the origins of tarot cards

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The Origins of Tarot Cards


Say the words “Tarot Cards” to most people and they are likely to associate the origins of Tarot Cards with the occult or strange and magical practices, and there was a recorded case in 1589 implying witchcraft and the use of the Tarot cards

There's no other hard written evidence of it's occult use until the 18th century when the Tarot was viewed as having mystical and spiritual occult meanings, but keep in mind that ordinary playing cards were often associated with divination and the occult as far back as 1487

And what language did the word "Tarot" come from -  Hebrew? Latin? or did it come originally from Egypt?

In the 18th century a French intellectual, Antoine Court de Gebelin made a vast study of the occult and was convinced that the origins of Tarot Cards sprang from Egyptian hieroglyphics (picture symbolism) as shown by the artwork on the cards

The fact that there was a great interest in all things Egyptian at the time of his theory being published meant that soon everyone was viewing the Tarot deck as a system with deep hidden meanings

More interest in the secret history and origins of the Tarot was stirred up when Antoine Court de Gebelin published his beliefs as "Le Monde Primitif" - a speculative study that among other things included his claims about the religious symbolism of the Tarot, and that the Tarot pictures were from ancient Egyptian books that held secrets that could be decoded

Court de Gebelin claimed that the source of these secrets was the ancient god Thoth, and that the Tarot de Marseille deck showed symbols that represented Thoth and Isis

Court de Gebelin also claimed that the very word Tarot came from the Egyptian words "Tar" meaning royal and "Ro" meaning road, and this meant to him that it showed the royal road to wisdom

He also asserted in Le Monde Primitif that the Tarot was introduced into Europe from Egypt by nomadic gypsies who made the journey and used the cards for divination as part of their culture

Even though Egyptologists couldn't come up with any backing proof, these claims and speculation remained in circulation in Le Monde Primitif and formed a basis of belief in the origins of Tarot Cards legacy for many people

There were of course other theories as to the origins of tarot cards - many and varied "names" of the time put forward their own ideas, and in 1781 The Comte de Mellet wrote a short article that aimed to show a connection between Hebrew letters and the cards

Later in the 19th century a famous occultist Eliphas Levi attempted to show a link between The Kabbalah (Hebrew mysticism) and the Tarot, fuelling theories that the Tarot contained wisdom from The Kabbalah Tree of Life, and originated in Israel

Not to be left out, many organisations and religions accepted this theory of the 78 Tarot cards  being the keys to unlock the mysteries of life and to be useable as a viable form of divination

Here's just a few: Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, Rosicrucians, Theosophical Society, Church of Light and The Builders of The Adytum (B.O.T.A)

All of the above, and more secured the Tarot's position as a viable form of divination throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Popularity of the Tarot would wane over the years with only a hardcore of believers using it's powers

The author Edward Waite, a member of some secret societies, has been accredited with the revival and renaissance of the Tarot in the 20th century when he collaborated with a revered mystic and fellow society brother - Rider - to produce along with Pamela Coleman Smith, The Rectified Tarot in 1910

This Rider-Waite deck is now the world wide standard Tarot deck, and is still the most popular deck to date due to the easy to interpret lavish artwork and rich symbolism used by Pamela Coleman Smith



And it’s now proven that the first Tarot Cards weren’t intended as tools of the occult, but were used as highly decorated playing cards in tarot games dating as far back as 1425 in Italy

As ever, it was the wealthy ruling classes and nobility who had the time and inclination to spend hours at this exclusive pastime of tarot games with the 22 lavishly painted and decorated trump cards making up a highly prized tarot deck


The Visconti Trumps and Game of Triumphs


One game much loved by the Italian nobility in the 1440s was played with three decks of playing cards and a deck of 22 trump cards that were very close to those of our current day tarot deck and was called Triumphs

There were 3 decks in favour with the Italian nobility at that time, these were called the Visconti Trumps - after the family of the same name ( that's Visconti guys - not Trumps)

As ever, the history of Tarot is littered with contradiction, the cards made for the Visconti family were sometimes called the Bembo cards after the artist Bonifacio Bembo who is said to have been the artwork provider. Then again, others claim that the work was that of artist  Francesco Zavattari

Like all card decks back then there were cards numbered from 1 to 10 in four suits plus the “court” cards featuring The Page, The Knight, The Queen and The King. And then came the 22 trump cards that bore a resemblance to todays Major Arcana in the tarot deck

These 22 cards were decorated with symbolic pictures of The Pope, The Emperor, Wheel of Fortune, The Devil and The Moon, and these were the trump cards that outranked the court cards and all other cards

General agreement is that the three decks called The Visconti Trumps back in 1440 were the basis of the Tarot as we know it today

Triumphs was very much like todays game of  bridge, and after it become so popular with the southern Italian nobility it spread north through Italy, then into France, Austria and Germany

Many people thought that the Tarot wasn't such a good thing. Some time between 1450 and 1470 a Franciscan friar gave a sermon condemning the Trumps cards as the work of the Devil. The friar preached that the only winner in the game of Trumps was the Devil himself because people who played the game lost their souls to him

As far back as 1487 records show that though the meanings of the cards  differed from what we know today they were used for divinatory connotation, and in 1572 a poem was written that showed a person’s fate based on the Trump card titles

From the 16th century we have evidence that poets were employed to write flattering verses for the ladies of the court using the characteristic attributes of the Trump cards titles as an inspiration


So that’s a short (and not complete) history of  the tarot card deck, and next let’s take a look at how to prepare your new deck for it's first tarot reading or if you're not ready for that yet lets look at some  Tarot artwork


Maybe you'd like to take a quick break first and visit FREE TAROT READINGS
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