The Tarot has a fragmented history that intrigues historians,
scholars, hobbyists, and spiritualists alike. Drawing on the
concrete facts that are available, we will attempt to briefly
explain the origins of the Tarot, and trace some of its
milestones through the centuries.
The designs of the 22 cards in the Major Arcana can be traced
back as far as 1440, when the first known deck appeared in
Italy. The 3 decks called the "Visconti Trumps" are generally
regarded as the "forefathers" of the decks that are widely
available today. It is believed that they were originally
created as a game for Nobles. It is not until centuries later
that the cards reemerged, this time as a tool of divination.
In the latter half of the 15th century, the cardmakers in
Marseilles, France began to standardize the Trumps. Before
this organized production, those who played the Trumps could
dictate which they wanted to include, and which they wanted
substituted or eliminated. Certain cards; Death, the Devil,
and the Tower in particular; were considered offensive by
the more conservative Nobles. These images caused religious
leaders to attempt to ban the Trumps.
The first detailed reference to the Trumps of the Tarot is
in the form of a sermon. This sermon, given by a Franciscan
friar in Italy sometime between 1450 and 1470, contends that
the Trumps were invented and named by the Devil. It condemns
the use of the cards, and generally credits them with the
triumph of the Devil. According to the friar, the Devil wins
through the loss of the souls of those who play what was then,
quite probably, nothing more than a simple game.
The rebirth of the Tarot, and its beginnings a means of
divination, are attributed to Antoine Court de Gébelin in
1781.He believed it was Egyptian in origin, and that it
contained mystical knowledge that had been purposefully
encoded in the symbolism of the Trumps. Specifically, he
theorized that the cards were the key to lost Egyptian
magical wisdom written by Thoth, the Egyptian God of
inspired written knowledge. The Trumps themselves began to
noticeably evolve from this point forward. Changes were
thought to have been introduced by the different secret
societies who produced the decks.
The first account of divination through the use of cards
is attributed to cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better
known as "Etteilla", in 1770. He was the first to publish
divinatory meanings for cards, and only 32 cards (plus one,
representing the querent) were included in this edition.
At this time, only regular playing cards were mentioned.
Later, Etteilla published several works that involved the
Tarot Trumps specifically. It is no surprise that these
later writings coincided with deGebelin's then-recently-
public treatment of the Tarot as a wellspring of Egyptian
occult knowledge. Etteilla must have anticipated the Tarot's
jump in popularity: his was the first deck available to
the public expressly for the purpose of Cartomancy.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone that translated the
hieroglyphs of the Egyptians in 1799 did not yield any support
to the theory that the Trumps hailed from Egypt. Still, the
belief endured and was augmented in 1857 with the introduction
of the notion that the wandering Romany people - " Gypsies"
thought to be descendants of Egyptians - had carried the
deck with them on their travels through Europe.
In the nineteenth century, the famous occultist known as
Eliphas Lévi developed a correlation between the Tarot and
the Kabbalah: the Hebrew system of mysticism. This fueled a
new belief that the Tarot originated in Israel, and contained
the wisdom of the Tree of Life. The new theory brought all
78 cards together as keys to the mysteries, but again, there
were no concrete facts to support it. Nevertheless, something
important was accomplished. The theory would later serve as
proof that the symbolism of the Tarot crossed all boundaries.
From this point forward, many magical and esoteric groups
recognized the Tarot as a timeless body of knowledge that
had significance in every mystical path.
Since that time it has been linked with almost every magical
system or religion known to humankind. The Tarot is comprised
of archetypal images that cross linguistic, cultural,
geographical, and temporal barriers.
The Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
the Rosicrucians, the Church of Light, and the Builders of the
Adytum (B.O.T.A.) all secured the Tarot's position in the 19th
and 20th centuries. In the United States of America, the Tarot
became popular and more readily available in the 1960's, when
a period of exploration in spirituality began.
Arthur Edward Waite is credited with the renaissance of the Tarot
in the Twentieth Century. He commissioned artist Pamela Coleman
Smith to create what he called the "rectified" Tarot. Created by
a member of secret societies also known as a revered mystic,
Waite's version has been widely accepted as the standard, and is
by far the most popular deck of the century, rich in symbolism
and easily understood due to the simple nature of the artwork.
In the opinion of many learned Tarot enthusiasts, the most
significant change the deck has experienced is Smith's treatment
of the Minor Arcana. Hers are the first "pip" cards to contain
images depicting the meaning of the cards. These graphics allow
readers to explain the significance of each cards nuance to
querents who, in most cases, have never encountered the cards
before. This artistic trend can be traced through the majority
of the decks produced after the Rider-Waite (1910), and Smith's
influence is readily recognized, as many of the images echo her
Today's Tarot card designs reflect specific trends in sexuality,
religion, culture, and philosophy. There are literally hundreds
of interpretations, and more are being conceived as this is being
written. The diversity of the styles allows Tarot Readers to
choose a deck that suits their personalities, the subject of the
reading, the person receiving the reading, or any other variable
as they so choose. Certain decks have a serious tone, some have
a dream-like quality, others are full of cartoon images. The true
beauty lies in the Tarot's ability to retain its "soul" through
each metamorphosis and incarnation. It is, on many levels, a
mirror of those who work with it, and allows them to make each
reading a truly personal experience.