The Tarot

A Brief History of the Tarot

The earliest written records of the tarot date from the fourteenth century. Some scholars believe that they are older than that but with no written record, there is no way to say. Early decks were used for games and gambling and indeed our modern playing cards derive from the tarot.

In 1332 there was a proclamation issued by King Alphonse against their use and the Catholic Church named them “the Devil’s Picture Book.” The name may come from the Italian decks called tarocchi, meaning “triumps” or “trumps”. The French further absorbed the Italian word and it became Tarot. In Germany the name was tarock.

Most of the popularity of the deck comes from the pictures on the 22 major Arcana cards. One theory suggests that they were originally a form of a pictorial memory system used to teach occult initiates. At some point, people began using the deck for fortune telling, mainly the Gypsies from the fourteenth century on and spread the practice as they wandered through Europe.

The oldest deck known in existence lies in the Yale University Library and was a deck made for Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan in approximately 1445. It is called the Cary-Yale Visconti tarot.

Over the first years of the Tarot, it seems that the trumps or the Major Arcana as they are called, were originally added to existing decks of cards. Most of these cards had four suits: coins, wands, sword, and cups and within each suit there were numbered cards (pips) and court cards (cards of royalty-King, Queen, Knave and Page). The decks had various numbers of trump cards as well as various names on the cards. The suits as well had various incarnations, at times there were more or less court cards in a given deck.

As the decks became more standardized, the trumps took on particular names and a particular order. In Marseilles, France the Tarot began to be manufactured in great numbers and Marseilles became the major production center for Tarot and exported it to other European countries. Thus the French-syle deck became known as the Marseilles deck.

It was in Marseilles that the deck began to take on its modern form as they added numbers and titles to the trump cards. The modern tarot can be said to have started in 1781. In this year, an occultist, Antoine Court de Gebelin published his essays on the Tarot. His work began some serious study of Tarot among other occultists and researchers in Europe. Much of the information we have today came from their work including the ties to Egyptian philosophy and religion.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a resurgence of occult interest including tarot, astrology, ritual and Egyptian magic and the Hebrew Cabala which is again enjoying a renaissance. The Marseilles Tarot was the one that was most often used by the occultists of that time period.

An occult group called the Golden Dawn began studying in earnest many of these disciplines; including the tarot. There was a Golden Dawn Tarot that was used by the group but they were sworn to secrecy and could not publish this deck. Several members of that group published decks based the same teachings and philosophy used in the Golden Dawn deck.

Eliphas Levi, who was a magician and a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, published many books on the subject of Tarot and designed a modern deck that is still in use. The Golden Dawn was a group of high magicians who studied many esoteric mysteries including the Cabala; the mysticism of the Hebrews.

The most widely used Tarot deck in the world was designed by Golden Dawn member, Arthur Edward Waite, from his book A Pictorial Guide to the Tarot. He commissioned artist Pamela Coleman Smith to draw the cards under his direction. Much of what has been written about the Tarot since then, has included the great work that Waite and his associates did in tying the Tarot to the ancient mysteries and bringing them into their own as a powerful tool of divination and unlocking the mysteries of higher self.

Information About the Tarot

The tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into two main sections: The Major Arcana or Trumps, consisting of 22 cards and the Minor Arcana, consisting of 56 cards. The Minor Arcana is further divided into forty pip cards and 16 court cards. There are 4 suits in the Minor Arcana: Wands-dealing with employment and enterprise, Cups-dealing with emotional and family matters, Swords-dealing with mental/intellectual pursuits and Pentacles-dealing with finances/security/money. The pip cards are cards Ace (1) through 10. There are also 4 court cards in each suit-King, Queen, Knight and Page

The major Arcana cards represent the spiritual journey of the fool on his path to enlightenment; our Karmic path if you will. The minor Arcana primarily deals with mundane or worldly matters; the day to day stuff that we deal with like love, finances, employment, housing, etc. .

The Tarot is a deep study and one that can be undertaken for a lifetime and never completely understood but one doesn’t need to be a scholar in order to receive the benefit of using the deck. It can be tied to Egyptian belief and also to Cabalistic teaching. It shows the Major Arcana as the path along the Tree of Life but more importantly, it shows our own path toward enlightenment.

For the path of the Major Arcana is the journey of the Fool. It is an allegory for our own journey as human beings towards enlightenment-it is the journey of the Hero who must go on a quest, face certain peril or even death, defeat this peril and emerge triumphant and wiser for the journey.

But the Fool is not alone on his journey; he has a lot of guidance along the way. The Major Arcana shows what he learns and how he learns it. If there is one theme that runs through the Major Arcana, and the Tarot in general, is that we have help when we need it. There is always guidance from above if we will recognize and accept it.

In the movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2, when Harry is about to face his final battle with the evil wizard Voldemort and he thinks he is alone; Professor Dumbledore reminds him that he has never been alone by saying, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” And just like Harry and the Fool, we are the heroes of our own journeys who, when we remember to ask for it, always receive the help available from above.

The information above is from my course-The Introduction to the Tarot: A Complete Class for Beginners. 

It is a simple, straightforward class that you take in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. 

If you have always wanted to learn how to read the Tarot, now is your chance!

The Introduction to the Tarot

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