A Brief History of Tarot

back of my 1890’s French Tarot Deck

 What is Tarot? A card game, or for telling fortunes? Tarot leaves a web of theories to sift through. They remain a great mystery, even more so today than ever before. Tarot’s origins spin a web of misunderstandings and theories. There are many ideas about where the Tarot was developed and how it was brought to Italy, where they were called triumph cards and added to a regular deck of playing cards that when played out trumped the cards. This game was very similar to modern-day bridge. The Triumph cards were also used in-game that resembles M.A.S.H…The upper class of Italy would use the cards to create stories and poems about each other (It is my belief that it was in this method of use that others began to believe the cards may have another use).

The first set of “Visconti Trumps” (Major Arcana) was dated back to 1440 when the first known deck appeared in Italy. The Visconti Trumps are generally thought of as forefathers to today’s Major Arcana. Italian nobility used them to play “Taroch Apprpriati”.The idea was that each player was dealt random cards and then used associations to write verses about each other.

It was centuries later that the Tarot became known as a divination tool. The first account of divination was attributed to the cartomancer, Jean Baptiste- Alliette around 1770. Alliette was better known as Etteilla. He is the first known publisher of divinatory meanings. His first was Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes (“Etteilla, or a Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards”). He named spreads and assigned a meaning to each card location according to the spread, much like Tarot is read today. Though this first publication was used with a deck of 32 cards and did not contain the triumph cards.It was in 1781 that the Triumph cards made their appearance as a divinatory tool. Antoine Court de Ge`belin is given credit to the rebirth of the Tarot. He believed that the Tarot held ancient knowledge that was purposefully hidden within the imagery of the cards.

It was his thought that the cards held ancient Egyptian knowledge and were the key to the lost knowledge of Egyptian magical wisdom. This lost wisdom was to be the book of Thoth– the Egyptian god of inspired wisdom. de Ge`belin thought that the cards were brought over by the Gypsies, who were thought to be Egyptian ( Gypsies were actually wandering tribes of India). Around 1785, Ettiella picked up on the idea and wrote a book of divinatory meaning coinciding with de Ge`belin’s Egyptian theory. No proof of this theory was ever found, yet the theory persisted. Another theory has the cards connected to the Turks Mamluk cards from the 14th century. Yet another theory connects the cards to the Kabbalah (a Hebrew system of mysticism). The belief that the cards came from Egypt suddenly changed to them coming from Israel and instead of the Lost Knowledge of Thoth they held the knowledge of the Tree of Life. Though this theory is also not proven, it did help to prove one thing, the symbolism on the cards crossed all boundaries and cultures.

A sample of the images contained in Aliester Crowley’s Toth deck.

Though the Tarot is the most well-known version, it was not the only deck used for divination. A French woman named Marie Anne Lenormand was a very popular cartomancer in the Napoleanic Era. She was and is still considered one of the greatest cartomancers of all time (especially in France). She claimed to have read cards for many officers in the French Revolution and wrote many controversial texts that sometimes landed her in prison for short periods of time. Upon her death in 1843, her nephew and heir burned all of her occult belongings and kept only her monetary fortune of about $500,000 francs. It was after her death that some cartomancy cards were given her name.

some of the cards from my modern day Lenormand deck

Divination by use of playing cards has been evidenced as early as 1540. The Oracles of Francesco da Forli’ is a book that shows a simple divination method using a deck of cards. We have found manuscripts with divinatory meaning as early as 1735 and manuscripts with layouts from 1750. Giacomo Casanova’s diary from 1765 has an entry referencing his Russian mistress frequently consulting a deck of cards for the purpose of divination. The popular Waite deck was originally published in 1910. The card meanings and general design were created by the mystic A.E. Waite, the images drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith, and published by the Rider company. This is the widest deck recognized and became extremely popular in the ’70s when it was reproduced on a mass scale after the original copyright expired.

This Rider-Waite-Smith deck was passed down to me through my Grandmother on my mother’s side. It was the start of it all.

Tarot cards of any kind are full of timeless pictures that are open-ended. They allow for interpretation and the imagery affects us and allows us to relate it to our lives and play with possible outcomes of a situation. While many hold on to the theory that the cards predict the future, believe that we hold our own destinies. The cards may show you possible outcomes of the path you are taking but one decision can alter that path. It is my belief that the cards are better used to draw out the emotions we tried to hide from, to make us face that which we do not want to face. For once we face it head-on, this allows us the opportunity to truly let go and move forward. It matters not in which theory you believe, just that you believe in the ability of the images to reach your subconscious and draw out emotions and thoughts you try to hide even from yourself.

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