The History and Origins of Tarot? Who Knows?

This is an excerpt from the manual I wrote for the Tarot deck I designed in 2001 – The HorusEye Tarot.  In this excerpt, I attempt to share the often contradictory histories of the mysterious cards, and share some of my own theories about them and their origins.

The true origin of the 78 cards that make up a Tarot deck have been obscured. This, of course, is how every history of Tarot begins. It’s true that thus far we have been unable to pin down a single location as the definite birthplace, but this may actually be the case because the origins have been obscured purposefully. What can be definitively acknowledged is the fact that the ancient Tarot deck led to the development of our modern playing cards, with a few modifications along the way. If we use this modern deck as a starting point, we may be able to wrench out some ideas of the possible origins in a pseudo-rational fashion as we journey along this complicated and twisty road.

Tarot is divided into two sections-the Major Arcana, and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana traditionally symbolizes archetypal figures or ideas, whereas the Minor Arcana symbolizes everyday things. The only remaining scrap of the Major Arcana we have left with us in the traditional playing card deck is the trickster, who, when found, is looked upon with scorn, and causing a “misdeal” if he appears in your hand at the beginning of a game. The Joker, also known as the Fool, spends his time in modern decks making everyone’s life miserable, happy and complicated all at once. But he is one of our only traces of the original Tarot in our current playing decks. There are 22 cards in the Major Arcana, 21 of which have been removed. In the Minor Arcana, the Knight, important because it is one of the face cards, has been removed from each of the suits. That makes up a fairly large number of cards that have mysteriously disappeared. To answer this puzzling dilemma, a lot of politics and religious discrimination become involved, generally making the Christian Church the bad guy. The quest I set out upon in an attempt to find the one true explanation, ended up teaching me a lot about the universality of religion, the need for specific archetypes, and the ruthlessness of attaining power.

Our quest begins in the East. I wanted desperately to link everything to Egypt, to secret rituals and hidden knowledges, which the Egyptian priests were known for. As it did for much of Europe during the spread and height of the Tarot in the Renaissance, Egyptian mythology mystifies me even now, and one of the early sources I found linked the Tarot to Egypt. I speculated that the Tarot could have been a spell book or a visual representation of a rite of initiation, kept secret from outsiders because that’s what they did best. When Pythagoras came back from Egypt after studying their arcane mystical and mathematical techniques, he continued the vow of secrecy that he had learned from the Egyptian priests. The Tarot has been linked to the Cabala, and said to have traveled through Europe when the Jews went to Spain. Could the Tarot be linked to Egyptian Cabalistic initiation rites?

In truth, we must begin by going further east. The fact that Tarot cards have been used for divination leads to the conclusion that they must have once been considered holy. “‘Divination’ comes from ‘divine’ for the very reason that only sacred things were supposed to have prophetic powers” (Walker, 11). St. Augustine himself recommended divination from the scriptures of the Bible, in which you could open the Bible at random, touch some words, and divine a prophesy from the text. Many “bibles” of the East were kept in card form, tied together with string and called Books of Life, a name that followed packs of cards into Europe. Often, things like playing cards and games were used to educate the illiterate about the gods, or other such things. In the Orient, games were not considered incompatible with religion. Ancient card games have also been found in the West, the oldest of which-hombre, the Game of Man-closely resembles the Hindu game ganifa, and is said to most resemble the Tarot.

Faro, the Game of Kings, was named after the Egyptian pharaohs, and was carried through Europe and spread by gypsies. A ha! Of course, gypsies, there’s my link to Egypt, right? Gypsies (which is short for “Egyptian”) were said to be noblemen who were exiled from Egypt. However, this wasn’t exactly true. The gypsies were well aware that Europeans were intrigued by any mention of Egypt, which they associated with mystery and magic. The gypsies were actually from India, and began migrating westward around the ninth century, carrying Hindu sacred texts in the form of packs of cards. They used these cards as a source of income through fortune telling, simultaneously spreading their images of Goddess-worship through Europe, much to the dismay of the budding Christian authorities.

During the Renaissance, Europe began thinking. For itself. As traders came back from distant lands, they had tales of new and foreign cultures with different practices from their own to tell. It was during this time that the gypsies began spreading their picture cards through Europe, spreading the word of the Goddess. The gypsies acknowledged the Hindu concept of the Goddess as a trinity-maiden, mother, and crone. The Tarot deck allowed them to expand the “cyclic concept[s] of life and death” (18), as well as other important doctrines of their faith to the illiterate. As late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Mother-Goddess archetype was still acknowledged in the East, and continued to struggle for recognition in Europe despite Christianity’s attempts to suppress it. It is quite possible that the Tarot provided an underground channel for communication and spreading of the Goddess.

When the Crusaders went off to fight the “barbarians” in the east, what they found was a highly developed culture, literate in art, mathematics and algebra, alchemy, astronomy and astrology, and many mystical philosophies. This shook their faith in a “church that was still proclaiming…to be the…only legitimate source of ‘truth’” (4). When the cards first became popular, curiosity about new ideas had been stimulated, and an alienation and disillusionment towards the church had led a tendency to seek other faiths. The idea that if the Goddess was love, and neglect of her worship would bring about catastrophe convinced Crusaders of her potential existence when they were shown first-hand the barren wasteland of the Arabian Deserts by mystics. And if only a select few could ever get into Heaven in the Christian faith, then the old heathen idea of saving the whole earth seemed much more generous.

