History of the Tarot

Almost as fascinating and mysterious as the Tarot cards themselves is their lack of proven origin. A great many authors have written exhaustively about the subject and many have ridden themselves saddle-sore on one or another of their pet hobby horses; yet none have managed to prove conclusively from whence the Tarot originates. Different writers have proposed various geographical roots, including Spain, southern France, the Far East, and Egypt, and part of the Tarot's richness is that it has elements in common with so many different countries' myths and legends. However, a direct line of decent from any one area remains impossible to establish. As A.E. Waite says in the preface to Tarot of the Bohemians: `The chief point regarding the history of the Tarot cards, whether used as pretexts for fortune telling or as symbols of philosophical interpretation, is that such history does not in fact exist.' Although Waite wrote this in the late nineteenth century, his statement remains valid today. We are still no nearer knowing for certain the origins of the Tarot, yet it is well worth taking a look at some of the interesting theories that have been put forward.

One theory suggests that Tarot originated in China, where playing cards were definitely used before the eleventh century AD but there is little other evidence to support this. Alternatively India is a possible birth place, and it is feasible that the four suits of the Minor Acana could refer to the four castes of Hinduism: the Cup to the priests or Brahmins, the Sword to the warriors or Kshatriyas, the Coin to the merchants or Vaisyas, and the Rod to the serfs or Sudras. The Major Arcana has possible links with Buddhism: the Fool could be the wandering monk, whose path of enlightenment parallels the path taken by the Tarot Fool.

The first documented appearance of the cards in Europe can be traced to 1392 when a sum was entered in the court ledger of King Charles VI of France. The entry stated that money had been paid to a painter by the name of Jacquemin Gringonneur for three packs of cards illustrated in `gold and diverse colours ornamented with many devices...'

In 1377 a certain Brother Johannes of Bredfeld, Switzerland, wrote an essay in which he decribed a game of cards which outlined the state of the world as it was then, in terms of society's structure. He went on to say , however, that he was entirely ignorant of when it was invented, where, and by whom. He suggested that the cards portrayed kings, noblemen and commoners, and could therefore be used for moral purposes to map out a society and its structure, and to teach people the lesson of knowing and keeping to their place. Brother Johannes appears to have taken the suits to represent the classes of society: Cups for the churchmen, Swords for the aristocracy, Coins for the merchants and Wands for the peasant.

At the time Tarot first appeared in Europe, Cristianity reigned more or less supreme. The Church was busy stamping out paganism and vanquishing unorthodox Christian sects such as the Waldneses, Cathari and Bogomils. The chivalric order of Knights Templar also fell from the Church's favor early in the fourteenth century, and the order was destroyed. However, a large number of doctrines preached by heretical sects surrvived and are today collectively known as gnosticism, meaning a belief in esoteric knowledge. Gnosticism often combined Indian, Chaldean, Persian and Egyptian magical doctrines with Greek philosophy, Hebrew cabalistic belief and teachings of early Christianity. It is from these gnostic cults that many Western esoteric arts have evolved, including, quite possibly, the Tarot. Ironically many of the forbidden pagan cults and doctrines surrvived within the walls of the Church which was trying so hard to obliterate them: for the monasteries preserved documents on the old religions including conjuring and spell books. As the images on the Tarot cards are mainly pagan in origin, and the gods of the old religions become the devils of the new, the cards were sometimes referred to as the devil's books. It is probably for these reasons that many people even today fear the Tarot as being something evil or devilish, connected with black magic and witchcraft.

At the time of a revival in esoteric and occult interests in the eighteenth century, certain French occultists claimed that the Tarot originated in Egypt and contained the purest doctrines of the Egyptian priests, who were said to have concealed secrets in the images of the cards to protect and preserve them from the uninitiated. They thought the cards had been brought into Europe by the gypsies. who were then believed to have emigrated from Egypt. The pioneer in this school of thought was Antoine Court de Gebelin, a clergyman deeply interested in the secret lore and doctrines of ancient Egypt. This was a subject which enjoyed extremely fashionable attention at the time, along with all sorts of other esoteric and occult matters. Court de Gebelin thought the Tarot images of the Major Arcana were remnants of the Book of Thoth, and wrote a highly acclaimed book in which he connected the Major Arcana to the secret beliefs and traditions of ancient Egypt. He brought overnight the Tarot recognition and made its use and understanding essential to all `true occulists'. The nine volume book was entitled The Primitive World Analysed and Compared with the Modern World.

According to Gebelin, the ancient custom was to stand in the temples of Thoth, whose walls were adorned with pictorial images representing the major forces governing the patterns of life. The person wishing to consult the gods would throw a loose bundle of rods at random, and as they fell with varying emphais toward one image or another, the pieces would interpret the patterns which were known as `the words of the gods'. Out of this custom grew the practice of carrying the images around in card form, `the unbound leaves of the sacred book of Thoth Hermes Trismegegistus'. In this way, consultation with the gods became much less complicated and any room could be turned into a `temple' simply by producing a pack of cards.

In the nineteenth century, a French Rosicruician and cabalist, Eliphas Levi, stressed the apparent link between the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the twenty-two Major Arcana. The Major cards were renumbered to fit into this cabalistic system and many modren packs follow the numerical order of this time. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet were said to connect with the twenty-two paths of the cabalistic Tree of life, which, among other things, illustrates how the world came into being through the ten divine emanations or spheres ( corresponding to the Minor Arcana cards, Ace to Ten ). Levi also connected the four suits with letters forming the unpronounceable great name of God, JHVH : J-Wands- fire; H-Cups-water; V-Swords; H-Pentacles-earth

Author Juliet Sharman-Burke