Interview With Christine Payne-Towler Part II

Welcome to Part II of my interview with Christine Payne-Towler.

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, 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

BC: Next up – what exactly is background of the Continental Tarot?

CPT: Continental Tarots are those which are made in the footprints of the oldest 78-card packs of Tarot cards. Virtually every Tarot deck made in the first 500 years of it’s history was a Continental deck — these are the decks from “the Continent”; Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Czekoslovakia and (later) Spain. They aren’t all alike by any means, but they have certain features that tie them together as a group. Over the first 500 years of their appearance, this group of packs tend to show only simple unadorned numbered pips like those of the Marseilles pack. (There’s an early exception to this rule, the Sola Busca, which the Waite pack imitated, evoking our contemporary appetite for full illustrations on every card.) The Continental packs distribute the alphabet along the Trump sequence in its natural order (from A=1=Magus to Tav=0=The Fool). Continental decks also present the Trumps in one of the three historical orderings that have been found by the researchers of playing card history. The simple rule of thumb here is that any pack in circulation before the Waite/Smith pack is 99% likely to demonstrate the Continental pattern.

I have made such a fuss about this ‘detail’ of Tarot history because the entire time I have been a reader, I have had to listen to fellow Tarot professionals saying absurd things like “The Chariot is Cancer” and “The Devil is Capricorn”, although such assertions defy the record of history completely. The very elemental alphabetic research I was able to do way back in the mid-1970’s made it clear that #7 goes with Gemini and #15 with Sagittarius, whether you have Tarot cards in the mix or not!

For example, early on I found William Wescott’s little book on numerology, which was published before he became invested in the OGD paradigm. From this I could see what the historical bedrock was; it wasn’t concealed if a person was ready to look around and read beyond the Tarot world. Half the books I could get my hands on during those early years taught the historical basis, while the other half offered this mixed-up hash with a lot of mumbo-jumbo laid over the top. By the time Crowley’s book fell into my hands, it was easy to see the ragged seams of their cut-and-paste job within the alphabet. Crowley’s desire to be systematic crossed wires with the need to keep the OGD’s little secret under wraps, so he included a chart that (to me) made the hack-job explicit. I thought “who’s buying into this nonsense?” and confined my studies to those packs that represent the linguistic facts of history. Invariably, those would be the Continental Tarots.

Over time it got through my thick skull that the Tarots propounding the error were more popular by far. Mary’s wonderful Women of the Golden Dawn made it clear that the OGD creators chose to aggressively obscure reality of history to invent a whole parallel reality that would justify their “creativity”. For a decade or longer, I thought this attraction to misinformation was a quirk of the uneducated English-speaking masses, lacking in curiosity about anything written in another language. But ultimately I learned that such a mystique and religious-type attachment has grown up around these 20th century English-style Tarots that it was worth my scalp to show up in public and point out the fallacy! Without the encouragement of Mary Greer at pivotal moments, I would not have had the courage to stand up and state my piece, much less endure the rain of tomatoes that followed. As one might guess, this was during the years when I could be found slugging it out at Tarot-L, defending my first book and my right to say “But the Emperors (Waite and Crowley) have no clothes!”

I would like to add a caveat at this point. The first deviation in the historical stream of Tarot was the Etteilla pack, which is the original referent for the phrase “The Book Of Thoth”. Etteilla’s pack made a huge visual deviation away from the normative Marseille packs that had preceded him. He reframed the mythos supporting the Trumps — from a Biblical base to a Hermetic base — so the Trumps were rearranged and re-imaged to tell a different story. For the first time, overt astrological symbols and Masonic titles appeared on the faces of the cards. Etteilla’s new approach recruited a huge number of users, becoming the most popular pack and style of reading, in demand at the Tarot salons across Europe. For nearly a century Etteilla’s packs caused traditionalists to despair that the older packs would simply disappear in the dust of history. Multiple bootleg copies were made for distribution outside of Europe.

