The History Of Tarot
An exploration of the history and various theories of the origin of the Tarot.
The tarot is a rich and symbolic method of divination that uses a deck of 78 cards decorated with pictures depicting a variety of scenes. The deck is divided into two distinct parts known as the Major and Minor Arcana (from the word "arcanum" meaning "profound secret"). The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards depicting various aspects of the human experience, and the Minor Arcana is comprised of 56 cards (14 cards of four suits each: wands, pentacles, cups, and swords) representing people and situations from daily life.
Tarot came about in the mid 1400s in card games, and tarot cards are still used today for that purpose in central Europe. Some of the earliest decks are still around and are a testimony to the skill and artistry of the early creators. Wealthy families commissioned artists to create decks of great beauty and detail. As the cards gained popularity, they were often banned by the church and by lawmakers.
Over the years, the tarot evolved into a method of divination used throughout history by many generations and nationalities of people to foretell the future and reveal human nature. The question remains, however: Where, when and how did tarot cards come into being? Ideas and stories abound with possible answers to that. Below are some of the many theories with regard to the tarot's origin.
Some think that the tarot originated with the ancient Egyptians. Egypt has long been considered a place of mystery and advanced knowledge, and the fact that both the hieroglyphs and the tarot revolve around symbolism leads to an assumption of connection between the two.
The early tarot occultist, Antoine Court de Gebelin, believed that the cards held knowledge and that their symbolism was used by ancient Egyptian magicians in order to hide this knowledge from ordinary folk.
There are also legends that describe an Egyptian temple that housed a secret chamber with two sections of 11 life-size pictures, each corresponding to the 22 cards of the tarot's Major Arcana.
Many people believe that the tarot originated with gypsies because they often use the cards for fortune-telling. Gypsies are often thought to have come from Egypt; however, their own stories and legends place them as descendants from India.
Another theory, not as popular though, is that tarot cards originated in China. The fact that the first use of playing cards originated in China and the first Tarot decks appeared in Italy in the 1400s, shortly after the return of Marco Polo from China, leads to this school of thought.
Some claim that the tarot came from Atlantis. They believe that as it became apparent that Atlantis was headed for destruction, the masters of information began to look for some way to preserve their advanced knowledge. This information could not be retained in its complexity and was reduced to the rather simple but symbolic form of 22 cards (the Major Arcana). The belief was that the cards would be mistaken for a game and would stay around in that fashion until the knowledge was ready to be revealed and used again.
No matter how or where it began, the tarot has a rich history of hundreds of years and a great popularity in current times. The scenes depicted on the cards speak to us on levels from the shallow to the sublime and while the mysteries of the tarot's origin remain hidden, it continues to be a force in the lives of many.