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A brief history of Cartomancy

In the mysterious world of divinatory arts, cartomancy occupied a very special place for more than 250 years. Based on images, and in this sense absolutely modern, it has never ceased to renew itself and to seduce by drawing on traditional representations as well as on contemporary imagination(1).

La credulité sans reflexion gravure par Halbou

Card divination has been practiced long before the 19th century. This is a fact established thanks to a few artistic representations of soothsayers or fortune-tellers, in particular a print by the French artist Louis Halbou, La Crédulité sans Réflexion, engraved in 1770. In the same year, Jean-Baptiste Alliette le Jeune (1738-1791), famous thanks to his anagram Etteilla, published in Paris one of the first treatises about fortune-telling Etteila, ou maniere de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes, as well as a set of 33 cards that could be purchased for 3 livres and 10 sols(2).

Etteilla, ou Maniere de se recreer avec un jeu de cartes

This multifaceted personality, known for having popularized fortune-telling, which he referred to as ‘cartonomancie,’ is said to have begun reading cards(3) in 1753. According to sources, Etteilla had several occupations, first as grain merchant, a trade inherited from his mother, then wigmaker, engraving merchant and finally algebra teacher(4), as he preferred to call himself. In 1781, the publication of “Du Jeu des Tarots,” volume VIII of Monde primitif by Court de Gébelin, will provide him the revelation of the tarot deck. Henceforth, there will be a French cartonomancie with the ordinary cards, and an Egyptian cartonomancie or “Book of Thoth,”(5) i.e., the Tarot(6).

Court de Gébelin Tarot

Son of the Pastor Antoine Court, a famous theologian and preacher, Court de Gébelin settled in Paris in 1763 after studying at the Academy of Lausanne. Attracted to freemasonry, this French writer and scholar was received in 1778 in the famous lodge of the “Nine Sisters,” which also counted Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and other eminent figures as members(7). He discovered the tarot deck in the french salon “Le cercle d'Auteuil” of Madame Helvétius and became fascinated by its interpretation and origins. Court de Gébelin explains in his book that the tarot is an “Egyptian book, the only remnant of their superb libraries.(8) According to him, we should therefore seek the origin of the ‘old Tarot of Marseilles’ in the ancient religion of the Nile Valley and consider the cards as symbolic representations, related to the hermetic initiation of ancient Egypt. He expressed the opinion that the names of Le Pape and La Papesse were due to a Christian interpretation of the original characters by the Italian or German cartiers. Therefore he replaces the name, which he judged ridiculous, of the Papess by the High Priestess, while the Pope becomes the Chief of the Hierophants or the High Priest(9).

Etteilla published in 1783, among the egyptomania fashion of the times, Maniere de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots. The four ‘notebooks’ and their supplements, issued between 1783 and 1786, set out the original vision of the tarot reader. The creation, in 1788, of a society called “Société des interprètes du Livre de Thot” will allow him to finance the engraving of the images. And thus, his ‘restored’ tarot, named “Book of Thoth” was released in 1789. It contained 78 cards finely engraved in intaglio and brush-colored(10). This deck was very different from the Tarot cards published until then. The symbols and the sequence of the cards do not remind the old Tarot of Marseilles. Their divinatory interpretation was considered limited by some 19th-century occultists, in particular Eliphas Levi, who disdained “this former hairdresser, having never learned French nor spelling.(11)

Livre de Thot Etteilla

In spite of these criticisms, Etteila is without any doubt, along with Court de Gébelin, the founder of the divinatory Tarot. The works of Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known today as the ‘Grand Etteilla’ or ‘Tarot Égyptien,’ inspired other fortune-tellers, notably the legendary Marie-Anne Adélaïde Lenormand also known as Mlle Lenormand, the “Sybil of the Faubourgs Saint-Germain,” a famous soothsayer of the French First Empire, who, according to her memoirs, gave private consultations to the Empress Josephine and the Emperor Napoleon(12).

Marie-Anne Adélaïde Lenormand

In the nineteenth century, modern occultism developed in France and became famous thanks to enigmatic personalities such as the Abbot Alphonse-Louis Constant, known as Éliphas Lévi Zahed (Dogme et Rituel de la haute magie, 1854-1861), Dr. Gérard Encausse, known as Papus (Traité méthodique de science occulte, 1891), Stanislas de Guaita (Au seuil du mystère, 1886), co-founder with Joséphin Peladan of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rosicrucian, and Oswald Wirth (Le tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge, 1927). They took up the ideas of Court de Gébelin and gave the tarot a divinatory and theosophical dimension. They linked the twenty-two major arcanas with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and applied the speculations of the Kabbalah to the Tarot(13).

Chariot d'Hermès, septième clef du Tarot

The name “Tarot de Marseille” first appeared in 1856 in an article written by Romain Merlin for the 1855 World's Fair in Paris: Calligraphie, gravure, cartes à jouer(14). Papus used this term and made it famous in his book The Tarot of the Bohemians in 1889 : “The Italian Tarot, that of Besançon and of Marseille, are unquestionably the best which we now possess, particularly the latter, which fairly reproduces the Primitive symbolical Tarot.

