Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Antoine Court de Gébelin

The origins of the esoteric tarot


by Gerardo Lonardoni

No Tarot scholar has ever been so often quoted and so little read as the Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin. He is unanimously believed to have been the beginner of the so-called esoteric tendency of the Tarot studies; nevertheless, after pointing out that the information he gave about the origins of the Arcana and the name “Tarot” are fanciful, modern historians generally jump to the later Etteilla.  But the life of Court de Gébelin and the short essay he wrote about the Tarot deserve a deeper attention.

Court de Gébelin is generally believed to have been born in Switzerland in 1728, but the date is uncertain. Various scholars put it back to 1725 or even 1719; De Gébelin’s father would have changed the date of birth to conceal the slow growth of his son in his early childhood (1). But no date seem certain in the present state of studies. His father, whose name was Antoine Court too, was the most important French protestant minister of his time; that’s why he had to live in Switzerland during most of his lifetime, because of religious persecutions.

Court de Gébelin son, after accomplishing studies in Switzerland and having been ordained Minister, went back to France and there established himself in 1762.  In 1763 he settled in Paris without ever marrying but keeping his Swiss citizenship. In France he always helped the Protestants persecuted, nevertheless he succeeded in being comparatively high in the Royal Family’s favour; in 1778 he was conferred the title of Royal Censor, which was totally unusual for a man who was a Protestant and a foreign citizen.

In the meanwhile De Gébelin devoted himself to the esoteric studies, entering Freemasonry in the Parisian Lodge “Les Amis Réunis”; later on he joined another famous Lodge “Les Neuf Soeurs”, among whose members were the famous scientists Lalande and Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher Voltaire (only for a short time before his death) and the future revolutionary Danton.  In 1777 he gave a series of lectures in the temple of the main Lodge of the Scottish Rite about the allegorical meanings of the Masonic degrees. He was among the founding fathers of the Order of the Philalethes, a filiation of “Les Amis Réunis” where later entered various members of the Elus Cohen, which dissolved in 1781 and whose last Great Sovereign trusted the archives of his Order just to the Philalethes (2). De Gébelin’s belonging to the XVIII century  esoteric circles and his consequent knowledge of their reserved traditions  is important for the reasons I am going to explain.

In 1772 Court de Gébelin raised a public subscription for a large work in many volumes, entitled  Monde primitif, analisé et comparé avec le monde moderne, consideré dans l’histoire civile, religieuse et allégorique du calendrier et almanach. The Royal Family themselves  subscribed for a hundred copies; from 1773 to 1782 nine volumes were published, but the work was definitively cut short by its author’s death  in 1784.

The primitive world Court de Gèbelin writes about was the primordial age of humankind, not at all considered as a time of stupid savages, but on the contrary as a golden age when human civilization was undivided all over the world; there was one only language and people shared common customs, a common culture and a common religion: “There exists an eternal and immutable order, which unites heaven and earth, the body and the soul, the physical and the moral life, men, societies, empires, the generations that pass, those which arrive, which make themselves known by a single worship” (3) . 

Court de Gébelin offered in this way a vision of the history of civilization that had some resemblance with the “noble savage” of his contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau; but the French esotericist, differently from the philosopher, was persuaded to be able to bring back to life that ancient common civilization, by means of the comparative analysis of the myths and the languages still existing,  from which he expected to go back to their common sources. This effort - be noted en passant - is not different from what is done today by anthropologists, linguists and scholars of analytical psychology , although Court de Gébelin’s attempts were invalidated by the lack of a scientific method and adequate basic knowledge.

Court de Gébelin’s death, that came to cut off his huge work, was as surprising as his life. At the end of his life he became a fervent supporter of Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism”; in 1783 he fell ill with a serious leg infirmity and asked Mesmer to treat it. Initially the treatment seemed to have a complete success, but the infirmity quickly reappeared even more seriously. Court de Gébelin was found dead on  12 may 1784, still attached to a magnetic tub.

Giordano Berti relates the rumour that he was killed as a punishment for having revealed secrets, but does not quote his source (4); there is no need anyway to add mystery to his life to find interesting facts in it. 

The essay on the  Tarot is contained in Volume VIII of the enormous work Monde Primitif ; it begins with a prologue famous among all the Tarot scholars and largely quoted: “If one heard it announced that there still exists in our days a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that had escaped the flames that devoured their magnificent libraries, and that contained in a pure form their doctrines concerning interesting subjects, everyone would without doubt be eager to come to know so precious and so remarkable a book. If it were added that this book is widely disseminated over a large part of Europe, that it has for a number of centuries been in everybody’s hands, the surprise would certainly increase: would it not reach its peak if it were affirmed that it had never been suspected to be Egyptian, that it had been possessed as if it had not been possessed at all, that no one had ever tried to decipher a page of it, that the fruit of a refined wisdom is regarded as a mass of extravagant figures signifying nothing in themselves? Would people not think that the informant was amusing himself by playing on the credulity of his listeners?" (5).

