The First Occult Tarot

Anyone knowledgeable about Tarot history knows that the first occultist to write about the Tarot was the Parisian Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin. In 1781 he published the eighth volume of his occult encyclopedia, Monde Primitif, and starting on page 365, he included an article on the Tarot in which he put forth his theories on the origin and meaning of the Tarot’s trumps and minor suits. De Gébelin theorized that the Tarot was a series of hieroglyphs that originated in ancient Egypt, were passed onto ancient Rome, and from there to France and Germany.

His article was accompanied by a series of engravings created by Mademoiselle Linote, who died the same year that they were published. Her illustrations are sketchy copies of a standard set of trumps from a French Tarot of Marseille, most likely the Conver Tarot, from 1760. De Gébelin added titles to them that suggested what they might have signified in Egyptian culture.

The Fool retains his name, but his dog is interpreted as a tiger, and in Linote’s engraving the animal does look like a cat but with spots, not stripes. It seems that Court de Gébelin was not distinguishing between a tiger, a cat that does not live in Africa, and a leopard, a cat that does. Trump One is the Juggler or Cup-Player, who is said to be holding the wand of Jacob or of the Magi.

Trump Two is the High Priestess, who is the wife of Trump Five, the High Priest, head of the hierophants. Trumps Three and Four are the Queen and the King, and their scepters are said to be the Tau cross.

Trump Six is the Wedding, depicting a priest, wearing a laurel wreath marrying a man to a woman with flowers in her hair.

Trump Seven becomes Osiris Triumphant, symbolizing the god’s return in the Spring. Trump Eight is Justice, but also Queen Astraea on her throne.Trump Nine is The Sage or the Seeker of Truth and Justice. Court de Gébelin correctly recognized the Hermit, holding his lantern in front of him, as a reference to the ancient philosopher, Diogenes, who held out a lamp during the day because he was searching for virtue.

Trump Ten retains its title, the Wheel of Fortune, and its symbolism as a satire on the nature of fate.

Trump Eleven remains Strength, a woman closing the mouth of a lion. Trump Twelve is now the virtue Prudence. Court de Gébelin said that it originally represented a man holding one leg up as he prudently decided where to place it, but that this image was reversed by ignorant card makers when reproducing the deck. He offers no explanation for why Linote depicted the man tied to a stake.

Trump Thirteen is Death with her scythe. Court de Gébelin refers to Death as female and says that she is numbered thirteen because this number is unlucky. Trump Fourteen is Temperance, who, as in the traditional interpretation, is pouring water into wine to make it less potent. 

Trump Fifteen becomes Typhon, a Greek name for Set, Osiris’s evil brother. Trump Sixteen is the House of God, its French title, or the Castle of Plutus, a reference to a tower stuffed with gold that fell into ruin crushing its worshipers. Court de Gébelin also relates the image to a story told by Herodotus about two Egyptian tomb robbers.

Trump Seventeen is the Dog Star, which rises when the Sun is in the sign of Cancer. Court de Gébelin recognizes the seven smaller stars as the seven planets, and says that the woman is Isis, who is their mistress. Trump Eighteen is the Moon rising between the pillars of Hercules. The drops in the sky are the tears of Isis, and Court de Gébelin says that the entire picture symbolize the time of the flooding of the Nile. Trump Nineteen is the Sun, the Father of all Humans.

Trump Twenty is the tableau misnamed “The Last Judgement,” because Court de Gébelin says that it represents the creation of humans, not the reanimation of the dead.

The final Trump, Twenty-one, is Time misnamed the World. Court de Gébelin says that the woman is the Goddess of Time standing in the wreath of time, with the emblems of the four seasons in the corners: the eagle representing Spring, the lion Summer, the ox Autumn, and the young man Winter. 

After de Gébelin’s article in Monde Primitif, he placed another article composed by the Comte de M, identified as Comte de Mellet. Comte de Mellet’s theories differ from de Gébelin’s on several points. From this, we may assume that Court de Gébelin did not feel that his theory was the final word, and he wanted to present other possibilities. For example, while de Gébelin believed that Tarot meant “the Royal Road” in Egyptian, de Mellet makes the case that the Tarot is actually the mystical Book of Thoth. He theorizes that the name Tarot is derived from the Egyptian Ta Rosh, which he said means the science of Thoth or Mercury, a possible reference to alchemy. He says that the book or deck was brought from Egypt to Spain by the Arabs, and from there, the soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V carried it to Germany in the 16th century. He suggests a relationship between the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the Fool and the twenty-one trumps. He discusses the meaning of several of the pip and court cards and demonstrates the use of the deck for divination. 

But his discourse on the trumps stands out the most, because it is more coherent and presents a unified approach that unites the trumps in one continuous narrative. Most scholars agree that the de Mellet article is older and most likely influenced de Gébelin. Not only is it older, but it is more complete and effectively it is the first description of a recreated occult Tarot deck. Therefore, we may call it the “first occult Tarot.”

