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History of the Tarot: Myths and Mysteries Unraveled

“Where did the Tarot come from?” Thanks to the efforts of authors, scholars and tarot enthusiasts such as Stuart Kaplan, Franco Pratesi, Michael Dummett, Paul Huson, Mary K. Greer and many others, we have a very good and comprehensive overview of the history of the Tarot as a card game and divination method. In the blog article about the very first Tarot deck you can read how Stuart Kaplan found evidence for this very first Tarot deck (dating from 1424) in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris in the 70s. However, in the centuries before us, there were many myths and mysteries about the origin of the Tarot; The Tarot is said to have been ‘invented’ or ‘passed on’ through:

  • The Ancient Egyptians
  • The Roma and Sinti (formerly: Gypsies)
  • A Mysterious Alchemist (The Count of St. Germain)
  • The Knights Templar
  • The founder of the secret society ‘The Rosicrucians’ (Christian Rosenkreuz)

But even today there are authors who believe that they are on to something, such as Robert Swiryn who has written a – very good and fascinating – book – in which he explains that the origin of the Tarot can be traced back to the history of the Cathars.

Ever since I started studying the Tarot I have been interested in (hmm maybe obsessed with) the history of the Tarot and especially the origin of the symbolism. The Tarot deck may have originated in Renaissance Italy in the 15th century, but the esoteric symbolism that was later added to it by the various occultists must also be traceable in one way or another to various religious, philosophical, occult and cultural eras and movements. And herein lies the answer to the question of why the above myths and mysteries that surround the Tarot remain alive to this day.

When delving into the history of the Tarot, it is important to distinguish between the actual physical cards of the Tarot and the symbolism of the images. It should be clear to everyone that the archetypal and esoteric symbols on the cards (or linked to the cards) have already appeared on the scene before the physical Tarot.

When I give a course or workshop, I am sometimes asked why the history of wisdom in the Tarot would be so interesting. After all, the Tarot as we know it today can be used by anyone and most people are mainly interested in the practical side: giving consultations, interpreting the cards and training ones ‘intuition’.

My personal answer is that my motivation always comes from the urge to understand something. Knowing where something comes from provides more insight. When I understand where a certain symbol comes from and how it came to be in a card, the card comes more alive for me. I can also be more creative with it. Without this knowledge or understanding, I would just rattle off ‘meanings’ and that, in my opinion, is not the purpose of the Tarot. However, this is something that suits my personal style and the way I learn new things. It’s a style that’s also used by other – especially introvert – people; First, you want to know the ins and outs before you can get started applying this knowledge. Of course, there are many more styles and there is nothing right or wrong in this regard.

Another answer is that it’s just a lot of fun to dive into things and know a lot about something that is your passion. And especially if that something already has a mysterious touch. Add to that all the intrigues, the ‘crazy’ conspiracy theories and the juicy details from the biographies of those who have involved themselves in Tarot and related esoteric topics over the centuries… Then you have found a study object that you can study for the rest of your live without ever getting bored

In a series of blog articles about the history of the Tarot I would like to share what I have found in my search for ‘the origin of wisdom in the Tarot’. In some of them I have tried to explain where the myths surrounding the origin of the Tarot come from. Most of them don’t just come out of the blue and still have some kind of ‘credible’ – or at least ‘logical’ – link somewhere; After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire!

To Yod or Not?

On a number of Tarot cards in the RWS deck you can see drop-like things. On the Tower and on three of the aces (Cups, Swords, Wands) they are very visible. With the Cups they look like drops of water, with the Wands they look like leaves. But what are they about the in the  Swords suit? What do these drops symbolize and why was the Ace of Pentacles skipped?

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Tarot and Alchemy: a short introduction

When you think of Alchemy, you usually think of the 16th and 17th centuries. You probably see the image of (old) men brewing all kinds of concoctions from which they try to make gold. The candlelight and the old books & manuscript add an occult touch to this image. You might think it is a bit silly, but many great discoveries have been made during these experiments! And nowadays,  we are actually able to create gold out of other commodities (although this is such an expensive process that the costs do not outweigh the benefits of the gold obtained). You could, however,  argue that these alchemists were the forerunners of our “modern” sciences (physics, chemistry, medical sciences).

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Deep Sighs and Being Consumed by Jealousy: The Vera Sibilla

Although we know that the first Tarot cards were originated in early Renaissance Italy, it is the French who take credit for the way we work with the Tarot today; After all, it was the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette  (1738 – 1791) who – as far as is known at least – was the first to assign all kinds of occult correspondences to the Tarot and showed a broader audience how to use Tarot for divination. More Frenchies followed and for years the Marseille deck was THE Tarot deck to be used for divination purposes. The British also contributed a great deal when the members of the Golden Dawn started to delve into the occult writings on the Tarot at the end of the 19th century. The have ‘corrected’ the work of their French predecessors. It is not completely clear if these corrections are for the better, some argue they do and some argue they don’t.

Arthur Edward Waite  (1857 – 1942) is probably the best known Golden Dawn member because he released the popular Raider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909, in cooperation with Pamela Colman Smith (also a Golden Dawn member). Previously, a separate tradition of divination cards had also arised in Germany and the surrounding areas: The Lenormand and the Kipper decks are both of German origin. These four systems (Marseille Tarot, RWS Tarot, Lenormand and Kipper) are the most commonly used decks to date. What about the Italians?

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The Belline Oracle

The name ‘Belline’ is probably familiar to some; Especially to those who are interested in the history of the Tarot and like to work with the somewhat unknown decks like the ‘Grand Tarot de Belline’. This deck consists of 78 cards and the system looks like a mixture of the work of Jean Baptiste Aliette and the traditional Marseille deck.

The ‘Belline Oracle’ and the ‘Grand Tarot de Belline’ are named after the man who is actual name is Marcel Forget (1924 – 1977). Marcel Forget was a well-known Tarotist in Paris in the 20th century, but the decks he published were not of his hand. The original author is Mage Edmond (real name: Jules Charles Ernest Billaudot). And he was also an interesting character….

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