History of Tarot Card Origins

The Empress. The Hanged Man. The Chariot. Judgment. With their centuries-old iconography blending a mix of ancient symbols, religious allegories, and historic events, tarot cards can seem purposefully opaque. To outsiders and skeptics, occult practices like card reading have little relevance in our modern world. But a closer look at these miniature masterpieces reveals that the power of these cards isn’t endowed from some mystical source—it comes from the ability of their small, static images to illuminate our most complex dilemmas and desires.

However, using cards for playful divination probably goes  to the 14th century, likely originating with Mamluk game cards brought to Western Europe from Turkey. By the 1500s, the Italian aristocracy was enjoying a game known as “tarocchi appropriati,” in which players were dealt random cards and used thematic associations with these cards to write poetic verses about one another—somewhat like the popular childhood game “MASH.” These predictive cards were referred to as “sortes,” meaning destinies or lots.

Even the earliest known tarot decks weren’t designed with mysticism in mind; they were actually meant for playing a game similar to modern-day bridge. Wealthy families in Italy commissioned expensive, artist-made decks known as “carte da trionfi” or “cards of triumph.” These cards were marked with suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (eventually changed to staves or wands), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings. Tarot cards later incorporated queens, trumps (the wild cards unique to tarot), and the Fool to this system, for a complete deck that usually totaled 78 cards. Today, the suit cards are commonly called the Minor Arcana, while trump cards are known as the Major Arcana.

Top: The popular Rider-Waite deck was first published in 1909. Above: Two hand-painted Mamluk cards from Turkey (left) and two cards from the Visconti family deck (right), both circa 15th century.

The random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative.” Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure style card game.

“The imagery was designed to reflect important aspects of the real world that the players lived in, and the prominent Christian symbolism in the cards is an obvious reflection of the Christian world in which they lived,” he adds. As divinatory usage became more popular, illustrations evolved to reflect a specific designer’s intention. “The subjects took on more and more esoteric meaning,” says Wolf, “but they generally maintained the traditional tarot structure of four suits of pip cards [similar to the numbered cards in a normal playing-card deck], corresponding court cards, and the additional trump cards, with a Fool.”

The Empress. The Hanged Man. The Chariot. Judgment. With their centuries-old iconography blending a mix of ancient symbols, religious allegories, and historic events, tarot cards can seem purposefully opaque. To outsiders and skeptics, occult practices like card reading have little relevance in our modern world. But a closer look at these miniature masterpieces reveals that the power of these cards isn’t endowed from some mystical source—it comes from the ability of their small, static images to illuminate our most complex dilemmas and desires.

“There’s a lot of friction between tarot historians and card readers about the origins and purpose of tarot cards.”

Contrary to what the uninitiated might think, the meaning of divination cards changes over time, shaped by each era’s culture and the needs of individual users. This is partly why these decks can be so puzzling to outsiders, as most of them reference allegories or events familiar to people many centuries ago. Caitlín Matthews, who teaches courses on cartomancy, or divination with cards, says that before the 18th century, the imagery on these cards was accessible to a much broader population. But in contrast to these historic decks, Matthews finds most modern decks harder to engage with.

“You either have these very shallow ones or these rampantly esoteric ones with so many signs and symbols on them you can barely make them out,” says Matthews. “I bought my first tarot pack, which was the Tarot de Marseille published by Grimaud in 1969, and I recently came right around back to it after not using it for a while.” Presumably originating in the 17th century, the Tarot de Marseille is one of the most common types of tarot deck ever produced. Marseille decks were generally printed with woodblocks and later colored by hand using basic stencils.

Top: A selection of trump cards (top row) and pip cards (bottom row) from the first edition of the Rider-Waite deck, circa 1909. Via the World of Playing Cards. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf. Above: Cards from a Tarot de Marseille deck made by François Gassmann, circa 1870. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

However, using cards for playful divination probably goes back even further, to the 14th century, likely originating with Mamluk game cards brought to Western Europe from Turkey. By the 1500s, the Italian aristocracy was enjoying a game known as “tarocchi appropriati,” in which players were dealt random cards and used thematic associations with these cards to write poetic verses about one another—somewhat like the popular childhood game “MASH.” These predictive cards were referred to as “sortes,” meaning destinies or lots.

Even the earliest known tarot decks weren’t designed with mysticism in mind; they were actually meant for playing a game similar to modern-day bridge. Wealthy families in Italy commissioned expensive, artist-made decks known as “carte da trionfi” or “cards of triumph.” These cards were marked with suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (eventually changed to staves or wands), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings. Tarot cards later incorporated queens, trumps (the wild cards unique to tarot), and the Fool to this system, for a complete deck that usually totaled 78 cards. Today, the suit cards are commonly called the Minor Arcana, while trump cards are known as the Major Arcana.

Top: The popular Rider-Waite deck was first published in 1909. Above: Two hand-painted Mamluk cards from Turkey (left) and two cards from the Visconti family deck (right), both circa 15th century.

