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Perspectives on Tarot

Tarot, originally a 15th century card game from Italy, has evolved into a form of personal mysticism and spirituality.

The Tarot c.1450-present

Tarot, originally a 15th century card game from Italy, 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. This is why most tarot decks have Italian suit symbols. According to playing-card historians tarot was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century whose principal innovation was the introduction of trumps into card games. Helen Farley (2009) reckons that Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan is "the most likely candidate for inventor of that first deck, sometime early in the fifteenth century". Thus the game of tarot uses an augmented deck of early Italian playing cards, born in a particular cultural milieu; southern Europe during the Middle Ages.

In the earliest surviving examples the order of the trump cards as well as their iconography and symbolism varies, reflecting the unfolding worldview of the Renaissance. (If tarot had been invented somewhere else, say in South America, then it might have been Inca or Mayan world view). The trump figures were understood as analogies of universal principles, depicting man's place in the cosmos and the divine order of things in the world of that time. Their imagery was not an integral part of how the game was played, but merely decorative, although there was an instructive or moralizing aspect to the imagery, perhaps aligned with the philosophical or spiritual yearnings of the Duke of Milan's élite circle. This is also seen in the "Mantegna Tarocchi"

The Colleoni Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi, c.1460

Above: the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi, c.1460, produced for wealthy and status-conscious elites   more

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. It is rewarding to investigate these mysteries for their own sake, but they were not necessarily intended to be part of the original game.

But there are some interesting exceptions in which the symbolism may constitute 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…

Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards

Above: the 4 "Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards" from the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards collection of historic playing cards. Hand-painted and gilded by an illuminator, these cards are reckoned to be two pairs of cards from two different decks owing to differences in their size. The Guildhall catalogue records both pairs as having been found in an old chest in Seville (Spain). The Page of Batons has a Spanish-type club and is not holding his suit symbol as is common in all known Italian cards. The cards have no titles or numerals, so their sequence or hierarchy was presumably already known by the players. [Images by kind permission of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards Collection and the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Corporation]. Another similar example are the so-called 'Goldschmidt Cards' (a Google search will find some images. Also see Hoffmann, 1973).

The Sola Busca tarot could have constituted an alchemical guide to esoteric initiation for a secret society  more

Sola-Busca Tarocchi, Ferrara, 1491

Above: four cards from the Sola-Busca Tarocchi, Ferrara, 1491   more


Cary Collection uncut sheet of tarot cards c.1500

Above: detail from the Cary Collection uncut and uncoloured sheet of tarot cards (housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) probably printed in Milan and possibly dating as early as c.1500. The entire sheet is available for digital download here. The images are untitled and unnumbered, suggesting that players may have already known the sequence or hierarchy of trump cards in play from contemporary knowledge. Much of the imagery is recognisable as anticipating the more familiar Tarot de Marseille designs (see below) whilst other features are common to other early Italian decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and D'Este decks. Thus it looks like a prototype or intermediate form of the Tarot de Marseille design.

Tarot de Marseille

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. Speaking of the Tarot de Marseille, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa (2009) see the tarot as sacred art, like a Mandala (Yantra in Hinduism), in which all the individual symbols are part of the whole. Its meanings gradually reveal themselves to us, intuitively.

Tarot de Marseille, Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon probably before c.1739

Above: Tarot de Marseille by Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon, early 18th century. The page of cups holds his cup upwards, open to above, whilst the Magician also holds his wand aloft and the queen her sword. They all glance downwards. The trump cards are named and have Roman numerals to designate their value during play. Images courtesy Frederic C. Detwiller.

Tarot de Marseille, N. Conver, c.1770. Reprinted by Camoin et Cie, c.1870

Above: Tarot de Marseille by N. Conver, 1760 but probably a Camoin (Marseilles) edition of c.1870 from the original woodblocks. Stencil colouring. The Fool is unnumbered, and card XIII is unnamed, perhaps not merely depicting death, but a force of transformation in motion. The Wheel of Fortune may suggest a decisive moment of change or a new beginning.

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 and transformed into a medium for esoteric ideas. The prevailing theory of their magical and divinatory origin was developed then, including the association with Egypt. 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.

Etteilla tarot published by Grimaud, Paris

Above: Etteilla tarot published by Grimaud, Paris.

