Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Tarot

I have several tarot decks - Thoth, Witches Tarot, Sacred Circle and Arthurian. I use the tarot cards on a daily basis. I love the insight that comes from them. So I thought I would share some interesting history that I found:

The Tarot has a fragmented history that intrigues historians, scholars, hobbyists, and spiritualists alike. Drawing on the concrete facts that are available, we will attempt to briefly explain the origins of the Tarot, and trace some of its milestones through the centuries.

The designs of the 22 cards in the Major Arcana can be traced back as far as 1440, when the first known deck appeared in Italy. The 3 decks called the "Visconti Trumps" are generally regarded as the "forefathers" of the decks that are widely available today. It is believed that they were originally created as a game for Nobles. It is not until centuries later that the cards reemerged, this time as a tool of divination. In the latter half of the 15th century, the cardmakers in Marseilles, France began to standardize the Trumps. Before this organized production, those who played the Trumps could dictate which they wanted to include, and which they wanted substituted or eliminated. Certain cards; Death, the Devil, and the Tower in particular; were considered offensive by the more conservative Nobles. These images caused religious leaders to attempt to ban the Trumps.

The first detailed reference to the Trumps of the Tarot is in the form of a sermon. This sermon, given by a Franciscan friar in Italy sometime between 1450 and 1470, contends that the Trumps were invented and named by the Devil. It condemns the use of the cards, and generally credits them with the triumph of the Devil. According to the friar, the Devil wins through the loss of the souls of those who play what was then, quite probably, nothing more than a simple game.

The rebirth of the Tarot, and its beginnings a means of divination, are attributed to Antoine Court de Gébelin in 1781.He believed it was Egyptian in origin, and that it contained mystical knowledge that had been purposefully encoded in the symbolism of the Trumps. Specifically, he theorized that the cards were the key to lost Egyptian magical wisdom written by Thoth, the Egyptian God of inspired written knowledge. The Trumps themselves began to noticeably evolve from this point forward. Changes were thought to have been introduced by the different secret societies who produced the decks.

The first account of divination through the use of cards is attributed to cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as "Etteilla", in 1770. He was the first to publish divinatory meanings for cards, and only 32 cards (plus one, representing the querent) were included in this edition. At this time, only regular playing cards were mentioned. Later, Etteilla published several works that involved the Tarot Trumps specifically. It is no surprise that these later writings coincided with deGebelin's then-recently-public treatment of the Tarot as a wellspring of Egyptian occult knowledge. Etteilla must have anticipated the Tarot's jump in popularity: his was the first deck available to the public expressly for the purpose of Cartomancy.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone that translated the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians in 1799 did not yield any support to the theory that the Trumps hailed from Egypt. Still, the belief endured and was augmented in 1857 with the introduction of the notion that the wandering Romany people - " Gypsies" thought to be descendants of Egyptians - had carried the deck with them on their travels through Europe.

In the nineteenth century, the famous occultist known as Eliphas Lévi developed a correlation between the Tarot and the Kabbalah: the Hebrew system of mysticism. This fueled a new belief that the Tarot originated in Israel, and contained the wisdom of the Tree of Life. The new theory brought all 78 cards together as keys to the mysteries, but again, there were no concrete facts to support it. Nevertheless, something important was accomplished. The theory would later serve as proof that the symbolism of the Tarot crossed all boundaries. From this point forward, many magical and esoteric groups recognized the Tarot as a timeless body of knowledge that had significance in every mystical path.

Since that time it has been linked with almost every magical system or religion known to humankind. The Tarot is comprised of archetypal images that cross linguistic, cultural, geographical, and temporal barriers.

The Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, the Church of Light, and the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) all secured the Tarot's position in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the United States of America, the Tarot became popular and more readily available in the 1960's, when a period of exploration in spirituality began.

Arthur Edward Waite is credited with the renaissance of the Tarot in the Twentieth Century. He commissioned artist Pamela Coleman Smith to create what he called the "rectified" Tarot. Created by a member of secret societies also known as a revered mystic, Waite's version has been widely accepted as the standard, and is by far the most popular deck of the century, rich in symbolism and easily understood due to the simple nature of the artwork.

