Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien
This system of divination now known as Tarot first became popular in card form in Europe during the early fifteenth century, assisted by the invention of the printing press. Early images of twenty of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards (Arcana means “secrets”) can be seen in an Italian deck of A.D. 1440. The Visconti family’s decks, forebears of Tarot decks in use today, appear to have been created as a recreational pastime for the nobility. Across five centuries, the structure of the modern deck of Tarot cards remains identical to the game decks enjoyed in the fifteenth century. The Marseilles family of decks, still in print today, is the oldest of the standard Tarot deck pattern.
Even though Tarot may have started as a card game, members of secret societies assigned mystical meanings to the cards, adding corresponding astrological, numerological and kabbalic symbols over time. There is no doubt that the images on modern Tarot cards have roots at least as old as Western civilization, going back as far as Egypt and maybe China. Because Tarot now incorporates a synthesis of Astrology, Numerology, the Jewish Kabbalah and harmonic theory, our Tarot scholar, Christine Payne-Towler, refers to Tarot as “the flash cards of the Western mysteries.”
The highly symbolic Tarot deck provided a way to secretly preserve ancient teachings and divination systems during a period when the Christian church was hell-bent on repressing such knowledge. The Church’s persecution of so-called heresies, which was sometimes represented in Tarot images, caused the esoteric information to be sheltered by small groups of like-minded people, by whom it was carefully preserved, and selectively shared in the guise of a card game.
Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin deserves much credit for the establishment of modern Tarot, including its use as a means of divination. In 1781 he announced that he had discovered the mythical teachings of Thoth, the Egyptian god who invented magic and writing, in the symbols on the Tarot deck. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known as “Etteilla,” was the first to create a deck of thirty-two cards to be used specifically for divination in 1770.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Eliphas Lévi had expanded Court de Gébelin’s work by joining it with the Jewish mystical system, the Kabbalah, although he did not abandon Egyptian symbolism in his deck. Lévi’s work was key in fueling a Tarot revival. Lévi does not get as much credit as he deserves, largely due to the efforts of A.E. Waite, the English Tarot scholar of the early 1900s who translated Lévi’s works from French to English. Various members of England’s Order of the Golden Dawn went so far as to rearrange the order of the traditional Tarot deck, assigning some different astrological correspondences, as well as making other small changes. In order to establish its own reputation and influence, it was in the Golden Dawn’s interest to discount Lévi’s more traditional teachings, even to deny the validity of all Tarot knowledge that had come before. Waite’s translated texts included many notes encouraging the reader to dismiss Lévi’s ideas.
To a large degree, these efforts were successful. Today it is not uncommon to hear claims that Tarot originated in England, when in fact the French, Italians, and Spanish were using it over 100 years earlier than the English. Most decks in popular use today are derived from Waite’s ‘Rider-Waite’ deck—or the Book of Thoth Tarot, an even more creative deck designed by Aleister Crowley, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn society.