The Esoteric Tarot 1: Backgrounds
Court de Gebelin — and how the Tarot cards came to be mistaken for a book of ancient wisdom
The last part of “The Historical Tarot” left off with this curious disconnect . . . .
Although the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance were saturated with esoteric ideas and richly symbolic art — there was never a mention of Tarot in connection with occult studies or practices.
So we begin a new chapter of the Tarot story, which will trace the people and ideas that finally did transform a popular game into a supposed repository of esoteric lore. And in the bargain — made Tarot a popular form of divination.
A Consequential Party
From the time of its appearance in the early 15th century to near the end of the 17th century, the game of Tarot had flourished all over Europe. In 1622, a Jesuit priest commented that Tarot was played more than chess in France.
But all that changed over the course of a century, and by 1726, a French book of games described Tarot as “obsolete.”
Tarot was still played in some parts of Europe, however, and in 1775, a visitor from “Germany or Switzerland” brought his Tarot deck to a Parisian card party. In attendance . . . one Antoine Court de Gebelin: Protestant clergyman, French Freemason, and gentleman scholar.
Knowing nothing about the long history of Tarot games, Court de Gebelin was amazed when his hostess showed him one of the trumps. His account:
I glanced at it and as soon as I did, I recognized the allegory…. Each person showed me another card, and in a quarter of an hour the deck had been gone through, explained, and proclaimed Egyptian. And since this was not a figment of our imagination, but rather the result of selected and sensible knowledge of this game in connection with everything that was known about Egyptian ideas, we promised ourselves to surely make it known to the public one day ….
As far as we know, the entire idea of the Tarot as an esoteric instrument — so familiar to us now — began at that moment.
Basically . . . Court de Gebelin, an avid student of mythology, archaeology, and linguistics, was immediately enthralled with the Tarot images, and concluded that the deck was in fact an ancient Egyptian “book.” He believed it had been created by the god/magus Thoth to preserve in symbolic form the knowledge of an entire civilization.
Ar first glance, this may seem an odd idea for someone to come up with at a card party. But Court de Gebelin was drawing upon beliefs that had thrived among occultists since the early Renaissance.
The Egyptian Misconception
The occult tradition that Court de Gebelin brought to his Tarot encounter had been built up over time — but it was based from the start on a whole series of misconceived ideas.
As historian Frances Yates explained in her pathbreaking 1964 treatise, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, the mistakes built up step by step, like so:
1. In the classical world, it was common practice to adopt and adapt the gods of other cultures, on the general theory that deities revealed themselves in different ways to different peoples. Accordingly —
the Egyptian God Thoth, the scribe of the gods and the divinity of wisdom, was identified by the Greeks with [their own god] Hermes and sometimes given the epithet of “Thrice Great.”
2. The Romans, in their turn, identified the Greek god Hermes with their own god, Mercury, who had similar qualities. In the process, they inherited the earlier Hermes/Thoth merge — and to tidy things up, they created a mythical explanation for the whole matter.
Cicero in his [philosophical poem] De natura deorum explains that there were really five Mercuries, the fifth being he who killed Argus and consequently fled in exile to Egypt where he “gave the Egyptians their laws and letters” and took the Egyptian name of Thoth.
3. Over time, the name Hermes Trismegistus — “Hermes the thrice-great” — became attached to a large body of literature (mostly written in Greek) that focused on astrology, alchemy, and natural magic. Such texts provided instructions for making talismans, explained the hidden qualities of plants and sounds, and so on. But in addition:
Besides the treatises or recipes for the practice of astral magic going under the name of Hermes, there also developed a philosophical literature to which the same revered name was attached. It is not known when the Hermetic framework was first used for philosophy, but the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum, which have come down to us, are probably to be dated between a.d. 100 and 300.
4. So now we are in the early centuries of the Christian era, and there is a significant group of people who believe the far-distant past was a repository of “pristine’’ philosophy and powerful magic. In order to connect their own writing with those ancient ideas, these authors used “Hermes Trismegistus” as a pseudonym, or cast their texts in the form of dialogues “with” Hermes Trismegistus.
5. Fast forward. Like most ancient writings, those “Hermetic” texts were lost and forgotten for centuries. So when they were rediscovered during the Renaissance, philosophers and magi of that period quite naturally assumed the texts actually were written by (or with) the ancient “thrice-great” god Hermes/Thoth.
So occultists of the Renaissance were under a double misconception:
First, that the so-called “Hermetic” texts had been written in a long-distant golden age. Second, that they had been written by Thoth/Hermes, a divine magus, for the purpose of preserving a pristine philosophy.
