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Tarot's History and Significance

Updated: Jan 28

Tarot card history and tarot cards significance

The Tarot is a comprehensive guidance system because of the deck’s evolution into a complex composition over a millennium. It evokes interpretations on several levels, from the mundane to the spiritual. Consulting the tarot offers perspective, guidance, and an overview, as well as a context for detailed insights into real-life situations. Using the Tarot in this way assists your decision-making towards a more fulfilling life journey.

Michael Dummett, an English academic who has been considered one of the most prominent British philosophers of the last century, and a scholar in the field of card-game history wrote: “Without the Tarot, the Magic of the Ancients is a closed book”.

The history of the Tarot is complex and cloaked in mystery. To gain a full understanding of how the Tarot developed, you begin your journey by being transported back in time to Pre-history and the Bronze Age. During this period, many ancient peoples and cultures had some form of gaming or gambling. Shamans, mystics and prophets also utilized divination tools that consisted of arrows, bones, coins, leather, ivory, wood, sticks, stones, the Urim and Thummin, and looked for celestial signs. Ancient Egypt was known for sacred priests, ceremonial magic and alchemy. Even the Bible writes about Moses’ encounters with Pharoah’s priests.

Man has always been intrigued with his role in the cosmos and developed systems to make sense of the world which he found himself in. His early search for meaning can be found in the writings of the Early Greek Philosophers that included numerology and sacred geometry. Judaism developed Kabbalah which is a system of Hebrew mysticism. There are also the writings from the early Christian sects prior to the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) from the Essenes and the Gnostics. Hermeticism which is secret wisdom attributed to Hermes Trismegistus also developed mystery schools. We also know there was a famous library in Alexandria which housed a vast amount of ancient wisdom. Finally, Sufism which is the mystical side of Islam, was a major influence on the developmental stages of spiritual realization that is integral to Tarot’s major arcana. From all cultures, spiritual development sprang forth and set the backdrop for the development of the Tarot.

The invention of paper in the 2nd century in China led to the development of the first “cards” with images of human figures, royalty and the heroes of Chinese legends. In the 9th and 10th century paper was introduced in Egypt. The expansion of the development of playing cards which later turned into our minor arcana cards of the Tarot occurred with the introduction of the Mamluk Cards. These cards were named after the Egyptian Mamluk Dynasty which existed from 1250 A.D.-1517 A.D. It was during this period when the crusaders were invading Egypt that the crusaders encountered the Mamluk cards and introduced them back to Europe. These Mamluk cards were used for gambling but also for religious instruction, ritual, and divination. The use of these cards became restricted in Europe as we find the first documented statements of legal restrictions on cards for gambling in Europe during the period of 1367–1382 A.D.

The Renaissance Period really helped launch what we now consider our modern-day Tarot deck. The first deck was believed to have been created in 1402 in Italy. It was known as the Tarocchi deck and contained 16 cards of classical gods. The artist of the Tarocchi deck was an astrologer named Marzianoda Tortona. During the 1450’s, the Visconti-Sforza family who were the rulers of Milan revised this deck and incorporated the Holy Grail of Arthur Legend into it.

Then the French invaded Milan during the period of 1499 A.D. – 1535 A.D. and the Tarot deck spread to France and Switzerland. The first record of a Tarot deck being produced in Lyons, France occurred in 1507 A.D. Since it was produced near Marseilles, it became known as the Marseilles deck. From then on, the French decks became the standard decks outside of Italy.

Then we move into the Period of the Enlightenment (1685 A.D. – 1815 A.D.) The men during this era challenged the dogma and authority of the Catholic Church and were increasingly interested in science; finding order, or other principles, that governed their lives outside of religion. The Church, however, waged war on the Tarot at the time, describing it as the “the devil’s instrument”. The clergy who defected became known as The Enlightenment Thinkers. They wanted the educational system to be more modernized and play a more central role in transmitting their new ideas and principles. Their schools of thought influenced Western scholars in the late 17th and 18th century Europe and England, who claimed the Tarot cards held hidden knowledge encoded in them, which led to the birth of spiritual enlightenment. Several claimed that the Tarot secrets were rooted in ancient civilizations and cultures such as ancient Egypt or the Holy Kabbalah. They began creating Tarot books to accompany the use of the Tarot Cards.

For example, in 1781, Count de Gebelin wrote that the Tarot came from ancient Egypt. In 1785, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known as Etteilla, wrote the first book with a detailed look at Tarot divination. It was called How to Entertain Yourself with the Deck of Cards Called the Tarot. Etteilla also believed that the meanings of the cards were derived from the Egyptians.

