The History of Tarot

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By Lori Nicole Evans

Updated 8/16/2019

Free for use in educational and not-for-profit endeavors.

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The first known deck of playing cards came from the 800’s in China, for something that was called the ‘Leaf Game.’ Other forms were called ‘Money Cards’ and were often used in gambling. Card games didn’t become popular until woodblock printing technology made them easier to obtain. Before then, it was mostly a leisure activity for the wealthy. Europe didn’t see playing cards until the 14th century, and these decks were called trionfi, and later as tarocchi or tarock. The original purpose of these decks were to play the games that may have come from Egypt, who had been playing with cards since the 11th century.

4-suited decks like the modern playing cards were first seen in 1365 in Southern Europe. All decks of cards were hand painted, so they are thought to have been very rare until the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s. Although a Dominican preacher spoke against the evil inherent in cards in a sermon in the 15th century (chiefly owing to their use in gambling), no routine condemnations of Tarot were found during its early history.

There are claims that Tarot, as a method of divination (sometimes referred to as “The Game of Man” or more formally as Taromancy), has ties to ancient Egypt, the Kabbalah, Indian Tantra, the I-Ching, among many others, though no documented evidence of such origins or of the usage of Tarot for divination are scholarly proven before the 18th century. They weren’t widely used for divination at all until 1750, first in Italy. However, the designers of Tarot decks pulled from all of these sources.

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The ‘Sola Busca Tarot’ is the earliest known example of a 78-card Tarot card deck. It is the first known tarot deck to be structured this way, with 56 cards in the four standard suits (Minor Arcana, as called by occultists) and 22 trump or Major Arcana cards. Most contemporary occult tarot decks emulate this structure. It was created by an unknown artist and engraved onto metal in the late 15th century.

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The French ‘Tarot of Marseilles’ is considered the basis for the design of all future Tarot decks. It is a collective name referring to a variety of closely related designs that were being made in the city of Marseilles in the south of France, a city that was a center of playing card manufacturing. Controversial images such as La Papesse have spawned controversies from the Renaissance to the present because of its portrayal of a female pope. There is no solid historical evidence of a female pope, but this card may be based around the mythical Pope Joan, who was said to have reigned for a few years in the mid-800’s.

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The French occultist Etteilla was the first to issue a revised Tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes around 1789, publishing his ideas on the correspondences between Tarot, astrology, and the four classical elements and four humors. In keeping with the misplaced belief of the time that such cards were derived from the ‘Book of Thoth,’ a term for many ancient Egyptian texts supposed to have been written by Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge. Etteilla’s Tarot deck contained themes related to ancient Egypt. He wrote the first book on the methods of divination using Tarot.

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The ‘Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot’ deck, the first ever in English, was originally published in 1910 by the William Rider & Son Company (who had published Bram Stroker’s ‘Dracula’) when Western interest in all things occult was verging on mania. It is one of the most popular Tarot decks in use for divination in the English-speaking world and is largely the reason any of us know about Tarot today.

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Drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, British-born visual artist who studied art in New York City and lived in Jamaica, from the instructions of Andrew Edward Waite, American-born Christian occult scholar and writer living in London. We refer to this deck as the ‘Rider Tarot’, the ‘Rider-Waite Tarot,’ and ‘Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.’ It’s all the same deck. Smith did not benefit monetarily from her artwork nor the deck’s popularity, so adding her name has been a posthumous way of acknowledging her contribution.

Waite and Smith knew one another from past experience with the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, the first western Occultist organization of its kind to admit women. This secret society was founded in London in 1888 by Freemasons Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell and was devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, alchemy, geomancy, astrology, scrying, astral travel, and paranormal activities. It had absorbed much of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross traditions, and was one of the largest single influences on 20th-century Western occultism, such as Wicca and Thelema.

Other members included Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Aleister Crowley, who considered Waite his arch nemesis. Crowley referred to him as the villainous “Arthwate” in his novel ‘Moonchild’ and referred to him as “Dead Waite” in his magazine ‘Equinox.’ Supposedly, even H.P. Lovecraft based the villainous wizard in his short story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” called Ephraim Waite, on Waite.

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As a note, Crowley even designed his own Tarot as part of his Thelema philosophy, the ‘Thoth Tarot,’ published much later in 1969 after his death, based on plans and artwork made during the 1930s and 1940s with Lady Frieda Harris. He changed many names, symbols and Hebrew letter associations from Waite’s version, like ‘Strength’ became ‘Lust’ and ‘Justice’ became ‘Adjustment.’ He wrote ‘The Book of Thoth‘ as an accompaniment.

It is suspected that Waite was disliked because he was highly pragmatic for an occultist, and favored mysticism over practical magic. He was not a trained scholar and his writing was dry, yet he advanced quickly within the Golden Dawn despite Crowley believing that Waite simply did not understand the nature of magic.

Magic:

The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.

Mysticism:

A spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or trancelike contemplation.
Any belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension but central to being and directly accessible by intuition.

The schism between mysticism and magic was one of a myriad of reasons the Golden Dawn fell apart by 1899.