With these words, Court de Gébelin announced to the world of the Savants of his epoch that the Tarot is the only book of the ancient Egyptians that survived the destruction of their libraries, made up of 77 or 78 sheets divided into five classes. He added that no one before him had ever guessed its noble origin, and described his surprising insight as follows.

He was visiting a lady of his acquaintance, whom he calls “ de C. d’H”, who had arrived from Germany or from Switzerland, and was occupied in playing Tarot. Court de Gébelin had never seen those cards before and his imagination was struck by the XXI Arcane, “The World”: “suddenly I recognise the allegory”. The game stopped to allow him to closely examine the cards one by one, and he immediately understood their origin: “in a quarter of an hour the pack has been run through, explained, declared Egyptian; and since this is in no way the product of our imagination, but the effect of the deliberate and perceptible connections of this pack with everything that is known of Egyptian ideas, we promised ourselves one day to make it known to the public… (6). 

So, Court de Gébelin claims to be the discoverer of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot; but, leaving aside for the moment his “discovery”, his claim was a lie, as the contemporary historians Michael Dummett, Thierry Depaulis, Ronald Decker, and have proved in their work A wicked pack of cards - The Origins of the Occult Tarot.  Actually, de Gébelin’s essay on the Tarot is accompanied by a short writing of another Author, whose subject is the divination by means of the Arcana; this other essay, that de Gébelin added to his, concerns the divination with the Tarot as the ancient Egyptians would have practiced it . This other Author is mentioned by means of an acrostic (as Court de Gébelin had done also with his lady friend “ de C.d’H”, who was present at his extraordinary “discovery”); in the writing he is mentioned as “M. le C. de M.”, who Dummett-Depaulis-Decker decipher as  Louis-Raphael-Lucréce-de Fayolle, Count of Mellet (1727-1804). This man was one of the subscribers to the enormous work of Court de Gébelin; a cavalry office, he was governor of the Maine and Perche and awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St-Louis.

Dummett, Depaulis, Decker remark that the two French writers - de Mellet and de Gébelin - agree in their own essays on the main conclusions, i.e. the Tarot has an Egyptian origin and contains symbolic representations of the teachings of the Egyptian wise men; but they differ from one another in some fundamental details. First of all, the Count de Mellet gives a different etymology of the word “Taro”, based too on an Egyptian language “built for the purpose”, since at his time Champollion had not yet deciphered the hieroglyphs; moreover he suggests a different theory about the spreading of the Tarot in Europe, stating  it would have been brought there by the Arabs and spread by the Spaniards. Last but not least, the contemporary historians before mentioned remark that surprisingly the Count de Mellet never refers to Court de Gébelin in his essay, on the contrary he totally ignores him. Which would be a really strange fact if de Mellet had written his essay  for the exact purpose of having it included into de Gébelin’s work.  Here follows the first conclusion of the historians: “We are driven to conclude that de Mellet had never seen Court de Gébelin’s essay, or learned of his theories on the subject, before writing his own contribution” (7).

Dummett, Depaulis, Decker anyway go even farther, as they say themselves: “when we recall Court de Gébelin’s claims, however, we see that a stronger conclusion can be drawn.” He professed to be the first for many centuries to have penetrated the significance of Tarot cards, to have realized that they were more than the instruments of a card game and that they had originated in ancient Egypt; and he declared to have reached this knowledge in a quarter of an hour,  simply looking at Helvetius playing the game. So, De Mellet must have received his knowledge from de Gébelin, the discoverer and beginner of the esoteric Tarot; nevertheless, the former does not pay any tribute to the extraordinary perspicacity of the latter, nor does de Gébelin demand it as it would be logical, since he was publishing de Mellet’s  essay inside his own work Monde Primitif. The conclusions of the three contemporary Authors are cogent: “Indeed, despite the divergences between them, so many of de Mellet’s  detailed ideas coincide with Court de Gébelin’s - the meanings of the four suit-signs, for example - that they must have had a common source. If the source were Court de Gébelin’s himself, de Mellet’s essay would have been a piece of impertinence so marked that the author of Monde Primitif would surely not have been willing to publish it. We cannot avoid the conclusion that de Mellet already had these ideas independently of Court de Gébelin, and wrote his essay, and sent it to him, without knowing of his claim to be their originator. Could it be, then, that two men arrived at essentially the same conclusion independently? That is possible, especially given the prevalence of Egyptomania at that time; but it is hardly probable. But, if we reject it as improbable, we must convict Court de Gébelin of falsehood, at least unintentional. The ideas he claimed as original to him must already have been current in a certain milieu; and where more likely than in those occultist circles which he frequented with such enthusiasm in the last ten or twelve years of his life?” (8).

