by M. C. de M***
trans. by Jean-Michel David
For this translation, I was very much aided by the various (often provisional) translations of Mary Greer and Jack Meier, Jess Karlin, Donald Tyson and those who contributed to Tarotpedia’s entry (especially Stephen John Mangan / kwaw). Each different translation provided thoughts for different nuances, for which I am grateful. The text as presented, of course, remains for others to improve, remembering that it is written an 18th century French. Translation improvements are greatly appreciated, which may be made on Tarotpedia.
I very much look forward to a time when both de Gebelin’s and de Meller’s essays Le Monde Primitif are easily available in English for all, as is already the case for the French originals. They remain foundational essays in the history of tarot that, no matter our thoughts on their historical and symbolic accuracy, provide an insight into post revolutionary days and the important developments the ensuing century would see in the world of tarot.
All footnotes, "fn #", are in the original.
The Book of Thoth
The desire to learn develops in the human heart in the measure that man’s spirit acquires new knowledge: the need to preserve, and eagerness to transmit it, caused him to imagine characters of which Thoth or Mercury was looked upon as the inventor. These characters were not, in the beginning, conventional signs, and did not express, like our current letters, the sound of the words; they were the same true images that make up the pictures on the cards, which presented to the eyes the things about which one wanted to speak.
It is natural that the inventor of these Images was the first historian: indeed Thoth is considered as having painted the Gods [fn1], that is to say, the acts of omnipotence, or the creation, to which he joined moral precepts. This book appears to have been named A-ROSH; from “A”, Doctrine, Science; and from ROSCH [fn2], Mercury, which, joined to the article “T”, signifies Tableaus of the Doctrine of Mercury; but as Rosh also means Commencement, this word TA-ROSH was particularly dedicated to his cosmogony; likewise “ETHOTIA”, the History of Time, was the title of his astronomy; and perhaps that ATHOTHES, whom we take for a King, as son of Thoth, is just the child of his spirit, and the story of the Kings of Egypt.
This ancient cosmogony, this book of Ta-Rosh, except for some light alterations, appears to have come down to us in the cards that still bear this name [fn3], whether greed has preserved them for swindling idleness, or that superstition has preserved them from the injuries of time, mysterious symbols served it, as formerly for the Magi, to mislead the credulous.
Arabs passed this book [fn4] or game on to the Spanish, and the soldiers of Charles V carried it to Germany. It is composed of three superior series representing the first three Ages, of Gold, of Silver, and of Bronze: each series formed of seven cards [fn5].
And as Egyptian writing is read from left to right, the twenty-first card, that has only been numbered with modern numbering, is none the less the first, and must read as such for the understanding of history; as it is the first of the game of Tarot, in the type of divination that one works with these images.
Age of Gold
Twentieth, this one is titled Judgement: in effect, an Angel sounding a trumpet, and some men coming out of the ground, would have induced a painter little versed in mythology, to see only in this Tableaux the image of Resurrection; but the ancients regarded men as children of Earth [fn6]; Thoth wanted to express the creation of man by painting Osiris, or the Generating God, the speaking-horn or Word who commands matter, and by tongues of fire that breaks out from clouds, the Spirit [fn7] of God reviving this same matter; at last, by people coming out of the earth to adore and admire the Omnipotence: the attitude of these people does not herald sinners who go to appear before their judge.
Nineteenth, the Creation of the Sun that illumines the union of man and woman, expressed as a man and a woman who give each the other their hand: this sign has since become that of Gemini, of the Androgyne: Duo in carne una.
Eighteenth, the Creation of the Moon and the terrestrial animals, expressed by a wolf and a dog, to signify domesticated and wild animals: this emblem is well chosen, inasmuch as only the dog and the wolf howl on appearance of this astral object, as though regretting the loss of the day. This figure makes me believe that this Tableau would have announced very great mishaps to those who chose to consult Lots, if one had depicted on it the line of the Tropic, that is to say of the departure and return of the sun, that leaves the consoling hope of a good day and a better fortune. Yet two fortresses that defend a path traced with blood, and a marsh which ends the Tableau, still presents difficulties without number to surmount in order to destroy an equally sinister omen.
