Follow by Email

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Brief History of the Tarot

What is Tarot? When did Tarot begin? Why should we, as citizens of the twenty-first century concern ourselves with something as seemingly primitive as the Tarot? The answers to these questions are much more complex than meets the eye, but I hope to answer them with this very text, to the best of my abilities as both an art historian and as a longtime devotee of the Tarot.
            Scholars have long debated the exact origins of the Tarot. Some of the stories surrounding Tarot could be considered an art form all to themselves for their inventiveness and imagination. Some writers on the Tarot comment that the exact nature of Tarot’s beginning is of no consequence; the mere fact of its existence being a part of Western Zeitgeist for so long is more important. How the images on the cards came into being is not as important as the images themselves, the archetypes they call to mind, and their rich evocative nature. Having said this, I still personally find the history of the Tarot rich and inspiring, and sometimes as tricky as a game of cards.
Tarot as we know it first appeared around the mid-fifteenth century, and went by several names: “Tarrocchi” in Italian, Triomfi – or the game of Trumps by the French, and eventually evolving into the word “Tarot.” The game was based on the set up of the deck, which roughly consisted of 22 Trump cards and 56 suited cards. (The exact numbers seems to have varied from deck to deck and place to place). The game involved the tacking of tricks, and the Trump cards had higher values than the suited cards. Playing cards in general are thought to have come to Europe from the Islamic world, but how the cards evolved into the game of Trumps is not known. Ronald Decker, Thierry DePaulis, and Michael Dummett note in their excellent book, A Wicked Pack of Cards, “Playing cards reached Europe from the Islamic world in the second half of the fifteenth century in a form of 52 cards, each consisting of four suits, and ten numerical cards, and 3 court cards each. The suit signs of the Tarot are not peculiar to it; they were those normally used for ordinary playing cards throughout Italy up to the end of the fifteenth century and are still so used in much of Italy as well as in Spain, Morocco, and Latin America….” (Decker, DePaulis, and Dummett, 1996, p. 29).
            During this period, a deck of Tarot cards was a precious thing, the cards painted by court artists such as Benifacio Bembo; miniature paintings played with by the nobility. (To my modern mind, this pursuit seems the very definition of bourgeois).  We are fortunate that a number of these decks have survived. Tarot historian Cynthia Giles writes, “The cards are truly beautiful – radiant miniature scenes on elegant gold leaf backgrounds, so beautifully and delicately rendered that some of them compare with the best work of the Italian Renaissance.  There are more than 250 of them extant, apparently from as many as 15 different packs, but all generally are referred to as ‘Visconti types’ since they seem to be connected with the so-called Duke of Milan and his family.” (Giles, 1994, p. 12).
            The Visconti family is known to have commissioned several decks, and one of them provides us with the most complete version of these early decks. These early decks were not available to commoners, due to the expense involved in creating them. Nobility in other countries began to commission decks of their own, spreading Tarot’s popularity across Europe, but it was not until the advent of the printing press that Tarot passed into the hands of the common people.
            The invention of the printing press was perhaps the beginning of the many changes Tarot has undergone ever since. Up until this time, the imagery on the cards seems to have come from two major sources. Medieval virtues were popular in Renaissance imagery, and we see this carried through in cards featuring Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. “Italian Renaissance art is full of representations of these and other virtues, not usually as angels, but as human female figures with traditional symbolic attributes. Temperance always pours water from one vessel to another filled with wine. Fortitude has either a lion or a column….” (Dummett, et al, 1996, page 45).
            Symbols particular to a noble family may have shown up in these early decks. For example, one of the most disputed cards (in terms of symbolism and political importance) La Papessa, or Female Pope, which later became the High Priestess, may have been significant to the Visconti Sforza family. Nearly a century before their deck was painted by Benifacio Bembo, a member of their family, Manfreda Visconti, belonged to a sect of nuns who believed a new age would soon arrive when women would be elected as popes. Manfreda was declared Pope by her order, and was summarily burned at the stake as a heretic. A card such as La Papessa my have been some kind of statement on the part of the Visconti family. (Pollack, 1980, p. 34).
            As mentioned before, the printing press enabled the common people to possess their own decks of cards and to make statements of their own. During the French Revolution, the cards known as the Empress and the Emperor were re-born as the Grandmother and the Grandfather. Major production of the cards shifted from Italy to France, and from the Visconti type of Tarot, became what is now called the Marseilles type of Tarot, named for the city in which the cards were often produced.
