The story of Tarot began about 900 years ago with the invention of playing cards in China sometime during the Southern Song Dynasty. These playing cards had 38 cards in a deck with four suits, each suit representing different configurations of money. After the Mongols conquered the Southern Song Dynasty in 1235, we begin to see widespread evidence of these money-suited cards. With the Mongols now in total control of Central Asia and parts of Europe, they needed to generate the flow of goods and trade throughout their giant, multicultural empire. So, the Mongols restored an ancient, thousand-year-old caravan track called Silk Road that stretched 4,000 miles from China to the Mediterranean Sea. As merchants traveled West, playing cards traveled with them.
By 1250, playing cards had spread all over the Arabic world and had developed into what we use today. Each deck had a total of 52 cards divided into four suits that began with an Ace and had a group of three non-figurative court cards called the King, First Governor, and Second Governor. Each deck had a suit of polo sticks (which would later become batons), a suit of cups, a suit of Scimitars (or curved swords), and a suit of coins (sound familiar?).
By the time playing cards arrived in Italian seaports in 1370, Italy was on the verge of an artistic and economic transformation known as the Italian Renaissance. This atmosphere was brimming with beauty and genius, giving us legendary artists such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Angelo, as well as famous creations such as the David and the Sistine Chapel. Italy’s urban population increased creating more opportunities for socializing and fun. Fueled by the invention of the paper mill and block printing, playing cards rapidly spread throughout Italy. We see them everywhere, referenced in written documents, family bookkeeping, and in government papers that state new laws against gambling. Playing cards had become so popular we have records of sermons adding "card playing" to the long list of sinful acts. The most beautiful cards were reserved for the upper class who could commission artists to design and hand-paint one-of-a-kind decks.
Trick-taking card games, where one of the four suits is designated as a “trump” or dominant suit, were extremely popular throughout Europe in the late 14th century. In Italy around 1420, in an effort to create an even more complicated trick-taking game, Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan asked his secretary, the humanist scholar and astrologer Maurizio da Tortona, to create an allegorical card game and deck based on Virtues and Temptations. An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can reveal a hidden meaning. Each deck had four suits, with four extra trump cards depicting classical gods. This is the first time we see a fifth suit added to traditional playing cards and where we see the story of Tarot emerge.
Tarot began as a card game, first known as Trionfi, then later named Tarocchi or Tarot and it didn't take long for this new card game to spread among Italy's upper class. Tarot decks combined a beautifully designed playing deck with an extra suit of 22 cards known as "Trionfi" "triumph" "or "trump". Each suit started with an Ace and each deck had a suit of batons, cups, swords, and coins that included a King, Queen, Knight, and Page.. The Tarot deck, Sola Busca, created in the late 15th century in Ferrara, Italy, is the oldest complete Tarot deck we have today, giving us proof that the overall structure created then is the same as now. As Tarot's popularity rises in Italy, it soon migrates to France where the famous Tarot de Marseilles would be created. From there, the card game "Tarot", would become a favorite pastime in France for centuries.
FAST FORWARD 350 years. France has overtaken Italy as the capital of card production. By the 18th century, playing cards had taken their new French and English form of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds, leaving Spanish and Italian influence behind, though Tarot decks retained their original design. At this time, France was on the brink of a bloody revolution spurred on by the Age of Enlightenment that demanded liberty and religious tolerance. Out of these philosophical and political changes arose occult and magical inquiry and practice, offering a fresh lens from which to view the world.
At this point, Tarot was still just a card game, and most players had discarded the once-popular Tarot de Marseilles for newer and fancier decks. But, Protestant preacher and FreeMason, Antoine Court de Gebelin, saw something deeper in the Tarot de Marseilles. One evening in Paris, while visiting different salons, Geblin was invited to play the card game, Tarot. He had never played Tarot nor had he ever seen a Tarot deck and found himself mesmerized by the cards. He professed that it took him a mere 15 minutes to comprehend their Egyptian mystical origin. Though his claim to know that Tarot descended from ancient Egypt certainly sounds crazy to us, the French Occult community was obsessed with the potential of Egypt's hidden mysteries, making the connection to Geblin an obvious one. Gebelin was no ordinary man, his father was a famous religious leader for the Huguenots and he associated with well-respected figures such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, making his words worth listening to. In 1781, he published his massive work, Le Monde Primitif, The Primordial World, which included his idea that Tarot originated from ancient Egypt and held arcane wisdom. His work included an essay by Comte de Mellet who was the first to connect tarot cards to the Book of Thoth and claimed that the Egyptians used the cards for fortune-telling, describing what he believed to be their method of divination. Geblin's ideas would remain true in the occult community for quite some time.
