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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!