To give an explanation to this clamorous falsehood, the contemporary historians formulate two hypothesis: i.e. that de Gébelin listened to this ideas “briefly and casually” and later forgot them, till they emerged again from his subconscious at Helvetius’s house; otherwise, that he committed an intentional falsehood, assuming all the credit for the discovery of ideas already current. And, as the Authors definitively conclude: “Though we do not know De Mellet to have been a Frremason, it is reasonable to assume him to have had some close contact with occult circles of the day, whether through a Masonic Lodge or in some other of the secret orders. Just as divination with Tarot cards had been practised before it ever came to be mentioned in print, so theories of the ancient origin and esoteric meaning of Tarot pack antedated their first exposition by Court de Gébelin (9).

What the three eminent historians are saying, then, is that according to the data we actually have, Court de Gébelin did not invent anything. He simply divulged current opinions of the Masonic lodges or, in general, of the secret associations of his age devoted to occultism. Now let us see if the works on the Tarot of the two French esotericists contain other noteworthy things.

First of all, de Gébelin makes a statement that reveals his sharpness: the frivolous form of the Tarot has been the means by which the secret doctrine of the Egyptians has been able to last through the centuries, escaping the watchful eye of the Inquisition. The French author puts  it in this way: “A necessary consequence of the frivolous and light form of this book, which made it capable of triumphing over all the ages and of passing down to us with a rare fidelity: the ignorance which until now even we have been in concerning what it represented, was a happy safe conduct that allowed it to cross every century quietly without anyone thinking of doing it harm” (10).

Anticipating Edgar Allan Poe, the French occultist declares that the best way to hide something precious and make it invisible, is putting it under everybody’s eyes after having given it  a shape completely unattractive.

Secondarily, though de Gébelin claims that the Tarot comes from Egypt,  in his work there are no references to any Egyptian monument to strengthen his theory. On the contrary he mentions explicitly and describes in detail a Chinese monument - whose image he unfortunately does not reproduce - which he has been told of by a learned man that he mentions as monsieur Bertin, the author of memories on China. That scholar informs him of the existence of a Chinese monument  whose origins were dated back to the first ages of that empire, and that was considered to be an inscription about the drying up of the waters after the Flood. De Gébelin makes a detailed description of the monument, and says that its characteristics are so similar to the Tarot’s that it is impossible to think of a coincidence. He states: “It seems quite strange that so similar a relationship was the result of simple chance: it is thus very apparent that both of these monuments were formed according to the same theory, and on the connection with the sacred number seven; they both seem thus to be only different applications of a single formula, perhaps anterior to the existence of the Chinese and the Egyptians: perhaps one will even find something similar among the Indians or the people of Tibet who are located between these two ancient nations” (11).

The reference to India appears again in various parts of the essay in relation to the game of chess. For instance: but the form, the disposition, the arrangement of this game, and the figures which it presents, are so obviously allegorical, and these allegories are so in conformity with the civil, philosophical and religious doctrines of the ancient Egyptians, that one cannot avoid recognizing the work of these sagacious people: they only could be its inventors, who rivaled in this respect the Indians who created the game of chess (12).

Then de Gébelin outlines the way the game of Tarot would have gone to reach Europe from Egypt: In the first centuries of the Church, the Egyptians were very widespread in Rome; they carried there their ceremonies and the worship of Isis; consequently the game in question. This game, interesting by itself, was limited to Italy until relations between the Germans with the Italians made it known to this second nation (13).

Here again Court de Gébelin is a forerunner, as he recognizes Italy as the birthplace of the Tarot in Europe, anticipating in this way the historical discoveries of the next centuries. According to the Author, the Tarot after its Egyptian origins would have reached Italy following the worshippers of Isis, and from Italy would have spread throughout Europe.

Surprisingly enough, Court de Gébelin himself puts beside the hypothesis of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot another one seemingly different, which connects it to the Gypsies instead. Here it is the passage: “(The Count of Mellet) found in this game with a very clever sagacity the Egyptian principles on the art of prognosticating by cards, principles which distinguished the earliest bands of Egyptians, incorrectly named Bohemians, who spread themselves throughout Europe” (14).

