Tarot Cards – A Bit of History
When many think of psychics and gypsies, tarot cards come to mind. You think of someone sitting at a table with a crystal ball peering into your future and seeing things you want to know. It didn’t start out that way. Tarot cards started out as a game until someone realized their full potential. Later, the cards and their meanings found their match to the zodiac.
The Tarot found their start as ordinary playing cards. Today, we have four suits – clubs, spades, hearts and diamond with each housing cards ace through king. Tarot cards began the same, four suits – wands, pentacles, cups and swords each housing the four court cards and ten numbered cards. Then, the joker card was called a fool but the card was still the trump card depending on the game of choice.
Playing cards are thought to have developed somewhere in the Mediterranean, likely in Egypt during the 14th century. What sets playing cards apart from the Tarot is the addition of twenty-two trump cards added around the 1450s. Traced back to regions in northern Italy, the extra cards became a part of a game called Tarocchi and were quite popular among the wealthy and elite. The history of the card lies dormant for nearly four hundred years. It was until then that the Tarot cards were defined and their purpose developed.
The first set of cards created specifically for the purpose of divination was created by a French man, Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla). By 1785 he was the first professional tarot occultist known to history who made his living by card divination. He believed that the Tarot was derived from the Book of Thoth, a book of ancient Egypt that contained spells and knowledge from the God Thoth who was known as the God of Wisdom and Magics. Etteilla created his deck using ancient Egyptian imagery and all 78 cards.
The 78 cards were then defined and divided into two parts, coined the “major” and “minor arcana” later by Paul Christian. The minor arcana consisted of the playing cards, four suits along with their four face and ten numbered cards. The major arcana consisted of the twenty two trump cards of the deck and feature a person or people in symbolic events. The minor arcana is said to depict every day events and matters of immediate significance. The major depicts matters of a more worldly scale and deeper significance.
The minor arcanum does resemble and can match be matched up to a regular playing deck. These represented a social classification of the time. The wands of the Tarot match to clubs of a playing deck and represented peasantry. The pentacles match to diamonds representing merchants. The cups match to hearts representing clergy. Then finally the swords match to the spades representing nobility and military. Each suit matches human faculty as well. The wands represent spirit while pentacles represent physicality or possessions. The cups represent emotions while swords represent reasoning. Over time, interpretation gave way to a much more defined card.
More importantly for our purposes, each suit matches an element we tie into the zodiac. The wands are associated with the element of fire. In most decks they are depicted as branches from a tree, something you can use to create fire and light your way or keep warm. The pentacles are associated with earth. They represent what is tangible and often times depicted by coins. The cups are associated with water.
This is more obvious because the cups can hold water, something essential to life. The swords are associated with air element. Swords were chosen for the way they cut through air in battle representing a way to “communicate”.
The major Arcanum has its physical roots in mythological beings. This consists of 22 cards without suits: Fool, Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, and World. Each card represents people and events taken from Greek or Egyptian mythology. This gives each card a multitude of meanings and descriptions or associations. Each card is also tied into a sign of the zodiac and the planets of our solar system.
Much of the symbolism in the modern tarot deck has its roots in many religions, myths and legends. This is because the cards were developed in a time filled with imagery influenced by many the events of the day. After all, the cards began when the dark ages where ending and the Renaissance was beginning. There is a great deal of figurative symbolism referencing the religious teachings of those times, and we certainly see the influence of Greco-Roman imagery.
Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) felt that the Tarot was the key to things like the bible, the Kabbalah and all other ancient spiritual writings. He likened the major arcana to the Hebrew alphabet and sparked a movement into the study of the Tarot and its ties to religion. There was Paul Christian (Jean Baptiste Pitois) mentioned earlier, who not only coined the Arcanum but began to make parallels between the Tarot and Kabalistic astrology. Papus (Gerard Encausse) believed the Tarot a bearer of ancient designs inscribed in secret chambers below the Pyramids as well tying the Tarot to numerology.
What this in turned sparked was the Order of the Golden Dawn. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a group active in Great Britain between the 19th and 20th century whose focus was spiritual development. Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Order. He Pamela Colman Smith left the order and created the Tarot we know today. In 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, Waite and Smith created cards that included symbolic images related to divinatory meanings on the numeric cards. The Rider-Waite tarot deck has been vastly influential in the development of later divinatory tarot decks. In the 20th century, a huge number of decks were created, some holding the traditional look while others were completely different. Publisher U.S. Games Systems, who owns the copyright to the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, has been popular in the English-speaking world beginning in the 1970s.
Our next series will delve into the world of Tarot and the Zodiac. We will talk about which cards represent your sign and what the card means. No one will be sitting a table with a crystal ball but you will get to see how the zodiac ties in to the mysticism of the world. The more you know, the more you just might find out about yourself.