Gnostic mysticism, combining elemental stoicism with Tantric male/female amalgamation, began spreading through Europe. Unlike the Christian savior, the Gnostic savior had a mortal father and a divine mother, and Gnostics believed that the Judeo-Christian God misrepresented himself and the female divinity “out of a desire to inflate his own importance” (42). He was able to create the universe only after the Great Mother gave him some of her wisdom, and he was then punished for his arrogance of believing he was superior, saying: “‘I am God, there is none beside me.’” However, all remnants of these scriptures were burned by Christian monks, or scrapped and rewritten into their own Bible, without the feminine imagery.

The advent of the Dark Ages-spurred, in part, by Christian fanaticism-brought about the death of the ancient deities, and led to the decline of all the arts and sciences, not merely limited to the pagan religions. Within this, the Tarot could have presented an alternative to a belief system that deemed you responsible for someone else’s sin. “Like the Old Religions themselves, the cards persisted no matter how loudly they were denounced from the pulpit. They persisted because they were wanted” (44).

What caused the Christian church to so loudly denounce the Tarot and pagan practices? Well, to a large degree, sex and sexuality. Many of the Hindu, Tantric, Gnostic beliefs revolved around female sexuality, and sexual openness. “St. Augustine had established church policy with his opinion that…sexual passion was inherently evil, because it transmitted original sin to all generations. By Augustian reasoning, sex was never sinless, even within marriage” (45). On the opposite end of the scale, in the East, sex was considered a sacred act, and female sexuality symbolizing the power of creation. An important symbol was the Yoni Yantra: a downward-pointing triangle symbolizing both the female genitalia and the Holy Trinity of the Goddess. Traditionally, a human life could be divided into three trimesters of twenty-one years each, foreshadowed by the three trimesters of pregnancy. The Major Arcana is symbolic of the journey, each card representing a period of three years until reaching ultimate climax with the naked Goddess in the World card.

The original headquarters of the Christian Order of the Knights Templar in Jerusalem stood next to a revered shrine to the Goddess Fatima. The Knights Templar have been credited with the invention of the Tarot, but more likely they adopted it from their Saracen warrior fraternity contemporaries whom their order was based upon. But the removal of the knights from the playing card deck has been linked to the extermination of the Knights Templar in the fourteenth century, after being accused of adopting the ways of Eastern Gnostics. The al-Aqsa mosque that stood next to their headquarters created a foundation for the legends of the Temple of the Holy Grail, before the Grail became the chalice of the first Eucharist. “The older Grail was the same womb-symbol as the Celts’ Cauldron of Regeneration, represented by the temple itself, whose ‘door’ was a yoni [vulva]” (53-4).

The cards “broke out into the mainstream,” so to speak, in the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, this was shortly followed by a brief attempt at Christianizing the deck, and then all out destroying of any pack of cards found, often burning them like witches or the book burnings that would eventually follow. That the Tarot has survived is little less than a miracle.

The four suits that make up the Tarot, cups, wands, pentacles, and swords, later evolved into hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades which make up our current playing card deck. Each suit represents one of the four elements. It was commonly believed that everything, including humans and inanimate objects, was made up of the elements of water, fire, earth and air. Because the Tarot suits had elemental properties, shuffling the Tarot deck represented the process of creation. This explains the theory of why it was believed that fortune telling by Tarot worked; the mixing of the different cards was “viewed as information of the shape of things to come” (21). Today, one of the most common theories is the Jungian idea that the images on the cards are archetypal symbols of the collective unconscious, universal images that can apply to everyday life. Another common theory tries to combine both these ideas; your mind subconsciously understands the meanings of the Tarot images, and while you shuffle the cards, you subconsciously place the cards in the order that will bring about the best results for your conscious mind to comprehend. This may sound a bit far-fetched, but it’s based on the idea that your unconscious mind is capable of doing things that your conscious mind is completely unaware of. Or, there is the theory that through the revealing of the Tarot cards, the events you perceive being described occur because subconsciously you make them occur, and when they talk about what is going on now, they sound true because you believe them to be in much the same way people believe in daily astrological fortunes found in the newspaper.

After over a thousand years, fortune-telling cards have persisted for divinatory, magical and theological purposes. Decks are still produced to promote certain theologies, and adapted to better fit those ideas, for example, the Crowley Thoth deck or, more recently, the Osho Zen Tarot. The Tarot has become a medium for great artistic works-Salvador Dali produced a set of Tarot cards that can be purchased for about $100. And as the remnants and revisions of the Old Religions are rewritten for today’s youth, the Tarot is becoming more and more popular; these wonderful, mysterious archetypes still reach out to us, ageless and timeless. Perhaps I, too, was subconsciously spreading the original purpose of the Tarot-to expose ideologies to people who haven’t been previously exposed to them. To educate the illiterate, so to speak. If this is the case, then perhaps humans don’t actually control the Tarot-it lives a life of its own, and will not die until humanity no longer wishes its ideas to be heard.


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