In the passage above Court de Gébelin seems to state that the game was brought to Europe by the Gypsies, not by the Egyptians. The contradiction is merely apparent, as at Court de Gébelin’s time the Gypsies were considered to be of Egyptian origin. Decker-Depaulis-Dummett remark anyway that de Gébelin had stated the Tarot had come to Europe in the Roman age, while the first appearance of the Gypsies in Europe does not date back beyond the XV century.  A clear contradiction of the Author, as the contemporary historians above quoted  think? Actually, Court de Gébelin seems to distinguish between the arrival in Europe of the Tarot - better, of the Egyptian wisdom  they embody - that he dates back to the Roman Empire age, and the spreading of the divinatory practices with the Tarot, that he ascribes to the Gypsies. Apart from these contradictions probably more apparent than real, the subject is more interesting than it seems at first sight.

First of all, the word “Gypsy” still used for the people called by the French “Bohèmiens” comes actually from “Egyptian”: the Gypsies themselves, when first reached Europe raising people’s  curiosity for their dark complexion, affirmed to come from Egypt. Yet the historical studies, quoted also by the three contemporary Authors often mentioned in this article, prove they are of Indian origin: “In his time (ofCourt de Gébelin), the Gypsies were still believed to have originated from Egypt, as they had given out when they first arrived in Europe, and as their name “gypsies” indicates… It was only in the late XIX century that a philological study of their language identified them as having originated in India (15).

Or, as we read in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany), of Hindu origin, which first appeared in England about the beginning of the 16th c. and was then believed to have come from Egypt”.

Court de Gébelin ascribed then an Egyptian origin to and Hindu people like the Gypsies, and stated that they had brought the practice of divination with the Tarot from Egypt (but they came instead from India). He finally thought that the Tarot concealed an occult wisdom, badly interpreted by the ignorant European card-makers: “Italian card makers or Germans who brought back this game to their buyers, made these two characters into what the ancients called the Father and Mother, like our names Abbot and Abbess, Oriental words meaning the same thing; they called them, I say, Pope and Popess”(16).

“Why is he hung like this? It is the work of a bad and presumptuous card maker…" (17).

“Card makers who forgot the significance of these cards, and more still their numbers, saw here the Last Judgement ; and to make it more obvious, they put into it something resembling tombs” (18).

Court de Gébelin blames the historians of his time for their enquiry methods  on the Tarot (but his statement is still valid  today). Here follows his  passage: “This game even appeared so unworthy of attention, that it never came under the consideration of the eyes of those of our savants who dealt with the origins of cards: they only spoke of French cards, which are in use in Paris, whose origin is not very old; and after having proven the modern invention of them, they believed they had exhausted the matter. It is in this way indeed that one constantly confuses the establishment in a country of a certain practice with its primitive invention” (19).


The French occultist states here that we must distinguish between a doctrine and its exterior vehicle: if the cards have been created in a recent time to embody a doctrine of wisdom, this doctrine may be much more ancient than the Tarot, and have a different place of birth. He adds, very appropriately: “Number V represents the leader of the Hierophants or the High Priest: Number II the High Priestess or his wife: it is known that among Egyptians, the leaders of the priesthood were married. If these cards were of modern invention, one would not see one titled the High Priestess, much less still bearing the name of Papesse, as the German card makers ridiculously titled this one” (20).

The French savant, despite the confusion reigning at his time in every branch of knowledge, correctly recognizes the ancient and pagan origin of the second Arcanum of the Tarot, only superficially covered with a Christian veil by means of the legendary figure of Pope Joan, to conceal its real nature of a Sibyl or Vestal.


We may now draw the conclusions after reading the passages from the work of Court de Gébelin, supplemented with the historical data supplied by Decker-Depaulis-Dummett. The French exotericist ascribes the invention of the Tarot - rectius: of the wisdom underlying it -  to the ancient Egyptians, who would have brought it to Italy: from this land it would have spread throughout Europe. The practice of divination would have been taught by the Gypsies, who at de Gébelin’s time were thought to be Egyptians too, but today it is proved they came from India instead.


Court de Gébelin ascribes to the Italian and German card-makers the mistakes he found in the Arcana compared with the original Egyptian  doctrine, and correctly recognizes the pre-Christian origin of the card representing Pope Joan and the Italian origin of the Tarot. But, above all, he makes comparisons between the Doctrine underlying the cards and the East, remarking the features common both to the Tarot and a Chinese monument, and even wondering if further comparisons may be make with India and Tibet.

With regard to the contemporary historians that we have mentioned and quoted, they have very sharply remarked that Court de Gébelin cannot have invented anything, as well as the Count de Mellet who subtly contradicts him; both of them must then have drawn from an oral source, current in the occultist Lodges of their time.

