Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Brief History of the Tarot

Here’s the thing: nobody really knows where or how Tarot cards came into being, but there’s been plenty of fascinating speculation about it over the past couple of centuries.

Topping the list of possible birthplaces are France, Italy, Spain, India, and Egypt, though there is no historic evidence to support any of these claims.

What the historic record does confirm is that the first written mention of the Tarot appeared in 1377—in an essay by a Swiss monk, who described seeing a card game seeming to mirror the make-up of the world and society: cups for the clergy, swords for the elite, pentacles for merchants, wands (staffs) for peasants. He thought it might be useful in teaching moral lessons and preserving the class structure.

The Church disagreed. In its campaign to crush all things pagan, Christendom denounced the cards as “the devil’s book,” despite the Tarot having nothing whatsoever to do with the devil or the dark arts. The fifty-six-card Minor Arcana advise on the challenges attending daily life while the twenty-two trumps of the Major Arcana address spiritual matters—guidance along the path to enlightenment, in other words.

The opposite of evil.

In the 1770s, Court de G├ębelin (ne Antoine Gebelin) wrote a popular essay asserting that the Tarot was a distillation of the ancient Egyptian method of divining by throwing rods in a temple whose walls displayed similar images. To consult the gods, one threw the rods in the hall of images (or, rather, asked one of the priests to do it on your behalf). Those images the rods pointed toward were the gods' answer. These images, de Gebelin speculated, were reduced and put on cards to make them easier to tote around. Thus, he claimed, the Tarot mirrored the Book of Thoth and contained the secrets of the ancient Egyptian priests.

Shortly thereafter, a French occultist known as Etteilla popularized the practice of using the cards for divination and published a guide and special deck designed for this purpose (fyi: divination using cards is called cartomancy).

A couple of decades later, a French Rosicrucian and cabalist calling himself Eliphas Levi correlated the Major Arcana with the Hebrew alphabet and Tree of Life of mystical Judaism. The Tree of Life diagrams the path to God (usually referred to as “The Name” in cabalistic texts) and the manner in which He created the world. Levi also connected the Tarot’s four suits with JHVH, the four letters forming “The Name”: J for wands, H for Cups, V for swords, H for pentacles.

In the early twentieth century, Jessie Weston, an independent scholar and folklorist specializing in Arthurian legend, connected the Tarot suits to the Grail Hallows, the sacred objects found in the Grail castle (Cairban Castle). The wands, she asserted, represented the lance of Longinus, the centurion who’d pierced Christ’s side on the cross; the cups, the Grail itself—the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper; the swords, King David’s sword of the spirit referenced in the Old Testament; and the pentacles, the plate on which the Last Supper was served.

The Grail Hallows echo the even more ancient Four Treasures of Ireland—the magical emblems belonging to the Tuatha de Danann (Children of the Goddess Danu), who, Celtic legend tells, descended from the sky on a cloud that blacked out the sun for three days. They brought with them four treasures: the spear of Lugh, (wands), the cauldron of the Dagda, which was always full (cups), the sword of Nuada—the ever sure and fatal “Sword of Light” (swords), and the Stone of Fal, the “stone of destiny” upon which Irish kings were crowned (pentacles).

(Aside note: The Tuatha de Danann were the race of gods who became known as "the Fae" after being driven "underground"--into otherworld "mounds"--by Spanish invaders).
The Tarot’s archetypal imagery also correlates with classical mythology: The Sun, for example, represents Apollo; The Emperor, Zeus; The Empress, Demeter; The Moon, Artemis; The Magician, Hermes; The Hermit, Cronus; Death, Hades; and so on. The four elements—fire, water, air, and earth--also feature prominently.

Obviously, there's a lot more to the Tarot than I've mentioned here. This is the kind of stuff I find absolutely fascinating when researching my books--and want so badly to pack into them!--but fear it will prove too "esoteric" to readers and stop the story cold. 

What do you think? Fascinating or too esoteric and cerebral? Various methods of divination are mentioned in my books, though I try to keep it from getting too complicated for the average reader to comprehend.


  1. Very interesting. I wonder what the cards would read about me. Very thought provoking on a spiritual and intellectual level.

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  2. We aim to entertain and inform here at Nina Mason Romance dot blogspot dot com. If you're really interested in getting a reading, go to http://www.tarotgoddess.com

    You can choose the spread and the deck. I found them to be pretty accurate in terms of my question--though my cards and their cards all say I'm going to get a publishing contract and everything's going to be great--and so far, no dice. So . . . still waiting.


Writing smexy paranormals with a Celtic twist. Blogging about good books.