“In order to know the future it is necessary first to know the present in all its details, as well as to know the past. If a man wants to know his own future he must first of all know himself.” (Gurdjieff)
A brief history of the Tarot
Although some of us have that unpleasant feeling that all our life we’ve been running in circles, actually human life is most probably a spiral where our goal is to awake and access the state of objective consciousness. We are born somewhere in the middle (down), where is no light (and consciousness) and we have to struggle to move on up the spiral, to reach the light and eventually wake-up and become conscious.
Regarding the origin of the Tarot cards, Court de Gébelin in his famous essay “Du Jeu des Tarots” wrote that it’s a mystery and they origin it’s “buried in the darkness of time”. Gébelin placed the origins of the Tarot in the ancient Egypt, he linked the dissemination of the Tarot throughout Europe with the Gypsies, he made the connection between the 22 trumps and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and boldly he had placed the Fool at the head of the trumps, rather than at their end, its previous traditional location.
Most of Gébelin’s speculations and suppositions were generally accepted and widespread as certitudes by the following occult writers, as A.E. Waite noted: (they) “have done little more than reproduce the first false testimony in the good faith of an intelligence unawakened to the issues of research.”
The truth is we don’t know who, why and when has created the Tarot deck and we don’t have facts and certitudes regarding the Tarot deck prior to their surface during the early Renaissance. Early writers on the topic of Tarot such as Court de Gébelin, the Comte de Mellet and Etteilla unfortunately did not mentioned any sources in their work, made no references to previous authors or works, so their theories and suppositions are quite speculative and must be taken in consequence. Personally I prefer Etteilla’s approach and his vivid vision, but it seems that Court de Gébelin had more influence on the following occultists interested in the Tarot such as Eliphas Levi, Papus and up to A.E. Waite and Aleister Crowley.
Susan Gerulskis-Estes, in her book entitled “The Book of Tarot”, centralised some of the most vehicled theories regarding the origin of the Tarots.
The idea of the Egyptian lineage of the Tarot appears almost simultaneously in the works of the three French writers: Etteilla, Court de Gébelin and Comte de Mellet. There is no evidence to support the notion that Tarot has an Egyptian lineage, the lines are blurred, and it’s uncertain who came up first with these ideas and what was their sources. Generally Court de Gébelin is credit with these ideas, but Etteilla claimed that he he had been introduced into the art of cartomancy in 1751, long before the appearance of Court de Gebelin’s work.
Gébelin in his assay states that the Tarot was actually a book saved from one of the temples of Egypt, when all other writings were destroyed by fire. He thought the Tarot cards were the remains of “The Book of Thoth” attributed to Thoth. The Greeks gave Thoth the name Hermes Trismegitus and referred to his sacred abstruse works as Hermetic.
According to “The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses”, Thoth – or “Djeheuty” – is a Moon-god presiding over scribes and knowledge. Thoth can be represented under two forms: Sacred ibis or Baboon (Papio Cynocephalus). There is also a clear concept of Thoth as a conciliator among the deities. Thoth as ‘lord of the sacred words’ gave to the Egyptians the knowledge of how to write by picture symbols, hence hieroglyphs could always possess a magical force. Thoth represented to the Egyptians the embodiment of all scientific and literary attainments, being in command of all “the sacred books in the house of life”. It is also Thoth’s duty to record all the souls entering “Duat” or the Underworld. His major cult centre was in Middle Egypt at modern el-Ashmunein. Greek visitors called it “Hermopolis” (Hermes-town) after the god in their pantheon most closely resembling Thoth. The full identification was with Hermes “trismegistos” – threetimes-great, a description evolving it seems from one of Thoth’s epithets found in the temple of Esna: “Djeheuty pa aa, pa aa, pa aa” – “Thoth the great, the great, the great” . The idea of Thoth being the author of the Tarot deck was embraced also by Etteilla who published in 1790 his book “Cour théorique et pratique du Livre du Thot” (Course Theoretic and Practic to the Book of Thoth) which included his re-workings of what would later be called the “Major” and “Minor Arcana”, as well as the introduction of the four elements and Astrology. 154 years later, in 1944, Aleister Crowley published in “The Equinox” (volume III, number 5) his “The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians”, which describes the philosophy and the use of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, a deck of Tarot cards designed by Crowley and co-designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris.
