Sacred Texts  Tarot  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Fortune Telling by Cards, by P.R.S. Foli, [1915], at

p. 114


The Tarots

Derivation of name—Remote origin—The great Etteilla.

Derivation of Name.

THESE immediate predecessors of our own playing cards were primarily used for divination, and are supposed to have been the invention of one Jacques Gringonneur, an astrologer and cabalist, who was probably of Jewish extraction, as the Tarot packs extant in Europe are of an Israelitish character. Various derivations are given of the name. A simple one is that they were called Tarots because of the crossed diagonal lines upon the back of the cards, a design known by the word tarotée. There were Roman numerals in the margin above the symbolic devices. The game played with them after the numeral cards had been added was called tarrochi.

Remote Origin.

Cartomancers and occultists trace the Tarots back into the dim and distant past. The science of hieroglyphics was based upon an alphabet in which the gods were letters, the letters were ideas, the ideas numbers, and the numbers perfect signs. This alphabet is supposed to date from the days of Abraham, and is called the famous "Book of Thoth." Moses, who was learned in all the lore of the Egyptians, took it back to his own people and guarded the secret jealously. It is supposed to have come down to us in the Tarots, which have been changed and modified by the time and place of their adoption.

Another theory is given by the famous cartomancer Etteilla,

p. 115

who says: "On a table or altar in the temple of Ptah at Memphis, at the height of the breast of the Egyptian Magus, were, on one side, a book or collection of cards, or plates of gold (the tarots), and on the other a vase, &c." According to this authority the name tarot is derived from the pure Egyptian word Tar, a path; and Ro, Ros, Rog, royal, the combined meaning reading "The Royal Path of Life."

A writer of the eighteenth century, Count de Gibelen, says: "If it were known that there exists in our day a work of the ancient Egyptians, which had escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrines on the most interesting subjects, every one would doubtless be anxious to acquire the secrets of so valuable a work. . . . This work is composed of seventy-eight illustrations . . ."

Count de Gibelen here refers to the "Book of Thoth," or the Tarot pack of cards. A writer on occult subjects (Macgregor Mathers) believes that the title of this book is derived from târu, an Egyptian word which means "to require an answer" or "to consult"; and that the second "t" is added to denote the feminine gender.

"Papus," in his "Key to Occult Science," tells a quaint story as to the reason why the ancient Egyptians came to confide their secrets to the "Book of Thoth." When the overthrow of the kingdom was at hand, the priests met in solemn conclave to decide what means might be used to preserve their secrets inviolate for the initiates of all future ages.

After much deliberation it was held to be best to confide these secrets to something which appealed to vice in man and not to his nobler qualities, so thus the "Book of Thoth" was compiled.

And, indeed, to those interested in occult science it is evident that many solemn mysteries are here symbolised, the explanation of which would be out of place in a book principally designed for amusement, as this is.

The Great Etteilla.

Le Célèbre Etteilla was the great exponent of the mysteries of the Tarots in the time of the French Revolution. He was well known in Paris as a hairdresser, but he had a mind

p. 116

above his trade, and proceeded to steep himself in the study of the occult. Having mastered much of the mystic lore then available, he started to evolve a system of his own, invented mystic signs, made cabalistic calculations, drew diagrams, and produced weighty volumes to further the cause to which he had devoted himself. His principal work appeared in 1783, and from being somewhat of a celebrity as Alliette the fashionable hairdresser, he mounted to the top of the ladder of popular favour, and reigned supreme for thirty years as Le Célèbre Etteilla. So much for spelling your name backwards! Disciples and rivals grew up and thronged around him. In the perilous days of 1789, men came to him with blanched lips and drawn features, asking if they might hope to live through the morrow. There were but few "smooth things" to prophesy in those dark days. One cannot help wondering whether he helped any to evade the doom that threatened them.

Etteilla used the Tarots, and adapted them to his own system. Some students of the occult think that he mishandled the sacred emblems of ancient wisdom, but most cartomancers look upon him as one of the chief authorities on fortune-telling by cards, and his method has been made the basis of several subsequent and modern experiments.

It is to be observed that the Tarots are not universally known in the present day, and at the few places where they are sold a fairly high price is asked for them, in comparison with the cost of an ordinary pack of playing cards. For this reason those systems which can only be worked with the Tarots have not been dealt with at length in these pages. The following chapter gives an outline of the way in which these symbolical and mysterious cards can be used, together with some of the significations attached to those composing the major and minor arcana.

Next: Chapter XIX. Etteilla's Method