De Gebelin and le C. de M***
I must admit that whenever I look again at the essays on tarot in De Gébelin’s 18th century Monde Primitif analysé et comparé avec le Monde Moderne (“Primitive World analysed and compared with the Modern World”), I am struck not as much by De Gebelin’s own essay, but rather by the fact that he included de Mellet’s essay, and what this latter actually says. The nine volumes of the work, by the way, were re-published in French last year (2006) by Elibron Classics.
De Gébelin’s volumes (and incomplete) massive undertaking reminds me in so many ways of Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough – in both scope and oversights. In scope, as they range over a massive range of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman text; in oversight, as they each reflect the inevitable limitations of their respective times (and of course Frazer’s work is much closer to our own times, being a work of the early 20th century), but also, importantly, that as one works on such a project, there will be psychological dispositions to begin to organise and see or understand one world view in terms or similarities with other worldviews, possibly doing full justice to neither in the process.
Still, this very process also provides a wonderful insight into the human condition of knowledge-building that, in terms of modern tarot especially, can be seen to be a continuation of the work originating in De Gébelin and the essay by M. Le C. de M.*** (as de Mellet is cryptically referred to as author in the work).
Between the two essays, we have the seeds of the whole esoteric development of tarot: its Egyptian connections, its Kabbalistic tangents, its pagan touches, its mathematical excursions, and its divinatory uses. This does not mean that before these essays and the publication of De Gébelin’s eighth volume of Le Monde Primitif (in which both essays are found) tarot had no such connections. Rather, the work provides a massive impetus for tarot’s rediscovery and incorporation in the minds of those involved in the numerous revivals of occult interest in the ensuing century and beyond.
If I can provide a small excursion in this direction, I ask myself, for example, whether it would have been likely that Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) would have made such a fuss about tarot in the 1850s (a little over sixty years after the publication) had it not been for not only De Gébelin’s volume, but even, possibly, their common Masonic interests? To move on from that specific point, would it similarly have been likely that the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross, with its strong connections to Eliphas Levi, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with its direct connection to Levi via McKenzie (who had visited Levi in Paris, and who we now know had been shown by Levi correlations between Hebrew letters and the trumps of the tarot)? And without the inclusion of tarot and its assumed connections in both those orders – and indeed the works of Paul Christian who also was very much influenced by Levi, would the early 20th century three dominant ‘Occult’ tarot views have occured?
These questions are perhaps not the right ones, of course, for every current situation has its aetiology. In the case of the development of tarot, what the above points to is that not only are there quite important considerations to look at with tarot origins and how it is embedded in the rich late mediaeval or proto-renaissance culture of Europe, but that its possible losses of symbolic understanding between its own naissance and its prolific game usage itself gave rise to a re-discovery of questions as to its symbolic meanings by the time of the late 1700s. Certainly, what we also see is a strict bifurcation that proceeds at this time between the game of tarot and its development towards virtually exclusive usage of double-headed trumps and French suited (spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs) decks, and diversions into more exclusively symbolically rich – even if deviant – decks intended for divinatory and other more esoteric uses, starting with De Gébelin’s contemporary Alliette (creator of the once ubiquitous Etteilla deck, of which a number of variations exist).
So let us return to De Gébelin for a second, and then to that other essay in the book.
The Volume is a veritable mish-mash of fascinating tid-bits of information, ranging from a long essay on so-called Oriental History, Assyrian voyages, origins of languages and family names, money, games, and a number of other reflections. I can well imagine how many amongst us would have looked forward to each instalment of this developing work in a world quite distinct and different to our 21st century. It provides for voyages of the mind into fascinating and often uncharted territories. It should perhaps also be remembered that this was around the same time that various clubs and Lodges provided for similar excursions into fascinating educational presentations, and that the rigorous academic style we expect these days was found perhaps only in the monastic educational enclaves: scientists of the times were experimenting in flights of fancy as much as in excursions of possibilities – one need look no further than Newton to see this at play.
In this cultural context, De Gébelin opens with the now famous sub-heading: “Surprise that would be caused by the discovery of an Egyptian Book” – that has, of course given this opening, been supposedly discovered, and right amongst his contemporaries and used by many in ignorance of its true significance! If one reads De Gébelin’s prior essays, it would come as no surprise that in the figures he sees reflections of egyptian influence… indeed, a degeneration from a pristine original now long gone – leading to future authors to of course make a claim as to where this original was to have been made or even perhaps is to be found (I am here thinking of Paul Christian in the 19th century, and Paul F. Case in the 20th).
