Tarot Tradition

Tarot is the French term for a special pack of playing cards popularly used for the purpose of divination. These cards enjoyed a boost in popularity as a self-discovery tool of the New Age and a development tool among Wiccans and ritual magicians. The derivation of the word tarot is still debated. Some suggest that these cards were named because of the tarotes on the back, that is, the plain or dotted lines crossing diagonally. Some confirmation of this theory is indicated by the German form of the word, a tarock-karte being a card checkered on the back.

Tarot cards form part of an ordinary pack in countries of southern Europe and the name tarocchi is given to an Italian game. In its familiar form, the tarot pack consists of a pack of 78 cards, comprising four suits of 14 cards each (the extra court card in each suit being the Cavalier, Knight, or Horseman) and 22 symbolical picture-cards as atouts or trumps. The four suits, related to the modern hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, are swords, cups, coins, and batons (earlier represented as swords, cups, rings, and wands).

The 22 symbolic cards generally picture the Juggler or Magician, High Priestess or Female Pope, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant or Pope, Lovers, Chariot, Justice, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Strength or Fortitude, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Lightning-struck Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Last Judgment, Fool, and Universe. These symbolic designs, which vary slightly from pack to pack according to different traditions, are popularly interpreted as follows: Willpower, Science or Knowledge, Action, Realization, Mercy and Beneficence, Trial, Triumph, Justice, Prudence, Fortune, Strength, Sacrifice, Transformation, Combination, Fate, Disruption, Hope, Deception or Error, Earthly Happiness, Renewal, Folly, and Expiation. These interpretations also vary according to different authorities. In addition, the other cards in the pack are considered to have symbolic significance.

There are many different ways of consulting the cards for divination, but they mostly involve laying out the cards after shuffling and interpreting the indications of the major symbolic cards in their relationship to each other.


Much speculation surrounds the whole question of the origins of the tarot and its relationship to the present-day set of 52 playing cards. It is not difficult to see symbolic interpretations of the 52 pack in its division into four suits, corresponding to the seasons of the year, 52 weeks, and the symbolic rulers of the court cards. Some writers have connected the pack with the ancient Eastern origins of the game of chess, with its comparable king, queen, and knight.

However, within the occult community, many have looked to an origin in ancient Egypt. According to such popular lore, the priests of ancient Egypt invented the tarot cards to represent their secret doctrines and teachings.

They escaped the destruction of the Christian era because the book burners did not know what they were. Later, some Egyptians brought them to Rome, and they survived in the courts of the popes and passed to France during the period when the papacy was headquartered in Avignon.

This story of the Egyptian lineage first appeared in the French occult community of the eighteenth century, having been invented by a Protestant minister, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719-1784). De Gébelin, an occultist and Martinist, had become an early supporter of Franz A. Mesmer's ideas of animal magnetism and an amateur Egyptologist. In 1781, well before the Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered, he published an eight-volume tome Le monde primitif (1781) with his speculative notions.

Tarot cards had existed for several centuries in Europe with no speculation about any mysterious foreign or occult connection. But De Gébelin argued, with little evidence, that the word "tarot" actually meant royal road, a derivation he made from the Egyptian words "ta" or "way" and "tosh" or "royal." It should be noted that no such words have been found in the Egyptian language. Along with his essay on the deck, De Gébelin also published another essay by an anonymous friend, the first to label the cards the "Book of Thoth," Thoth being one name for the Egyptian god Horus.

As a result of widespread reading of Le monde primitif, the tarot cards began to be used as divination devices in Paris, though the spread of the practice was slow. It was significant that Francis Barrett did not include any mention of the deck in his 1801 catalog of magical practice, The Magus.
The next important step in the establishment of the occult tarot occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when Éliphas Lévi encountered a deck during his massive reworking of the magical tradition in light of Mesmerist thought. He identified their magical power with animal magnetism, a theory still popular to the present.

In 1853 Lévi published Dogma de la haute magie, in which he first laid out his ideas tying the tarot to the ancient Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the Hermetic magical writings. He then tied the cards to the Hebrew magical/mystical Kabala (which he spelled "Qabalah"). He identified the numbered cards with the ten sephiroth. The court cards represented the stages of human life, and the suits symbolized the tetragarmmaton, the four letters that made up the Hebrew name of God. The 22 trump cards were tied to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and all of the Kabbalistic content earlier ascribed to each letter was plowed into the tarot cards.

Lévi used the Marseilles tarot deck, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with it. His early efforts to produce a new deck did not come to fruition, but Lévi did promote his project with an English Mason, Kenneth Mackenzie (1833-1886). Mackenzie, as a leader in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, taught tarot to the group of men who were to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (OGD), the organization most responsible for the modern magical revival.

S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife, Moina, collaborated on the Golden Dawn deck to go along with the order's rituals, most of which he also wrote. He produced one original, which was given to each member as they reached the grade of Adapts Minor, who in turn made their own personal copy.

There are numerous decks that were published by former Golden Dawn members. Possibly the most important deck to date to come out of the Golden Dawn was that produced by Arthur Edward Waite in collaboration with Pamela Coleman-Smith. It was released in 1910 to accompany Waite's The Key to the Tarot (later reissued as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot) and went on to become the most popular deck for divinatory purposes in the twentieth century.

Paul Foster Case (1884-1954), an Apha et Omega member who later founded the Builders of the Adytum, developed a deck, based in large part upon the Waite-Smith cards, in collaboration with Jessie Burns Parks. The deck was published in 1931.

Finally, in 1938, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who left the Golden Dawn and published many of its secrets, began a collaboration with Freda Harris to embody the thelemic magick of the Ordo Templi Orientis. They used both the Golden Dawn and Waite-Smith deck, but both the art and concepts went far beyond either. While the original art work was displayed at an art gallery during World War II, and a limited edition of 200 decks appeared in 1944, the Crowley-Harris tarot did not reach the public until it was finally published in 1969 by Samuel Weiser. This deck is the only one to challenge the Waite-Smith deck's popularity.

Gypsy Origins

One hypothesis, which parallelled the idea of Egyptian origins and has likewise been largely disproved, concerned the mysterious Gypsies. The idea that the tarot was introduced into Europe by the Gypsies of the Middle Ages was first suggested by an anonymous friend of de Gébelin's in the eighteenth century. It was championed in the next century by J. F. Vaillant, who had lived for many years among the Gypsies and who had been instructed by them in their traditional lore. He tied the word "tarot" to the Hungarian Gypsy tar (pack of cards), and claimed that ancient esoteric symbolism found its way throughout Europe through Gypsy migrations. Vaillant incorporated what he had been told in his books Les Rômes, histoire vraie des vrais Bohémiens (1857), La Bible des Bohémiens (1860), and La Clef Magique de la Fiction et du Fait (1863).

Vaillant's theory was endorsed by the French writer "Papus" (penname of Gérald Encausse) in his book Le Tarot des Bohémiens: Le plus ancien livre du Monde, (1899) (English edition as The Tarot of the Bohemians,1919) in which he claimed that the tarot was the absolute key to occult science. Papus notes, "the Gypsy pack of cards is a wonderful book according to Court de Gébelin and Vaillant. This pack, under the names of Tarot, Thora, and Rota, has formed the basis of the synthetic teaching of all the ancient nations successively.

The British legal authority De l'Hoste Ranking, writing in 1908, adds: "I would submit that from internal evidence we may deduce that the tarots were introduced by a race speaking an Indian dialect; that the form of the Pope shows they had been long in a country where the orthodox Eastern Church predominated; and the form of head-dress of the king, together with the shape of the eagle on the shield, shows that this was governed by Russian Grand Dukes, who had not yet assumed the Imperial insignia. This seems to me confirmatory of the widespread belief that it is to the Gypsies we are indebted for our knowledge of playing-cards."

In 1865, E. S. Taylor added his support to the same hypothesis in his book The History of Playing Cards. However, W. H. Willshire, in his book A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum (1876), questioned Taylor's conclusion, on the ground that "whether the Zingari [Gypsies] be of Egyptian or Indian origin, they did not appear in Europe before 1417, when cards had been known for some time." But this objection is nullified by the fact that the presence of Gypsies in Europe is now placed at a date considerably before 1417. There was, for example, a well-established feudum acinganorum, or Gypsy barony, in the island of Corfu in the fourteenth century. It is also believed that the Gypsies themselves were originally the ancient chandala caste of India.

Coincidental with the occult revival referred to as the New Age movement, the tarot has enjoyed an unprecedented period of popularity. New Agers have seen the tarot as an important additional tool for personal transformation and have interpreted the symbolism as a new map of the subconscious.

The New Age approach has spurred the production of a variety of decks that explore different symbolic worlds, offer variant interpretations from the psychological to the Wiccan, and present a broad scope of artistic styles. Traditional tarot cards have gone high-tech, with digital decks for sale on the Internet for those who are curious and willing to spend a few dollars. Some of these digital decks have replaced the customary card suits and symbols (i.e. cups, wands, pentacles, swords, priestesses, magicians) with characters representing modern themes. For example, a "king" in a traditional tarot deck is replaced with a "businessman" in a contemporary deck. These modern versions may attract a broader audience to tarot, however, many will take the practice less seriously than with the more traditional decks.


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