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 arcana images to symbolic frescoes on the walls of Egyptian temples used for instruction during initiation of neophytes, alluding to a spiritual “journey”.

Egyptian Tarot published by Naipes La Banca, Buenos Aires, c.1980

Above: Egyptian Tarot published by Naipes La Banca, Buenos Aires, c.1980.

To summarize: 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. The Occult Revivals and New Age Movement provided new cultural environments in which the tarot has evolved from its origins in medieval Italy into a vehicle for almost any form of philosophy or spiritual ideas.

Multidisciplinary Approach

ace of pentacles from a Thai tarot

Above First Card: Judgement from the Thai Anatta Tarot showing a Buddha judging souls before they enter the afterlife.

Above Second Card: Page of Swords shown as a Thai Yak, or Giant Demons which play an important role within Thai mythology as well as Thai Buddhism.

Above Third Card: The Hierophant, sometimes refered to as the Pope, depicted as a Bodhisattva with 2 disciples.

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. It is now enjoying immense popularity in Far Eastern countries very distant from Western heritage (although many are following the Rider-Waite template). For instance Thai tarot often features animist religious beliefs intermixed with Buddhism.

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. It has clearly become a multidisciplinary field.

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, cited below]. Ultimately it is a question of what you want to believe…

During the 20th and early 21st centuries the literature on “esoteric tarot” has grown spectacularly and fantasy is given freedom to create every imaginable type of tarot deck, from the “72 names of God” to the Maya Calendar. These new 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.

There has also been a distinguished output of ENGLISH TAROT CARDS. By the 1870s a number of English occultists had begun taking an interest in the tarot more…

The Tarot c.1450-present
Visconti Tarot Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465 “Tarocchino Lombardo” c.1835 “Tarocco Neoclassico Italiano”, c.1810 Charles Cheminade Marseille Tarot, early 18th century Charles Cheminade Marseille Tarot, early 18th century “Stairs of Gold” Tarot Mitelli’s “Tarocchini di Bologna”

During almost 600 years the tarot cards have undergone a transformation from Renaissance card game to new age spiritual treasury. Every age gets the tarot that it deserves or desires.

Tarocco Piemontese | Piedmontese tarot Austrian Tarock Cards Épinal Tarot 1830 Tarocco della “Corona Ferrea”, c.1844 Jacob Holmblad: Animal Tarot Danish Tarok Cards - Holmblad, c.1850 Vergnano Tarot 1826-1851 Wüst “Encyclopedic Tarot” French tarot Dondorf Microscopique Tarock Kart do Tarota

"The primordial image or archetype is a figure, whether it be a daemon, man or process, that repeats itself in the course of history whenever creative fantasy is freely manifested. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure. If we subject these images to a closer investigation, we discover them to be the formulated resultants of countless typical experiences of our ancestors."   C.G. Jung

Watersprite Tarot, 2012 Cartomancy and Divination Cards Rider-Waite Tarot, 1909 Insight Institute Tarot Thomson-Leng tarot Thoth Tarot Inner Realms tarot Housewives Tarot, 2004 Nine Lives tarot, 2013 Tarot of Musterberg

REFERENCES & RESOURCES

Dummett, Michael: A Brief Sketch of the History of Tarot Cards, The Playing-card, Journal of the IPCS, vol.33 no.4, Apr-June 2005.

Farley, Helen: A Cultural History of Tarot, published in 2009 by I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

Fontainelle, Earl: The Secret History of Western Esotericism

Hunt, Ellie: When the mystical goes mainstream: how tarot became a self-care phenomenon

Jodorowsky, Alejandro and Costa, Marianne: The Way of the Tarot, Destiny Books, 2009.

Keizer, Lewis: The Esoteric Origins of Tarot: more than a wicked pack of cards, included in The Underground Stream by Christine Payne Towler, Noreah Press, 1999. Can be found online and here

Penco, Carlo: Dummett and the Game of Tarot, Teorema, 2012

Poncet, Christophe: The Mysteries of the Tarot of Marseille, online: www.3x7.org

Wintle, Prier: Attributes of the Egyptian Tarot: Attributes of the Egyptian Tarot

Thanks to Samten de Wet for additional research and tarot material

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


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