The idea that the Tarot originated from the ancient Egypt resurface in the work of several Tarot experts. For instance, the academically recognised American author, Eileen Connolly in her book “Tarot: A New Handbook for the Apprentice” claim that there is a secret and yet undiscovered chamber under the Great Pyramid of Giza where presumably are exposed 108 plates which represents the Universal Law. 78 of these plates are known as “exoteric” Tarot and these are the Tarot cards we know, but there are also still hidden 30 more plates which are represents the so-called “esoteric” Tarot. This theory it’s ridiculous and was dismissed by all the archeological diggings and advanced hi-tech scanning at the site: there is no such thing as hidden tunnel or secret chamber under the pyramid.
Another theory states that the cards originated in India. The androgynous figure of the Hindu god Ardhanari contains in its four arms objects similar to those which represent the four suits of the Tarot. According to this theory, at the end of the fourteenth century, large groups of people were driven from India by the Islamic ruler Timur Lenk, who conquered much of central Asia. Many of the banished groups wandered to Europe and they would have brought the Tarot cards with them.
Comte de Mellet expressed his opinion that the Arabs had brought “this book” – The Book of Thoth – to the Spaniards, and the soldiers of Charles V carried it into Germany.
Another theory suggests the Tarot originated in Morocco. Fez became the intellectual center of the world after the ruin of Alexandria. Sages gathered there from all comers of the world. To overcome the language barrier, a group of them invented a series of pictures and symbols: the Tarot.
Samael Aun Weor in his book “The Initiatic Path in the Arcane of Tarot and Kabbalah” claims that the author of the Tarot was the Angel Metraton who is Lord of the Wisdom of the Serpent. He was the prophet Enoch about whom the Bible speaks. According to Weor “The Angel Metraton or Enoch left us the Tarot, in which is contained all Divine Wisdom”. This Divine Wisdom was written in stone. Metraton also left to us the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet which are the foundation of the language of God and creation of the Universe.
Another theory suggests that an artist named Jacquemin Gringonneur invented the deck for the amusement of Charles VI of France. Gringonneur was an extremely obscure person, most probably a painter who lived in Paris at the turn of the 14th century. MacGregor Mathers in his book “The Tarot” mentioned Gringonneur as “Astrologer and Qabalist”, but dismiss the possibility that he “invented” the Tarot arguing that Tarot cards existed long before him. These are all speculations and we don’t have any concrete evidences to support these theories. Academic research on Tarot is limited.
In the Introduction of his work, “Pictorial Key to the Tarot”, A.E. Waite noted: “The deception and self-deception regarding their origin in Egypt, India or China put a lying spirit into the mouths of the first expositors, and the later occult writers have done little more than reproduce the first false testimony in the good faith of an intelligence unawakened to the issues of research.”
However, cards were supposedly brought to Europe as early as the seventh century by the Arabs. As we know, Islam gained its first foothold in continental Europe from 711 onward when Tariq ibn Ziyad disembarked at Gibraltar and conquered Hispania. Muslim presence in Italy dates back to the 9th century, when Sicily came under control of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Far as we know, the Tarot first appears in northern Italy between 1420 and 1440. Researcher Dame Gabby in his work “A Tarot History Timeline” presents an accurate time-line of the known history of the Tarot cards. According to Gabby, playing cards were introduced to Europe from the Islamic invasion of North Africa, Spain and Sicily by Islamic forces during the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which did not end until 1517. These playing cards were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards which had suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks, which are also seen by Europeans as staves. The court consisted of a king and two male underlings. In my opinion the playing cards were resulted from the Tarot cards and not vice versa as some authors may suggest, but this is only a hunch, I’ve got no proof to support such a theory. But generally speaking, it makes more sense to have the complex, esoteric Tarot deck first, then a simplified, exoteric card deck, not used for divination, but for exclusive entertaining purpose. And just for the record, “divination” it’s just a fancy way to call card reading, respectively fortune-telling.