Graphic designer and artist Bill Wolf, whose interest in tarot illustration dates to his art-school days at Cooper Union in New York, has his own theories about the tarot’s beginning. Wolf, who doesn’t use cards for divination, believes that originally, “the meaning of the imagery was parallel to the mechanics of the play of the game. The random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative.” Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure style card game.

“The imagery was designed to reflect important aspects of the real world that the players lived in, and the prominent Christian symbolism in the cards is an obvious reflection of the Christian world in which they lived,” he adds. As divinatory usage became more popular, illustrations evolved to reflect a specific designer’s intention. “The subjects took on more and more esoteric meaning,” says Wolf, “but they generally maintained the traditional tarot structure of four suits of pip cards [similar to the numbered cards in a normal playing-card deck], corresponding court cards, and the additional trump cards, with a Fool.”

This woodblock version of the classic Tarot de Marseille was published around 1751 by Claude Burdel. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

Even if you aren’t familiar with tarot-card reading, you’ve likely seen one of the common decks, like the famous Rider-Waite, which has been continually printed since 1909. Named for publisher William Rider and popular mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate the deck, the Rider-Waite helped bring about the rise of 20th-century occult tarot used by mystical readers.

“The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery,” says Wolf. “People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are ‘illustrated,’ meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures. This strong narrative element gives readers something to latch onto, in that it is relatively intuitive to look at a combination of cards and derive your own story from them.

“The deck really took off in popularity when Stuart Kaplan obtained the publishing rights and developed an audience for it in the early ’70s,” says Wolf. Kaplan helped renew interest in card reading with his 1977 book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and has since written several volumes on tarot.

1920PamC-edited

Though historians like Kaplan and Matthews publish new information on divination decks every year, there are still many holes in the larger story of fortune-telling cards. Wolf points out that those who use cards for divination are often at odds with academics researching their past. “There’s a lot of friction between tarot historians and card readers about the origins and purpose of tarot cards,” Wolf says. “The evidence suggests they were invented for gaming and evolved for use in divination at a much later date. Personally, I believe they were designed for game play, but that the design is a bit more sophisticated than many tarot historians seem to believe.”

“The earliest known tarot decks weren’t designed with mysticism in mind; they were actually meant for playing a game similar to modern-day bridge.”

By the mid-18th century, the mystical applications for cards had spread from Italy to other parts of Europe. In France, writer Antoine Court de Gébelin asserted that the tarot was based on a holy book written by Egyptian priests and brought to Europe by Gypsies from Africa. In reality, tarot cards predated the presence of Gypsies in Europe, who actually came from Asia rather than Africa. Regardless of its inaccuracies, Court de Gébelin’s nine-volume history of the world was highly influential.

Teacher and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette wrote his first book on the tarot in 1791, called “Etteilla, ou L’art de lire dans les cartes,” meaning “Etteilla, or the Art of Reading Cards.” (Alliette created this mystical pseudonym “Etteilla” simply by reversing his surname.) According to Etteilla’s writings, he first learned divination with a deck of 32 cards designed for a game called Piquet, along with the addition of his special Etteilla card. This type of card is known as the significator and typically stands in for the individual having their fortune read.

A hand-colored set of tarot cards produced by F. Gumppenberg, circa 1810. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

While the tarot is the most widely known, it’s just one type of deck used for divination; others include common playing cards and so-called oracle decks, a term encompassing all the other fortune-telling decks distinct from the traditional tarot. Etteilla eventually switched to using a traditional tarot deck, which he claimed held secret wisdom passed down from ancient Egypt. Etteilla’s premise echoed the writings of Court de Gébelin, who allegedly recognized Egyptian symbols in tarot-card illustrations. Though hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered (the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799), many European intellectuals in the late 18th century believed the religion and writings of ancient Egypt held major insights into human existence. By linking tarot imagery to Egyptian mysticism, they gave the cards greater credibility.

Building on Court de Gébelin’s Egyptian connection, Etteilla claimed that tarot cards originated with the legendary Book of Thoth, which supposedly belonged to the Egyptian god of wisdom. According to Etteilla, the book was engraved by Thoth’s priests into gold plates, providing the imagery for the first tarot deck. Drawing on these theories, Etteilla published his own deck in 1789—one of the first designed explicitly as a divination tool and eventually referred to as the Egyptian tarot.

A few of the cards from Etteilla's esoteric deck, reproduced by Grimaud in 1890.

“Etteilla was one of the people who actually made divination so esoteric,” says Matthews. “He created a deck that incorporated all the things from Court de Gébelin and his book ‘Le Monde Primitif’ [‘The Primitive World’], which suggested an Egyptian origin for the tarot and all sorts of arcane things.” Matthews makes a distinction between the tarot’s abstract interpretations and the straightforward “cartomantic” reading style that thrived during the 16th and 17th centuries, prior to Etteilla.

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