Posted on October 22, 2010 by Flames
Did you know that Halloween is a popular time of year for divination? One way that many people celebrate the holiday is to have their tarot cards read. 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 discusses its mysterious origins.
The History of Tarot: Origins
Once Upon a Time…
… in 48BCE to be exact, when the Roman Empire was at its height and Julius Caesar’s troops laid siege to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The custodians of the Royal Library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, knew they didn’t have much time before enemy forces broke through and destroyed their precious scrolls forever. Fortunately they had made a plan. Decks of cards were small and portable, so they prepared special decks rich in symbolism carrying much of the spiritual and magical guidance from the Library, if one knew how to read them. Many Egyptians fled west from Alexandria at that time, fearful of the enemy invasion. In time this diaspora of “gypsies” would spread throughout Europe, disseminating the wisdom of the Royal Library of Alexandria through their tarot cards.
This is my favourite tarot origin myth, but it’s not true. If you try to trace the history of the tarot you’ll meet a lot of myths. So what’s the reality?
14th century Islamic manuscripts provide evidence that playing cards were around as early as the 1370s. It’s likely that tarot began as a card game; in mainland Europe the card game is still played. Given that pretty much anything with random elements is a good tool for divination – lines on the hand, tea leaves, animal intestines – it’s no surprise that cards were appropriated and adapted for that purpose. Some psychics use a regular deck of playing cards for divination, however, so why a separate tarot deck evolved purely for fortune-telling I’m not sure.
The earliest proto-tarot deck is the 15th century Mamlûk deck, Mamlûk being – conveniently – an region of Egypt. As the cards were from an Islamic culture no people were depicted on them. Instead the cards were decorated with elaborate designs based on their four suits; cups, swords, coins and polo sticks. Three court cards of each suit appear in the Mamlûk deck, depicting the King and his two deputies.
Once the cards got to Christian Europe pictures of human figures and animals were added. Italian, Spanish and German card makers followed the Mamlûk in having three court cards in each suit, the King, the Superior Officer and the Inferior Officer. German manufacturers were first to replace the Superior Officer with the Queen.The Knave later eased out the Inferior Officer. The fourth court card, peculiar to tarot packs, woul be added later. Tarot cards became rather a craze amongst the wealthy. Ornate gilded packs in beautiful caskets were produced for display rather than use, from around 1445 onwards. Documents from the same period provide the first evidence of the use of cards for divination.
By the 16th century, the cards had become known as tarocchi and “tarau” appeared in the work of French writer Rabelais. The 16th century also saw the game of tarot gaining popularity as it spread to the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Switzerland. It was at this time that French card makers contributed the Marseilles deck, still a popular design today.
Now we have our tarot pack, what next? Fast forward to the occult revival of the late 18th century.
Tune in tomorrow for The History of the Tarot: Part Two – Occult Revival
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.