Changxi) reversed 1st element Water
Card No. 4 (The Stars & Nyx) reversed 3rd element Air
Card No. 5 (The World) reversed 4th element Earth

I’m working on the guidebook in tandem with the illustrations. The guidebook will feature both the art on the deck I’m creating and one of the historical Etteilla decks (which one is featured for each card entry is more of a logistical question of access than it is a creative or even intellectual decision).

The divinatory meanings are cited from Le Grand Etteilla ou L’Art de Tirer Les Cartes authored by Julia Orsini, though that’s speculated to be a pseudonym of the publisher, Blocquel. There are a couple more Etteilla texts I want to add so the guidebook is comprehensive, but baby steps. =)

I’m still working my way through the Majors, and for those who tracked my SKT art process, you know I like to do things in order. =) So it’s going to be a while before I get to the pip cards. Nevertheless, I’m sure many of you are eager to hear about how I plan on approaching the Etteilla pips.

The short answer is I don’t know yet, but I’m with you—I’m concerned, too. Iconic Etteilla pips are kinda bleh. But if I do too much reinvention to them, then at what point is it no longer classically “Etteilla”?

The pips in my reconstructed Etteilla deck need to feel iconically Etteilla, but at the same time, not feel half-assed. So the Minors will certainly be one of the big challenges in this undertaking.

Livre de Thot Engravings by Pierre-Francois Basan (1723-1797)

For those of you who feel like you’ve gotten a pretty good grasp of my personality by now, then you already know– and for those who don’t know, here’s a fair warning of what’s to come: I tend to get pretty obsessive once I’m knee-deep in a project, at the sacrifice and expense of everything else going on. =) You are going to be hearing a lot about this Etteilla deck project, and Etteilla this, Etteilla that, for the next… I dunno… year? Two years? Hehe.

22 thoughts on “Etteilla Tarot Reconstruction: First Septenary

  1. S

    I just recently got Lo Scarabeo’s reprint of the Grand Jeu de l’Oracle des Dames and thought there really needs to be a more modern Grand Etteilla – and here you are, making a gorgeous new version 😄

    I’m certainly looking forward to learning more!

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  2. Hi Bell,

    There is something about card #6, The Veil, that feels off to me. The band of zodiacal constellations is traveling in the wrong direction. According to primary direction, the stars and constellations travel from left to right across the backdrop of the sky. The zodiacal signs appear to be traveling in reverse in that image, from left to right. I am not an astronomer and may be wrong. It might be it does not matter in the image or this direction may have been your intention. It feels off to me though. The signs travel backward with precession and maybe that is what you are trying to represent in the image. In the brief description, you mention the curvature of time and space and gravitational pull. To me, this would imply the natural direction of the items in space. For me, the zodiac is moving in the wrong direction in the sky. I hope I am clear here. The card is beautiful. Just wanted to ask about this more than anything. I know how carefully you plan your designs.

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    1. I totally see that! I was basing that ribbon of the zodiac on Andreas Cellarius illustrations (circa 1660s). In the original Etteilla Card 6, there’s a glyph for Aries along the left top, an arc,and then a glyph for Libra along the top right, to (I presume) indicate Point of Aries to Point of Libra. So because that’s the direction in the 2-d card, I decided to follow it. =P

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is so exciting! I’ve been thinking about Eteilla and how I need to learn more because of playing card connections. An Eteilla deck that I saw has the King of Coins with a club-faced coin and a King of Wands on a checkerboard floor as a King of Tiles or something unexpected that would pair him with diamonds. I can’t remember where or easily find it again, but it’ll be interesting to see what you uncover!

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  4. You did 7 cards in under a month!! So completing all 78 will likely occur, in true Bell fashion, within a year. 🙂 CAN’T WAIT!! Of all of the historical decks, I find Eteilla the most intriguing.

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    1. I think specific to how I’m going to approach crafting an Etteilla tarot deck, I’m going to have to print out a completed prototype first AND commit a LONG period of time to test-driving readings with the cards to test out the keyword associations. So it won’t go from final-card-drawing to full production, haha.

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  5. Shadowrose

    Wow, that’s quick progress… And really interesting project.
    One can see the connection to Lenormand decks. The order of the cards is sooo different to other tarot decks. That makes me wonder whether numerology was important to him or not. And if it was, how do you reconcile the conflict with traditional numerologic correspondences?

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    1. As far as I understand it, Etteilla said yes, numerology is very important, hence the re-ordering to, I dunno, reveal some divine Hermetic truths or what not.

      Though Eliphas Levi calls this ordering “vulgar” haha! And subsequent GD occultists restored the the numbering, rejecting Etteilla’s exactly because they felt the numerological associations were off.

      So… what’s right and what’s wrong. Hard to say. Just a matter of perspectives at the end of the day. =)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Anonymous

    I am beyond excited at the tease imagery that you have provided. The colors and artistry are enticing and intriguing. I am unfamiliar with the Etteilla, but will hasten to rectify that in anticipation.

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  7. I appreciate your creative design, research and attention to detail. It’s interesting and informative akin to a master’s college course. Not being familiar with Etteillla this will be a delightful adventure following along. I believe that your obsessiveness is really intense focus and like that sense of humor that goes with it 🙂

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  8. Shadowrose

    This project made me curious and thus I’ve also spent some time in reading about Etteilla and Petit Etteilla, comparing it to other cartomancy traditions.
    It’s not only the order of the cards or the pictures that differ a lot from other tarot traditions, it’s also the meaning. The hermit for example stands for betrayal, the magician for illness and the chariot for law-suit. Did you find any text that explains why he assigns those meanings to those cards?
    As for the inquirer cards – I don’t find it too confusing: When you lay out the deck as septenaries you’ll find that male and female inquirer (hierophant and priestess) are in the same column and thus connected (two different qualities of the same thing). It’s not uncommon to have different signifier cards… Papus has chosen the priestess as female inquirer, too, while he took the magician as the male inquirer. I guess those signifiers are equivalent to your version of the fool card as seeker, while the fool as an initiate or someone who starts a journey is a rather modern idea.

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  9. Anonymous

    Re: The Minors–why not just illustrate them according to Etteilla’s own given meanings? The Medieval Scapini and the Dame Fortune’s Wheel do something similar. If not full illustrations, perhaps allusions to these meanings?

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  10. Elizabeth Owen

    Drat—this project is going to get all the love and Witchcraft Fundamentals 2 is going to languish in the no-longer-captures-BW’s-attention pile.

    C’est la vie! Genius must be served.

    I am grateful for how you share what captures your attention.

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  11. Pingback: Etteilla Tarot Reconstruction: Sacred Seven in the Coins – benebell wen

  12. Alaina

    Hi there! I recently bought (a reproduction of) the Grand Etteilla Tarot deck (the version by Grimaud in the late 19th century), and I have been struggling to find resources to help interpret the meaning of the cards… do you have any suggestions?

    I also purchased an English translated version of Etteilla’s original text from the 18th century but that has not been helpful, ironically. It’s hard to navigate the text amidst his wordy dialogue and I noticed he provided visual examples utilizing a traditional 52-card playing card deck, which threw me entirely for a loop.

    Any reading suggestions would be SO helpful.

    Thank you!!

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