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MikeH  MikeH is offline
Join Date: 03 Nov 2007
Location: Oregon USA
Posts: 443
Etteilla's "Alexis" & more of the 2nd Cahier

I have been puzzling over the question of whether there really was an “Alexis” who talked to Atteilla for a week and left him notes which Etteilla still had even at the time he was writing the Cahiers. He said that this Alexis divided the 78 cards into four groups. So I have been looking at passages in the 2nd Cahier where the 78 cards are divided into four groups, There are actually two of them, one that I have quoted already and another that I have not yet posted a translation of. This last one, which I haven’t posted, is the more suggestive.

Here is my translation. I have put the original French in brackets after some paragraphs, when I was in some doubt about my translation:
[p. 124]We are going to represent this sublime Work under four Ages, as having followed the general plan of four Books.

Age of Gold.

The first Book perfectly represents the Age of Gold, composed of twelve pages, from 1 to 12;[p. 125] it is absolutely only a conversation of the Divinity, of its essence and of its works, and under the point of view that touches us: it is Man in the terrestrial Paradise, full of knowledge and of human wisdom.

Age of Silver.

Man begins to decline; it is no longer the first conversation with his Creator; in this Book, composed of five pages, from 13 to 17, the creature desires that which is impossible for him to possess. Man leaves the center of Virtue, this wise simplicity that unites him with the principle; he dares to throw his eyes to the tenth heaven in order to penetrate it (1); pride with which he was not agitated in the first Book.

[Footnote] (1) Homer calls the Sky vault of bronze.

A virtuous innocence united us to the principle, to the divine Engine; we were not him; we had no [p. 126] ambition to fathom the reason: in wanting to search for it, we were lost. Was it necessary to know why we were happy? Did it not suffice that the happiness was just and real?

Age of Bronze

We have then sinned? Yes. And who would not believe it, in reflecting that all is well, and that in this all is well we live in sorrows, diseases and bitterness, infirmities of which we cannot throw back the cause on wise Nature, but on our ignorance alone.

[Nous avons donc péché? Oui. Et qui ne le croiroit pas, en réfléchissant que tout est bien, & que dans ce tout est bien nous vivons dans les chagrins, les maladies & l'amertume, infirmités dont nous ne pouvons pas rejetter la cause sur la sage Nature, mais sur notre seule ignorance.]

In this second distraction, can we be far from the Age of Iron? No. Folly took our hands to enter into the third Book. It was proper to conduct us to the fourth, of which she is the Ambassador, as she is the Sovereign of the Third, composed of five pages, [p. 127] from [p. 127] 18 to 21, and the zero 0, where she walks without boundaries or limits. (1)

[Footnote] (1) I have spoken elsewhere of the places where she walks.

Age of Iron.

Here we are where our distractions led us and where our weaknesses keep us; can there be a more cruel position for perfect Beings, overwhelmed with sorrows, miseries, maladies acute or chronic, and always in fear of death, worse than death itself?

Some set against others, denaturing our food, tearing away our hands, with the view only of getting us drunk, incensed against ourselves, believing in everything and soon in nothing, without respect for truth, renouncing the respectable laws of Nature, cursing our existence, or, by [p. 128] a sufficiently excessive feeling, ranking it with God, the Creator of the Universe.

[Acharnés les uns contre les autres, dénaturant nos alimens, nous les arrachant des mains, dans la vue de nous en souler seuls; acharnés contre nous-mêmes, croyant à tout & bientôt à rien, sans respect poiur la vérité, abjurant les respectables loix de la Nature, maudissant notre existence, ou, par [p. 128] un sentiment suffi outré, lui donnant rang parmi le Dieu, Créateur de l'Univers.]

The Sages called the “Age of Iron” the moment of the passage of vengeance; an Age that will only be destroyed by decomposition into water, air and fire; earth will lose its number, its form and its properties; it will be dissolved by air, fire and water, and will lose its principles which will dissolve the Elements, which themselves will enter into a unity (1). The Rich miser, the nasty Poor man, the [p. 129] mediocrity, finally all Men, will be on the same bench in front of the Throne of the big IOU [“IOU” in original]; because nobody from the creation to the destruction will be exempt from it (1).