These conclusions are alike to mine as exposed in the book La Via del Sacro - I Simboli dei Tarocchi fra Oriente ed Occidente (The Way to the Sacred - The symbols of Tarot between East and West) where I remarked the parallelisms existing between the Doctrine underlying the Major Arcana of Tarot, the Hindu Shivasutra and the Buddhist Taras; I underlined the clear Pre-Christian origin of the iconography of some Arcana as the Papesse and Strength; and have ascribed exactly to the XVIII century Lodges frequented by Court de Gébelin the preservation of the oral tradition he later divulged through his work Monde Primitif. I  also pointed out that the way gone through by the Tarot doctrine from India to Europe is the same along which came the game of chess, that, curiously enough, is mentioned various times by de Gébelin in his short essay.


I here remark also that the Count de Mellet makes this interesting statement in a foot note of his essay on Divination: “Twenty-two  plates form a really thin book; but if the primordial Traditions have been preserved in Poems, as it seems likely, a simple image that was able to attract the attention of people that had received a teaching about it, served as a mnemotechnical device together with the verses that described the plates”(21).


The above mentioned La Via del Sacro has also the purpose to find in Eastern traditions those explanations of symbols of the Major Arcana that are missing at present. The Count de Mellet thinks, perfectly logically, that if the cards with their symbolical images were what had survived of an ancient wisdom, they had to be explained by aphorisms or poems; we may also suppose that at his time these captions were still existing, or their memory was still present in the occultist circles.


Dummett, Depaulis, Decker  conclude their chapter on Court de Gébelin with a comment that may be only half shared: “The essay of this obscure nobleman (the Count of Mellet) on the Tarot would never have come down to us, or even have made an appearance in print, had not Court de Gébelin included it in his book. It forces us to view the latter’s own contribution, not merely as the product of a single individual’s eccentric fantasy, but as a part of a lore current among the illuminist circles of which Court de Gébelin had made himself so active a participant: a lore as baseless, indeed, as the legends of Hiram and of the Templars which formed the mythology of Freemasonry” (22).


The sentence is correct in its first half, where logically affirms the existence of a secret oral tradition on Tarot; but is completely absurd where makes a comparison between such a tradition and the “mythology” - as they write - belonging to Freemasonry. First of all, the latter was an institution of huge importance since before the time of Court de Gébelin; Hiram was a biblical figure and the Templar Knights a really existed Order of Chivalry. Setting aside the legitimacy of such claims of paternity to Freemasonry, that the contemporary historians criticize (but their reasons may be discussed) Freemasonry created in this way to herself an eminent source, mentioning Hiram and the Templar Knights as her own ancestors. But why, for which reasons, Court de Gébelin - who was an important member of that same institution, and other people like him - should have invented an esoteric tradition founded on what had always been considered to be a simple game of cards, a frivolous pastime for salons or taverns? Who could have a profit from ascribing the paternity of the Tarot to an ancient wisdom, if such a tradition had never existed? Or, to say it in Latin, cui prodest?




1. M. Dummett. T. Depaulis, R. Decker, A wicked pack of cards - The Origins of the Occult Tarot, (from now on, quoted simply as WP), London, 1996,  p. 53
2WP, p. 55
3. Antoine Court de Gébelin, Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, Paris, 1781, p. XIX
4. G. Berti, L’arte dei Tarocchi, in “Storia dei Tarocchi”,  p.88
5. De Gébelin, The surprise caused by the discovery of an Egyptian book, in "Monde Primitif", The Game of Tarot, Paris, 1781
. De Gébelin, Allegories presented by the cards of the game of Tarots, ibidem
7WP, p. 66
8WP,  p 67
9. WP, p. 68
10. De Gébelin, Allegories presented by the cards of the game of Tarots, in "Monde Primitif", The Game of Tarot, Paris, 1781
11.  De Gébelin, Relationship of this game with a Chinese monument, ibidem
12. De Gébelin, This Egyptian book exist, ibidem
13. De Gébelin, This game is based on the number seven, ibidem
14. De Gébelin, This Egyptian book exists, ibidem
15. WP,  p. 65
16. De Gébelin, High Priest and High Priestess, in "Monde Primitif", The Game of Tarot, Paris, 1781
17. De Gébelin, Four cardinal virtues, ibidem
18. De Gébelin, Card badly named the Last Judgement, ibidem
19. De Gébelin, This Egyptian book exist, ibidem
20. De Gébelin, High Priest and High Priestess, ibidem
21. De Gébelin, Monde Primitif, Study on the Tarots, note n° 3, Paris, 1781
22. WP, p. 73