It is in these essays that we find such names that later become used such as the High Priestess. It is also here that we find a first suggested etymology of ‘tarot’ – of course, for De Gébelin, or Egyptian origin. It should perhaps be remembered that the Rosetta stone which lead to the decyphering of hieroglyphs was only discovered in 1799 (some eighteen years after the publication of volume VIII of Le Monde Primitif) and that it took another twenty years (in 1822) for Champollion to provide the means to begin to understand Ancient Egypt’s writings.
This did not, of course, prevent numerous individuals from being fascinated and in various ways investigating the influences and remnants of Ancient Egypt – from Roman to Mediaeval to Renaissance to Revolutionary to post-Modern times! And it is during this Revolutionary times that De Gébelin publishes – a time also rich in the view of the world as changing in a most profound manner social structures.
As with any major social changes and upheaval, one is called upon to call to mind the past, and also explanations of the past. Explanations from Ancient Egypt certainly could only be surmised, but what was available were the rich works of the Greek, Roman, and post-Constantinian Christian times. And these were fished for all their worth.
In Le Comte de Mellet’s essay, for example, we find not only the same Egyptian references, but also allusion to Hesiod – as perhaps mediated through Ovid. In fact, it seems to me that De Mellet understands the trumps only by wearing Ovidian glasses and looking through those at egyptian pantheon by adding Plutarchian sunshades. Let me explain a little.
Plutarch and Ovid were not only both writing around the same time (basically, just before the Common Era or the birth of Jesus), but importantly both were popular sources during the renaissance, to the extant that they also both became part of any semi-educated person’s background knowledge by the 18th century, and certainly read by those who had interests in literary or artistic aspirations. Shakespeare, for example, studied without reference to these authors is a little like forgetting that the Bible exists.
Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride (“On Isis and Osiris”) provides a foundational model for understanding a view of Egypt’s myth sagas as conceived by European authors and artists. Similarly, Ovid’s incredible Metamorphoses becomes a fundamental text for looking back to Greek thought (as is indeed shown by considering, as example, the 17th century Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia). Here are texts that appear to my eyes at least to provide the lenses from which De Mellet frames his essay and his understanding of tarot: from Ovid, his division of the deck into various ‘Ages’ into which he places groups of trumps; and from Plutarch a view of each trump as fundamentally reflecting egyptian thought.
In a future Newsletter, De Mellet’s first part of his essay (on the trumps) will be presented in translation (a first draft of which is at this stage complete) – but let me here simply whet our appetite – the later section on divination is also important, of course, for an historical appreciation of the development of this usage in tarot, but I frankly otherwise find its text rather dull.
De Mellet opens his essay with boldly calling it the “Book of Thot” (ie, Thoth). He then gives a potted history as to how it came into our hands: via Arab hands to Spanish ones and hence to Charles V and German hands.
He then claims that the structure of the deck is of three times seven. It should perhaps also be noted that he notes the importance of this number to both Kabbalists and Pythagoreans – how important such footnotes can be as planted seeds for further growth!
His main body then sees in those divisions three from Ovid’s four ‘Ages of Man’: of Gold, Silver and Iron. Having by this method only 21 cards, he claims for the Fool the ‘zero of magical calculation’, which has no value of itself, but can significantly alter the value of another number preceding it (for example, ‘9’ and ‘90’).
Interestingly too, he proceeds down the series from card XXI in the Age of Gold in a descent through the trump series and towards the Age of Iron.
For the cards he discusses in the Age of Gold, some comments have certainly since become commonplace, though not totally. For example, for the Sun he considers how the two individuals are man and woman, and though two in carne una (by carnal union one); with the Moon he talks of dog and wolf, of domesticated and wild; of the Star mentions Aquarius; of the Devil mentions how the letters ‘N’ and ‘M’ are formed from iconographic detail. These all have important ramifications for here we already see that attention is paid to detail that perhaps was not only omitted from the cards, but that if these trumps include details such as these, what else may be hidden and as yet to be discovered in other trumps that were missed by De Mellet!?!
Finally, and again in what were only footnotes (but what footnoted seeds for further development!), right at the end of the first section of his essay, and at the beginning of the second section, he notes that the Fool corresponds to the Hebrew letter Tav (last letter, and remember he moved from XXI down!), that there are 22 letters in the ‘sacred alphabet’ (Hebrew), and that these have numerical values.
Later in the essay, mention of the rod of Moses, the Cup of Joseph, and a list of possible meanings for various drawing of cards all add to a rich field that de Mellet never completes, and thus instead opens for others in which to play!
There is much of this story that remains for others to uncover and present – and forms such an important foundation for the story of the development of tarot!