I had always heard that we, the tarot community, consider Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known by his pseudonym Etteilla, to be the first professional tarot reader. Or at the very least he’s credited with having popularized the profession of tarot.
But I had no idea to what extent he really was a bona fide 18th century tarot influencer. An homage to him, in this brave new online world of Instagram witches, tarot-tube, and Facebook groups, just made sense. And that’s what my forthcoming Etteilla is– a redux of what he created, as a tribute to the first tarot influencer.
Not only did Etteilla do tarot readings for a living, he ran a magic school that he founded, which he called the New School of Magic. He advertised his tarot courses in local papers and taught people how to “go pro” with cartomancy. Many of the pupils who took tarot and divination classes from him went on to become tarot and divination teachers at his school.
In the late 1780s he created his own tarot deck, which he peddled as a restoration of the original Egyptian Book of Thoth from Hermes Trismegistus. To fund the printing of his deck, he campaigned around town to collect the money he needed to pay for its production (the first Kickstarter?).
He wrote and self-published books on tarot, astrology, magic, and cartomancy. And yes, he put out ads for those products, too, along with ads for his magic school and tarot courses. He had a weekly newsletter that his New School of Magic pupils would be contributing writers to.
Etteilla seemed to have been quite business savvy, attending print shop conferences in Strasbourg to learn more about the trade. (At the time, the best quality tarot cards were purportedly printed in Strasbourg.) And had the business sense to apply for licenses and patents to further his tarot and magic school business.
The extent of his advertising and marketing efforts stirred objections from more “serious” occultists who found him to be scammy. Some regarded Jean-Baptiste Alliete as a fraud. Etteilla was, in short, over-commercializing the tarot… or so went the critique.
He was also the subject of tarot community drama, most notably the rivalry with a former pupil of his, d’Odoucet, where both parties resorted to published name-calling, though after Etteilla’s death, d’Odoucet went on to commercialize off of Etteilla’s legacy, so the apple of a student didn’t fall far from the tree of a teacher.
Etteilla would boast about how his school taught 500 students and 150 of them became professional cartomancers, but then he’d also throw shade at the very pupils who gave him money, claiming that only a few were actually any good, while the rest were charlatans.
For all the accusations of being a charlatan that the man hurled at other tarot readers, was he himself a charlatan? He wasn’t shy about knowing his own worth, that’s for sure.
The man was also fearless with his commentary on politics, leaning progressive. He supported the Revolution. He called for the abolishing of taxes on playing cards (or at least divinatory ones like his Book of Thoth tarot). He was against the death penalty.
From what accounts we have, the man himself came from a modest, working-class background. Occultists such as Eliphas Levi and Arthur Edward Waite would later use that against him as an insult, sneering at how he was a mere barber, therefore implying a lack of education, and therefore unqualified to speak intelligently on esoteric topics. Meanwhile Levi, Waite, and the legacy of the Golden Dawn borrowed heavily from Etteilla’s card meanings.
Was Jean-Baptiste Alliette a mere barber? That’s a subject of controversy among tarot historians. Whatever his “day job” might have been, there is little disputing that Etteilla was an entrepreneur. What’s of note here is the reason why Levi and Waite bring up Etteilla’s profession as a barber—to amplify their condescension. It’s to discredit Etteilla as an authoritative voice in tarot.
Despite the popularity of Etteilla’s tarot deck, Levi rejected Etteilla’s re-ordering of the trumps, calling it a “vulgar order,” and restored the numbering to its traditional ordering as found on the Conver and Dodal (“Tarot de Marseille”). Levi expressed contempt for Etteilla, rejecting the way Etteilla popularized the tarot for fortune-telling and “vulgar” forms of low magic (as opposed to Levi’s proposition of the tarot as a sacred tool for transcendental, high magic).
In creating his own tarot deck, Etteilla believed that he was restoring the tarot, the Book of Thoth, to its Egyptian origins, whereas the Marseille variety had departed from it. The order of cards in the trumps is notably different from what tarot readers today would be used to. Etteilla restructured the trumps so that Cards 2 through 8 follow the seven days of Creation.
Many of the assigned meanings also diverge from what is popularly attributed to the cards today.
For example, most tarot readers will interpret The Hermit card to mean introspection, focus on the inner life, wisdom, or spiritual teaching. Yet in the Etteilla, The Hermit card (Card 18) warns of treachery and slander, the need to repent, and that an imposter is in the midst. The Magician (Card 15 in the Majors), also titled The False Prophet, portends malady.
One of my favorite features of the Etteilla tarot is the complete cast of the four Virtues present in the trumps (alongside Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude).
The Star card is typically interpreted as hope or rejuvenation and healing. Here in the Etteilla, Card 4, the Star card (titled The Sky, Le Ciel) portends doom and difficulties.
