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  • Writer's pictureTero Goldenhill

Pussy's Salon and the Esoteric Tarot Revolution


Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius (1722-1800), by Louis-Michel van Loo

It was thanks to a chance encounter the esoteric tarot revolution took place. Around the year 1775 Antoine Court de Gébelin (c. 1724-1784), a French freemason, priest, linguist and a savant, was invited by "Madame H." to her salon in Auteuil. There, Court de Gébelin happened to witness Madame playing the game of tarot with her friends, using a Tarot de Marseille deck. She showed the World card to him, and after examining the card, he pronounced it Egyptian in origin, alongside the rest of the deck. And the rest, as they say, is history. In 1781 Court de Gébelin published the 8th volume of his monumental Monde Primitif encyclopedia, where the "true nature" of tarot was revealed; tarot as the Book of Thoth.


Madame H. was Madame Helvétius, born Anne-Catherine de Ligniville (1722-1800), also known as Minette or "Pussy". The original Hostess with the mostest, her Société d'Auteuil gathered together the most brilliant minds of revolutionary France, both during Ancien régime and post-revolution. Auteuil is the westernmost part of Paris. Nowadays it's the home of various sport stadiums, but in the 18th century it was mostly countryside. Auteuil is also home to Bois de Boulogne, a huge park, close to which Minette's manor house was situated. Unfortunately the house is long gone, but there is a plaque commemorating the Salon.


After the death of her husband, the philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), Pussy continued hosting the Salon for nearly 30 years. Anyone who was anyone attended; Voltaire and John Adams, Diderot and Talleyrand, Thomas Jefferson and Mirabeau. Benjamin Franklin got turned down when proposing her, or so the story goes. Even Napoleon Bonaparte's remarks about the modest size of the estate was met with Madame's wit: "General, if we knew how much happiness could be found in three arpents (acres) of land, we would think less of conquering the world." She also partly funded the creation of "The Lodge of the Nine Sisters", an important Masonic lodge to which both Benjamin Franklin and Court de Gébelin belonged to.


She was quite a character by all accounts, with a "Medusa's flock of hair" and an elongated, mole-coverd face. On top of this she had an entourage of nearly twenty Angora cats, all dressed in sateen jackets, together with lapdogs and canaries, all mingling with the guests. Abigail Adams called her "that very bad woman", after Minette had shown "more than a foot" and with a silver-bell laughter had touched the back of John Adams' chair - the audacity!


One of the many fascinating personalities of tarot history, and one who instigated - although unwillingly - the esoteric tarot revolution. I can just imagine the scene with Court de Gébelin: miaow! / woof! / screech! / "...therefore surely, tarot must come to us from Ancient Egypt..." / woof! / MIAOW! / "...Mon Dieu, Minette..." / WOOF! / MIAOW!

I think Pussy must've been a total riot 💃

__


Edit. Madame Helvétius is featured in the new Apple TV series Franklin (2024), starring Michael Douglas. She is played by Jeanne Balibar. Thanks to Amy Zerner for the info. Here are two shots:




Bibliography

Court de Gébelin, Antoine: Monde Primitif, Analysé et Comparé avec le Monde Moderne: Tome VIII. Paris: Chez L’Auteur 1781.

Decker, Ronald - Depaulis, Thierry - Dummett, Michael: A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth 1996.

Isaacson, Walter: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster 2003.

Smith, David: Notre Dame d'Auteuil: la vie de Madame Helvétius. Paris: Honoré Champion 2023.

Vine, David: Vintage Tarot Texts: Antoine Court de Gébelin 1781 and Louis-Raphaël-Lucrèce de Fayolle, Comte de Mellet, 1781. Sainte-Suzanne: Éditions le Tarot 2022.

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