Few subjects are as fascinating as the history of tarot. These cards have been around for a long time. But how did they come to be?
Before we discuss the origins of the tarot, we should first learn about the etymology of the name. There are as many hypotheses regarding the origins of the name "tarot" as there are about the origins of the cards themselves.
According to one version, the word “tarot” comes from the Italian word "tarocchi", which is derived from the Italian verb "taroccare," meaning "to deceptively manipulate." According to another version, the tarot's name is derived from the ancient Egyptian words ("Tar-way" and "Ro- Pharaoh"), which is interpreted as "royal way".
Additionally, there have been various etymological derivation ideas with a highly esoteric bent. Cynthia Giles suggested that the term "tarot" was derived from the word "Tara," which appears in many mystical traditions.
History of tarot
Now, without further ado, let’s dive into the history of the tarot.
To begin with, people have been taught since ancient times to observe the signals of the outside world, interpret them, decipher complex ideas, and piece together a picture of a full mosaic from many understandings and insights. The history of cards is rife with stories and mystifications.
History itself is constantly changing with each new generation and is rarely ever set in stone—much like the tarot. The tarot has been put to use by cultures all over the world as a form of divination or self-observation, but its exact origins are hard to pinpoint.
To say the least, it is irrational to expect any new innovation to show up in its ultimate form. It is considerably more likely that there would be a succession of false starts, adjustments, and modifications, which is exactly what happened with tarot.
The origins of tarot from Asia to Europe
There is a belief that contemporary cards, chess, dominoes, and other games were played in all ancient societies. Likewise, tarot, they were sacred rituals strongly tied to prophecy and meditation, and it was only over time that they evolved into a form of entertainment, making money, or just competing.
This is how occultists see the Tarot's history. Occultists are the creators of a narrative that claims the Tarot was The gypsy interrogation system was invented in ancient Egypt as a way of conserving knowledge of the Atlantean civilisation and disseminating it as a handwritten mystery and through the gypsy interrogation system.
Many people's biggest association with tarot is the image of the gypsy card reader, which is continually reinforced by popular culture. Bizet's opera Carmen was a clichéd illustration of this idea—in the culmination of the scene, the fiery Andalusian gypsy girl Carmen reads her cards, flipping them over one at a time until she uncovers the Death card.
According to another version, the Tarot came from the Muslim world and their secrets were kept by Sufi sages. As Europe had limited direct interaction with places not mediated by Islam, it seems almost certain that the early source of the standard European deck originated from the Islamic world.
The cards might have arrived in Europe via Muslim Spain or through Italy. Indeed, the economic advantages of Venetian traders were safeguarded by a contract established in 1302 with the Mamluk Empire of Egypt and Syria, and again in 1345. The Mamluk deck and the early Italian decks have some remarkable similarities. Therefore, it is most likely that the tarot developed from the Mamluk Empire's standard playing card deck.
It is not difficult to assume that a mystery attracts and deceives us and gives rise to many historical speculations. However, if we rely on written sources, we can conclude that the earliest formal proof of Tarot’s existence did not occur until 1442 in the account books of the Este court of Ferrara. A Milanese fresco, also dated to the early 1440s, provides more proof of tarot's early Italian heritage.
It is important to note that even the first known tarot cards were not intended for mysticism; rather, they were intended for a game comparable to modern-day bridge.
The original author of tarot
The first fascinating clue as to the name of the author of Tarot was found in a letter written by Jacopo Antonio Marcello, a Venetian military commander. The letter, dated 1449, came with a gift of tarot cards for Queen Isabella of Anjou, the consort of King René I, Duke of Lorraine.
Marcello stated that the deck was painted by Michelino da Besozzo and created by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. Unfortunately, the deck of cards did not survive, but Duke Visconti's secretary, Marziano da Tortono, wrote a letter and an explanatory treatise in Latin that did. Marcello stated in his letter that he had initially obtained a pack of tarot cards for the Queen but was disappointed with their poor quality.
He'd heard of Michelino da Besozzo's deck for Duke Visconti and vowed to find it. He also mentioned Marziano's treatise and indicated that the secretary was an astrological specialist. According to this theory, tarot was most likely devised in the Court of Milan, either for or by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, as claimed by Jacopo Antonio Marcello in his letter to Queen Isabella.
The Italian nobility was enjoying a game called "tarocchi appropriati" by the 1500s, in which participants were handed random cards and used theme associations with these cards to produce lyrical lines. These foretelling cards were known as "sortes," which translates as "destinies or lots."
Though tarot flourished throughout Italy, it was through Milan that the game spread to the rest of Europe. As the city fell to the forces of France and Switzerland in the sixteenth century, tarot thereafter became established in those nations. The game had gained popularity in Germany and the rest of Europe by the 18th century.
From around 1700, the Tarot de Marseille became the standard pack created by French and Swiss card producers, and it most likely achieved its ultimate shape towards the beginning of the seventeenth century. The pattern was widely replicated by all Swiss, German, and Austrian cardmakers and, beginning in the eighteenth century, even by Italian cardmakers.