Occult tarot readers who are accustomed to the English tradition of cards, such as the Rider-Waite-Smith or Crowley-Harris Thoth, tend to connect planets and zodiac signs to the Majors in a particular order, and decan rulers to the Minors.
However, in the Etteilla, the 12 zodiac signs are assigned to the first 12 cards in the Major Arcana. So for instance, Card 6 corresponds with Virgo, Card 7 to Libra, and Card 8 to Scorpio, etc.
Also, the Empress and the Emperor are missing from the Etteilla. In place of The Empress, at least according to Papus, is Card 6, The Stars (Les Astres) or as it’s titled in some Etteillas, The Firmament.
In place of The Emperor, we have Card 7, Birds & Fish. Card 8 marks the seventh day of Creation, titled Rest in the 1791 Livre de Thot. Papus proposes that this is the card equivalent to the High Priestess or Popess.
Cards numbered 13 through 17 in Etteilla’s Majors represent five stages of the human life cycle– initiation into society (Card 13), rebellious adolescent youth (14), adulthood (15), maturation (16), and death (17).
The Sacred Seven planets plus the lunar nodes and Hermetic Lot of Fortune correspond to the pips in the suit of Coins. The Ace of Coins corresponds with the Sun, Two of Coins to Mercury, Three of Coins to Venus, and Four of Coins to the Moon, etc. In the Neo-Etteilla, these cards depict Apollo, Loki, Inanna, and Selene, respectively.
Etteilla first began his cartomancy design ventures by devising a 33-card divination deck referred to as the Petit Etteilla. In 1789 Etteilla’s application for a patent to print a 78-card tarot deck called the Book of Thoth gets approved. The deck is up for sale that same year and is oft referred to as the “Grand Etteilla I.”
Around 1826, an edition of Etteilla I is revised with symbolic references to Freemasonry, later published as the Grand Etteilla Tarot by the publishing house Grimaud.
Card 2, for instance, included the card title Hiram’s Masonry, Card 3 became The Order of the Mopses (an 18th c. secret society popularly believed to practice black magic), Solomon in Card 9, Rehoboam in Card 21, and the Cup of Balthasar for the Ace of Cups.
In that edition, titles were assigned to the court cards, such as The Monarch to the King of Wands, The Pope to King of Cups, The Emperor to the King of Swords, and The Egyptian Sudan to the King of Coins. The Queen of Wands is The Queen and the Queen of Cups is The Popess. The King of Swords is The Empress. The Queen of Coins is the Queen of Sheba.
In 1838, Simon Blocquel, a French printmaker, would publish a second iteration of the deck, called the Great Book of Thoth, now referred to as “Grand Etteilla II” to distinguish it from Etteilla’s original version.
The third notable version published in 1865, illustrated in a Neo-Gothic style, called the Grand jeu de l’Oracles des Dames is what we refer to as “Grand Etteilla III.”
Prior to Etteilla III, in 1843 there was a version of the Etteilla called the Princess Tarot, illustrated with a more overt Egyptian aesthetic blended with Greco-Roman iconography.
When the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn rose to prominence, their approach to the tarot set a new precedent, overturning the Etteilla and, at least for most of the English-speaking world, cast the older Etteilla decks into obscurity.
Etteilla in the 21st century would absolutely without a doubt be doing livestream pick-a-card readings on your twin flame and marketing online tarot courses. He may even be offering tarot certification. Would anyone be surprised if he launched crowdfunded campaigns for his tarot decks?
18th century Etteilla published a weekly pamphlet through his New School of Magic, so of course a 21st century Etteilla would be e-mailing out weekly newsletters that cover everything from his opinion on current affairs and politics to psychic predictions, self-congratulatory commentary on the accuracy of his past predictions, and more advertisements for his tarot courses and cartomancy readings.
Nevertheless, there was a serious occultist side to Etteilla. He closely studied the Corpus Hermeticum and for someone who was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he dedicated a great deal of effort to his own education and professional advancement.
The Tarot of Thoth-Hermes is my 21st century re-drawing of the Etteilla deck, closely following key design elements reconciled from Grand Etteillas I, II, and the various iterations of the IIIs. Some of the card titles have been renamed and many of the keywords reinterpreted to update the deck for the modern reader.
My art process for this deck is similar to what I did for SKT: Revelation. I begin by sketching the key subjects for the composition in pencil, then lined in ink. The sketches are scanned in at high-resolution, cleaned up digitally, and then colored digitally. So it’s hybrid, part analog and part digital painting.
CURRENT STATUS: I’ve completed about 30 out of the 78 cards and am writing both the little white booklet and the larger companion guidebook entry by entry alongside the drafting of each card illustration. [2022 Aug. 22]