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Interview With Christine Payne-Towler – Part III

by Bonnie Cehovet

Christine came under my radar in the “way back when” days of Tarot-L, when the excitement was during the midnight hours, where the “names” slugged it out. Since then, Christine has published the seminal work “The Underground Stream”, designed the online Tarot reading program for www.Tarot.com, founded the Tarot University Online, and began publishing a monthly newsletter entitled Arkletters.

Christine’s focus is on promoting the understanding and study of Tarot from the point of view of its astro-alpha-numeric content, in particular its roots in the esotericism and magic of the Renaissance. She wants to make sure that the original impulse that birthed the Tarot is not lost to the twenty-first century. Her latest project is a Tarot deck and companion book (The Tarot of the Holy Light), being made in conjunction with her partner, Michael Dowers. This could be the very first truly new Continental Tarot deck to be published in the twenty-first century.

Christine is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Association of Tarot Studies conference in France, where she will be presenting her latest research in a talk entitled “Alchemy, TheoSophia and Tarot”. She will also be introducing her new deck, with the companion book to appear shortly thereafter.

For more information on Christine, and to read the body of her work, go to http://noreah.typepad.com/about.html.

BC: In your article on Continental decks, you noted that one of the hallmarks of the Continental esoteric stream of decks is the inclusion of certain titles or phrases, which are quoted from the Fratres Lucas treatise on the Arcana. You also mention the Egyptian style of art in many of the Continental decks. Can this be considered a characteristic of Continental decks?

CPT: All righty then, you asked for it! A short history of the subject will now ensue:

Yes, the way you can trace the influence of the Fratres Lucis manuscript through history is by listening for a certain manner of speaking, a certain patrician tone and style of framing the advice of the card. All of the packs that have been inspired by this lineage put the user on the hot seat, demanding an examination of conscience and suggesting that one's flaws are the source of one's current difficulties. This is a very different attitude than the approach usually taken in the Tarot parlors of the era, where the emphasis was much more on prediction and forecasting rather than therapeutic or spiritual introspection. The idea of using Tarot for self-examination and personal growth was not in currency before Etteilla forced the issue by quoting the Fratres Lucis MS in his Trumps.

We know now that in Etteilla's time a body of Trumps-teachings was already well-known in Europe, as a result of the circulation of a manuscript which, for lack of knowledge of its real title, is referred to as the Fratres Lucis manuscript. According to Manly P. Halls's Freemasonry of the Ancient Egyptians, this MS traveled among the Masons and Rosicrucians since at least the mid-1600's. There's more reporting on this subject in the article written by Dr. Lewis Keizer for The Underground Stream. Also among the ArkLetters one will find more information about the transmission of esoteric doctrines from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the Tarot magi who are closer in time to ourselves. It seems that Etteilla was making a settled body of learning available beyond the Lodge context, which I have to think was a sanctioned activity, because his name and reputation have remained unsullied in the records of the Orders in France.

After Etteilla died, the works of his students carried the legacy forward. Julia Orsini and D'Odoucet wrote Little White Books for the various editions of Etteilla's decks, and his Italian students reconnected his pack to the full esoteric canon that Etteilla taught in his private classes. I'm told that Etteilla's extended group of works is still available in it's original French, but it remains largely untranslated beyond the current re-release of Papus' Divinatory Tarot. If more of his works could be translated we should be able to see the degree to which his broader body of teachings were augmented with materials he obtained through his Martinist and Masonic connections.

In 1870 a book called The History and Practice of Magic emerged in France, authored under the pen-name Paul Christian (the pseudonym of the person also known as Jean Baptiste or Christian Pitois, also Charles Moreau). Pitois' History emerged before Levi started publishing on the subject of Tarot, representing the largest amount of print that had been devoted to the Tarot in public since Etteilla's students fell silent. In this book Pitois summarized a lifetime's work with Charles Nodier in the Paris Arsenal Library, cataloguing vast piles of manuscripts seized during the suppression of the monasteries in 1790. Written when Christian Pitois was 59, after many years of studying esoterica during a successful literary career in multiple genre, the History and Practice of Magic carried a lot of weight with his readers. His comments on Tarot became gospel for a whole century of Tarot esotericists right down to late 20th century magi like Tavaglione and Scapini. (The recent renewal of Oswald Wirth's Tarot -- the Universal Wirth -- is another sign of the continued life of this stream of Continental Tarots.

Christian/Pitois is the person most often associated with this testament to Tarot tradition, but Etteilla's student Mme Lenormand pre-anticipated Christian's writings on the subject by almost 30 years. In 1831 she published a book of 107 pages entitled Le petit homme rouge au château des Tuileries, which was a sort of memoir of her experiences as a psychic and reader in Napoleanic France. After she was gone, Pitois cleverly recycled the idea of using the cards of Tarot to drive a plot by penning a thriller entitled Red Man of Tuileries, within which all 78 Tarot cards were described. This story became very popular, bringing a lot of new attention to the Tarot and to 'Paul Christian' as its exponent. Pitois' The Red Man was released in 1863, a few years before his encyclopedic History And Practice of Magic emerged.