Definition: Tarot as a divination device
Tarot was initially connected with esotericism, ceremonial magic, and divination during the French Occult Revival.Tarot was so far away from its original cultural setting in late eighteenth-century France that deciphering its symbolism became difficult. Instead, it was reinterpreted in accordance with a new set of intellectual criteria.
In particular, France was affected by events that included a fascination with other cultures. Egyptomania gripped the country, fueled by Napoleon's conquest of that exotic continent. In this context, tarot was turned from a Renaissance game to an occult practice device.
The first indication of divination in France was in a book named Etteilla, or a Way to Entertain Oneself with a Pack of Cards, which was published in 1770 and reissued in 1773 and 1783. He published a guidebook to using the cards alongside his own deck. He gave each card a purpose, including beliefs about astronomy and the four elements. He claimed to have been significantly influenced by the Book of Thoth, an Egyptian work allegedly authored by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom.
Another pivotal figure in the history of tarot was Éliphas Lévi from France. Nobody could claim that his theories were unique, but his integration of kabbalah, alchemy, hermeticism, astrology, magnetism, and black magic into a unified system was. Tarot was a key component of this huge synthesis, with Etteilla most likely being the motivation for its inclusion.
Despite admitting that the tarot was an excellent tool for divination, he felt that the most significant aim of divination was to reveal all the universe's knowledge. He thought tarot was unrivalled as a method of communication with higher intelligence. Éliphas Lévi, along with Gérard Encausse, combined the trumps of the tarot into a complicated system of correspondences, tying them to the zodiac signs, the Hebrew alphabet, and several esoteric systems.
Tarot in three historical periods
We can provisionally divide the Tarot into three historical periods: pre-occult (before the 79s of the XVIII century), occult understanding, and New-Age (from the 60s of the XX century).
The pre-occult period of the Tarot is interesting in that there is already a difference between symbolic and playing cards (i.e., high and low arcana), but there are several different sets of symbolic cards that have no serial numbers or names, let alone astrological or Kabbalistic matches. Symbolic cards illustrate the icons of the Italian Renaissance: allegorical characters and social symbols.
The period of occult understanding began with the idea of Mason Antoine Kur de Jeblen on the Egyptian origins of the Tarot and the connection of the 22 symbolic cards with the ancient Hebrew alphabet.
The beginning of the XX century is known for the work of the Masonic Order- "Golden Dawn" in England. Samuel Mazers, and then Arthur Waite, contributed to the understanding of the Tarot as a system. The majority of contemporary tarot reading methods are based on the Golden Dawn system of correspondences, which was further refined by Waite and Crowley.
The symbology on these decks mirrored the Golden Dawn's diverse doctrines, which encompassed Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, and the Greek mysteries. In 1909, Waite felt empowered to publish his own tarot deck without compromising the Order's secret.
Pamela Colman Smith was chosen by Waite to bring his drawings to life. In particular, changes were made to the symbolism of the cards. In the sequence of the high arcana of the tarot, the lower arcana were given easy-to-read illustrations.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Arthur White and his stack. His cards have been re-published many times, are the most popular today and meet a wide range of needs: they are used by both occultists, fortune tellers and psychologists.
Another surge of interest in esoteric topics emerged in the 1960s and 1970s of the twentieth century. It is distinguished by the blending and popularization of mystical and religious traditions. Thus, the period of closed esoteric orders comes to an end, and the New Age starts.
Tarot was refined once again with the arrival of the New Age. It kept its divinatory role, but the emphasis of that divination was altered. Whereas it was formerly used for fortune reading, it became associated with self-transformation and healing in the New Age. During the New Age, a variety of stacks were built, usually in the Arthur Waite style. However, their authors were largely careless about the Tarot system's fundamentals, and their works represent their own perception of the world and spiritual interests.
Modern Tarot: Spectrums of possibilities
Tarot began to be used in psychological circles, primarily thanks to Carl Gustav Jung and his "personality theory". The idea that tarot cards could be used as design tests that evoke various associations, such as Rorschach ink stains, first came to American psychologists Jack Hurley and John Horler in the early 1970s. In order to avoid being accused of esotericism by the professional psychological community, they drew their own cards.
Then, in the 80s, Canadian psychologist Denise Russell, who was interested in the results of her American colleagues, continued to study the Tarot as a projection method.
The advantage of the Tarot over other projection systems is that the cards contain symbols that have come down to us from the depths of the ages. Today, practicing psychologists work with the archetypal icons of tarot and other reading systems from different cultures and use cards as diagnostic tools and as an intuitive tool for self-observation.
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- Marcus Katz. Secrets of the Celtic Cross: The Secret History of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot Spread Featuring New Tarot Reading Methods. Forge Press, 2016.
- Oatman, Hunter. “Tarot Mythology: The Surprising Origins of the World's Most Misunderstood Cards.”
- Collectors Weekly, 18 June 2014, https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-surprising-origins-of-tarot-most-misunderstood-cards/. Accessed 9 June 2022.
- Sasha Graham. Llewellyn's Complete Book of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot: A Journey Through the History, Meaning, and Use of the World's Most Famous Deck. Llewellyn Publications, 2018.