[Footnote p. 128] (1) This moment of great tribulation, following the first Egyptians, is not the last of the physical Worlds which must, before their dissolution, re-enter and remain an innumerable time in their first perfection; it is necessary to understand that [with] regard to Men who become again just, following the intentions of the Eternal, and we will have no more forecasts regarding the end of Mendes. [Ce moment de la grand tribulation, suivant les premiers Egyptiens, n’est pas le dernier des Mondes physiques qui doivent, avant leur dissolution, rentrer & rester un tems innombrable dans leur premiere perfection; il faut entendre cela égard aux Hommes qui redeviendront justes, suivant les intentions de l’Eternal, & nous n'aurons plus de fois pronostics sur la fin des Mendes.]

[Footnote p. 129] (1) See what I have said elsewhere, in warning that before the dissolution all Men will be in the knowledge and wisdom of the Eternal.

In this fourth Book, the Sages have spared nothing in making us envisage all that is against God, Men, and oneself; they offer us the tableau of human life, such as it came to be in the Age of Iron, that is to say, some sparks of primitive virtue, debris of the precious germ that the Creator has given us at birth. Some acts of humanity, drawn from the sensibility of our heart, which cannot be deaf to the cries of Nature, and finally some generous pardons; but then what a hideous tableau! A thousand gluttonous evils, the ones occasioned by the others, consequences of our [p. 130] ignorance, which conducts and manages our thoughts and our actions with a too researched art, when wise Nature, even in our most sensual pleasures, indicates to us a road so beautiful and simple that it leads to perfection; but there had to be a new People of Sages in order to tolerate our weaknesses and our evils, to soften and annihilate them.

[Dans ce quatre Livre, les Sages n’ont épargné pour nous faire envisager tout ce-qui est contre Dieu, les Hommmes, & soi-même; ils nous offrent le tableau de la vie humaine, telle qu’elle devoit être dans l’Age de fer, c’est-à-dire, quelques étincelles de la primitive virtu, débris du précieux germe que le Créateur nous a donné en naissant. Quelques acts d'humanité, puisés dans la sensibilité de notre coeur, qui ne peut point être sourd aux cris de la Nature, & enfin quelques généreux pardons; mais ensuite quel hideux tableau! mille maux voraces, occasionnés les uns par les autres, suite de notre [p. 130] ignorance, qui conduit & dirige nos pensées & nos actions avec un art trop recherché, lorsque la sage Nature, même dans nos plaisirs les plus sensuels, nous indique une route aussi belle & aussi simple qu’elle tend à la perfection; mais il faudroit un nouveau People de Sages poiur tolérer nos foiblesses & nos maux, adoucir ceux-ci & les anéantir.]
Now I want to comment on this section, with an eye to whether it is based on some notes written by someone more erudite than Etteilla many years before.

First, this division into “four books” is sufficiently general that it doesn’t link up with particular cards by name, except that the first 12 cards should be positive ones, corresponding to archetypes in the divine realm, such as the virtues. As such, the order of the trumps in the tarot used by Alexis in 1757 would not have to be the same as Etteilla’s of 1785. It could have been some traditional Italian order, slightly modified. According to Ross Caldwell, the early Piedmontese tarot was similar to the early Bolognese tarot (as given at, a sequence that Ross thinks is in fact the original form of the tarot (search “Piedmont” at In that sequence, the three virtues are all in the first half of the deck, along with 9 other cards susceptible of positive archetypal characterization. First is the Conjurer, who, with his four objects representing the four suits and the four elements, can be interpreted as the Creator. Then come the four “papi”-–four wise figures not otherwise specified, corresponding to the Emperor, Empress, Popess, and Pope in the usual sequence. Then come Love, the Chariot, and Fortune, all easily interpreted as referring to conditions in the divine realm (divine love, divine reason, divine glory). 12th is the Old Man, who for Etteilla’s teacher would correspond to Hermes Trismegistus or some other wise man. Then come some negative cards. At the end of the sequence is the Fool.