In the opinion of many learned Tarot enthusiasts, the most significant change the deck has experienced is Smith's treatment of the Minor Arcana. Hers are the first "pip" cards to contain images depicting the meaning of the cards. These graphics allow readers to explain the significance of each cards nuance to querents who, in most cases, have never encountered the cards before. This artistic trend can be traced through the majority of the decks produced after the Rider-Waite (1910), and Smith's influence is readily recognized, as many of the images echo her drawings.

Today's Tarot card designs reflect specific trends in sexuality, religion, culture, and philosophy. There are literally hundreds of interpretations, and more are being conceived as this is being written. The diversity of the styles allows Tarot Readers to choose a deck that suits their personalities, the subject of the reading, the person receiving the reading, or any other variable as they so choose. Certain decks have a serious tone, some have a dream-like quality, others are full of cartoon images. The true beauty lies in the Tarot's ability to retain its "soul" through each metamorphosis and incarnation. It is, on many levels, a mirror of those who work with it, and allows them to make each reading a truly personal experience.

Old manuscripts from the ancient classical world were discovered and taken to Florence, the centre of Renaissance culture.

One of these manuscripts - the Corpus Hermticum - was thought to have been written in Egypt whilst under Greek rule. The text included work on astrology, alchemy and magic. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) translated both the Corpus Hermeticum and works by Plato.

Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) introduced the idea of the Jewish mystical system the Kabbalah. Astrology, talismanic magic and alchemy were practiced during the Renaissance and the craze for images and the symbolic meaning of those images preoccupied the Renaissance thinkers and artists. The symbolic images on Tarot cards were to be found in all popular art of the time.

The Neo-Platonic Hermetic movement believed that man, was a great miracle, that he was in essence a microcosm of the greater universe. Self-knowledge was encouraged, believing knowledge of soul was knowledge of the divine.

In Plato's vision we are all in possession of a divine intelligence capable of understanding the abstract patterns that underlie reality. The gods are personifications of these abstract patterns.

One of the godfathers of the Renaissance, Cosimo De Medici, financed an academy dedicated to the study of Neo-Platonism.

Images of the Greek gods appeared in Renaissance art. These gods were considered to be great laws at work in life and the art of the Renaissance was shot through with symbolism from mythology, alchemy astrology, and other magical mystical systems.

The Magi of the Renaissance laid the foundation of modern magic. The new Renaissance world view was encouraging man to know himself. It challenged the authority of the Church, which claimed the only way to know God was through the Church.

In keeping with the popular art and culture of the Italian Renaissance the first Tarot cards appeared depicting images of the Greek Deities.

The previous period is often referred to as the 'pre-occult Tarot'. It was in France that the story of Esoteric Tarot starts to emerge. Little is heard about the game of Tarot until an occultist Court de Geblin (1724-1784) came across a Tarot card game being played at a friend's house. This can be said to be the beginning of Esoteric Tarot, the use of the cards as a divinatory instrument.

De Geblin believed that cards were Egyptian in origin with connections to the great god Thoth. He speculated on other connections but did not develop them, publishing his theories in 1781 in a nine volume set of books titled Monde Primitif. The Rossetta Stone was decoded in 1799 with no mention of the Tarot. However, by this time De Geblin's work had been popularized.

In 1783, the French occultist known as The Grand Etteilla was the first professional Tarot reader and the first person to design a Tarot pack to be used for divination. The word 'cartomancy' for card divination is said to be coined by him. He strongly maintained that the origins of Tarot lay in Egypt. In 1785 he published A Way To Entertain One-Self with a Pack of Cards Called Tarot. He also wrote on astrology and alchemy.

Paul Chistian (1811-1877) first referred to the cards as Arcana Secrets, from which developed the terms Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Although his Egyptian theories were based on fantasy rather than fact, he put forward a very persuasive argument, to the extent that his Egyptian theories influenced other authors.