Geblin's insistence on Tarot's Egyptian heritage created many myths, one in particular that continues today: the myth of the Gypsies. Gypsies were given their nickname by Europeans who assumed they migrated from Egypt (hence, GYPsy). Occultists theorized that the Gypsies carried Tarot cards from Egypt, unaware of the arcane wisdom they held. But, the Gypsies were nomadic tribes that belonged to Sinti and Roma families with genealogical roots in the Punjab region of northern India, nowhere near Egypt. Although Gypsies were fortune tellers, their specialty was palmistry and when they did begin using cards for divination, they generally performed cartomancy, which used regular four-suited playing cards, not the two-part Tarot deck.
As a result of Geblin's impression of the Tarot in his book Le Monde Primitif, we start to see the Tarot used for more than just leisurely fun. After reading Geblin's book in 1781, an author, fortune teller, and astrologer named Etteilla, quickly embraced Gebelin's ideas, switching from his original divination tool, cartomancy, to Tarot and within two years he gave us the first book of Tarot interpretations. Etteilla, whose real name was Jean Baptiste Alliette, was one of the most influential and important figures in Tarot occult history and is considered the first modern tarot reader. As Tarot historian Sherryl E. Smith states: Etteilla was the first to use reversals, to lay cards out in spreads, to read the cards as a continuous narrative, and the first to publish divinatory meanings. Heavily influenced by Geblin's connection of Tarot to Egyptian mysteries, Eteilla would create the very first Tarot deck intended solely for divination based on his interpretation of The Book of Thoth. After Etteilla's death, his students dispersed and his reading methods were dropped. His style was too unique and personal to stand the test of time. But his work and legacy provided legitimacy and public popularity for Tarot readers, lifting us from back alley tricksters to educated diviners and mystics.
The idea that Tarot was first created in ancient Egypt and then carried to Europe held true until 1799, the year the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Finally, ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs were decoded, but there was no mention of Tarot anywhere. This didn't discourage occult philosophers as more decks would be created to acknowledge the Tarot's perceived Egyptian origin. Even the famous deck, Rider Waite Smith, contains touches of Egyptian culture in its illustrations.
From here and into the 19th century, we see a boom in divination tools. The Industrial Age made it even easier to produce cards and the occult revival had made its way to England. The shift from religious dominance to scientific exploration also helped spiritual seekers as violent persecution hit an all-time low. As the world became more secular and multicultural, occultism became more attractive and commonplace. Horoscopes were published in local newspapers while multiple occult lodges popped up to recruit followers. Though The Kipper and petit Lenormand decks were dominant in popularity, the occult Tarot was quickly catching on. A new esoteric philosopher would soon put Tarot on a mystical pedestal.
Now, we come to Eliphas Levi who is probably the most influential occult thinker of his time. He famously wrote "Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic", a massive two-volume treatise published in 1854 and 1855. Levi’s synthesis of ceremonial magic, alchemy, Kabbalah, and Tarot became the new paradigm for European esoteric and magical teachings. Using the Tarot de Marseille as his pictorial guide, Eliphas Levi established a coherent correspondence system using several ancient practices. He associated each Tarot trump with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and placed all 78 cards on the Tree of Life linking the Tarot with Kabbalism. It was also from this point that we see the label "trumps" change to "Major Arcana". Eliphas Levi's writings differentiated Tarot and cartomancy, officially elevating the Tarot to a mystical level. The Tarot had become precious knowledge that could be learned through esoteric study. Eliphas Levi's work would greatly influence later acclaimed occultist, Arthur Edward Waite.
Arthur Edward Waite was a member of the Golden Dawn, founder of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and commissioner and contributor to The Rider Waite Smith Tarot deck, the most widely used deck in the world today. Arthur was born on October 2, 1857, in Brooklyn NY, but in 1858, he would move to England with his mother and sister after his father's unexpected death. His family had enough wealth to educate him at a private school in North London where he would grow an affinity for poetry and art. Arthur was only 17 when his sister died, a tragedy that would ultimately lead him into psychic and occult research. He would go on to write texts on subjects including divination, esotericism, freemasonry, ceremonial magic, Kabbahlism, and alchemy; he also translated and reissued several mystical works. At 29, he wrote "The Mysteries of Magic: A Digest of the Writings of Eliphas," unleashing Eliphas Levi's teachings of the Tarot onto a quickly spreading British occult revival.
The card game Tarot never took hold in England allowing it to exist as an elevated and magical system. The Major Arcana of Tarot became central to the teachings of the well-known occult group, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded by William Wescott and McGregor Mathers, the teachings of the Golden Dawn blended esoteric philosophy and ceremonial rites, using the tarot as an esoteric source of knowledge. Under the direction of Mathers, we see the Pope transform into the Hierophant, The Bateleur into the Magician, The Paupess into the High Priestess, and the infamous switch between Strength and Justice moving Strength from card 11 to card 8 and Justice from card 8 to card 11. Though Arthur would become a member of the Golden Dawn, he was at odds with their infighting and power struggles. But it was here that he would make one acquaintance that would help him change the Tarot world forever.
