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The history of Tarot
The history of Tarot is steeped in mystery and uncertainty. There are lots of theories regarding the origin of the Tarot cards and accordingly some believe that Tarot cards originated in Egypt or even in the Atlantis. Some also believe that the gypsies introduced the Tarot cards in Europe and they got them from India. The aim of this article is not to support or discredit any theory about the origin of the Tarot cards, as much research is needed to dwell into the history and origin of any particular subject. However, going by the standard documented history of the cards, they were thought to have originated in Europe. Playing cards originated in China and were introduced in Europe by the Mamluk empire in the year 1375. However, the mention of first Tarot deck can be traced in the year 1440 in Italy, where the first twenty two cards of the major arcana were designed, known as the ‘Visconti Trumps’. They are generally regarded as the forefathers of the Tarot decks that are widely available today. Tarot cards, it is believed, were created originally as a game for Nobles. It is centuries later, somewhere in the 15th century that Tarot cards appeared as the tools for divination. In the latter half of the 15th century, the card makers in the French city of Marseilles standardized the Trumps. Before this organized production, some of the Trumps were substituted or eliminated from the game. Certain cards such as Death, the Devil and the Tower in particular were considered as offensive by the more conservative nobles. This even lead to the religious leaders in Europe to attempt to ban the cards.
The first detailed reference to the Trumps of the Tarot can be traced in form of a sermon. This sermon was given by a Franciscan friar in Italy somewhere between 1450 and 1470. The sermon contended that the Trumps were invented and named by the Devil himself. It thus condemned the use of the cards and symbolically represented the use of the cards as the ‘triumph of the Devil’. According to the friar, those who play cards give their soul to the Devil and this gave a sinister connotation to what then was simply a card game.
The reincarnation of the Tarot, and its introduction as a tool for divination, are attributed to Antoine Court de Gebelin in the year 1781. He believed that the cards were actually of Egyptian origin and the Trumps contained mystical symbols of the Egyptians, which were systematically coded in the form of the Trump cards. Specifically, he propounded the theory that the cards were key to the Egyptian magical wisdom written by Thoth, the Egyptian God of inspired written knowledge. The Trumps began to evolve noticeably from this point onwards. The design and the evolution of the Trumps is also attributed to the different secret societies who produced the decks.
The first individual to popularise Tarot as a tool of divination was Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as ‘Etteilla’, in 1770. He was the first one to publish divination meaning to the cards and only thirty two cards were included in this edition. Later on, he published several works on the subject of divination meaning of the Trump cards and also played on the de Gebelin’s theory that Tarot cards had their origin in Egypt and had various divine symbols associated with them. Also, it was Etteilla who designed the first Tarot deck for the purpose of cartomancy. However, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the year 1799 that translated the ancient symbols of Egyptian hieroglyphs did not support the theory that the Tarot cards indeed were of Egyptian origin. Still the belief prevailed on and then there was another theory about the origin of the cards in the year 1857 where it was purported that the ‘Romani’ people or the gypsies had introduced the cards to Europe.
In the nineteenth century, a famous occulter known as Eliphas Levi developed a theory of correlation between the Tarot cards and the Kabbalah- the Hebrew system of mysticism. This fuelled the theory that Tarot cards had their origin in Israel and contained the wisdom of the Tree of Life. All the 78 cards of the Tarot were together weaved in different meanings of the wisdom. There was however, no concrete proof of this theory as well. However, this theory accomplished much and contributed to the now held belief that Tarot cards are indeed a source of mystic knowledge which have deep rooted meanings and the symbolism of Tarot crossed all the boundaries. Since then, Tarot began to be associated with every religion known to humans and began to have a timeless appeal.
Various groups contributed to the development and to the popularity of the Tarot in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. These included the Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, the Church of Light, and the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.).
Arthur Edward Waite is credited with the Renaissance of Tarot in the twentieth century. Arthur Edward Waite along with Pamela Colman Smith, an American artist, both designed the new set of Tarot cards. Waite was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society existing at that time. He considered symbolism as an important feature of the cards and designed the cards in such a manner that they conveyed the esoteric symbolism of the cards in vivid images and symbols. What made Rider Waite Tarot cards so popular was the fact that Waite gave equal importance to cards in both major and minor arcana, with lively pictures and symbols decorating all the 78 Tarot cards. Before this, the cards of the minor arcana weren’t given same importance in terms of pictorial symbolism.
In the present times, there are literally hundreds of Tarot card decks which confirm to particular tastes, belief systems, local culture and traditions and local folklore. The popularity of Tarot cards is ever increasing with the unlocking of its true potential and deep regarded prevalence of the opinion that Tarot helps in self analysis and can be used to dwell deeper in the mysteries of life and the universe. During the same time in early twentieth century, due to the development of quantum mechanics and the revolutionary aspects of the theory of relativity, all shed light and originated many more theories regarding how Tarot works, which is a part of another article in this series. Recently, the discovery of the God particle continues with this tradition of linking the workings of Tarot with the frontiers of science and seek a more rational explanation of its existence. Tarot has evoked strong feelings through centuries and continues to evolve as a subject with the influences of various people and cultures around it. Tarot continues to be a tool for the enrichment of the self in addition to being a divination tool.