The French Kabbalist Eliphas Levi (1810-1855) (who was influenced both by Court De Geblin and Etteilla) believed the Tarot was the Egyptian Book of Thoth.He drew correlations between Hermeticism Kabalah alchemy and Tarot. The most prominent part of his work was the synthesis of the Hebrew Kabalah and the Tarot. In 1854 he published two books: The Doctrine of High Magic and The Ritual of High Magic.

In 1889, we have the first redesign of the Tarot, by the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth (1860-1943). Wirth was a follower of Levi and used some of his examples in his new design. In 1857, another Tarot myth escalated in a book by J A Vaillant connecting the Tarot with the Romany Gypsies.

In 1889, a founder member of The Cabalistic Order of The Rosy Cross (Rosicrucianism) writing under the name of Papus published the book The Tarot Of the Bohemians. Papus, a follower of Levi, refined the concepts of Levi's Kabbalistic Tarot.

In 1888, the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn was founded in England.

It attracted many artists and scholars. One of the founders, Dr Wyn Westcott, had been in contact with a student of Ephilas Levi, thus the Tarot connection were made.

This led to the introduction of Mathers MacGregor, who had already written a short article on divination and Tarot. Mathers Macgregor was the diving force behind the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He drew on all mythologies and magical systems, linking the Tarot to a whole network of correlations.

In 1910, a prominent member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite, produced the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, with the book A Pictorial Key To Tarot.

The art work was by Pamela Coleman Smith, who took inspiration for the minor arcana from the Italian Sola Busca deck. The Ryder-Waite cards are still a widely-used Tarot deck today.

Arthur Edward Waite set out to clear up some of the fanciful creation myths that were surrounding Tarot.

In his book A Pictorial Key to Tarot, Waite writes:

'We shall see in due course that the history of the Tarot cards is largely of negative kind, and that when the issues are cleared by the dissipation of reveries and gratuitous speculations expressed in the terms of certitude, there is in fact no history prior to the fourteenth century, the deception and the self deception regarding the origin in Egypt, India or China put a lying spirit into the mouths of the first expositors, and the latter occult writers have done little more than reproduce the first false testimony in there good faith of an intelligence unawakened to the issues of research.'

The French schools produced the idea of an esoteric Tarot and defined the main elements of traditional Tarot interpretation.

The Golden Dawn refined and advanced the esoteric Tarot providing a structure for the divinatory uses of the pack.

In 1927, Paul Foster Case put Tarot and in-depth psychology together in his book The Tarot. He also defined further, Kabbalistic links. The following year, Manly Palmer Hall published Secret Teachings of All Ages and in 1934, Israel Regardie (a pupil of Alister Crowely) published four volumes of papers on The Golden Dawn in America. A teacher known as Zain wrote 22 volumes on Occult Instructions, claiming he was being instructed by discarnate masters. In 1936 a Tarot deck appeared, with Zain emphasizing the links between the occult systems of astrology and numerology with Tarot. Zain went on to found the Church of Light Brotherhood. Aleister Crowley (a member of The Golden Dawn) did not publish his Thoth deck and The Book of Thoth untill 1947. The Waite and Thoth deck are the most known decks.

The cards went into obscurity untill 1971 when, an American, Eden Gray published Mastering Tarot. This book was about fortune telling with the cards and the simple, straightforward approach rekindled an interest in Tarot. In the 1970s, there came a new psycho-spiritual approach from Tarot experts Richard Gardener, Richard Roberts, Joseph D' Agostino, Alfred Douglas, Paul Husan, and Richard Cavendish. In 1978, we have Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopaedia of Tarot Volume One, (followed by Volume Two).

In her book Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore, Cynthia Giles writes:

'The third stage in the Tarot development of today's Tarot was marked by a change of scenery and afresh influx of colourful characters.

The new American venue offered an exuberant and much more public setting for Tarot research, absent were the ostentatiously 'secret' societies the veiled references, and the aristocratic eccentrics, in their place were business like organization that perused occult ideas with the same practical attitude General Motors brought to the matter of transportation.'

The American influence on Tarot can be seen now in the diversity, the eclecticism, and the individualism of contemporise Tarot interpretation - as well as the increasing commercialization of Tarot.



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