Another thing that leads me to think that Etteilla had a teacher is that although most of the content in the passage can be attributed to Hermetic sources, a couple of things cannot. These to me suggest someone of greater erudition than Etteilla.

The first thing that sticks out as different from the usual literature is Etteilla’s account of the fall as arising when “the creature desires that which is impossible for him to possess.” That is not part of the Judeo-Christian Fall: Adam and Eve want knowledge of good and evil, such as the gods have, and that is what they get, at the expense of separation from God. That is why they suddenly feel shame and cover heir bodies. In the Hermetic version of the Fall, Antrhopos becomes enamored of his reflection in the water, and tries to embrace it; when he does so, he is locked in the grip of Physis, i.e. Nature. The sin here is that of Narcissus, excessive self-love, again not of desiring the impossible.

In previous literature, the only place I find a Fall due to desiring the impossible is in a Gnostic heresy described by Irenaeus in Against All Heresies (, a book which in Latin had appeared numerous times in the 17th and 17th centuries. In Book I, Chapter 2, section 1, speaking of the Aeon, or emanation of God, named Sophia, Irenaeus paraphrases the Gnostic “disciples of Valentinus” (this phrase in Ch. 1 title) as follows:
...she [Sophia] wished, according to them, to comprehend his [the Father’s] greatness. When she could not attain her end, inasmuch as she aimed at an impossibility,.. there was danger lest she should at last have been absorbed by his sweetness, and resolved into his absolute essence, unless she had met with that Power which supports all things, and preserves them outside of the unspeakable greatness.
The restraining power is called Horos, Greek for “Limit” (Barnstone, The Other Bible, p.612), which stops Sophia and casts her Desire away from her and into the void.

The casting out is comparable to the expulsion from Eden, because the “desire of Sophia” is now an entity on her own, a kind of lower Sophia, now plunged into the darkness; her grief, fear, ignorance, and memory of the divine world, in Irenaeus’s paraphrase, then take on separate existence as the four elements of the cosmos.

Like the Hermetic myth, this is an allegory for the condition of the soul, of how it became trapped in matter. But unlike the Poimandres’ account, the fall into matter is the result of desiring what is impossible.

A second place in the Etteilla passage for which I find no Christian or Hermetic precedent is the odd word “IOU,” spelled that way in the original, in the phrase “Throne of the big IOU.” Where does that come from? I have only one idea. In the same Against All Heresies, Irenaeus’s paraphrase of the “disciples of Irenaeus” says (Chapter IV, Sect. 1) that when the Desire of Sophia tries to ascend upward a second time, now trying to follow the eternal Christ, Limit again stops her, now uttering the word “IAO.” That word also appears in a couple of the Gnostic texts found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi; it seems to be some sort mystery word from the upper realm to the lower. Could Etteilla’s “IOU” be a memory of “IAO”, spoken to Etteilla a long time before? I have no other explanation.

It is not likely that Etteilla even in 1785 would have known paraphrases of heretics as they appeared in the writings of Church Fathers. These paraphrases were not general knowledge, for fear someone might find them attractive despite the “refutations.” If Etteilla knew about them, someone more erudite than he would have informed him privately. I can’t find any publications referring to them, or using the particular material I have mentioned, before German scholars of the late 19th century.

If Etteilla’s source knew that work by Irenaeus, based on a tract by “the disciples of Valentinus,” then something else follows. All the material in the Etteilla passage can be traced to Egypt. Clement of Alexandria mentioned Valentinus often, as a heretic familiar to him and hence in Egypt, where Clement lived. And otherwise the perspective of the passage is typically Hermetic, i.e. in the tradition of the Poimandres and the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum. There the fall from the archetypal world into matter produces ignorance, error, sin, and misery. The Hermetic writings were also from Egypt.

Admittedly, Trismegistus is not Thoth, and Alexandria not a city of the first Egyptians. But Etteilla was trying to package his goods in language that was both fashionable (hence profitable) and acceptable to the royal censors. As Decker et al point out (Wicked Pack of Cards p. 84 and footnote 40, p. 273), one of these censors was named Court de Gebelin, according to the title page of volume 8 of Monde Primitif.
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