            The printing press itself altered a number of images on the cards, as explained by Rachel Pollack in her seminal work, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. “Little is known of how and why certain changes were introduced into the Marseilles images, but one possibility among many is that among the guilds of card makers who produced the many popular decks of the Marseilles period were members of heretical sects or secret societies who added their own symbolism to the design of the cards. (1980, page 25). Interestingly, the authors of A Wicked Pack of Cards have quite a different take on how the changes may have occurred, suggesting mistakes made by card makers. “The wings of Temperance in the Tarot de Marseilles are a card maker’s error; they misrepresent the two corners on the back of the chair on which … she is shown sitting. “ (1996, page 45).
            It is this Tarot de Marseilles which I feel brings us to the modern age of Tarot. Although by the mid-eighteenth century the game of Tarot had fallen out of favor, it was still being played in Europe. In 1775, it was a deck of this kind that inspired a new age of Tarot and spurred another chain reaction in its evolution.
Tarot in the Modern Age
            We have a gentleman by the name of Court de Gebelin to thank for the creation of what is known as the “Esoteric Tarot.” Court de Gebelin was an “avid student of mythology, archeology, and linguistics.” (Giles, 1994, page 23). On a trip through Europe in 1775, he was introduced to the game of Tarot by several bored fellow travelers. Egypt was all the rage in France at this time, as Napoleon was excavating Egyptian tombs and finding many curious artifacts. The Rosetta Stone would not be found until 1799, and wouldn’t then be translated for many years, so all kinds of theories abounded about the mysterious hieroglyphs being found. Court de Gebelin “became completely enthralled with the Tarot, and concluded right away that it was an Egyptian “book” which preserved in symbolic form the fabulous knowledge of that vanished civilization.” (Giles, page 23). The irony of this was that the card first seen by Court de Gebelin must have been of the Marseilles type – not even the Tarot in its earliest form!
            Court de Gebelin went on to publish a great deal about his Egyptian hypothesis about the origins of the Tarot deck, and many of the ideas he put forth are still held as truths today, even after having been proved inaccurate. Even the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone and the continued de-bunking of these early theories has been unable to completely dislodge these myths. I feel the reasons for this are manifold, but center on the fact that many occultists feel a need to put a fanciful story on the origin of whatever they were writing in order for it to sound more mysterious. As the eighteenth century continued into the nineteenth, these fallacious stories of Tarot’s origin were enlarged upon, creating a kind of living oral/written tradition.
From a professional storyteller named Aliette (who changed his name to Etteila, the reverse spelling of his name) comes an enhancement to Court de Gebelin’s ideas: “The date of Tarot’s creation (171 years after the flood), and the circumstances of its creation by 17 magi working under the direction of Hermes Trismegistus in a temple three leagues from Memphis!” (Giles, page 26). Other Occultists came along who put forth the story that Egyptian initiates were to walk up a flight of seventy-eight stairs, coming to a hall in which they were to gaze upon and meditate on the images of the twenty-two trumps. This particular ritual was supposed to have taken place underneath the Egyptian pyramids.
Enthusiasm for Tarot continued to grow through out the nineteenth century as Occultists seemed to try to out-do one another with tales of the Tarot, and their own versions of the “true and original” Tarot. They all seemed quite intent on de-bunking one another’s theories, even though none of them were authentic to begin with. One might wonder if any legitimate scholarship was going on, or anything worthwhile in terms of what was now the Occult Tarot. Although Occultists did a great deal to increase Tarot’s popularity, Tarot itself turned out to be a great addition to Occult lore.
Born in 1810, Alphonse  Louis Constant, writing under the pen name Eliphas Levi, made associations between the Tarot and several other Occult systems, tying together what on the surface must have appeared to be a very disparate structure. Cynthia Giles points out, “But Levi’s greatest enthusiasm – and his most significant contribution to the lore of the Tarot – was the extensive correlation he developed between Tarot and the great Hebrew system of mysticism, Kabbalah. Although Court de Gebelin had noticed the correspondence between the Trumps and the 22 letters of the alphabet, this relationship had not been developed in detail before Levi.” (1994, page 28).  From this point onward, the relationship between the two systems was seized upon and expanded upon by any number of Occult schools of thought, and nowadays, many Tarot enthusiasts insist that one can not be taught without the other. The Tarot was about to undergo still more permutations, however, with the formation of a very important Occult order.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was formed in March 1, 1988. Like so many Occult groups, it came into and out of existence within just a few years, however it’s influence on Tarot and the Occult continues to this day. It counted such notables as William Butler Yeats and Annie Horniman (founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin) amongst its number, and following Levi’s cue, they included Tarot as part of their esoteric studies. “Each member had to copy his (or her …) own deck from a master copy, and as there were no precise instructions on how this was done, the result was a wide variety of highly personalized decks.” (Giles, page 42). This certainly contributed to the growth of Tarot as an art form, and as the Golden Dawn met its demise, several of its members broke off and formed their own orders, creating with them their own form of the Tarot.
