Tarot, originally a 15th century card game, has evolved into a form of personal mysticism and spirituality.
ITALY is said to be the birthplace of the tarot, along with Italian-suited playing cards. According to playing-card historians tarot was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century and whose principal innovation was the introduction of trumps into Western European card games. The tarot deck appears to have been simply an augmented deck of playing cards, but the trump cards were understood as allegories from the very beginning. There was an instructive or moralizing aspect to the subjects depicted, similar to the "Mantegna Tarocchi" or other educational games, representing a sort of initiatic journey or “pilgrim’s progress”. Debates persist to this day regarding the correct order of the sequence of trump cards, as well as their iconography and symbolism, as these seem to have varied right from the start.
During the Italian Renaissance, classical culture was studied and idealized. The intellectual climate fostered a synthesis of Neoplatonic philosophy and heretical mystical practice. Although the divinatory aspect of tarot didn't became popular until the 18th century, alchemical, astrological and hermetic imagery did appear in some earlier tarocchi decks because it was a part of the imaginary repertoire of the time.
The thematic content of the majority of early tarot decks probably reflects the Platonic Catholicism of the time which is not esoteric. But there are some interesting exceptions in which the symbolism constitutes a metaphysical system. The Guildhall Library Tarocchi cards (shown below) believed to have been painted during the 15th century contain curious symbols and iconography. The knave of clubs shows a hunting scene, and in Platonic philosophy hunting was reckoned to develop moral strength and virility. The World card shows the New Jerusalem centered on the rebuilt Holy Temple. The black and white chequered floor tiles on the ace of cups, like in Masonic lodges, suggests the dualistic nature of the material realm upon which we must rebuild the spiritual life through practising higher moral virtues. The ace of swords (or Sun) suggests the idea that the endless cycles of birth and rebirth can be penetrated by spiritual wisdom. And we can also observe that the suit symbols were batons, cups, swords… and probably coins…
The Sola Busca tarot could have constituted an alchemical guide to esoteric initiation for a secret society more →
The French word ‘tarot’ derives from the Italian ‘tarocco’. The Tarot de Marseille derives from the Milanese style of tarot, with the names of the court cards and trumps added at the bottom. It preserves much of the original iconography of tarot which was corrupted by later alterations and changes.
The 16th century had witnessed a renewed interest by scholars in classical history, along with the study of archaeology, philosophy, ancient religions, etc. This was accompanied by the publication of new treatises on all sorts of emerging scientific subjects. The Romantic Movement gave rise during the 17th century to renewed interest in antiquarian topics (stonehenge, druids, etc) and has exercised a strange power over popular imagination ever since.
1750-1800: the occult and divinatory origin of Tarot
The game spread in Europe from Ferrara, Bologna and Milan towards Germany, Switzerland and France, where the Swiss Tarot and Tarot de Marseille were eventually born. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Tarot was elaborated by occultists into a medium for esoteric ideas and the prevailing theory of their magical and divinatory origin was developed then. At this point the history of tarot merges with the much older history of esoteric mysteries.
The first pack specifically intended for cartomantic use was that designed by Etteilla and published in 1789.
French occultists Court de Gébelin, Eliphas Levi and Eteilla saw correlations between the tarot trumps and ancient mysteries. Like French and English Freemasons they wished to sanctify their alternative spirituality with the authority of antiquity. The histories presented by these founders of tarot occultism were produced in good faith at that time, attributing the tarot to the ancient Egyptian Books of Thoth, and the trump images to symbolic frescoes on the walls of Egyptian temples used for instruction during initiation of neophytes, again alluding to a spiritual “journey”.
Inspired by these early speculations, modern tarot packs now draw upon the teachings of a tremendous range of traditions, from Western esotericism and alchemy, Buddhism, Sufism and Egyptian initiations, to mystical Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Celtic mythology, Druidism… and so on (suggesting a common unity between them all). People have mapped whichever belief system or philosophy they fancy onto the tarot deck and then find they can quickly realise and develop an affinity with the symbolic images which become a source of meaning or guidance.
Today's Tarot Studies come under the History of Art, Literature, Humanities and Cultural Studies headings. Many scholarly works are being produced. Topics range from historical studies and perspectives to practical interpretations of the cards, their images and symbolism.
Personal Mysticism and Spirituality
The universal popularity of tarot reflects a quest to understand our place in the scheme of things as an alternative to religious bureaucracy. The images span from everyday experiences to the larger picture of universal or absolute reality. If used imaginatively, tarot symbolism can be a vehicle for new understanding, deeper insight or spiritual clarity.
We might surmise that many contemporary tarot packs are a sort of compendium of living experience, based on the artist’s creative and spiritual perspective of life as a journey. Modern tarot has become part of the Western esoteric tradition and an effective divination technique that has roots in much older occult systems. [See Lewis Keizer,]. Ultimately it is a question of what you want to believe…
During the 20th century the literature on “esoteric tarot” has grown spectacularly and fantasy is given freedom to create every imaginable type of tarot card, from the “72 names of God” to the Maya Calendar. These new tarot decks are usually accompanied by booklets explaining the rationale and meaning of the symbolism chosen in the images. Modern tarot therefore is a recent phenomenon with yearnings to an ancient occult history.
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