The Key of the Mysteries

In the terminology of occultism, the 78 tarot cards are called arcana, from the Latin arcanum “hidden, secret thing.” And so, the 22 trumps became the “Major Arcana” and the 56 numerals and court cards were designated as the “Minor Arcana.” The term ‘arcana’ was popularized in esoteric literature by Jean-Baptiste Pitois, known as Paul Christian (L’homme rouge des Tuileries, 1863), a French author and collaborator of Charles Nodier(15).

Harry Kellar Spirit Cabinet

The Anglo-Saxon countries played a considerable role in the development of Tarot throughout the world. In the 1850's, while the spiritualism(16) coming from the United States became popular in most major European cities, other modes of thinking emerged in the British occult world. In London, the secret society “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” was founded in 1888 thanks to a group of Rosicrucians: Dr. William Wynn Westcott, the cabalist William Robert Woodman and the magus Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers(17). The teachings of this school consisted of a mixture of various occult sciences: astrology, Enochian magic, Kabbalah, yogic practice, ancient Egyptian magic, and the practice of a variety of divination systems including tarot. The Golden Dawn, which claimed to be able to transform its members into the great magus of the 20th century, attracted many personalities of the time including Aleister Crowley, Arthur Edward Waite, and, according to rumors, the famous writer Abraham Stoker, known as Bram Stoker.

Baphomet Lévi

The poet Arthur Edward Waite emerges from this movement and he was the first to translate the works of Eliphas Levi, whom he considers the most brilliant interpreter of occult philosophy in the West. However, Waite gradually detached himself from this influence, and tried to create a Tarot that had a vision different from that of the “Book of Thoth.” While some illustrations refer to the engravings and commentaries of the French magus, the Baphomet of Levi is transformed into a devil with bat wings in order to conform to the representations of the ancient Tarot of Marseilles. He is helped by an American artist, Pamela Colman-Smith, whom he met in the Isis-Urania Lodge of the Golden Dawn. One tarot in particular inspired the artist. In 1907, during an exhibition at the British Museum, she discovered the famous Sola-Busca Tarot by the master Nicola di Maestro Antonio d'Ancone: the oldest complete tarot known in the world (1491) and the only one with all the pip cards illustrated(18). Under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, the tarot deck and the book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, were first published in 1910 by William Rider & Son, Ltd in London, and then republished in 1970 by U.S Games systems, Inc(19).

Tarot de Jean Noblet

From left to right, Tarot de Marseille type I, Jean Noblet, 1659 and Tarot Rider-Waite-Smith, 1910

The French expression “tirer les cartes” (Read the Cards) officially appeared in 1798 in the fifth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. The term ‘cartomancie,’ was used for the first time in Nodier's dictionary in 1835, to designate “the art of reading cards, of predicting future by means of cards.”(20)


1 Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer. Cartomancie, entre mystère et imaginaire, exhibition catalog (Issy-Les-Moulineaux from December 11, 2019 to June 7, 2020), Éditions de Tournon, Paris, 2019, p. 7

2 By M.***. Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes, LescLapart, Paris, 1770, p. 2. The sol is an old French coin in circulation under Louis XVI.

3 Anonymous author. L’art de tirer les cartes, ou le moyen de lire dans l’avenir, Deroy, Paris, 1796, pp. 2-3

4 Thierry Depaulis. Tarot, jeu et magie, exhibition catalog (Galerie Mazarine, October 17, 1984 to January 6, 1985), Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1984, p. 133

5 In Egyptian mythology, Thoth is a lunar god who serves as a messenger. According to legend, he is the inventor of the hieroglyphs and, as such, is the repository of knowledge. Corinne Morel. Dictionnaire des symboles, mythes et croyances, Éditions de l’Archipel, 2004, p. 863

6 Thierry Depaulis. Le Tarot révélé, catalog of the exhibition Jeu et divination - Le Tarot révélé (Musée Suisse du Jeu, from September 20, 2013 to January 26, 2014), Editeur Ulrich Schädler, 2e éd., 2018, p. 58

7 Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer, op. cit., p. 29

8 Ibid.

9 Monique Streiff Moretti. Isis, Narcisse, Psyché entre Lumières et Romantisme, Collective, 2001, p. 39

10 Le Tarot Révélé, op. cit. p. 61

11 Tarot, jeu et magie, op. cit. p. 134

12 Isabelle Nadolny. Histoire du tarot - Origines - Iconographie - Symbolisme, Éditions Trajectoire, 2018, p. 159
13 Encyclopédie de la divination, coll. Réalités de l’imaginaire, Tchou, Paris, 1965, p. 273

14 Thierry Depaulis. “The Tarot de Marseille – Facts and Fallacies I,” The Playing-Card, vol. 42, n°. 1, 2010

15 Tarot, jeu et magie, op. cit. p. 131

16 Guillaume Cuchet. “Le retour des esprits, ou la naissance du spiritisme sous le Second Empire,” Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine, vol. 54-2, no. 2, 2007, pp. 74-90

17 Helen Farley. A Cultural History of Tarot, I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, New York, 2009, p. 118

18 Cartomancie, entre mystère et imaginaire, op. cit. p. 71

19 Stuart R. Kaplan. La grande encyclopédie du tarot, Tchou, Paris, 1978, p. 286

20 Cartomancie, entre mystère et imaginaire, op. cit. p. 7



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