ITALY is said to be the birthplace of the tarot, which according to playing-card historians was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century and whose principal innovation was the introduction of trumps into Western European card-gaming. It may also have had a didactic or educational motivation, similar to the "Mantegna Tarocchi" or other educational games which served as mnenomic pictures. However, the symbolism found on some early tarot cards has led many people to believe that tarot cards are in fact the expression of ancient streams of wisdom... the eternal, esoteric and holy tradition itself. Following this belief, modern tarot packs draw upon the teachings of a tremendous range of traditions, including Kabbalah, Western esotericism and alchemy, Buddhism, Sufism, Egyptian initiations, mystical Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Celtic mythology… and so on. People have mapped whichever belief system or philosophy they fancy onto the tarot deck. Many people find they can quickly realise and develop an affinity with symbolic images in the deck which become a source of meaning or guidance.
"The primordial image or archetype is a figure, whether it be a daemon, man or process, that repeats itself in the course of history whenever creative fantasy is freely manifested. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure. If we subject these images to a closer investigation, we discover them to be the formulated resultants of countless typical experiences of our ancestors." C.G. Jung
However, the thematic content of early tarot trumps probably reflects the Platonic Catholicism of the time. An interesting early example is the Guildhall Library Tarocchi cards (shown below) believed to have been painted in Spain during the 15th century. The cards contain curious symbols and iconography. The Knave of clubs shows a hunting scene, and in Platonic philosophy hunting was reckoned to develop moral strength and virility. The World card shows the New Jerusalem, the paradise where we are fully realised. The black and white chequered floor tiles on the ace of cups, like in Masonic lodges, suggests the dualistic nature of the material realm upon which we must rebuild the spiritual life through practising higher moral virtues. The ace of swords (or Sun) suggests the idea that the endless cycles of birth and rebirth can only be penetrated or overcome by spiritual wisdom. And we can also observe that the suit symbols were batons, cups, swords… and probably coins…
So the question arises, was this merely a game? How do we explain what looks more like Mystery Tradition Symbolism in these early tarot cards?n those days, the term "psychology" hadn't been invented. What they had was Morality. "Toutes les sciences ont été mises à contribution et rien n'est plus obscur encore que la science de l'homme moral." (All sciences have been put together and nothing is more obscure than the science of moral man). Ordinary folk were very superstitious, more learned folk read philosophy books. Churches and academies used visual allegorical symbolism to depict moral lessons. Medieval bestiaries depicted various animals as examples of different moral qualities in humans. Astrological symbolism was all about temperaments, passions and moral virtues, etc. There were lots of religious paintings depicting all sorts of sins and virtues… so we should not be surprised that early playing cards and tarot cards also reflected this cultural atmosphere.
In some cases it looks like random symbols were added to the cards at the whim of the artist or woodcutter. In other cases, we ask whether the artist was trying to express his/her understanding of some religious doctrines, a new philosophical or moral teaching, or maybe a secret esoteric doctrine…?
Ultimately it is a question of what you want to believe…
Above: detail from the Cary Collection uncut and uncoloured sheet of tarot cards (housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) probably printed in Milan and possibly dating as early as c.1500. The entire sheet is available for digital download here. The images are untitled and unnumbered, again suggesting that players must have already known the sequence or hierarchy of trump cards in play from contemporary knowledge. Much of the imagery is recognisable as anticipating the more familiar Tarot de Marseille designs (see below) whilst other features are common to other early Italian decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and D'Este decks. Thus it looks like a prototype or intermediate form of the Tarot de Marseille design.
During almost 600 years the tarot cards have undergone a transformation from renaissance card game to new age spiritual treasury. Every age gets the tarot that it deserves or desires.
In the 18th century the trump cards became the focus of esoteric investigations and since then the tarot has become a sort of popular religion or diagnostic tool for mind, body and spirit. French occultists were largely responsible for this, notably Court de Gébelin, Eliphas Levi and Eteilla, who saw correlations between the tarot trumps and ancient mysteries. During the 20th century the literature on “esoteric tarot” has grown spectacularly and fantasy is given freedom to create every imaginable type of tarot card, from the “72 names of God” to the Maya Calendar. These new tarot decks are usually accompanied by booklets explaining the rationale and meaning of the symbolism chosen in the images, as well as the correct manner of using the cards and their interpretations in readings.
There has also been a distinguished output of ENGLISH TAROT CARDS. By the 1870s a number of English occultists had begun taking an interest in the tarot, attracted by the idea that the tarot was some sort of repository of ancient wisdom, esoteric lore or such like, and that it could be used to predict the future… more…
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