ITALY is said to be the birthplace of the tarot, which according to playing-card historians was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century and whose principal innovation was the introduction of trumps into Western European card-gaming. It may also have had a didactic or educational motivation, similar to the "Mantegna Tarocchi" or other educational games which served as mnenomic pictures. However, the symbolism found on some early tarot cards has led many people to believe that tarot cards are in fact the expression of ancient streams of wisdom... the eternal, esoteric and holy tradition itself. Following this belief, modern tarot packs draw upon the teachings of a tremendous range of traditions, including Kabbalah, Western esotericism and alchemy, Buddhism, Sufism, Egyptian initiations, mystical Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Celtic mythology… and so on. People have mapped whichever belief system or philosophy they fancy onto the tarot deck. Many people find they can quickly realise and develop an affinity with symbolic images in the deck which become a source of meaning or guidance.
However, the thematic content of early tarot trumps probably reflects the Platonic Catholicism of the time. An interesting early example is the Guildhall Library Tarocchi cards (shown below) believed to have been painted in Spain during the 15th century. The cards 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, the paradise where we are fully realised. 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 only be penetrated or overcome by spiritual wisdom. And we can also observe that the suit symbols were batons, cups, swords… and probably coins…
So the question arises, was this merely a game? How do we explain what looks more like Mystery Tradition Symbolism in these early tarot cards?
In those days, the term "psychology" hadn't been invented. What they had was Morality. "Toutes les sciences ont été mises à contribution et rien n'est plus obscur encore que la science de l'homme moral." (All sciences have been put together and nothing is more obscure than the science of moral man). Ordinary folk were very superstitious, more learned folk read philosophy books. Churches and academies used visual allegorical symbolism to depict moral lessons. Medieval bestiaries depicted various animals as examples of different moral qualities in humans. Astrological symbolism was all about temperaments, passions and moral virtues, etc. There were lots of religious paintings depicting all sorts of sins and virtues… so we should not be surprised that early playing cards and tarot cards also reflected this cultural atmosphere.
In some cases it looks like the artist's own interpretation of the Trump cards. In other cases, we ask whether the artist was trying to express his/her understanding of some religious doctrines, a new philosophical or moral teaching, or maybe a secret esoteric doctrine…?
Ultimately it is a question of what you want to believe…
In the 18th century the trump cards became the focus of esoteric investigations and since then the tarot has become a sort of popular religion or diagnostic tool for mind, body and spirit. French occultists were largely responsible for this, notably Court de Gébelin, Eliphas Levi and Eteilla, who saw correlations between the tarot trumps and ancient mysteries. 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.
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