In both books, Christian/Pitois quoted the text word for word from the Fratres Lucis MS, repeating the longstanding myth of Tarot's origins in Egypt and explicating a set of Arcana purported to be the product of Alexandrian culture. The typical admonitions for the betterment of the querant's spiritual development are included, expressed in terms of 'three worlds' and couched in stern warnings. The querant or user is referred to as a "son of Earth", and is expected to listen, conform his or her mind to the Arcanum in question and obey. (No modern politically-correct psychological relativism here!) This text also corresponds the Trumps to the alphabet in the A=1 mode of all magical alphabets, both historic and mythical. It is crystal-clear that Etteilla (as updated by Papus) is quoting the same document as Christian/Pitois, upon comparing the Trump texts between The History and Practice of Magic and Divinatory Tarot. This would be true with the text of the Belline Tarot by Master Edward as well.

But let me make this distinction: All three lineages within the Continental Tarots start with A=1. That is the hallmark of the genre. However, from there, they each have quirks that define them. The full story is all laid out in my astro-alpha-numeric graph at my website, but suffice it to say that each sibling in the family has a distinctive flavor as a result. The Hermetic (or more accurately, Alexandrian) model is what Etteilla, Blavatski, and the Falconnier Tarot were modeled on, following an AAN pattern that is traditional to the Greek-speaking New Testament world. The Spanish family of packs follows the Gra version of the Sefer Yetzirah, demonstrating its Holy Land pedigree in its Old Testament feel. The French School follows Levi's modification of the Alexandrian model, which was introduced in 1880 and represents a capitulation to the Gra influence without utterly surrendering the Alexandrian framework.

Once one is exposed to the distinct attitude and approach of this Fratres Lucis MS (whatever it's original provenance), it becomes easy to see its reflections in many places during the late 1800's and the early 1900's:

-Tarot books/decks by Levi, Papus, Mouhi Sadhu, Oswald Wirth, Corrine Heline, and Anonymous (Valentine Tomberg). These are the figureheads of the "French School", broadly speaking. (There are subtle variations between a few of them.)

-The two-volume set by Henriette and Homer Curtiss, whose correspondences are those of the Gra version of Sefer Yetzirah. These two are the primary exegetes of the so-called Spanish School

-The Tarot text appended to the 1901volume Practical Astrology by "Comt de Saint-Germain" (pseudonym of Edgar Valcourt-Vermont) is illustrated with the Egyptian-style Falconnier Tarot, the very pack used and taught from by Madame Blavatski while she lived in India.

-C. C. Zain was also quoting the Fratres Lucis MS when he wrote the course for the Brotherhood of Light.

-The section on Tarot within the volume entitled the Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences (ed. M. C. Poinsot, Tudor Pub. NY: 1939) gives a graph from Piobb's Formulary of High Magic (1907) tabulating the Alphabet, Numbers, traditional meanings as from Papus, Trump titles from Pitois, and zodiac/planet correspondences as found in H & H Curtiss.

-The book from Weiser called Egyptian Mysteries; An Account of an Initiation (1988) purports to quote from this same manuscript.

-The contemporary Ibis Tarot by Josef Machynka condenses all of the oldest sources and within Falconnier correspondences.

-The Tarot of the Ages follows the Curtiss AAN correspondences, of the Spanish Continental variety.

The modern Tarot researcher Mark Filipas has an excellent presentation online that catalogues all of the 'so-called Egyptian' Tarots, see http://www.spiritone.com/~mfilipas/Masquerade/Reviews/historye.html.

I might also note that this is the body of "inner teachings" that Joscelyn Godwyn is alluding to in his amazing The Theosophical Enlightenment. When he talks about the Fratres Lucis, most often he's referring to the modern revival of the ideal and the title, which bounced around the occult scene in the late 19th century. Although he's largely discussing the more recent wave of this esoteric impulse, Godwin has done a stellar job of unearthing the links and tracing the lineages that retained this imprint and carried it forward from earlier times. (However, to be clear, the Theosophy in his title is much more related to Blavatski and her Society than the Protestant Theosophers I am reporting on via the Tarot of the Holy Light.)

Contemporary Tarot historians since the 1960's have been disparaging towards the Etteilla packs and the 'so-called Egyptian' lineage, viewing it as a stub or failed branch of the family in light of the commercial success of the OGD packs. It is a pity that this entire historical stream has been so intensely marginalized in the English-speaking world, because these are the very packs that have carried the ancient astro-alpha-numeric mysteries out of the Renaissance and into our lives today. The Etteilla packs and the "so-called Egyptian" styled Tarots are all based on the older, deeper, more coherent pattern that was bequeathed us from an earlier and more honorable era. I hope we will become more respectful of our real Tarot history in the 21st century!

Go back to Part I or Part II, or go to Part IV.

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.

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