The True History of the Tarot

The True History of the Tarot

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Tarot”?

If you’re like most people, you think of gypsies, fortune tellers, black magicians, and occult mysteries which date back to ancient Egypt and beyond. But the true story behind the famous divination cards is perhaps less exotic than you imagine… but no less fascinating.

Tarot cards can be traced back to 15th century northern Italy, and a deck of playing cards known as carte da trionfi, which translates to “cards of triumph” or “cards with trumps.”

The standard deck had 78 cards: the 4 suits (swords, cups, batons, and coins) each had cards numbered 1 – 10, and an expanded royal court (king, queen, knight and jack); then there were 21 trump cards, plus “The Fool.”

Most of those 15th century trump cards – The Emperor, The Hermit, The Hanged Man, The Devil, and so on – would easily be recognized by modern day Tarot card readers. However, contrary to popular belief, the cards were not designed for fortune telling or divination. The deck was used to play a game called “Tarock.”

Tarock, after jumping across the geographical and linguistic border to France, became “Tarot.”

Cartomancy, the art of using cards for divination, is probably even older than the carte da trionfi, dating back to the very first decks of playing cards. Because people have always wanted to know the future, and the art of fortune-telling is much older than any deck of cards.

The earliest “Tarot” decks employed Christian symbolism, because they were born in the largely Christian culture of medieval Europe. It wasn’t until the 18th century, and the publication of La Monde Primitif by Antoine Court de Gebelin, that the Tarot became associated with Egyptian mythology, and the pre-Christian occult.

In his book, de Gebelin makes the first claim that the meaning and symbolism of the Tarot can be traced to a vanished, pre-historic civilization – think Atlantis, Mu, or something along those lines. Prior to this, the Magician was actually the Juggler, the Heirophant was the Pope, the High Priestess was “La Papessa” (a female Pope, a symbol of the Vatican or “Mother Church”), and so on.

Later authors – most notably Jean-Baptiste Alliette (under the pen name “Etteilla”), Eliphas Levi (born Alphonse Louis Constant), Aleister Crowley and A. E. Waite (author of Key to the Tarot and co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck) – elaborated on these occult speculations. These influences combined were enough to permanently tie the history of the Tarot to the Hebrew Kabbalah, ancient Egyptian mystery schools, and other esoteric sources…

At least in the imagination of the masses.

The truth is more mundane, and more fantastic, both at once. Tarot imagery has much in common with Egyptian mythology, no doubt. It also reflects the symbolism and numerology of Hebrew mysticism. No argument here. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Tarot originated in Egypt or Israel.

The more likely explanation is this: Christianity was born from Judaism, and Hebrew culture, which was in turn heavily influenced by Egyptian religion and culture. Naturally, the myths and symbols of these different traditions are bound to overlap in places.

Most important of all is this: all myths and religions share recurring themes, deal with the same timeless Archetypes, and point towards the same transcendent and mystical Truth.

And it doesn’t get much more fascinating than that, now does it?

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