In 1856 Alphonse Louis Constant, better known as Éliphas Lévi Zahed, a French priest and Rosicrucian, published Transcendental Magic which linked the 22 Hebrew Letters to the major arcana, assigned elements to suits, and provided parallels to the tetragrammaton (YHVH “Yahweh”).

In 1892, Gerald Encausee, known as Papus, a French doctor and philosopher published Tarot of the Bohemians (Gypsies). This book dealt with numerology, the “Tree of Life” and the tetragrammaton. Papus was the quintessential occultist. He sincerely believed that the tarot is an ancient Egyptian book of wisdom given to the gypsies (Bohemians) for safekeeping disguised as a deck of playing cards. Initiates who understand the code embedded in the images have humanity’s highest wisdom at their fingertips. The keys to this code are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Papus’ book offers a rational system that ties the cards’ meanings to a framework of Hebrew letters, numerology and astrology and is the first attempt since Etteilla in the 1780’s to create a systematic method for studying tarot.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the golden age of occult tarot, when people with esoteric interests designed decks then wrote hefty tomes explaining their symbolism. These books usually had a few chapters in the back giving tips on divination.

The Tarot was revolutionized in 1909 when A.E. White and Pamela Coleman Smith created the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck was first published in 1909 and was the first deck in English. Arthur Edward Waite was an American born British poet, intellectual and mystic. Pamela Coleman Smith illustrated all the cards, including the ‘pip’ or Minor Arcana ones. She was a British occultist, artist, illustrator, writer, and publisher. Prior to this deck, the minor cards were not illustrated. The RWS marked a significant departure from preceding Tarot cards which were mostly based on the 16th century Tarot of Marseilles deck.

A few decades later, two American occult organizations, the B.O.T.A. (Builders of the Adytum) and the Church of Light issued their own decks along with their educational material.

Meanwhile in France, Oswald Wirth published Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen Age in 1926 with a set of cards in an envelope attached to the back cover. Paul Marteau took over the Grimaud publishing house in the 1930’s, and then produced a re-colored Tarot de Marseille and a book explaining its color and number symbolism.

As can be seen from the annals of history, writing books to teach the symbolism of a particular deck is a tradition that’s over 200 years old; although packaging a deck and its book in one box seems to be a late 20th century innovation.

In our post-modern era, when tarot can be used to explore anything from the Grail legend to Native American traditions to alchemy, it’s almost imperative to provide a full-length book explaining the deck creator’s intentions.

Since its conception in China, as a deck to entertain Royalty and play money-taking card games, the Tarot metamorphosed and evolved to become a tool for deeper spiritual self-understanding that awakens innate intuitive abilities. The Tarot cards have been on a journey of development ever since they were created.

People have many different ideas and interpretations regarding what Tarot cards are and why they are used or consulted. The Tarot can be used as a tool for self-development, guidance and inspiration. It can transform your life experiences into wisdom. Each spread weaves the tapestry of your life. It can also reflect issues you need to confront and work on, as well as what’s in your subconscious.

The Tarot is a tool for improving your intuition and self-awareness. It’s an invitation to connect with yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your paradigms and to discover how and why you generate your life’s experiences. The Tarot is more than just a divination tool. It is also useful for meditation, reflection, creative brainstorming, and triggering your intuition to realign and direct your energies to creating an enjoyable life. You will discover that the “hidden knowledge” in the Tarot is about balancing both aspects of the self: intellect and emotions, reason and intuition, passive and active, feminine and masculine, conscious and subconscious, earth and spirit.

Although the origin of the Tarot is clouded in plenty of mystery, enigmatically, the order of the cards as well as the four suits they have consisted of, have remained unchanged since about the 14th century.

Regardless of how the cards came about, the esoteric symbols and archetypal images of Tarot are universal. They connect on a deep subconscious level with our psyche and resonate with our heart and soul. They are like magic mirrors that afford us a glimpse into the understanding of our place in the cosmos and our true divine nature. The universal spiritual truths contained in the cards are a guide for our sojourn through life and an affirmation that we are infinite spiritual beings existing on the material plane.

Through the ages, Tarot decks have preserved the mysteries of the sacred and provided a means of accessing our inner knowledge and wisdom. At this juncture in time, we are entering a new age that calls for an expanded view of Tarot, one which incorporates the shift in consciousness occurring at this particular time.

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