History of Tarot

The origins, purposes, mysteries, and development of tarot cards through the ages.

What is Tarot?

  • Two combined decks of cards representing archetypal symbols and images.
  • Minor arcana: similar to playing cards: 4 suits, numbers Ace through 10, and 4 court cards.
  • Major arcana: a sequence of 22 ‘trump’ or ‘trick’ cards representing the Fool’s journey through human experience and spiritual development.
  • Right from their earliest beginnings, tarot cards were used for playing games and for divination.

Before 1400 CE

  • Playing cards find their way to Europe around 1375, by way of the Mamluk Empire

The “Triumph” Cards

  • “Trick” or “Triumph” or “Trump” cards are played with in Germany in the 1420s.
  • The first tarot deck (combining the playing cards and trump cards) appears around 1440 in northern Italy – referred to as “carte da trionfi.”

Parlor Games and Cartomancy 1500 -1599 CE

  • Tarot playing cards increase in popularity. In 1540 Francesco Marcolini publishes the first known document about cartomancy.

 “Rules” and Tarot de Marseilles 1600-1699 CE

  • Earliest known “rules” for the game of Tarot published in 1637 in France.

Popularity expands 1700-1799 CE

  • Over one million Tarot decks are produced in France during 1700s
  • The French suit-signs, (spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds) replace the older Italian ones; around 1780 the trumps become double-headed.

Etteilla 1738 – 1791

  • Publishes correspondences between tarot, astrology, the 4 classical elements, the 4 temperaments; designates the 22 trumps to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Court de Gebelin 1725 – 1784

  • Publishes his massive work Le Monde Primitif (1781). In it he expounds on his idea that the tarot is an ancient Egyptian book of arcane wisdom.

Development of Occult Tarot 1800-1899

  • In the mid-19th century, new systems of correspondence continue to be unveiled and interpreted.

Eliphas Levi 1810 – 1875

  • Publishes Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1854.

Papus and the Bohemians 1865-1916

  • Publishes in 1896 “The Tarot of the Bohemians : the most ancient book in the world : for the exclusive use of initiates,” which has never gone out of print. In it, he claims that tarot preserves ancient, profound knowledge by way of the gypsies, all the way back to Egypt, India, and Atlantis.

The Order of the Golden Dawn 1888-1903

  • Based on the mysterious folios of the “Cipher Manuscript,” the three founders, are freemasons, Rosicrucians, and theosophists. Many important tarotists become members of the Order, if only for a time, most famously Paul Foster Case, Aleister Crowley, and A.E. Waite.

The Modern Era 1900-1999

  • Tarot is again redefined, and Waite’s deck serves as a model for hundreds of derivative decks.
  • Intuition and free association reveal universal archetypes.

Tarot Today

Modern tarot applications include:

  • empowered divination
  • personal growth
  • guidance or advice on your life’s journey

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