It wasn’t until after Etteilla’s death that his Italian students brought out the pack currently called Cartomanzia Italiana, wherein Etteilla’s Trump disguises were peeled away and arranged in their Marseille-style alphabetic order again. I would infer from this little revelation that Etteilla’s Masonic and Martinist superiors weren’t comfortable with him sharing their Tarot esotericism nakedly in public. So Etteilla scrambled the Trumps and overwrote the correspondences, creating a whole second oracle on top of the seed-bed of the originals. At the Tarot parlors, people tended to read the cards “from their faces” anyway, and Etteilla’s cards helped that process along with cheat-words printed at either end. But Etteilla’s long-term students followed his lead into Kabbalah, astrology, and Pythagorean numerology, learning the larger body of teachings for which Tarot provides the perfect flash-cards. His packs also implied a full angelic and zodiacal catalogue, though the hints were somewhat sketchy on the faces of the Pips. It wasn’t until Papus wrote his summary of the Etteilla packs (The Divinatory Tarot, recently translated and republished by Aeon Books) that one could be entirely clear how the system was meant to be used. (Full disclosure here; I haven’t made the graph yet that would detail whether Papus edited Etteilla in this book or not. There’s a research project right there — tabulating the AAN of various editions and revisions of this tripartite lineage in chronological order.)

Etteilla’s era of influence is what the English Tarot apologists were referring to when they said “the older Tarots are full of blinds and snares, necessitating that we correct the correspondences”. This stance is a bit fallacious, however, because the deck now called Cartomanzia Italiana (see S. Kaplans Encyclopedia Vol 1, p. 143) first emerged in the 1800’s and put Etteilla’s visual ideas back in Marseilles order again. Etteilla’s AAN correspondences match exactly the esoteric stream coming out of the Masons and Martintists (see Etteilla column on Kaplan’s graph P. 4 of same). Etteilla’s students included Julia Orsini, D’Odoucet, Mme. Lenormand, the makers of the Cartomanzia Italiana, Magus Edmond (maker of the Grand Tarot Belline) Paul Christian, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Wirth, and others. This group of intelligent, literate and prolific individuals had the entire century of the 1800’s to re-attach the traditional correspondences to the cards in their aboriginal order, or to contest the system outright. (A few took it upon themselves to tweak Etteilla’s correspondences a little for Kabbalistic reasons — hence the two other variants in the Continental family.) To judge from the stream of Tarot writings we can collect from the 1800’s and early 1900’s, these correlations were publicly available, having been transmitted in coherent and correct order by multiple books and packs across the latter half of the 19th and the first third of the 20th century. In other words, there really wasn’t very much of a “mess” from Etteilla’s camouflage operation left to clean up.

Meanwhile, nothing, absolutely nothing in this world, justifies the explicit act of war perpetrated on Levi when the OGD boys posthumously translated his works! This was simply wicked literary evil, an attack on the fabric of history, and an unprovoked attack upon their future students as well. Unfathomable! If I were Dante I would immortalize them at the very bottom rung of Hell, as turncoats within the esoteric paradigm.

This leave us with a mystery. Why did Waite spend his professional career defending a plagiarized and broken system when he absolutely knew better? I just don’t get it! Now that there are whole wings of academic study devoted to the topic of Western Esotericism, the historians have to avoid Waite and all of his cronies because so much of their distortions and misdirection have proved factually unreliable. It’s more trouble then it’s worth for a historian to separate the facts from the fictions that were spun to support their Tarot deck. Why was Waite willing to corrupt his lifetime literary catalogue over this? Did he think that nobody would ever notice?

In fairness, Jung added to the problem. He was a student of the Renaissance as well; it was one of several great intellectual passions of his, from which he borrowed vocabulary when it suited his purposes. (The concept of Archetype, for example, had a whole prior history and meaning before Jung found and repurposed it). Jung was not an astrologer, which means that he was not equipped to fathom all of the technical jargon of the astrologer’s kit and kabootle. I believe this limitation must have frustrated him and made him cranky. Both Jung and Waite pulled long faces and said to the academic world “Oh no, don’t go back there, it’s a jungle of irrational and impenetrable correspondences that nobody can make sense of anymore. Pure claptrap, fabulation and superstition mixed together. Just let me lay it out for you in simplified, homogenized form and you’ll know everything you need to get by.” These guys were academics, respected authorities in their fields, so who would feel confident enough to doubt them? Thus several generations of Tarot students have sincerely and trustingly believed their teachers and left the details to the experts.

It’s been a long goose-chase to get Tarot rescued from the briar-patch that it was consigned to after those twin Sphinxes ran the biblical and esoteric Chariot off its traditional road. But finally I think we are rounding the bend and rediscovering the true Tarot again. Hopefully the research done while making The Tarot of the Holy Light will help make the historical issues a little bit clearer, while also providing a fresh inspiration for people who would like to see some new Continental Tarots appear.

Part I can be seen here –

Stay tuned for Part III – the influences behind the Continental decks.

© August 2011 Bonnie Cehovet

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