These early decks were costly works of art, hand-painted and decorated with gold leaf. These decks were used by the upper classes for playing a complex game called “Trionfi” and later “Tarocchi”, somewhat similar to modern Bridge. The English and French word “tarot” presumably derives from the Italian “tarocchi”, which has no known origin or etymology.
Comte de Mellet in his essay “Study on the Tarots, and on Divination with Tarot cards” mentioned “The Book of Thoth” and identifies the author, the Egyptian God Thoth with the Roman God Mercury, which is similar to the Greek God Hermes. According to Comte de Mellet, Thoth was the first historian and he had also painted the gods on 22 plates or cards. “This book was to be named A-Rosh; from A, doctrines, science; and from Rosch (Rosh is the Egyptian name of Mercury and of its festival which is celebrated the first day of the new year), Mercury, which, joined to the article T, means pictures of the doctrines of Mercury; but as Rosh also means commencement, this word Ta-Rosh was particularly devoted to his cosmogony; just as Ethotia, the History of Time, was the title of his astronomy; and perhaps that Athothes, which one took for King, son of Thoth, is only the child of his genius, and the History of the kings of Egypt”.
Some scholars believe that the word “tarot” may be derived from the Arab word “turuq” meaning “ways”.
According to Court de Gébelin “Eastern names preserved in this game: Taro, Mat and Pagad.” He explains that “the name of this game is pure Egyptian: it is composed of the word Tar, which means way, path; and of the word Ro, Ros, Rog, which means king, royal. It is, literally, the Royal Path of Life.” Then “Mat, which is vulgarly named the Fool, and which remains in its Italian form, come from the Eastern word mat, struck, bruised, cracked. Fools were always represented as having a cracked brain.” Finally, Gébelin conclude that “the Player at Cups is called Pagad in the modern version of the game. This name which resembles nothing in our Western languages, is pure Oriental and very well chosen: pag means in the East chief, master, lord: and gad, fortune.” Analyzing this theories, MacGregor Mathers in his book “The Tarot” came up with his own explanation: Tarot “is from the ancient hieroglyphical Egyptian word “târu”, to require an answer, or to consult; ergo, that which is consulted, or from which an answer is required. This appears to me to be the correct origin of the word, while the second t is an Egyptian hieroglyphic final, which is added to denote the feminine gender. The following are interesting metatheses of the letters of TARO: TORA (Hebrew) = Law; TROA (Hebrew) = Gate; ROTA (Latin) = wheel; ORAT (Latin) = it speaks, argues, or entreats; TAOR (Egyptian) = Täur, the Goddess of Darkness; ATOR (Egyptian) = Athor, the Egyptian Venus.”
MacGregor Mathers’ explanation it’s probably one of the most vechiculated and debated theory regarding the origin of the world “Tarot”. Although you will find it in many Tarot related books, most of the authors “forget” to mention MacGregor Mathers’ name.
Regarding reliable sources, there are not so many writings about the Tarot prior to the 19th and 20th century.
The first significant treatise on fortune-telling with playing cards was written by Etteilla and published in 1770: “Etteilla, ou maniere de se ré cré r avec un jeu de cartes part M***” (Etteilla, or a Way to Entertain Oneself with a Pack of Cards by Mr***). Etteilla claimed that he learned the art of t fortune-telling with playing cards in the 1750’s from three cartomancers, one of whom hailed from Piedmont in northern Italy.
Then we have the two essays, “Du Jeu des Tarots” (The Game of Tarot) and “Recherches sur les Tarots, et sur la Divination par les Cartes des Tarots, par M. Le C. de M. (Study on the Tarots, and on Divination with Tarot cards, by M. the C. of M.), by Court de Gébelin, respectively by Comte de Mellet, both published in 1780-1781.
In 1782, Etteilla applies to the Royal censor to publish “Cartonomanie Egiptienne, ou interpré taton de 78 hieroglipes qui sont sur les cartes nommé es Tarots” (Egyptian Cartonomania, or Interpretation of the 78 hieroglyphs which are on the cards called Tarots), but he was refused.
In 1783-86 Etteilla managed to publish his book “Manière de se ré créer avec le Jeu de Cartes nommées Tarots” (A way to entertain oneself with the pack of cards called Tarots) and in 1789 his first deck, the deck known as “The Grand Etteilla”. Etteilla seems to be the first author who linked Tarot to Astrology. Unfortunately, the following occultists focused more on the mystical Kabbalistic connection suggested by Court de Gébelin, rather than researching the practical aspects and meaning of the cards.
The next important work it’s written by Eliphas Lévi and consist of two books published consequently. The first “Dogme de la Haute Magie” in 1854; followed by “Ritual de la Haute Magie” in 1856. The two books were later combined into one book titled “Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie” which was translated into English by A. E. Waite as “Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual” in 1896.
Lévi wrote and published in 1892 another book about Tarot entitled “Magical Rituals of the Sanctum Regnum”. This was later translated in English by William Wynn Westcott.
Eliphas Lévi had an enormous influence upon both A. E. Waite and Aleister Crowley. Personally, I did not find Lévi’s work so exciting and consistent as most of the occultist had. He’s explanations are actually quite vague and shallow, mainly speculative and he’s attempts to reconciling the Christian dogma with the practice of Magick are annoying. The same mistake was repeated by many occultists who followed.
There is another important work which must be mentioned here. In 1888 MacGregor Mathers published “The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc.”. This book had major influence upon Aleister Crowley and his view regarding the Tarot.
Papus published in 1889 “The Tarot of the Bohemians” in which he focused on the link between the ancient “mysteries” generated by the civilizations of the Atlantides and the secret societies, the Freemasons, considered continuers of the Templars and Rosicrutians. Papus also suggested that the Tarot was widely popularized by the gypsies and he call the Tarot “The Bible of Bibles”.
In 1911 E.A. Waite’s “Pictorial Key to the Tarot” is published with illustrations of all the 78 cards. This is probably one of the most influential Tarot deck and the book contributed significantly in the popularization of the Tarot in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Paul Foster Case written and published several books about Tarot and Kabbalah. In 1920 was published “An Introduction to the Study of the Tarot”; in 1927 “A Brief Analysis of the Tarot”; in 1931 “The Highlights of Tarot”; in 1934 “The Book of Tokens”; in 1936 “Tarot Fundamentals 4 volumes” and “Tarot Interpretations 4 volumes”; and in 1947 “The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages”.
Challenging Wait, in 1944 Aleister Crowley created his own Tarot deck entitled suggestive “The Book of Thoth” and published “The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians” in The Equinox, volume III, number 5. The book describes the philosophy and the use of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot and it has become one of the best-selling and most popular Tarot Decks in the world.
Following Crowley, many of his followers, as well as many of his opponents had written hundreds and thousands of books and assays about the Tarot. Some shared the less orthodox approach of Crowley; others supported the much conservative view of Waite.
Paul Foster Case and Helena Blavatsky also had influenced many authors and occultists and introduced new perspectives upon the Tarot, giving new interpretation of the cards and open the way for further investigations. Respected mathematician P. D. Ouspensky and famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung have been studying the Tarot and written about it.
A very important, but often neglected part of the Tarot it’s its symbolism. It’s very interesting to follow the evolution of the design of the cards and decrypt the significance of the imagines.
The first deck of cards we know of with an extra trump suit was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan no later than 1425.
The two earliest surviving Tarot decks are the Brera-Brambilla and the Carey-Yale decks. They were probably commissioned by Duke Maria Filipppo Visconti in the 1440s and probably are the work of Bonifacio Bembo.
The most complete deck of 15th century painted Tarot cards that survives today is the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo deck, commonly known as the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned in 1450 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan.
The Sola-Busca Tarocchi was created about 1490 in Northern Italy, and is named for the family who owned the deck until 2009, when they sold it to the Italian government and it was placed in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. It’s the only complete 78-card deck we have from the 15th century, and it’s our best proof that the deck structure we still have today had become standard at this early date. This deck it’s also very important because it was the main inspiration source for the Reader-Waite-Smith deck.
Another interesting deck is the Minchiate Tarot created in the early 16th century in Florence, which are consist not of 78, but of 97 cards.
The Catelin Geoffroy deck appears in 1557, in Lyons. This is the first block printed deck still existing.
At Paris Jean Noblet published in 1660, the first deck we know of that closely conforms to the Tarot de Marseille pattern.
The Dodal deck is published in 1741 at Lyon. It’s a transition deck between the Noblet and the standard Tarot de Marseilles.
In 1736 Chosson of Marseille prints a deck that becomes the template for the mainstream of Tarot de Marseilles decks.
In 1789 Etteilla published “The Grand Etteilla”, his own deck.
In 1909 was first published the “Le Tarot Divinatoire”, the Tarot deck created by Papus and the young artist Jean-Gabriel Goulinat (1883-1972). The deck incorporates material from Paul Christian and the Falconnier-Wegener (Egyptian) deck, Etteilla’s Minors, and it’s build upon the writings of Eliphas Lévi.
In the same year, 1909 it’s published for the first time the Rider-Waite-Smith which becomes the bedrock of the Anglo-American Tarot. As I already mentioned, allegedly Waite had drew inspiration from the Sola-Busca Tarot deck.
In 1907 the Busca-Serbelloni family sent from Milano to London, to the British Museum the black and white photographs of the complete Sola-Busca Tarot deck. Shortly thereafter, these photographs were placed on exhibit at the British Museum in London, displayed next to the 23 original engravings acquired by the Museum in 1845. Presumably Wait had seen this exhibition and invited artist Pamela Colman Smith to see and make several sketches of the Sola-Busca cards. Afterward they created the Reader-Waite-Smith deck. Several cards are absolutely look-alike: the Three of Swords, the Queen of Cups, the Seven of Swords and the Eight of Pentacles. It’s also a very interesting conversion of the Ten of Swords from the Sola-Busca deck into the Ten of Wands of the Reader-Waite-Smith deck. We will hopefully clarify this when we will analyse the Ten of Swords card.
Finally, one of the most bold and futuristic deck was delivered by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. After five years (between 1938 and 1943) of assiduous work, Crowley rejected the completed version of Lady Harris. Not one of them was completely satisfied by the final result, although Harris was meticulous in their work, and she painted some of the cards as many as eight times. Neither Harris nor Crowley lived to see the deck published. The first full publication was by Ordo Templi Orientis in 1969, 22 years after Crawley’s death and 7 years after Lady Harris’ death.
Currently there are thousands and thousands of different Tarot decks available and brand new decks appears on daily bases. As I have mentioned, I picked the Rider-Waite-Smith deck for the board game because I think it is one of the most expressive decks, but I have to admit, I don’t agree all the way through with Waite’s vision and interpretation.
More examples of Tarot decks can be seen HERE.
(Excerpt from the book “The Unified Esoteric Tarot Handbook – Volume One, A general introduction to Tarot, The Fourth Way, Astrology, Numerology, Kabbalah and Alchemy” by Attila Blága. Full or partial use of this text for commercial or non-commercial distribution by any means whatsoever is strictly prohibited unless expressly authorised by the author.)