The History of Tarot

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By Sarah Roberts of

Many people believe that Tarot is an ancient Egyptian practice described in their holy books and brought to Europe by Gypsies from Africa. But this mythology was created in the 18th century, the real origin of Tarot is much less esoteric and more revealing.

Pre-European Origins

While playing cards might seem like a European phenomenon, they were probably invented in China around the 9th century AD (they probably also invented the first drinking games with playing cards). Chinese playing cards quickly spread throughout Asia, and eventually reached North Africa. There they were adapted over time for different games by Islamic communities, with the cards becoming known as Malmuk cards, named after the most popular game.

Arrival in Italy

Malmuk cards arrived in Europe in the 1300s with Islamic soldiers that invaded Northern Italy, Sicily and Spain. The Italians adapted the cards and used them from a number of games, one of the most popular being Carte de Trionfe (Cards of Triumph), which used the Major Arcana as trumps.

The cards were developed and redesigned by the Italians, who added many Christian themes, and updated the Major Arcana to reflect all the important aspects of daily life. Wealthy families used hand-painted cards, but as the cards became popular, printed sets also emerged.

The Italians also developed a game called tarocchi appropriati, in which the cards were laid out randomly and players had to make up stories about one another based on the cards dealt. The stories were called sortes, meaning destinies.

This game soon developed into a divination practice, with the earliest treatise on using the cards in this way probably being published in the 1540s by a man called Marolino under the title Le Sorte. By the 1700s the Major Arcana had been given set meanings, and the cards were regularly used for divination.

French Occultists

It was the French in the 18th and 19th centuries that coined the name Tarot, and also linked the practice with ancient Egypt. Antoine Court de Gebelin was probably the most influential French occultist in developing this myth. In 1781 he published a treatise on Tarot in which he claimed that it was practised by ancient Egyptian priests. He claimed that the practice made its way to Rome when Egypt was part of her empire, and in this way was introduced to the Catholic Church.

Gebelin redesigned the cards based on his beliefs. His cards, which were still steeped in Christian themes, became known as the Marseille deck, as they were printed in the city, along with many other playing cards.

Taking Gebelin’s claims further, French occultists Jean-Baptiste Alliette, writing under the name Ettiella, claimed that the practice of Tarot was recorded in the Book of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. He suggested that the original designs of the Tarot cards were engraved on gold leaf by priests of Thoth. He too then designed his own deck based on Egyptian symbolism, which became known as the Egyptian Tarot.

A further French occultist, Eliphas Levi, linked Tarot with the Kabbalah and ideas of ritual magic.

English Popularity

Eliphas Levi was very influential on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and occultist group active in the late 19th and early 20th century that practiced ritual magic.

The head of the English order of the branch, Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers, spent quite a bit of time in France and brought Levi’s ideas about Tarot back to England with him. Mathers designed his own deck based on Levi’s ideas. Mathers probably also developed many of the esoteric rituals associated with Tarot, such as the suggestion that you cannot buy your first Tarot deck, and that it must be a gift. This myth probably reinforced the idea that you had to join the order to read Tarot and pay the associated fees.

Other members of the Golden Dawn order then developed Tarot further. Most influential among them was Arthur Waite, who worked with artist Pamela Coleman Smith to design the Rider-Waite deck. The Major Arcana had always been elaborately decorated with heavy symbolism, but the Minor Arcana resembled regular playing cards, with simple pips. Waite replaced these pips with vignettes of people in situations, making their meaning more accessible, and setting the meaning of the Minor Arcana.

The Rider-Waite deck has proved extremely popular and has not been out of print since it was first published in 1909, despite all the original artwork being lost. The Rider-Waite deck is the deck referred to in almost all general instructional books. Many Tarot decks that have been developed by modern readers to appeal to more modern sensibilities are based on Waite’s deck.

Crowley Deck

While we could end the history of the Tarot with the Rider-Waite deck due to its incredible and long-lasting influence, it is worth mentioning the Crowley or Thoth deck. Aleister Crowley was another member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as other occult groups. He perhaps did more than any other person to bring occult practices to popularity, and notoriety, in the English-speaking world. He openly represented himself as a magician and shared the secrets of the esoteric orders. He participated in highly publicised rituals using drugs and sex, earning him the title of ‘the wickedest man in the world’.

Crowley travelled around the world learning many different esoteric practices. On one of his visits to Egypt in the first decade of the 20th century, he claims that a supernatural entity revealed information to him that pushed him to create a new religion, known as Thelema, which he then spent the rest of his life promoting.

Crowley redesigned the Tarot cards again based on his new religion, and probably also motivated by his well-known rivalry with Waite. What was intended to be a six-month project working with artist Lady Frieda Harris at the end of the 1930s took on a life of its own. Neither Crowley or Harris lived to see the deck published, which was eventually published by Crowley’s disciples in 1969. Crowley’s deck is steeped in Kabbalah, alchemy and other esoteric themes, and is considered the ultimate deck by many occultists.

The Future of Tarot

While 19th and 20th century occultists did everything they could to steep Tarot in esoteric themes, Tarot’s origins are much more mundane, with Italians using the cards and their intuition to make predictions for one another. Many modern Tarot readers are returning to this original form, letting go of many of the occult practices associated with Tarot, and relying on their intuition to read the cards.

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