As we look at the details that de Mellet describes, it is clear that he is not describing the Tarot of Marseille but he is describing the Besançon Tarot, which was first carved by Francois Isnard (1695 – 1765), who lived in Strasburg, France. The deck became popular in South Eastern France, Switzerland, and parts of Germany.  De Mellet clearly describes cards that only appear in the Besançon, such as Jupiter with his eagle instead of the Pope for the fifth trump and Juno with her peacock instead of the Papesse for the second trump. We will see other similarities as we go over his discourse.

Comte de Mellet interpreted the trumps as a Hermetic text describing the creation of the world in three stages. Starting with the World trump and working backwards, because he claimed that the Egyptians read from right to left, he divided the trumps into three groups of seven and related each group to one of the Classical Ages: the Age of Gold, the Age of Silver, and the Age of Iron. There are actually four Classical Ages, but de Mellet has combined the Age of Bronze the Age of iron into one for his discourse.

The Age of Gold begins with Trump Twenty-one, the World or the Universe, depicting Isis in the center of the egg of time with the symbols of the four seasons in the corners. Then comes Judgement, depicting Osiris creating humans from Earth.

Next in order is the creation of the Sun, with the union of man and woman below. The figures on the Besançon Sun seem to be male and female and this is made even more clear in the modern version called the 1JJ Swiss Tarot.

Trump Eighteen is the creation of the Moon and the animals, symbolized by a wolf and a dog, representing wild and domestic animals. The Besançon Moon does seem to depict a dog and a wolf. Trump Seventeen is the creation of the stars and fishes.

Sixteen is the House of God overthrown, and Fifteen depicts the Devil or Typhon, who ends the Golden Age, and brings suffering to all humans. De Mellet mentions that the Devil’s minion is clawing the Devil’s thigh. Again, this is a detail that we find on the Besançon trump.      

The Age of Silver begins with trump Fourteen, Temperance, who educates humans in the need for moderation to help them avoid Death. Thirteen is Death, who has now become a reality to humans.

Twelve is the accidental suffering that attacks humans, symbolized by a man hung by his foot, but also a symbol of Prudence. De Mellet had no need to turn the Hanged Man right side up as de Gébelin did.

Eleven is Strength subduing the lion, a symbol of savagery. Ten is the Wheel of Fortune expressing the injustices of this faithless goddess. De Mellet describe the Wheel as having a rabbit ascending and a monkey at the top, which we can see on the Besançon Wheel.  

Nine is the Sage searching for Justice, and Eight is Justice.

The Age of Iron begins with Trump Seven, the Chariot of War. Here he also briefly mentions the Age of Bronze but merges it into the Age of Iron. De Mellet describes the Charioteer as a king holding a javelin. He seems to be interpreting the charioteer’s scepter with its pointed top as a javelin. However, in a later edition of the Besançon Chariot, printed after 1791, after the French Revolution, the block was modified to remove the Charioteer’s crown, which was now unpopular, and the top of the scepter was modified into the head of a javelin (thanks to my Facebook friend Koy Deli for supplying this detail). In the editions after 1810 the crown was replaced but the javelin was retained. Was this due to de Mellet’s influence?

Trump six depicts a man standing between vice and virtue being guided by blind love instead of reason.

Five is no longer the Pope but Jupiter on his eagle, as he appeared in the Swiss decks.. including the modern 1JJ Swiss Tarot.

Four depicts the King, symbolizing that might and not reason rules. Three is the Queen, the King’s mate.

Two is Juno, with her peacock as she appears in the Besançon. She represents pride and idolatry. One is the Bateleur, holding a wand and misleading people with his magic, and then after the last trump, we have the Fool, representing madness and being attacked by the tiger of his regrets. The dog on the Besançon Fool has stripes, like a tiger.

I find that Comte de Mellet’s interpretations of the cards are closer than Court de Gébelin’s to the interpretations that these images would have had in the Renaissance. He clearly sees that each of the three groups of seven trumps has a distinct character, different from the other groups. His overall interpretation is well founded in Hermetic philosophy, and what is implied but left unsaid is that if the trumps describe the descent of humans into a state of ignorance, then if we read them forward, from the Fool to the Universe, they describe the ascent back to a state of spiritual Oneness. Like the Hermetica, they are a textbook for achieving gnosis.

I have been studying de Mellet’s Tarot more closely. Years ago, the curator at the Morgan Library was kind enough to send me a photocopy of the original essays from his copy of Monde Primitif. And recently, I have obtained a new more accurate translation of the 18th century French. As my next project I have started working on creating the deck that de Mellet describes. Here is the first of the cards, Isis in the center of the World Egg and surrounded by the wreath of time.

About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
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