Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Brief History of the Tarot

In our modern new-millenium society, there are a great many Tarot decks available, and the Tarot has inspired a great many artists as well. Above is a rendering I did a long time ago, of Death. Crude, but I had a good time doing it. Probably the most widely known deck is the Rider-Waite deck, and this particular deck has distinctive medieval imagery. But this is far from the point where the Tarot began. One of the oldest known card games dates back to the Mamluk Sultanate, where the cards appear earliest in 1375. During this time the Islamic forces of the Sultanate invaded North Africa, Spain and Sicily, and brought with them cards that were used for playing games. Presumably the cards existed  before that time, though we don't know how long the cards and the game were in existence before that. It's thought that the modern name of Tarot derives from the Arabic word turuq, meaning "four ways". 
In the Germanic territories, we find a game of cards was played, with records of this as early as 1310.These may have been different from the Tarot or Tarocchi decks coming from Italy at the time, and both were used for card games rather than divination. At any rate, the cards became popular, though keep in mind mass printing had not yet been invented. Thus, cards were hard to come by. They would have had to have been hand-painted and designed, and thus became a status symbol, as being able to commission a deck meant affluence. There is a record in 1392 of Charles VI having a deck of cards commissioned, though not all of them remain. Interestingly, the playing cards we know today evolved alongside the Tarot- the symbols and designs we see were actually used as a cheaper alternative to the hand-painted decks, and they were mass-produced for French soldiers as well, and are identified as early as 1480. 
The first Tarot deck on record comes to us from northern Italy, in 1422. It was a hand-painted deck, done by an artist named Bonifacio Bembo for the Duke of Milan. The city of Milan remains one of the largest cities in Italy to date, as well. These cards were commissioned for a wedding, and are today known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi. These cards would be used in a game not unlike bridge today, with the Major Arcana identified as triomfi, or triumph cards. This is actually where the modern day term "trump card" comes from, as these cards were able to 'triumph' over other cards. But regardless, the original images were a reflection of a common practice among the nobility, of staging elaborate parade-like spectacles with symbolic figures- these were used to reflect common images and allegorical themes, and were later translated to the trump cards of the deck. There are references to cards being used for divination as early as 1487, but keep in mind that both the Tarot deck and the playing cards we know today were both in existence at this time. Some people believe the Tarot originated with the Romany (Gypsy) people, and this might lend some credence to that idea, though other sources say the Gypsies would use regular playing cards rather than the Tarot deck for divination. 
As time goes on, the game of Tarot continues to gain popularity. In the 1500s the Gutenberg printing press is invented, and decks of cards, like books, are able to be mass-produced. At this time, the names, much of the imagery and the numbering of the cards becomes standardized. We know that by the year 1781 the cards were in common use for games, as this is the year the cards are first identified as having an occult correspondence. This was the year that Antoine Court de Gebelin publishes the book Le Monde Primitif, identifying a correspondence between the cards and occult principles. This was later reinforced by the occultist Eliphas Levi, who identified a correspondence between the Tarot and the Jewish mystical system known as Kabalah or Quabalah. The next major event of this type happens a long time later, in 1944, when Aleister Crowley writes The Book of Thoth, further commenting on the link between occult symbolism and the Tarot. The result of this was later to become what was known as the Crowley-Thoth Tarot, created posthumously in 1969. But back to the late 1700s.
In the year 1888 the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn is founded, an occult society that flourished during the following years. From the Golden Dawn comes what we now know as the modern Tarot deck. When you say "Tarot" most people think of either the Rider-Waite deck itself, or one based on its symbolism. The deck was first created in 1909 by Arthur E. Waite, who was behind the concepts of the cards, and Pamela Coleman Smith, who created the artwork for the original cards. This system incorporated the Golden Dawn principles, and both Smith and Waite were members of the Golden Dawn. The Rider-Waite deck is also notable for being the first deck created with the express purpose of divination, which explains a good deal of its symbolism and design- the pictures are intended to explain and illustrate the underlying divinatory meaning of the card itself. Curiously, Waite is credited with popularizing (though not creating) the Celtic Cross spread, also for divination purposes.
The deck continued to gain popularity, and perhaps can be called the first Tarot deck inasmuch as it's the first deck intended for Tarot readings rather than card games, though both the principles of using cards for divination and the Major Arcana cards were in existence long before this point. 
Another popular idea on the origins of the Tarot is that it dates back to Egypt. This could be possible, though there's a lack of historical evidence to support this. The Mamluk Sultanate did in fact bring cards to Egypt, so it's possible that there is some truth to this. It was originally supposed that the Tarot cards represented a kind of secret teaching, not unlike the Eleusian mystery cults of Greece. There were pictures shown to initiates that held these secret teachings- the teachings were concealed symbolically in the pictures, and the initiate would have them explained to him. But again, there is little historical evidence to support a direct link between the Tarot and the mystery cults of Egypt. 
So what conclusions can we draw from all this? I find one offhand, that there is a commonality of human experience that can be summed up by symbols. Carl Jung, one of the earliest psychologists to propose a collective unconscious, called these symbols archetypes- universally recognized principles. The fact that the cards and their depictions resonate with us is not really because of any deep underlying mystery, but rather due to the fact that we humans have common experiences across time and culture. There are common factors to being human, and a common bond between all living things. The end result is this- it's a convenient set of symbols for understanding the world. In actuality, the patterns in the Tarot are pretty much everywhere in the world. As everything is connected and dependent upon everything else, really the same pattern is expressed in anything you choose to see it in. The Tarot just happens to be, for a lot of people, the easiest system to use. The power is always in the person, not the cards; the cards are merely a road map, pointing out where you've been and where you're going. 

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