The Western, English-speaking world largely owes our knowledge of Tarot in any form to Waite, who dedicated his life to collecting the liturgies, rites and ceremonial words of many secret societies. He probably joined more secret societies than anyone else before or since: on the 4th of March, 1903, he wrote in his diary: “If my receptions go on at this rate, I look shortly to be the most initiated man in Europe.” In 1902 alone, he joined at least nine different secret societies: the Holy Royal Arch, the Knights Templar, the Knights of Malta, the Swedenborgian Rite, the Mark Degree, the Red Cross of Constantine, the Secret Monitor, the Ancient and Accepted Rite, and the Early Grand Scottish Rite.

Waite was a collector, an organizer, and had a keen sense of patterns. He believed that all the knowledge of occultism came from a hidden, original practice of Christianity from before the Bible was written. When the Golden Dawn split up due to constant power struggles, Waite founded the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, which was supposed to be Christian and mystical, rather than pagan and magical, and it combined elements from Masonic, Kabbalistic, Alchemical, and Tarotic tradition in its rituals.

When designing his own tarot to go along with a book he was writing on Tarot divination (‘The Pictorial Key to the Tarot’), Waite did extensive research on the history, interpretations, and traditions behind all the symbols he included. The subtext of the book was “Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination.” This suggests, again, that Waite’s interest was in the esoteric liturgy and power words, and he used Tarot as a means of connecting them all.

The structure of his deck is very similar to Etteilla’s: 4 suits, Major and Minor Arcana, with influences from astrology and the four elements. Despite being a Christian, Waite actually toned down the Christian imagery in his cards from predecessors. The Pope became the Hierophant, the Papess became the Empress. He had both the Major and Minor Arcana cards illustrated, which previous Tarot decks did not do,as he wanted to appeal to the art world.

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Much of the philosophy and symbols in the cards came directly from the writings of Éliphas Lévi, a socialist French occult author and ceremonial magician, and one of the key founders of Western magic. His highly independent magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticisms: he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiate of some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Crowley. He was also the first to declare that a pentagram or five-pointed star with one point down and two points up represents evil, while a pentagram with one point up and two points down represents good. Lévi’s ideas also influenced Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society.

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American Paul Foster Case began his studies of Tarot at the age of 16 in 1900, when visiting occultist Claude Bragdon asked him if he knew what the origin of playing cards were. After finding the connection to Tarot in his father’s library, he was hooked. He also tried practicing Pranayama Yoga through what written instructions he could find, and the experience left him with the strong belief that occult knowledge should only be studied under informed guidance.

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Case founded the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) in 1939, which was dedicated to spreading the knowledge of the Western Mysteries across the world in the form of supervised correspondence courses. He had begun writing this curriculum back in 1922, called ‘The Ageless Wisdom.’

The Tarot,’ published in 1947, was his magnum opus of nearly 50 years of intense study of the Qabalah/Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, Gematria, Sound and Color, Alchemy, and Astrology. It was written as a guide to the hidden symbols within B.O.T.A.’s own variation of the ‘Rider-Waite-Smith’ deck. Their black and white deck is designed to be colored by the owner, so that each deck takes on their own personality and power.

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B.O.T.A.’s Tarot,’ designed by Case and drawn by artist Jessie Burns Parke, corrects what Case believed were mistakes or blinds on Waite’s part. He wanted the cards to be a more comprehensive book of wisdom, and included some symbols that were otherwise considered too advanced for the uninitiated.

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Case also published for the first time the Hebrew letter associations of the Golden Dawn, and the Tarot Tableau, a layout of the Major Arcana that showcases their connections and dissimilarities.

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Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung, well known for his work on analytical psychology, took his own views to the study of Tarot. Jung, though largely a skeptic and a believer in synchronicities (the concept that all events, however meaningful and unexpected, are coincidences), had an interest in the paranormal and occult. He even studied alchemy, which he saw as a metaphor for psychological and personal growth.

In 1933, Jung gave a lecture on active imagination, in which he spoke about Tarot. He said “they are psychological images, symbols with which one plays, as the unconscious seems to play with its contents. They combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to the playful development of events in the history of mankind. […] Those are sort of archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment.”

Essentially, he felt that the symbols of the cards related to all humanity in a deeply psychological way, and so could be used to access the subconscious. Once one understood the present moment, then predicting the future was a clear logical jump.

Though he did not start learning to read Tarot until the 1950s and did not go far, his own deck preference was Grimaud’s ‘Ancien Tarot de Marseille,’ a precise reproduction of the historic ‘Tarot de Marseilles’ created in 1760 by Nicholas Conver. He felt its alchemical symbology resonated best with him.

Near the end of his life, Jung wondered how it might be possible to distinguish true paranormal events with synchromatic ones. This particular conundrum continues today, as no undeniable test has ever been designed.

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Nowadays, Tarot has many thousands of different forms and functions. Decks are designed for artistic purposes, intuitive reading, decision-making, fortune telling, personal growth and inspiration, motivation, meditation, to connect with a particular energy or deity, and as part of a game. Writers may use it for ideas for their characters are going through, or what may happen next in the plot. An artist could use it to gain inspiration for their next piece or uncover the reason behind a creative block. Tarot can be used in spells and will manifestation.

The possibilities are endless and entirely at the whim of the user. Tarot is a tool, and in your hands for your use.

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