by Baudelaire Jones
The 78 cards of the Tarot deck consist of the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana, which translates basically as "big secrets" and "little secrets." In spite of much speculation, their history is uncertain. It was once believed that the Tarot's origin could be traced back to ancient Egypt -- that the cards were, perhaps, a representation of the lost Egyptian Book of the Dead. Since the actual discovery and translation of this text, that theory has been largely discounted, but the lure and romance of the hypothesis remains, and many occultists still cling it.
In Le Monde Primitif (1781), an encyclopedic work on anthropological linguistics, Antoine Court de Gébelin (c. 1719-1784), a former protestant pastor, was the first to suggest an alternative source -- the Book of Thoth, another Egyptian text which he claimed was the only writing to survive the burning of their libraries and contained the purest and most sacred doctrines of the Egyptian empire. These doctrines, he theorized, had been spread throughout Europe (albeit in a watered down form) by gypsies who he conjectured to be descendents of the Egyptians (a theory which has since been disproved). In this book of bizarre figures on 78 leaves, he found what he believed to be an arcane repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. He also claimed to have discovered clues to the true origin of the Tarot deck. Composed (falsely) as it was of the word Tar ("way" or "path") and the word Ro ("king" or "royal"), he surmised that it must dictate the "Royal Path of Human Life" that one must follow. The wise men of Egypt, he believed, made use of these sacred pictures to predict the future and to interpret dreams.
He also found clues in contemporary Tarot cards, remnants of what he believed to be Egyptian symbols. To his mind, the Star card represented the Dog-star, Sirius, which rises with the inundation of the Nile at the beginning of the new year, and the lady below he perceived as Isis, Queen of Heaven, spreading water from her vases (It was, after all, the tears of Isis which flooded the Nile each year). The Devil card he identified as Set, the god of darkness and chaos.
De Gébelin's conclusions, however, have been disputed by many historians. The Book of Thoth, now fully translated, contains two spells, one of which purportedly allows the reader to understand the speech of animals, and another which allows the reader to perceive the gods themselves. The story related in this document, which claims to have been written by Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge, revolves around the book itself, which is said to have been hidden, originally, at the bottom of the Nile near Coptos, where it was locked inside a series of boxes guarded by serpents. The Egyptian prince Neferkaptah fought the serpents and retrieved the book, but in punishment for his theft from Thoth, the gods killed his wife and son. Neferkaptah committed suicide and was entombed along with the book. Generations later, the story's protagonist, Setne Khamwas, steals the book from Neferkaptah's tomb despite opposition from Neferkaptah's ghost. Setne then meets a beautiful woman who seduces him into killing his children and humiliating himself in front of the pharaoh. He discovers that this episode was an illusion created by Neferkaptah, and in fear of further retribution, Setne returns the book to Neferkaptah's tomb. While an interesting parable, the story itself hardly backs up de Gébelin's interpretation of the symbols.
There are plenty of other theories, including the suggestion that that Tarot evolved from decks of mystical numbered cards that existed in India and the Far East in ancient times and may have been brought to Europe by the Knights Templar during and after the crusades to the Holy Land. Of course, this theory, like the others, is pure conjecture. If such cards truly existed, how are we to know that they spawned the Tarot?
The truth is that no one really knows where the Tarot deck came from. Its true origin is shrouded in mystery. Even the etymology of the word is unknown. While de Gébelin suggested an Egyptian origin of the word, other historians believe it to be a corruption of the word "torah," the Hebrew book of law, and still others interpret it as an anagram of the Latin word "rota" which means "wheel." But all such theories are guesswork.
So what can we say with certainty about the origin of Tarot?
The first known Tarot cards appeared sometime between 1430 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Bologna in northern Italy, presumably when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack of playing cards. These new decks were originally called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, a term usually translated as "trumps" in English. The first literary evidence of the existence of carte da trionfi is a written statement in the court records in Ferrara, in 1442. The oldest surviving Tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan.
Many historians (Decker, Dummett, etc...) conclude from this that the Tarot was simply a card game known as tarocchi or tarocchino (and later known as Trumps) until occultists reimagined the new cards as a tool for divination. Such scholars suggest that the Tarot was never intended by its creators to be a tool for this purpose. However, it was not long after their introduction that the Tarot cards began to be used for more than mere card games. Divination using playing cards is in evidence as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli which describes a simple method of divination in which the cards are used only to select a random oracle and have no meaning in themselves. But manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the Tarot as well as a system for laying out the cards. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that in 1765 his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.
Eventually, this secondary use of the cards became their primary function. In the 19th century, Eliphas Levi Zahed (1810-1875), who like De Gébelin trained for the priesthood, turned instead to magic, mysticism and the occult. Convinced that the origin of the Tarot went much further back than the 14th century, he found correlations between the Tarot and the Hebrew system of mysticism known as Kabbalah. Levi noted that the 22 trumps of the Tarot deck match the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. His research found many other correlations, even linking the Tarot to the Tree of Life. In fact, he came to believe that the Tarot was a roadmap, a way to move through the Tree of Life, to become more spiritual and enlightened, and, eventually, to find heaven.
French occultist Paul Christian (Jean Baptiste Pitois, 1811-1877), a contemporary of Levi, wrote a book called The History and Practice of Magic (1870) in which he described an Egyptian initiation rite which he linked to the Tarot. According to Christian, the Sphinx of Giza once served as entrance to sacred vaults in which the Magi held their initiations. Corridors led to subterranean portions of the Great Pyramid. There, a candidate faced life-threatening ordeals to test his courage and wisdom. If he survived these tests, the initiate descended into a bottomless pit on a ladder of seventy-eight rungs where he found a hidden opening into a long gallery lined on each side with twenty-two statues in facing pairs representing mysterious beings and symbols. At this point, according to Christian, a magus, who bore the name of Pastophore ("guardian of the sacred symbols"), appeared to open the grating to the postulant. "Son of Earth," he said smiling, "be welcome. You have escaped the pit by discovering the path of wisdom. Few aspirants to the Mysteries have triumphed over this test; the others have all perished. Since the great Isis is your protector, she will lead you, I hope, safe and sound, to the sanctuary where virtue receives its crown. I must not hide from you that other perils lie in store; but I am allowed to encourage you by explaining these symbols, the understanding of which creates for the heart of man an invulnerable armour. Come with me and contemplate these sacred images; listen carefully to my words, and, if you can mind them in your memory, the kings of the world will be less powerful than you when you return to earth." The guardian then went on to explain the twenty two symbols which Christian associated with the Major Arcana of the Tarot.
The Tarot continued to evolve through the centuries. In the 1940s, infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley, together with Lady Frieda Harris, designed the Thoth deck which combined many different elements including Egyptian, Greek, Christian and Eastern symbolism. Crowley, originally an initiate of the Order of the Golden Dawn, eventually split from that society and formed his own order, the Silver Star, which he reinvented to reflect his own particular (and erotic) brand of occultism.
In the years since, hundreds (if not thousands) of different Tarot decks have been designed. While its origins remain unclear, the Tarot continues to evolve. And perhaps the origin of the Tarot is less important, anyhow, than what it has become. The past is the past, after all. If the Tarot can help you to better perceive your life, if you find in the cards some universal truth, then everything prior to that discovery is irrelevant--including, of course, the history of the cards themselves.