Belushi, Etteilla and Holy Water

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m sure you’re asking yourself what on Earth the three subjects of the title could possibly have in common, even though my admitted fondness for making odd connections is no secret. Bear with me while I spin the yarn.

Back in the heyday of Saturday Night Live, John Belushi occasionally did his “Samurai” skits, in which he dressed up in white martial-arts garb complete with black sash and solved problems with a swipe of his big sword. On one memorable show he did a “Samurai Baker” routine where he was standing in a bakery storefront. On cue, he began hacking at miscellaneous baked goods with his sword, echoing the way that martial artists break boards with the edge of their hands. From off-camera, Dan Ackroyd egged him on with “You’re a real master baker!” But he deliberately slurred it so it came out “masterbaker.” Belushi stopped in his tracks, shot the camera his trademark nonplussed look, and grunted an equally classic, quizzical “Hnnh?” It was vulgar and hilarious (the whole thing was a set-up for the punch-line), and now whenever I encounter something particularly half-baked or nonsensical in the tarot universe I go into “Belushi mode.”

Which brings me to Etteilla. A while back I set myself the long-range goal of penetrating Alliette’s “Continental” system of cartomancy. One time on the Aeclectic Tarot forum, Mary Greer told me that MacGregor Mathers’ small tarot book is “all Etteilla,” so I wanted to explore how that may have been migrated into the Golden Dawn’s Liber T. Although I have yet to approach Etteilla’s own writing, I’ve been busily mining The Grand Etteilla, an 18th-Century French compilation of commentary on his material by Julia Orsini and others. Although its metaphysical quotient seems rather low given Etteilla’s reputation as one of the the founding fathers of esoteric divination, I unearthed a fair amount of “gold” worthy of contemplation in modern terms. I have already written a couple of essays based on my discoveries and I have several others “incubating.” There is, however, a good deal of “brass” in the mix and more than a little of what smells suspiciously like “manure.”

I still have to buy an Etteilla deck to be able to fully comprehend his thinking, but already I’m finding many of the blended meanings for “this-card-appearing-with-that-card” to be extremely narrow, fussy and peculiar (as well as very far from complete considering how many potential pairs there are). Back in the day we would have said “He’s really getting down into the ‘bug-dust’ here!” (This impression is borne out by his complex methods for populating spreads, sometimes involving several steps and as many as 35 or 42 cards.) In some ways it reminds me of how the interpretation of paired cards is handled in the Kipper system.

Some of the notions are coming from so far out in “left field” that they could not possibly have any relevance to the current practice of tarot reading, even when we step away from the psychological and spiritual focus so common today and into the “action-and-event-oriented” style of prognostication (aka “fortune-telling”) that I personally favor. Although there are several absolute “howlers,” the best (or perhaps worst) example I can think of is the 7 of Clubs: When approached for an interview, an “influential person” will throw you “a full glass of holy water from the courtyard.” Hnnh? indeed. (As near as I can tell, it means being refused with ill grace, forcing you back on your own faith.) I’d like to know where the inspiration for that one came from. Maybe Etteilla was the spiritual ancestor of George Carlin? Then there is the 10 of Cups as “a duel followed by a good lunch,” and the 9 of Cups as “a one-eyed person will earn you considerable sums.” All I can say is “Arrrgh!”

Finally, to cap my rather jaundiced opinion of some of this stuff, there is the zinger that I just encountered for the Ace of Clubs reversed: “Epidemic diseases are causing great disruption among savage peoples.” Yikes! Is this an antiquated, decidedly non-PC warning to avoid primitive regions of the world? I’ll definitely keep that in mind when divining the prospects for my next trip to the Amazon jungle! Don’t get me wrong, this is a worthwhile endeavor, it’s just that (not unexpectedly) the obsolescence of its ideas sticks out all over. So I’ll just “cherry-pick the best and leave the rest.”

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