Fifteenth, the Devil or Typhon, last card of the first series, comes to disturb the innocence of man and terminate the golden age. His tail, horns, and long ears announce him as a degraded being: his left arm raised, the elbow bent, forming an N, symbol of made beings, allows us to know him as created; but the torch of Prometheus that he holds by his right hand, appears to complete the letter M, that expresses generation: indeed, this story of Typhon leads us naturally to this explanation; as, in depriving Osiris of his virility, it seems that Typhon wanted to encroach on the rights of productive Power; also was he the father of the evils that spread upon the earth.
The two chained Beings at his feet mark human nature degraded and subjected, as well as the new and perverse generation, whose clawed nails express cruelty; they lack only wings (the Spirit or angelic Nature), in being all similar to the Devil: one of these being touches with its claw the thigh of Typhon; an emblem that in mythological scripture was always that of carnal generation [fn8]: he touches her with his left claw to mark illegitimacy.
Typhon finally is often taken for Winter, and this Tableaux terminating the age of gold, announces the intemperance of Seasons, that man driven from Paradise will experience thereafter.
Age of Silver
Fourteenth, the Angel of Temperance comes to instruct man, to make him avoid death to which he is newly condemned: he is painted [fn9] pouring water in wine to show him the necessity of diluting this liquor, or to temper his affections.
Tenth, the Wheel of Fortune, at the top of which is a crowned monkey, teaches us that after the fall of man, it is no longer virtue that makes a dignitory: the rabbit that climbs and the man who is thrown, expresses the injustices of the inconstant Goddess: this wheel is at the same time is the emblem of the wheel of Pythagorus, in the method of drawing lots by numbers; this divination is called ARITHOMANCY.
Age of Iron.
Sixth, the Man painted wavering between vice and virtue, is no longer lead by reason: Love or desire [fn10], eyes blindfolded, ready to release an arrow, will incline him to the right or left, whichever guided by chance.
Fourth, the King, armed with bludgeon [fn11], which ignorance has thereafter made into Imperial Globe: his helmet is garnished at the back with saw-tooth, to make it known that nothing can appease his insatiability [fn12].
It is followed by a unique card representing Folly who carries his sack or his defects behind, whilst a tiger or remorse, devouring his shanck, delays his march towards crime [fn13].
These twenty-two first cards are not only hieroglyphs, that placed in their natural order retrace the story of the earliest times, but they are also as much letters [fn14], that combined differently, can form many sentences; as well their name (A-tout) is only the literal translation of their general use and general.
1 – the Gods, in scripture and in hieroglyphic expressions, are the Eternal and Virtues represented with a body. [^]
2 – Rosch is the Egyptian name for Mercury and of his feast celebrated on the first day of the year. [^]
3 – Twenty-two tableaus form a book not very voluminous; but if, as it appears likely, the earliest traditions have been preserved in some poems, a simple image which fixes people’s attention, to whom one illustrated the event, sufficed to aid one to retain them just as well as a describing verse. [^]
4 – we still name this the Booklet of Lansquenet, or Lands-Knecht, the Series of Cards that one deals punters. [^]
5 – Three times 7, mystic number, famous with the Kabalists, Pythagoreans, etc. [^]
6 – teeth sown by Cadmus, etc. [^]
7 – even painted in our sacred historians. [^]
8 – the birth of Bacchus and of Minerva are the Mythological Tableaux of the two generations. [^]
9 – perhaps his stance hints at the culture of the vine. [^]
10 – lust. [^]
11 – Osiris is often represented with a flail in his hand, with a globe and a T: all these united could have produced in the mind of a German Card-maker an Imperial Globe. [^]
12 – Or his vengeance, if it is Osiris irritated. [^]
13 – this card has no rank: it completes the sacred Alphabet, and answers to Tau which means complement, perfection: perhaps it was meant to represent in its most natural sense the result of men’s actions. [^]
14 – the Hebrew alphabet is composed of 22 letters. [^]