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A History of the Tarot

Tarot Myths

There are many myths surrounding the origin of the Tarot, and theories that the cards were invented in ancient Egypt, India or China are often expressed. These ideas owe more to a sense of romance or wishful thinking than to any hard evidence, and one popular myth, expounded in Le Monde Primitif (1781) by Court de Gebelin, is that the cards were brought from India by the Gypsies (who, as their name suggests, were originally thought to have come from Egypt). The true origin of the Tarot cards remains a mystery, but what is known is that cards similar to those we have today first appeared in Italy and France in the late 14th century.

Early History

Marseilles Tarot The earliest known cards still in existence date from 1392, and of these only 17 remain. It is believed that they were painted for Charles VI of France by Jacquemin Gringonneur, but it is possible that they are actually less ancient and are Tarocchi of Venice cards from the middle of the 15th century. The earliest surviving full deck was painted in 1422 by Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo. This is known as the Visconti deck after the family name of its commissioner, the Duke of Milan.

The standard modern deck consists of 78 cards split into two sections: the 22 cards of the Major Arcana (the archetypal Tarot cards, such as the Lovers, Death and Judgment), and the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana (four suits of fourteen cards, each comprised of cards numbered from one to ten and four "court" cards). This structure is a derivation of the Venetian or Piedmontese Tarot, but early decks were of several types with varying numbers of cards. Examples of early European decks related to the Tarot include:

  • Tarocchi of Venice (also known as the Lombardi deck), which has the same structure as a modern Tarot deck;
  • Tarocchi of Mantegna, consisting of five series of ten cards each;
  • Tarocchino of Bologna, which differs from the standard structure in having no court cards in the Minor Arcana (so 62 cards in total), and is thought, probably erroneously, to have been invented by Francois Fibbia, Prince of Pisa;
  • Minchiate of Florence, a 98-card deck consisting of the standard 78 cards augmented by twenty additional major cards representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, the four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) and four cardinal virtues (Hope, Prudence, Faith and Charity; though these are often considered to be Wisdom/Prudence, Temperance, Courage/Fortitude and Justice).

While there is little actual evidence for the existence of the Tarot before the 14th century, many of the ideas symbolically depicted on the cards are much older. While cards like the Juggler (Magus), the Pope (Hierophant), the Devil and the Last Judgment seem fully at home in the context of medieval Europe, others, such as the High Priestess and the Moon, have a more pre-Christian feel to them.

Initially, the Tarot may have been used for playing games, and our contemporary playing cards are effectively a subset of the Tarot deck. In modern Italy, there is still a game called tarocchi played with the Minor Arcana. Opinion differs, though, as to whether playing cards evolved from the Tarot or vice versa. Over time, the cards became used for fortune telling, which is their main application today.

During the 15th century, dissemination of the cards was limited as they had to be hand-painted or drawn, but as new printing techniques became available, Tarot became more accessible. By the 16th century, a deck called the Marseilles Tarot was widely used. Below are some examples of cards from this deck. From left to right, these are the Juggler, Death and the Moon from the Major Arcana, and the Ace of Wands, the Six of Cups and the King of Swords from the Minor Arcana.

Juggler Death Moon Ace of Wands Six of Cups King of Swords

The full Marseilles Tarot, split into its component groupings, can be seen by following these links:

Major Arcana
Major Arcana
Wands
Wands
Cups
Cups
Swords
Swords
Pentacles
Pentacles

Esoteric Associations

The cards, particularly the 22 trumps of the Major Arcana, have strong esoteric associations, and these began to be postulated and explored from the 18th century onwards, with the Tarot being linked to many areas of mystical study, such as the Kabbalah, alchemy, ritual magic and divination. Whether these associations were a guiding force in the creation of the Tarot or whether they were added to the lore by later mystics is, again, debatable.

The 19th century French occultist, Eliphas Levi, explored the link between the Tarot and the Kabbalah. Though others before him had suggested such a link, his was the work that cemented the association in occult study, and the Kabbalah-Tarot system became the main model for the development and interpretation of the Tarot, and of its use in the Western Mystery Tradition. Levi himself felt that the Tarot was born from Kabbalistic teachings, though there is no hard historical evidence for this belief.

The Rose Cross The 19th and early 20th centuries saw a revival in the study and application of occult teachings, and many of the associations between the Tarot and other mystical systems were developed or refined at this time. Predominant was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an English Rosicrucian society founded in 1888. Members of the Order separately produced two of the most popular and influential modern Tarot decks: the Rider-Waite and the Thoth.

Arthur Edward Waite was a prominent member of the Golden Dawn. In 1910, he published The Key to the Tarot in which he wrote: "the true tarot is symbolism, it speaks no other language and offers no other signs." He directed a fellow member, Pamela Colman Smith, in the design of the deck now known as the Rider-Waite (Rider was Waite's publisher).

Another member, Aleister Crowley, designed the Thoth deck, which was painted by Lady Frieda Harris. The deck was developed between 1938 and 1943 (considerably longer than the anticipated three months). Though Crowley published his study of the Tarot, The Book of Thoth, in 1944, the deck itself was not published until 1969, by which time both designer and artist were dead. Thoth, incidentally, was an Egyptian god (the equivalent of the Roman Mercury), said to be the inventor of hieroglyphics.

Both the Rider-Waite and Thoth decks are replete with esoteric symbolism, combining important symbolic aspects of earlier decks with Kabbalistic, astrological and alchemical references.

The Last Judgment

Judgment These days there is a plethora of decks to choose from, but in some ways more is less. It sometimes seems that we have lost judgment and discrimination where the Tarot is concerned: there are many decks that are simply gimmicks with scant regard for the history or symbolism of the Tarot. Some are merely nice to look at, which is not a bad thing if the deck is used for its aesthetic value alone, but offers nothing more. Decks have become a kind of preternatural pasta, arriving in all shapes, sizes and structures: with cards that are round, square, triangular... it wouldn't be at all surprising to find some shaped like bowties. The number of cards in a deck can also vary wildly, and sometimes these changes can be justified: for example, the Enochian Tarot is expanded to include 30 cards in the Major Arcana to accommodate the underlying system of Enochian Magic on which it is based (though whether such a deck is really a Tarot deck is a moot point).

There are now decks based around myriad spiritual traditions, from Paganism, Druidry, Native American Spirituality and Zen Buddhism, to Greek, Norse and Arthurian mythology. But whatever the virtues and vices of these disparate decks, they confirm the vibrancy of the Tarot and its application to many times and many cultures. The best of these new developments, those that grow from rather than ignore established Tarot tradition and symbology, show that we too can deepen and evolve our use and understanding of the Tarot, just as our forebears did theirs.