In 1910, Arthur Edward Waite, himself a former member of he Golden Dawn, published his book A Pictorial Key to the Tarot. He commissioned an American artist, Pamela Colman Smith, to create a new deck, with a new and striking innovation. True to its origins, Tarot still had 22 Trump cards and 56 suited cards. The twenty-two Trumps had acquired the name Major Arcana (‘Greater Secrets’) while the fifty-six suited cards became the Minor Arcana (‘Lesser Secrets’).  Waite’s innovation was to completely change the images on the Minor Arcana cards which had previously only featured the number of whatever objects were assigned to the card. (For example, the Four of Swords featured a drawing of Four Swords). A scholarly man, Waite went against tradition, denouncing Tarot’s supposed Egyptian origins as well. “These images, published as a deck by Rider and Company in 1910, featured an innovation that was to influence most subsequently designed decks; the use of story-like pictures on the Minor Arcana cards, illustrating their divinatory meanings.” (Giles, pages 45 – 46). Waite most likely gave Colman some instructions on what to paint on the cards but a great deal of what we see on this deck most likely came from her imagination. Up until recently, she was never given the credit she fully deserves, and when the deck was originally published, it was known as the Rider Waite deck, acknowledging the publisher rather than the artist. Many Tarot devotees now refer to this deck as the Smith Waite deck in her honor. As will be seen, her influence on future decks is still being felt.
Another former member of the Golden Dawn (who has also been blamed for its break up), Aleister Crowley created his famous Thoth Tarot deck during the Golden Dawn period, but it was never published until 1944. His deck was painted by Lady Frieda Harris, and is a thoroughly modern deck, incorporating Cubism and Surrealism into this imagery. “Together with artist Lady Frieda Harris, he created one of the most beautiful and unusual of all Tarot decks. The ‘Thoth’ deck was published … as part of Crowley’s masterwork on the Tarot, The Book of Thoth … Crowley didn’t assume that any historical relationship existed between the Egyptians and the Tarot deck; in fact, he clearly stated that ‘the origin of Tarot is quite irrelevant, even if it were certain.’” (Giles, page 46).
Having taken its artistic inspiration from the Modern era, Crowley’s Book of Thoth is a good place to conclude our discussion of the Modern era of Tarot and look to what I think of as the Post-Modern era of Tarot. The Age of Enlightenment and Reason was ironically a great time in Tarot’s history for fanciful invention and an abandonment of history. However, it only adds to the colorful flavor of the cards which exists to this day.
The Present and Future: Post Modern Tarot
According to, the definition of Post-Modern is, “noting or pertaining to art of the late 20th century, appearing in the 1960s, that consciously uses complex forms, fantasy, and allusions to historic styles.” Essentially, art that is Post-Modern borrows from history while remaining firmly planted in contemporary times. Tarot today is an excellent example of post-modernism in that the decks being produced have a historical basis even if the creator of the deck veers wildly from the Smith-Waite model.
The era of Post-Modern Tarot begins for me with the ideas of Carl Jung, who spoke of the archetypes embodied in the Tarot. The future of Tarot, in my opinion, lives on the Internet, in the countless websites, webgroups, and blogs that have been devoted to it. Carl Jung made an almost passing reference to Tarot, stating that the Trumps represent the great archetypes of humanity, and many Tarot enthusiasts in turn, took a closer look at his work in their own readings, bringing a new psychotherapeutic approach to Tarot readings. Angeles Arrien, author of The Tarot Handbook writes, “I wondered whether Jung was correct when he stated that ‘the psychological mechanism for transforming energy is the symbol.’ Between 1972 and 1987, I worked with the Tarot …. And I found that Jung was correct: symbols are the psychological mechanism for transforming energy’ and additionally, they function as audio-visual suggestology tools which set up a matrix for self-fulfilling prophecy, thereby enhancing an individual’s trust in his or her own intuition and inner guidance.” (1987, pages 12 – 13.) Arrien has hit upon the new way in which Tarot is being approached, which is as a personal tool for transformation. As this new age of Tarot has shown, many individuals found it necessary to transform the Tarot into something more recognizable for them.
After the 1920’s, apart from the publication of Crowley’s Tarot, there were not many developments in Tarot; possibly going through two world wars was not conducive to the development of Occult thought. Tarot experienced a renaissance in 1971 with the publication of Eden Gray’s Mastering the Tarot. Grey’s no-nonsense approach attracted a new audience, and new Tarot decks began to appear. Tarot was energized, and although many artists relied on the imagery provided in the original Smith-Waite Tarot, many others took divergent paths.
Peter Balin’s Xultun Tarot is a great example of the multi-cultural influences that began turning up in the Tarot in the 1970s. The Xultan Tarot took its basis from Mayan culture, using Mayan myths and glyphs as the images on the cards. Vicki Noble and Karen Vogel created the Mother Peace Tarot in 1981, incorporating both multicultural and feminist imagery into the cards. The Mother Peace deck is round, diverging from traditional rectangular cards, and further pushing the feminist imagery. (This was one of my first Tarot decks, incidentally). The Mother Peace deck draws on Native American, African, and Asian cultures as well as European, and female figures dominate the deck.
