History of The Tarot

June 4, 2009

The history of  The Tarot is a subject that many people disagree about. Heated discussions are common place and hours can be spent on the topic. Theories range from The Tarot coming from Atlantis, Egypt, the Gypsies, and some say it is a Celtic creation. The Tarot is ultimately, a much grounded, very common sense system of divination, and it is a shame some times that the fantastical myths about its origins turn it into some airy-fairy, unknowable and mysterious system. To be fair however, it wasn’t until very recent years that we began to uncover the truth of The Tarot’s origins, so the old myths still hang around.

The most recent belief is that The Tarot did not originate in Egypt, Atlantis, or Britain, and the Gypsies certainly did not bring it with them on their travels. It would be foolhardy to say that it is beyond all doubt that we know exactly where The Tarot originated, but we can deduce a major possibility from the facts that we do have. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to investigate these clues since much of the evidence that is available, is held in private collections and available to only a select few.

But of this we can sure. The Tarot did not start life as a divinatory system, or indeed anything esoteric, but as a card game (Though not just one card game: A series of many different games, known collectively as ‘Trionfi’ in most places.) The earliest mention we have of Tarot differs however, between 1332AD and 1450AD. The 1332 mention is apparently when King Alfonse XI banned the practice of using cards in general, and there are many other writers who have different dates but who all use the banning of the practice as proof. It is not however clear as to whether the practice banned involved a normal four-suite deck, or a Tarot deck, so we cannot be certain that any of the dates given in the 14th century are accurate. The earliest first indubitable record we have of it (Which specifically mentions The Tarot pack, not just card packs in general) is in a letter from Duke Francesco Sforza to his treasurer, asking him to find a Tarot deck for him, and if one couldn’t be found, a normal pack of playing cards. This letter has been dated to 1450, so The Tarot has its first indubitable record in the Renaissance period. This is why so many Tarot decks still use Renaissance, Catholic imagery, and also the reason for many of the card titles such as Pope and Popess (Now called Hierophant/High Priest and High Priestess respectively.) The fifteenth century references to Tarot only refer to it in a gaming context however, not a divinatory or occult one, and it does seem that the evidence is in favor of Tarot being invented as a game. It seems these games were very popular, and many still survive in Europe today, mainly in France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

I suppose the most prevalent theory is that The Tarot comes from Egypt, and this has it’s origins in the imagination of a man named Antoine Court de Gebelin, who some time in the 1770’s first encountered The Tarot being played by his hostess at a dinner party, and after fifteen minutes of examining the deck, claimed it to be Egyptian. His ‘observations’ were first published in his book Le Monde Primitif in 1776, and again in the book Le Jeu de Cartes in 1781. From Gebelin we get the theory that The Tarot is actually the last pieces of the libraries of Egypt, which he says were written on plates and later became cards. He seems to have totally ignored the fact that the Egyptians used scrolls to record their information! Another reason why the Egyptian theory is still with us is because of a man named Comte de Mellet, who used the word Tarot to prove that it is a ‘Book of Thoth’, and thus came originally from Thrice-Great Hermes, or Hermes Trismegistus. It seems Aleister Crowley liked this Egyptian theory since he writes about it in his aptly entitled ‘Book of Thoth’ (An explanation of his Tarot deck, the Aleister Crowley-Thoth Tarot). The problem was that the famous occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette believed Gebelin, and redesigned the cards to fit the ‘original’ Egyptian cards, which he claimed had been printed incorrectly by card makers and printers. Alliette, more widely known as Etteilla, seems to be the person who made divination with the cards popular as well, even though there are a few records of it being used for such purposes before that.

The Gypsy theory was expounded originally by a man known as Jean-Alexandre Vaillant, who said that the Gypsies were not only responsible for bringing The Tarot with them to Europe, but they were also responsible for many other things. It is also certain that the Gypsies arrived in Europe quite a few years after the first introduction of the four-suited pack of cards, so they couldn’t have brought that with them, and The Tarot Trumps (Major Arcana) are full of Catholic Renaissance imagery. If the Gypsies had brought the Trumps with them to Europe, we should have at least some evidence for it: after all, we have plenty of cards from the fifteenth century Renaissance packs, so we can rightly assume the Gypsy decks may also still be around somewhere. Yet we have none. One theory is that the Gypsies made their cards on easily destroyed materials and that is the reason none of the cards exist today. This theory is plausible until you consider two facts. If the cards were so important wouldn’t some remnant still exist? Remnants of other fragile materials exist from other sources that are much older. And shouldn’t there be some images (hand drawn if nothing else) of them somewhere? Common sense indicates something should still exist to indicate this theory is true.

The other theories, such as the Atlantis theory, really have no basis in fact or believable fiction whatsoever. Atlantis itself cannot yet be fully proven to have existed, and that is pretty much all we need to say about that theory of The Tarot’s origins!

One question you may be asking though is how did The Tarot, which began as a gaming deck, become a widely used divinatory tool? What changed it from a game in to occult use? Well it seems the aforementioned Etteilla was one of the first people to try to mingle The Tarot with other occult practices such as Astrology, and this marked a very popular trend in Europe. It came hand in hand with the ‘Occult Revival’ in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, where we see many ‘secret societies’ and occult orders springing up all over the place. A man called Eliphas Levi (Born Alphonse Louis Constante) also helped The Tarot to make the switch, by ascribing Qaballah to it for the first time. Levi felt that the Jews were the originators of all magical teachings and writings, and that The Tarot and Qaballah were linked because of this. The fact that there were 22 Trumps and 22 Hebrew letters in the Qaballah served to give him his ‘proof’, and Levi went on to create a system of Tarot which has survived to this day and which is still used widely by Tarot readers and occultists alike. In this way, Levi firmly established The Tarot as part of the Western magical tradition. When he died however, there was an apparent lull in occult activity in Europe, until 1888, when Stanislas deGuaita founded the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross. This man met another, Oswald Wirth, a Freemason, and together they designed a new Tarot deck, based on Levi’s work, which was published in 1889.

Later on the Golden Dawn was founded in Britain, and the founder (Samuel Liddel ‘MacGregor’ Mathers) and his wife became very interested in Tarot, and so incorporated it into their order. Now, in this order were the three most well known Tarot deck creators in the world: Aleister Crowley, Paul Foster Case, and Arthur Edward Waite. At that time it was expected that all members of the Golden Dawn create their own Tarot deck and these three particular members were all trying to recreate the ‘true’ Tarot deck. Waite and Case pretty much followed the same route with their decks, and if you compare the Rider-Waite deck and BOTA deck, you will see they have amazing similarities. There is much debate as to whose deck came first, Waite’s or Case’s, and who copied who, but to me it doesn’t really matter! Crowley on the other hand (Who seems to have danced to his own tune anyway!) differed quite radically in his deck, and including more Hermetic/Golden Dawn philosophy in the deck than the other two. His deck, the Crowley-Thoth deck, is usually considered the most beautiful and effective deck out of the three, but all three are referred to as either decks which can be used very effectively, or decks which should be studied thoroughly in order to gain an in-depth understanding of The Tarot. Indeed, nearly all modern day Tarot decks are based on these three decks, though most are based on the Thoth and Rider-Waite deck, fewer on the BOTA.

Many are saddened by the fact that Tarot seems to have its origins as a game in Renaissance Italy, and some feel this takes away its mystique and power, but it doesn’t. Yes, The Tarot may have begun as a game, but now we have made it much more. We have added so much esoteric and occult symbolism to it, and we have formed a system of divination out of it. It may not have been occult back in the fifteenth century, but it certainly is now, and that is what counts!

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