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The Evolution of the Tarot

Tarot cards first appeared in northern Italy, not many years after the introduction of playing cards into Europe about 1375. In fact, most of the cards of a typical tarot pack, the 56 known as the minor arcana, are nothing but a set of playing cards, with the variation that instead of a jack there are two cards (a knight and page) in each suit. The suits themselves seem a little strange to American eyes, because they are the traditional Italian suits of staves, cups, swords, and coins, rather than the French equivalents of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds.

What distinguishes the tarot deck is an additional 22 cards bearing various images, often rather allegorical in character. These are the major arcana or trumps. For most of its history, tarot cards were used to play a trick-taking game similar to bridge, in which the trump cards were played if one could not follow suit, and would "triumph" (Italian trionfi is the origin of the term "trumps") over the suit cards and win the trick. During the 17th and 18th centuries, most tarot decks closely followed a classic (if somewhat crude) set of woodblock designs known as the Tarot of Marseilles. These designs are still commonplace, especially outside the US.

The trumps are a motley collection of images, ranging from rather ordinary human figures (The Fool, The Magician), through powerful figures of the medieval world (The Emperor, The Pope), to allegorical images of virtues (Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance) and the great forces of life (The Wheel of Fortune, Death, and The Devil), finally reaching rather cosmological imagery in such cards as The Sun, The Moon, and the final Judgment. I've always thought that playing the game of trumps must often have involved more than a bit of wry humor. Imagine a contemporary version of the game, with cards representing The Journalist, The President, The TV Evangelist, followed by depictions of forces such as Popularity, Scandal, War, and Economic Collapse. It seems like playing such a game would surely raise a smile on occasion, as one card falls to the next in sequence.

The modern interest in the tarot as a metaphysical tool stems from the 18th century occult movement in France. Antoine Court de Gebelin noticed a deck of tarot cards and decided that the trumps must surely carry lost religious secrets from ancient times. His speculation spawned a great interest in "uncovering" (some would say "inventing") the mystical meanings of the cards. The occultists are also responsible for a great many erroneous but oft-repeated tarot myths: that the cards were brought to Europe by the gypsies, that they were invented in ancient Egypt, and so on. By the beginning of the 20th century, tarot cards were a main focus for occult societies, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in England. The occultists redesigned the deck to emphasize their own interpretations of the cards, which they connected with such traditions as qabala, astrology, and alchemy. Apparently, the widespread use of tarot cards for fortune telling also dates from this time period. The evidence suggests that they were hardly (if ever) used for anything but game playing before the 19th century.

Two members of the Golden Dawn had a great influence on the development of modern tarot. A. E. Waite, a Christian mystic, published his own deck in 1909. The deck was drawn by artist Pamela Coleman Smith. The major arcana, naturally, are rich with occult symbolism. The most innovative aspect of the deck, however, is the minor arcana, which (instead of resembling playing cards) show various scenes that seem to suggest stories. With this change, every card in the deck makes an immediate psychological suggestion in the mind of the viewer. In a sense, all the cards now resemble the trumps. This deck became the most popular deck in the English-speaking world. It is still widely available, and most books that teach tarot reading use the Waite-Smith deck as the starting point. (It is often called the Rider-Waite deck, because Rider was the original publisher. It seems more appropriate to honor the artist Smith, who apparently created all the innovative minor arcana cards without much specific direction from Waite.)

The other influential Golden Dawn member was the infamous Aleister Crowley. His Thoth Tarot (named for the Egyptian god of magic) was painted by Lady Frieda Harris in the 1940s, but was not published until 1966. This deck is very intense psychologically (almost to the point of psychedelia), and the artwork is very abstract and visceral. Crowley's interpretations of the cards differ somewhat from Waite's, but they are both derived from a common framework that draws heavily on Hermetic qabala, a mystical doctrine of the stages through which the divine force of creation descends into matter.

In the 1970s, the blossoming interest in alternative religious and spiritual practices launched a burst of popularity for the tarot, which continues to the present day without any sign of receding. Many new decks were published, most adaptations of the Waite-Smith (or sometimes Crowley-Harris) deck, redrawn to reflect the artist's esthetic sensibilities or personal philosophy. Hence there are now Wiccan decks, feminist decks, Native American decks, and so on. There are even such curiosities as Tarot for Cats and a deck where each card shows a different style of shoe. The tarot has proved itself to be a facile vehicle for the expression of new-age creativity.

We've left one question unanswered, though. Why were the tarot trump cards created in the first place? Was it simply, as the external evidence seems to suggest, a clever card game created by an unknown Italian artist early in the 15th century? Or, as the occultists suspected (albeit without evidence), a set of images deliberately conceived to depict a philosophical, religious, or mystical system? The earliest surviving cards were lavishly hand-painted collection pieces made for the court of the Duke of Milan around the middle of the 15th century. If they were modeled on a more mundanely produced set of playing cards, the physical evidence is gone. Robert O'Neill, in his book Tarot Symbolism, argues persuasively that the tarot were designed to depict the mystical ideas of neoplatonism and perhaps Jewish qabala that were becoming known in Italy at the time. An especially interesting piece in this puzzle is the so-called Tarocchi of Mantegna (which are neither tarot cards nor the work of renaissance artist Andreas Mantegna). This set of 50 pictures depicts the various ranks of medieval society, the academic sciences, the muses, the virtues, and the cosmos. Many of the pictures resemble the tarot trumps, but the "Tarocchi of Mantegna" were clearly intended for philosophical edification rather than game playing.

The history of the tarot is a window on one of the philosophical/religious strands in the story of European culture. That strand reaches back in time to ancient gnosticism, through the medieval practices of alchemy and astrology, through the fascination with the occult in recent centuries, and on into the modern "new age" movement. It is a cultural strand that is not always easy to follow, with the suppression, secrecy, and obscurity under which many of these ideas lived for centuries. It is a strand full of false histories, deliberate obfuscations, and odd gaps. To pursue the various phases of tarot history further, look at my introductions to modern, occult, and classic tarot decks.

Because the tarot has passed through so many different circumstances and subcultures, it is a feast for the curious, whether your interest is religion, art, magic, games, or philosophy. Perhaps the tarot is a kind of cultural flypaper, catching everything that happens to bump into it.

Want to learn more about tarot history? Visit The Hermitage.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters