Tarot Cards

a brief history of the Tarot

Tarot cards

The exact origins of the Tarot are lost in the mists of time.

We know that the gypsies brought the original 22 Tarrocci cards (which were the Major Arcana) westward when they migrated from India. It is quite possible they picked up some Hebrew mystical knowledge on the way. The gypsies appear to have migrated and settled, and migrated again, for centuries.

The modern Tarot deck and its images were first developed about 500 years ago in Northern Italy, where it is believed the 22 Tarrocci cards fused with the ordinary playing cards which were also used by the gypsies, as they still are today, to tell fortunes.

The cards contain knowledge from many great civilisations, some long gone, and their experiences, successes and lessons learned from failures are all represented in the cards. You can see influences from Celts, Hindus, Buddhists, Romans, Greeks and (very significantly) Egyptians throughout the cards, as well as numerous others.

Evidence indicates that the modern Tarot deck was inspired by gnostic materials brought to Northern Italy about 1450 AD from Alexandria. The Tarot has roots in the Jewish Kabbala, ie. numerology based on the original 22 cards. The Minor Arcana which developed from ordinary playing cards was also broken into four suits because, it is thought, of an influence from a figure in Hindu mythology. Some say each suit represents a letter of the unpronounceable name of God - YHVH - (Jehovah).

Tarot cards were originally used by the aristocracy, particularly in Florence (you can see this in the film Dangerous Liaisons). They became the centre of intense interest by virtue of a multi-volume book by Court de Gebelin at the end of the 18th century. The book was called Le Monde Primitif (The Primitive World). During this period (which followed an interest in Greek antiquities) there was great speculation about Ancient Egypt.

Court de Gebelin fanned interest in the Tarot by advancing the theory, with very little evidence, that they originated as Egyptian initiatory hieroglyphics. He may have been correct, in principle. The psychological dynamics of the Egyptian mysteries were much the same as the structure of the Tarot. Although, claiming a line of continuous historical derivation is another matter.

Their design and format as cards were a product of the early Renaissance mind, although naturally their structure and symbolism have much more ancient roots.

About the cards used for the online readings

The cards on the previous pages are from The Rider-Waite Deck, the world's most popular Tarot deck. It is also known as the Rider Tarot and the Waite Tarot.

The deck is made up of 78 cards; the 56 Minor Arcana and the 22 Major Arcana cards. It was conceived in 1909 by Arthur Edward Waite and painted by Pamela Colman Smith.

Both Waite and Smith were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric organisation founded in 1888 in England. Waite encouraged Smith to produce a tarot pack with appeal to the world of art that would have significance behind the symbols and thus make the deck more important than tarot packs previously used for centuries. Waite referred to the deck as 'rectified' because he switched the sequence of two Major Arcana cards, (Strength - Justice) according to attributions of the Hebrew alphabet.

A unique feature of the Rider-Waite deck, and one of the principal reasons for its enduring popularity, is that all of the cards, including the 56 Minor Arcana, depict full scenes with figures and symbols.

The pictorial images of the cards facilitate interpretation. The innovative Minor Arcana, and Pamela Colman Smith's ability to capture the subtleties of emotion and experience, has made the Rider-Waite tarot a model for the designs of many twentieth century tarot packs.