Speculation about the actual nature of the Hermetic texts began to surface early in the 17th century. But by that time, the mythology had taken up a life of its own — and was perpetuated through secret societies like the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians.
So in the late 18th century, systematic study of supposed Greco-Egyptian mysteries was still thought of as a serious philosophical pursuit. Court de Gebelin was steeped in these ideas, as were many European intellectuals.
Yet there were questions. And after much study of these matters, and analysis of the known texts, a single great account of the pristine philosophy still had not emerged.
Some believed that another work — perhaps the key! — was still undiscovered. And given that many ancient secrets were thought to have been passed down in concealed forms, the final key might be hiding anywhere.
Taking all that background into consideration, it’s much easier to understand how Court de Gebelin, seeing the exotic and obviously symbolic Tarot trumps, immediately believed them to be Egyptian.
The “Book” of “Thoth”
And it’s no surprise to find he quickly came up with an interpretation of the cards that supported his hypothesis. Gertrude Moakley gives this description:
The trumps, he explained, should be read backwards, beginning from the highest. The first seven trumps represent the Golden Age: XXI Isis (the Universe), XX The Creation (not the last Judgment, as one might ignorantly think), XIX Creation of the Sun, XVIII Creation of the Moon and terrestrial animals, XVII Creation of the stars and fish, XVI the House of God overturned, with man and woman precipitated from the earthly Paradise, XV The Devil, bringing to an end the Golden Age. The next seven cards are for the Silver Age: XIV Temperance, XIII Death, XII Prudence (the cards Court de Gebelin had before him depicted a dancing Prudence instead of the Hanged Man), XI Force coming to the aid of Prudence, X The Wheel, IX Hermit seeking Justice, VIII Justice. The last group is for the Brazen Age: VII War, VI Man fluctuating between vice and virtue, V Jupiter (the Tarot cards of Southern France usually show Jupiter and Juno instead of Pope and Popess), IV King, III Queen, II Pride (Juno and her peacock), I Juggler.
If much of that description seems puzzling — here’s why. The cards Court de Gebelin saw at the party were of the Marseilles type, but not precisely like the most standard version. Changes to the trump images were made in different countries for different reasons (often political or theological) — and the deck our German-or-Swiss visitor happened to have with him was apparently one of those variants.
But Court de Gebelin had no idea that the deck before him didn’t represent the original images of the Tarot. Or that, in fact, it wasn’t even part of some well-established tradition.
So the whole idea of an “occult” Tarot was based on a single instance of the comparatively late Marseilles model.
But it’s also true that if he had seen earlier decks, like the painted cards of the 15th century or even the earliest printed cards, Court de Gebelin might have come up with a different esoteric scenario — or none at all. For some reason, additional/different types of symbolism had been incorporated into the Tarot images when the Marseilles designs were created.
One possible explanation is that members of heretical religious sects or secret societies were among the guild workers who produced many popular Tarot decks of the Marseilles period. They might have added their own symbolism to the design of the cards. But there is very little information to support any hypothesis about the Marseilles changes.
In any event — based on the images he saw — Court de Gebelin formed a complex theory about the true nature of the Tarot. He elaborated these ideas in an essay titled “Le Jeu des Cartes,” published in 1781 as part of his ambitious nine-volume treatise Le Monde Primitif.
Essentially, Court de Gebelin believed that a sort of book hidden in the Tarot cards contained the Egyptians’ “purest beliefs regarding interesting things.” As he explained:
The trumps which number twenty-two represent in general the temporal and spiritual leaders of society, the physical powers of agriculture, the cardinal virtues, marriage, death, and resurrection or the Creation; the various games of fortune, the sage and the fool, time which consumes all, etc. Thus, we see that all these cards are also allegorical pictures relative to all of life and capable of unlimited combinations.
Court de Gebelin’s intuitive grasp of the Tarot images was actually quite correct, even though he was completely wrong about its Egyptian origins.
But in those days, Egypt was still regarded by romantic occultists as a great repository of esoteric lore — mainly on the strength of the Renaissance inheritance already mentioned, since very little was known in Europe about that ancient and distant civilization. The hieroglyphics found on Egyptian monuments and papyri were as yet untranslated, leaving room for much rich speculation as to the subjects discussed in this mysterious picture language.
At least for a while . . .
In Part 2 of “The Esoteric Tarot,” a professional fortuneteller named Etteila will recognize the divinatory potential of Tarot — and a new misconception will link Tarot with the Romany people.
If you’re just now joining the story of Tarot, or would like a refresher — what we know about Tarot history up to 1700 was covered in: