The history of divinatory Tarot is vague, debated, and largely based on belief rather than historical evidence. Some claim its origin may lie in medieval card games while others claim that is far older and hidden within the divinatory rites of ancient Egyptian and Kabbalistic mystic schools. This popular form of cartomancy is common and well known to most mystics or spiritual persons. Over the years, it has developed into what we know it to be today, continually adapting and changing its structure and methods of divination. This article takes a look at the development of tarot cartomancy throughout history, including its alterations and use in divination.
Within a modern deck of Tarot cards two distinct types exist, this is the 22 ‘major arcana’ or ‘trump’ cards and 56 ‘minor arcana’ or ‘suit’ cards. The suit cards resemble the modern playing cards by having four suits of fourteen cards, one more than a conventional playing card deck. Its number and ranking system are also similar. These suits consist of wands, cups, pentacles and swords in most modern tarot decks, however, some decks use different symbols, such as a dagger instead of a sword and a staff instead of a wand. These four suits are also attributed to an elemental force. Pentacle being earth, Cups being water, Wands being fire and Swords being air. Certain systems swap the elemental attribution of the wands and swords. Thus the exact system is up to the practitioner to decide which they prefer best. The tarot as we know it today is descendent of Venetian or Piedmontese Tarot and goes by many other names depending on countries of origin, such as Tarrochi and Tarock.
It was due to Islamic influence during the 14th Century that Tarot was introduced into Europe. Under the command of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and expansion of Islamic influence spread into Western Europe and North Africa. With this expansion came a popular game of what is known as Islamic Mamluk cards. European culture quickly adopted this intriguing game and adapted it to their own cultural views. By this time, card games were already a common past time of the societal elite in the Near East and India. In Europe, on the other hand, the cards caught on quickly and were banned within a couple of years. It was only until later in the 14th century (1392), when Charles VI of France commissioned Jacquemin Gringonneur, a historically obscure man, to paint a deck of cards for him. 17 of these cards remain. For many years, these cards were only for the wealthy population of Europe due to the heavy cost of such artistic pieces. After almost a century, in 1480, the French designed the standard playing card system that we commonly see today. Consisting of hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds. Shortly after in 1487 early literature started speaking of these standard cards being used in forms of divination.
In the 1500’s the development of the Gutenberg Press changed the unique and personalised style of the Tarot due to mass printing. This made the cards available to a much larger segment of the population due to a great reduction in costs. This was responsible for a standardisation of the Tarot ‘trump’ cards in terms of names and iconography. As the 16th century progressed, the standard names of Tarot, Tarrochi and Tarock spread and the card system became popular throughout Europe. Some evidence suggests that Tarot was used in this century for divination as Italian records show it being used as evidence for witchcraft in multiple trials. Evidence the tarot actually being used in a divinatory practice, however, remains missing and seems to have been a convenient excuse for witchcraft trials based on fear and mob mentality to persecute those attributed to it.
Roughly two centuries later in 1781 ‘Le Monde Primitif’ published the first true works on the divinatory and occult use of Tarot for divination. The two persons ascribed to this publication were Antoine Court de Gebelin and Comte de Mellet. Louis XVI of France himself was a regular subscriber to this publication and had a clear interest in esoteric subjects. Gebelin and Mellet were the first to write about the connections of the tarot to ancient and occult groups, stating that its origin is older than thought. Gebelin proposed that the Tarot was directly connected to the magickal rites of Egypt and related occult societies, while Mellet himself proposed the correlations of the Hebrew alphabet to each of the ‘trump’ cards. Mellet also spoke of the direct connections between Jewish Kabbalistic tradition and the divinatory use of Tarot in this school of thought. A mere seven years later, in 1788, the first true divinatory Tarot decks were published, borrowing heavily on the Egyptian concepts proposed by Gebelin.
The connections of Kabbalah and Tarot were not heavily described, nor was there a true standard being used in the divinatory practice. It was the famous occultist Eliphas Levi, in the 1850’s, who truly standardised the card sets in meaning and method of interpretation. His influence greatly shaped the relation of Kabbalah and Tarot into a uniform correspondence. Levi was famous for many different works on the occult and perhaps the most famous is the concept of ‘astral light’ an energetic force attributed to magic, similar in description as the far eastern system of chi/qi. In this period another occultist who wrote under the pseudonym of Paul Christian, Jean-Baptiste Pitois coined the terms of ‘major arcana’ and ‘minor arcana’. His most famous work is ‘The History and Practice of Magic’ which many occultists continue to enjoy to this day. The problem persisted, however, that due to the correlation with older mysticism, the decks once again became very varied.
The use of divinatory Tarot continued onward into the early 20th century, when in 1909 a shift from the French and Italian inspired Tarot cards occurred. Two members of the Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian English society, Arthur Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith designed the first Tarot deck with complete illustrations of both the Major and Minor Arcana. The deck was altered to accommodate the system of the Golden Dawn rather than the earlier traditions that Tarot has known for so long. Waite is credited for introducing the popular Celtic Cross Spread method of Tarot divination, however, does not claim to be its creator. The symbols and themes of the decks were changed to more easily fit into the culture of English-speaking Europeans. It is this very style of decks that most other decks incorporate today and can be looked upon as the modern standard of the Tarot. Since then a multitude of decks and styles have sprung into society, catering to the specific tastes of each practitioner.
The true origin of the Tarot continues to be debated. Some simply see it as an offshoot of the playing cards of antiquity, while others are adamant about its occult and ancient nature. The system we enjoy today has clearly been altered over time to fit the particular culture or use. It is clear that the occult science on this subject has only grown and will most likely continue to do so. Whether it has any ancient correlations or even more obscurely hidden meanings does not really matter when one thinks about it. The power and insight that these systems have provided for humanity over the years are what is truly important. Since so many unique styles of divination exist, it is clear that the power will always lay within the practitioner and their personal ability to receive and transmit the arcane knowledge. It does not lay within the cards themselves, as the cards simply act as methods of communing with the unseen forces that drive our world.
Keep Well Friends,
Gabby, D. A TAROT HISTORY TIMELINE. Available at: http://www.golden-dawn.com/goldendawn/UserFiles/en/file/pdf/tarot_history.pdf (Accessed: 30 November 2016).
Mathers, S.L.M. The Tarot Its Occult Significance, Use in Fortune-Telling, and Method of Play, etc. Available at: http://www.golden-dawn.com/goldendawn/UserFiles/en/file/pdf/Mathers.pdf (Accessed: 30 November 2016).