KP - Tarot readings at the cafe by szczel
KP – Tarot readings at the cafe by szczel via Flickr

Rosemary Ellen Guiley says the word tarot comes from the Italian tarocci, meaning ‘triumphs’ or ‘trumps.’¹

Today’s tarot consists of 78 cards divided into major and minor arcanas. The major arcana of 22 cards contains symbolism based on different mythic traditions.

The minor arcana of 56 cards is divided into four suits: Cups, Wands, Swords, and Pentacles. These in turn are separated into King, Queen, Knight and Page.

Believers use the cards for depth psychology, the achievement of goals, divination or, perhaps, some combination of those.

The cards are usually shuffled and placed in one of several different patterns or spreads (e.g. the “Horseshoe,” the “Star,” the “Celtic Cross”). The choice of a spread arguably reflects the dealer’s current state of mind, proficiency level and possibly their unconscious intentions, hopes and desires.

The origins of tarot cards have been variously traced to Hellenistic Egypt, India, Morroco and Atlantis. Guiley says that a French painter, one Jacquemin Grinngonneur, presented cards “that may have been Tarot” to King Charles VI of France in 1392.

My Tarot Decks by Chin
My Tarot Decks by Chin via Flickr

Alfred Douglas says that in 1415, the Duke of Milan had Tarot cards painted for his own personal use. Gordon Melton says the Duke’s cards were precursors to the current Tarot deck. Melton adds that the Tarot was first differentiated from playing cards in the eighteenth-century, mostly due to the efforts of the French Freemason Anntione Court de Gebelin (1719-1784).²

Alphonse-Louis Constant, a.k.a. Eliphas Levi, (1810-1875) wrote extensively about the tarot. Levi planned on becoming a Catholic priest but fell in love, discovered the occult and never looked back. As such, his writings were later incorporated into the practice of magic. He also associated the tarot with the Kabbala.

On this Stuart Gordon says:

Levi developed the pack’s occult connection by associating the card of the Major Arcana with Qabalah, assigning each of the twenty-two trumps to letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with corresponding numerological significances.³

Tarot 12 Le Pendu by Jorge Rangel
Tarot 12 Le Pendu by Jorge Rangel

During this era the tarot was believed to have first been discovered (not devised) in Europe by gypsies, thought to have originated in Egypt–“(e)gyp(t)sy.”

The cards or, at least, the ideas behind them, were apparently preserved by scribes who, up to medieval times, quietly saved a lion’s share of ancient pagan texts, spells and incantations from the ravages of a war-torn Roman Empire and their official condemnation by the Church.4

The obvious influence of pagan Celtic symbolism in the tarot lends some support this view, as do the 22 Major cards corresponding to prominent deities from classical Greek and Roman lore.

In 1910, Arthur Edward Waite with artist Pamela Colman Smith developed a new tarot deck, known today as the Rider-Waite Tarot. Shortly afterward, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) emphasized the tarot’s alleged Egyptian origin, devising a deck with commentary called The Book of Thoth, which rivaled in popularity Waite and Coleman’s tarot.

In the 1950’s, the Jungian writer Marie Louise von Franz suggested that the tarot parallels steps along the individuation process, a view shared by many today.

¹ Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (1991)

² Gordon Melton, The Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (1992)

³ The Paranormal: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Headline (1992, p, 647)

4 Arnold J. Toynbee and others say organized Christianity effectively replaced pagan Rome as the creator of a persecutory culture of fear.

» Review – Tarot Stripped Bare (DVD), Magic, Odin

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  1. Just one teensy little comment: Pamela Colman Smith’s middle name does not have an “e” in it. (Colman, not Coleman). Feel free to delete this comment if you edit the post.

    As a student/reader of Tarot, that bit on the Irish monks preserving the Tarot was news to me. Can I ask what your source was for that? Is that in Guiley’s book?


  2. Thanks very much for that correction. As for the reference, I first wrote this entry in summer 2007 so will have to do a bit of digging–I generally use several reference sources.

    But please do check back. I’ll find it! 🙂


  3. So I spent a good part of the day going through my books and found the two I was looking for. Both of these references rightly point out that the history is debatable at best. Chances are I’d looked at these, some web sites up to 2007 and possibly saw something on a TV documentary.

    Hopefully you can get your hands on these in the library:

    Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Complete Book of Tarot (1985), pp. 10-17.

    Alfred Douglas, The Tarot (1987), pp. 13-45, especially 37.

    As for the dating, that could be softened to reflect the inherent ambiguities. I plan to revise this entry as a result of today’s research. Thanks very much for calling my attention to all this.


  4. Different approaches to the spiritual – there is always a wide menu. While there is truth in just about anything that works to some degree, I find it amazing that others do this. It has a lot to do with communication between the spirits of the reader and the client. But what kind of spirits are involved? I hope and pray that someday they also include God in their quest for truth and insight.


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