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The History of the Tarot: Part Two – Occult Revival

Posted on October 23, 2010 by Flames

Halloween is right around the corner, and many people read tarot cards to celebrate the holiday. In this three-part series of articles, FlamesRising.com turned to tarot card expert Paula Dempsey to talk about the history of the tarot. In this first article, she discussed its mysterious origins. Today, she talks about the occult revival.

The History of Tarot: Occult Revival

    The late 18th century saw Western society immersed in the Age of Enlightenment and on the verge of the Industrial Revolution. Paradoxically, this era of scientific rationalism also saw a rebirth of magical traditions. Druidry was reinvented in Great Britain by William Stukely and others. The end of the Witch-craze in Europe and the USA meant that those claiming to practice magic could do so without fearing a noose around their necks and to many, magic had an undeniable romance to it.

    Tarot continued to develop and became part of a codified system of symbols. When he saw a tarot deck for the first time French pastor Court de Gebelin was hit with the sudden (and probably wrong) realisation that the symbols on the cards came directly from ancient Egypt. It is from Court de Gebelin that we get the myth that tarot was brought out of Egypt by gypsies. Another French student of the tarot, Etteilla, broadly supported Court de Gebelin’s theory, saying the tarot deck held the last remnant of the Egyptian magical tome The Book of Thoth.

    Thoth was also known as Hermes Trismagistus or Thrice-Great Hermes, a legendary figure to whom was attributed all hermetic magic. Etteilla’s contribution to the tarot was to “rectify” the deck so that all the symbolism therein corresponded with hermetic concepts. In doing so he discarded some of the medieval imagery but his rectified deck forms the basis of most modern tarot decks. It was the first of a number of major changes to occur to tarot packs. Etteilla began to ascribe deeper meanings to the court cards – the King, for example, was a certain personality type; perhaps an older man in a position of authority.

    The French kabalist and tarot scholar Eliphas Lévi added more depth to the interpretation of tarot cards by ascribing correspondences with other symbolic systems, primarily astrology and the kabalah. The four suits, he said, corresponded to the four letters of the name of God JHVH, where J=wands, H=cups, V=swords and H=coins or pentacles.

    Lévi also related each suit to an element: J=fire, H=water, V=air and H= earth. He claimed to have found these attributions in the grimoire The Key of Solomon, although modern tarot scholar Paul Huson has found no evidence in The Key of Solomon to support this claim.

    But we must move on to look at an extraordinary group of early 20th century British occultists, one of which, Arthur Edward Waite, would make a huge change to the symbolism of the tarot and provide the perfect “starter deck” for so many readers.

    The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical society in late 19th century London. Although small and not long-lived in its original incarnation (many societies claiming direct descent still exist) it drew upon Masonic practices to structure its magical teachings into grades and added yet more correspondences.

    Golden Dawn member Arthur Edward Waite initially dismissed the tarot as a vulgar form of fortune-telling but eventually recognised it as a powerful tool for divination, suggesting that the 22 tarot trumps represented stronger influences than the minor arcana or “pip” cards.

    It is now 100 years since the publications of the Rider Waite tarot deck (sometimes known as the Rider Waite Smith deck or the Rider Smith deck). Waite supplied the – usually Christian – symbolism, Rider was the publisher and the artist was a fellow member of the Golden Dawn, Pamela Colman Smith. Colman Smith was a professional illustrator and was able to interpret Waite’s vision as he described it to her. What was unique about their collaboration was that it resulted in a deck where all of the cards, not just the major arcana, were fully illustrated. This made interpreting the cards much easier and the cards themselves are so rich in symbolism that one can spend a lot of time just studying one card and unpacking everything in there. A century on, modern tarot decks owe a great debt to Waite and to the woman known as Pixie.

    The Golden Dawn’s contribution to tarot does not end with the Rider Waite deck, however. In the 1930s Lady Frieda Harris collaborated with former Golden Dawn member and self-styled Great Beast Aleister Crowley to create his Thoth deck, which also remains a favourite to the present day and is unusual in that it replaces the Page court card with the Princess.

    Tune in tomorrow for The History of the Tarot: Part Three – Modern Day. If you missed yesterday’s article, be sure to read The History of the Tarot: Part One – Origins.

    About the Author

    Paula Dempsey bought her first tarot pack in 1988 but she’s been interested in symbols for much longer, since discovering Jungian archetypes in a tiny bookshop in Liverpool one rainy lunch-hour. She trained at the College of Psychic Studies, London and can now read everything from ribbons to chakras but likes psychometry best. Dowsing in a barrow at Avebury, however, caused moderate panic and fast running away.

    Paula is an occasional contributor to Pelgrane Press’s webzine See Page XX where she writes horoscopes for gamers as Mystic Moo. Her first book, an Occult Guide to 1930s London for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, will be published by Pelgrane Press in 2011.

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