Enter Pamela, nicknamed "Pixie", Coleman Smith, a Bohemian and Pratt Institute student, who was brought into the Golden Dawn by her friend and famous Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. She was working as a costume designer while pursuing a writing career, managing her own publishing business, working as a freelance illustrator, and delighting audiences with her performances of Jamaican folklore and storytelling. She channeled her psychic ability through her paintings, allowing music to trigger and direct her visually. Arthur commissioned Pamela for just this reason and after paying her a flat fee for the original drawings, Pamela worked from April to October of 1909 to create the Rider Waite Smith deck. This Tarot deck would become the most prolific deck since its publication.
Though Arthur had specific instructions for the Major Arcana, he allowed Pamela to have free rein over the artistic translation of the pip cards. Inspired by the deck Sola Busca, Pamela revolutionized Tarot. Rather than simply elaborating on the geometric shapes that normally represented the pips, she instead painted figurative images that depict different scenes of life. Her design gave the everyday person the ability to understand and translate the cards without great study. This style became the golden standard of Tarot deck creators in the English-speaking world. We also see the same dynamic between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris 40 years later, when they teamed up from 1938 - 1944 to produce the Thoth Tarot deck that closely rivals the Rider Waite Smith in popularity.
In the 1960s, in response to psychologist Carl Jung's theories of the Collective Conscious, synchronicity, and dream interpretations, Tarot's symbolism began to evolve into a more psychological and self-explorative practice. This time of occulture brought us authors such as Mary K. Greer, Rachel Pollack, and Eden Gray and inspired new tarot researchers and artists such as Karen Vogel and Viki Noble who created the circular anthropological deck, Mother Peace. Modern tarot readers and researchers continue to build upon the foundation of symbolism and internal alchemy in an attempt to legitimize Tarot's place in modern psychology and society as a whole. But what if I told you that the Tarot is a multi-faceted symbolic system, capable of traversing your soul AND offering revelations about your current circumstances and future?
Today, many Tarot readers turn their noses up at the idea that Tarot can be used to depict everyday behavior or predict the future. Some even claim its language should be restricted to self-discoveries and internal transformation. Though I am so grateful to live in a time where it's become commonplace to work on yourself from any, and all, angles, I also want to reassure beginning diviners that the cards aren't limited in any way. It is the reader’s intention and intuition that ultimately translates the cards. Before cartomancy or Tarot, ancient mystics would analyze and predict events using runes, bird patterns, the bones of an animal carcass, the movement of heavenly bodies (also known as astrology), or the rings of an exposed tree to name a few. What Tarot, and specifically Pamela Coleman Smith, did was make magic accessible to everyone. No longer does one need to be born into a family dedicated to spiritual teachings and practices to participate and potentially excel at the art of mediumship. The Rider Waite Smith has made the job EASIER for us.
So, what’s the point of knowing the history of Tarot? For a lot of us drawn to Tarot, we find it hard to reconcile our desire for total faith in its magic with the fact that it was man-made. What we have to realize is that the cards were never magical, YOU are the magical property that makes Tarot work. Tarot was never intended to be anything more than a card game. It took centuries for anyone to imagine Tarot more deeply, and the basis of their theory turned out to be false. Nevertheless, the practice of fortune-telling collided with playing cards, and then Tarot, resulting in a new material divination tool for us to work with. One could even argue that card games, especially trick-taking games, were spurred on by our natural inclination to test our intuition and skill.
Instead of accepting the cards as limited, ask yourself what readings you enjoy giving. If you love psychology and diving into the caverns of the subconscious, you should offer readings that alchemize the mind. If you're in touch with human emotions, relationships, and needs, lean into Tarot's language for love and family. If you're practical and enjoy reading behavior or giving advice, you want to lean into the material side of Tarot, which includes prediction. If you're attuned to unseen figures and forces (such as guides and angels), you may want to adopt the spiritual language of the cards. You could even find yourself good at many styles! This is why choosing your deck is so important. Though a neutral deck is best for beginners, you'll soon want to look for a deck whose colors and images play well with your intuition and reflect the story you want to tell.
If you want to get good at Tarot, you'll have to face your fears of reading for other people. Tarot is a service, so, practice on others, don't be afraid to be wrong! It's a language you're learning, not a sleep you're waking up from. Engage your like-minded friends, but a quick warning, stay away from anyone who's going through a very hard time. You may question your abilities if they fight back on any negative news. Later in the series, I'll have some exercises you can try out with others. Remember this, the divination tool is the variable, human beings' search for meaning is the constant. That will never change. We long for a connection to something greater and since much of the modern world has been cut off from the first and greatest magic on Earth, nature, we find ourselves groping around in the dark hoping something will fulfill us. Tarot is one of the countless ways to create that connection for ourselves and others. By engaging with our intuition and helping fellow spiritual travelers, we grow a bond with the ethereal quality of life that helps to soothe our restless hearts and anxious minds.
Join me for the next episode where we begin to understand how the Tarot works.