In 1978, sculptor Nikki de Saint Phalle began work on her famous Tarot Sculpture Garden in Tuscany. Titled, “Il Giardino dei Tarrochi,” the garden features enormous sculptural depictions of the Tarot trumps. De Saint Phalle herself actually lived in one of the sculptures, the Empress, during the beginning phases of the Garden’s construction. Like Judy Chicago, de Saint Phalle employed a large number of construction workers and artisans to help complete the garden. Beautiful and playful, the sculptures are a wonder to behold, and house the Post-Modern essence of the meaning of the Tarot.
Although hundreds of new Tarot decks came into existence during the seventies and eighties, I believe the biggest explosion began in the 1990s, with the World Wide Web making the Tarot accessible to larger numbers of people than ever before. Listservs made it possible for Tarot enthusiasts to share information, ideas, and to collaborate. It is this collaboration that I find the most exciting new development in Tarot. A listerv known as Tarot-L participated in the creation of not one but two Tarot decks, known as the Manini I and II decks, beginning in 1996. To describe the deck, I have borrowed from one of their web pages, “Manini. An Italian word meaning ‘many little hands.’ An apt description indeed for this deck of Tarot cards, as it was created by a diverse group of people from around the world, most of whom have not met any of the other members. This deck, believed to be the first of its kind, was created by an Internet discussion group. A variety of artistic media were used – watercolor, collage, computer graphics, and hand-drawn images – all combined to produce a unique compilation of works that truly represents the collective personality of this global group.” ( Other mailart groups have created similar decks, with a large number of hand made decks made by individuals utilizing collage becoming more and more available. The Internet has certainly created an entirely new paradigm for Tarot, enabling greater interactivity for enthusiasts.
Another development in Tarot and technology is the use of interactive programs not only for computers and webpages, but also for smart phones and tablet devices. These interactive programs enable users to get immediate Tarot readings utilizing software that shuffles and deals the cards. The user can get a Tarot reading immediately, with the quality of interpretations varying greatly from webpage to webpage or application to application. Although this experience will never take the place of a real, live Tarot reader, it can give the user a sense of what a Tarot reading is like, and encourage further exploration.
Another late 20th and early 21st century development in Tarot is the advent of the Tarot conference, in which Tarot enthusiasts can join together in an atmosphere of learning and community, with classes being taught by Tarot luminaries such as Rachel Pollack and Mary K. Greer. The Tarot School offers its yearly Readers Studio in New York City, complete with a wonderful sit down banquet and Tarot costume competition. On the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium offers a similar experience. Through out the year, various Tarot groups offer meet-ups, gatherings, classes and a variety of offerings across the United States.
What does the future hold for Tarot? I believe as more and more enthusiasts find one another, whether through the Internet, or the many Tarot conferences, collaboration will no doubt continue to shape Tarot. Cynthia Giles also talks about the possibility of interactivity going a step further via virtual reality, allowing one to actually ‘step’ into a card and interact with the people on it. Tarot has the ability, Giles further states, to adapt itself to whatever milieu it finds itself in. In her book, The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More, she says, “Tarot commentator Gareth Knight has supplied me with a wonderfully apt reference regarding the future of Tarot. After centuries of containment in the guise of a game or in the closed precincts of esoteric societies, the Tarot, says Knight, burst into popularity in the late 60s and 70s, rather like a ‘cultural time bomb.’ The Tarot moves forward with us, he explains, ‘because it is capable of regenerating itself and adapting itself to the times.’” (1996, page 213). I think this sums up the history and future of Tarot quite well, and as we continue through the new millennium, I anxiously await the further developments brought on by artists and enthusiasts.


Arrien, A.  (1987). The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols. New York: Penguin Punam.

Balin, P. (1981). Xultan Tarot. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.

Crowley, A. (1977). The Book of Thoth. Stamford, CT; U. S. Games Systems, Inc..

Decker, R., DuPaulis,  T., & Dumett, M. (1997).  A Wicked Pack of Cards. New York: St. Martin's Press. 

Giles, C. (1994). The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. New York: Fireside.

Giles, C. (1996). The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More. New York: Fireside.

Grey, E. (1992). Complete Guide to the Tarot. New York: Bantam Books.

Noble, V., & Vogel, K. (1997). The Motherpeace Tarot. Stamford CT: U. S. Games Systems, Inc.

Pollack, R. (1980). Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot. London: The Aquarian Press.

Waite, A. E. (1977). The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Stamford, CT: U. S. Games Systems, Inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment