On the origins of the Tarot

A lot of people feel the need to give the tarot a mystical beginning. That it came from lost Egyptian knowledge, that it was originally intertwined with Kabbalism, that it contains lost Hindi information, that it came to Europe via the gypsies, that it was invented to transmit occult or witchcraft information, ect.

However the real origins of the tarot have been well researched by archaeologists and historians who have studied the history of playing cards. It may not be known exactly where and when the tarot was created, but we do have a fairly accurate idea of it’s beginning.

In the fourteenth century it was becoming popular for artists to use cards as a medium for their artwork, and several art decks were created in Europe for various aristocrats. Games would soon be adapted to fit these decks. And as printing technology advanced decks of playing cards became accessible to the lower classes.

The first tarot decks appeared in Italy in the early fifteenth century. Although the first decks may have been intended as works of art, it wasn’t long before the cards started being used in a trick taking game similar to bridge. It’s unknown when exactly the cards were first used for divination. There’s no direct evidence of divination in the first few hundred years of the tarot’s life, although cards were a common divinatory device of the time, and speculatively the cards could have been used for divination within just a few years of their creation.

This is the real origin of the tarot. There is no evidence of any other origin, and there is no valid argument that can be made in dispute of this (although, admittedly, my facts weren’t properly checked and there may be a few minor errors here and there).

Many devotees of tarot discover this and instantly lose faith. Some stick their head in the sand and try to make believe that it isn’t true. And some critics use these facts to dispute any validity the tarot may have.

The best argument against this is the one made by Crowley. As a practical tool the tarot works. As a divinatory tool, as a meditative aid, as a means to transmit esoteric knowledge, we get verifiable results from the tarot when it is used properly. As for its origins, it really doesn’t matter where it came from, so long as it works.

But Crowley doesn’t get into how or why tarot works, just that it does and that should end any dispute. To begin with, age and origin isn’t very important when talking about truth. In Christianity, all things originate with God in the beginning, and so it’s common to view anything new as inherently wrong. Unfortunately many people who aren’t Christians, including many who call themselves Pagans, still can’t transcend a Christian perspective of things. Truth is. Age doesn’t make something more true, and youth doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be true.

Secondly, the tarot is just a medium, like a book. When we look at the origin of the tarot, we’re looking at the origin of the medium itself, not the origin of the occult tarot. Just like a book, anything can be put inside of the tarot. It can be meaningless, it can be a work of art, or it can be an enlightening spiritual work.

Taking this into account, there’s no longer anything that ties one tarot deck to another. At best, we can say that two decks are bound by both being spiritually true. But Crowley’s deck is no more like Waite’s deck than the Bhagavad Gita is like the book of Mormon. So with no common tie other than the medium, each deck has to stand on its own, with its own card meanings, and its own unique divinatory systems.

Yet we know this to be untrue. Different aspects of the truth can be seen in Crowley’s and Waite’s decks, yet the actual meanings of the cards remain the same. The Devil is still the Devil, the Two of Cups is still the Two of Cups, and Lust is the same as Strength. Meanwhile page 15 of the Bhagavad Gita is completely different than page 15 of the book of Mormon. So there has to be something more tying together every tarot deck, or at the very least every true occult tarot.

The common tie between the occult tarot decks is a single definitive deck. I use the term deck here very loosely and usually it is referred to as a book, but once again that term is very loose. This deck is what is sometimes referred to as the Book of Thoth. This is the complete, accurate, and unabridged tarot. Every portion of the deck contains infinite knowledge, but the deck itself cannot be completely transmitted into this world. The deck also transcends language and symbols, and so even if it’s known, it can’t even be properly communicated in this world, and it exists here only in translation.

All occult tarots transcend from this one definitive tarot. The tarots differ because it’s impossible to make a copy of the true Book of Thoth, so they end up as the author’s interpretation of the true Book of Thoth. Crowley interprets certain cards differently than Waite. Sometimes Crowley focuses more on one aspect of a card where as Waite will focus moreso on an entirely different aspect. Sometimes they’re trying to say the exact same thing, just in two completely different ways.

But regardless of whose deck you’re using, the Two of Cups is still the Two of Cups, and the meaning is exactly the same, because both cards are an allusion to the one true Two of Cups that exists inside of the one true deck. And the divantory meaning of the Two of Cups remains the same regardless of the deck when we divine from the source rather than the current interpretation.

5 Responses to On the origins of the Tarot

  1. Tarot_Is_A_Card_Game says:

    It is not only critics of the occult using these facts. Tarot also works well as a card game. Tarot card games are still being played today in continetal Europe and there are efforts to import them in the US and around the world. Those who are still trying to “mystify” Tarot or obscure its origins have been doing damage to an important part of the world’s gaming heritage. Card game historians are trying to make the facts more widely known, not so much to bash the occult, but promote awareness of Tarot as an actual card game.

  2. Psyche says:

    A few notes. Unfortunately, Crowley uses the following cop-out:

    The origins of this pack of cards is very obscure. Some authorities seek to put it back as far as the ancient Egyptian Mysteries; others try to bring it forward as late as the fifteenth or even the sixteenth century. But the Tarot certainly existed, in what may be called the classical form, as early as the fourteenth century; for packs of that date are extant, and the form has not varied in any notable aspect since that time.

    He then goes on to suggest they were used for fortune-telling in the Middle Ages by gypsies (a notion derived from Papus), which is patently false.

    Though unfortunately there is no such thing as a “complete, accurate, and unabridged tarot”. It’s a bit of a shame to see this post jump from surface deconstruction of myth to rebuilding old ones.

  3. Rob says:

    I don’t see Crowley’s brief explanation of the tarot as a cop-out. Except when he mentions gypsies using tarot cards as early as the middle ages, which was probably far more difficult to verify in Crowley’s time, everything is true, both based on the modern historical record and what was available in Crowley’s time. Crowley ends the section by saying that there is no point into going into more detail. The Thoth essay was meant to be a means to acquiring the necessary information for practical applications of the cards, not as a historical treatise on tarot. Crowley was also probably trying to avoid putting himself in opposition to every post-Geblin tarot authority, with the single exception of Waite, because it would’ve been a pointless pissing match that would only work to discredit Crowley and his influences.

    As for a complete, accurate, and unabridged tarot, such a thing must exist if we define tarot as being a book detailing the everything within the universe (or multiverse). Even making a great leap of faith to assume no other copy could exist anywhere else, the universe itself can act as the complete, accurate, and unabridged tarot. Unless, of course, the universe really does operate like Schrodinger’s cat, but that’s just silly.

  4. Starweaver says:

    Very good post. The only minor correction I would offer is that the evidence goes back to the early 15th century (1400s), not the late 14th century (1300s).

  5. Rob says:

    Thank you for the correction. I didn’t check things as well as I could have and mixed up my dates. I’m going to edit the post right now.

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