Referred to as the Devils Picturebook by Berhard of Siena in 1423 the Tarot or Tarocchi became subject for a great concern in those days by the Vatican, both due to its powers of game, education and as a system of sortilege or taking lots. Sortilege was founded upon the idea that one could use an oracular device in order to read something of the writing in the book of Fate, like we find in geomantic oracles like Yi-King or I-Ching. As this was an activity solely confined to God almighty, it was accordingly condemned. There were certainly more to it, the imagery of the Tarot it self could be seen as mockery of the Church. And not only this, if every one could go to a local wise woman to have their lots pulled out and be given advices on how to achieve their desires and also be given good counsel on how to be good people in a turbulent society, who would need the biblical advices? What would be the Church role? It seems that the Tarot were disputed also within the Church in regard its providence to the Devil and some men of Ecclesia saw that the Tarot could be used in the service of God, no matter what its origin might be. These considerations are only a few of the many thoughts that come to mind when reading Paul Husons research about the origin of the Tarot in his impressive book Mystical Origins of the Tarot. It seems that there are many matters we have accepted and taken for granted over the years. Especially the ideas of Etteilla and Gébelin together with Levi have been influential and remained quite undisputed. Adding that Etteilla was the creator of the famous Tarot of Marseilles we understand how influential his theories has been over the years.
The Tarot of Marseilles when it was made public became quite fast one of the standards of Tarot cards, in fact the many French Cartomancers influenced by Etteilla consider only the Marseille deck suitable for card reading and refused the legitimacy of the Italian decks for use in cartomacy. It is from Etteilla and his circle we have the ideas of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot, what he referred to as The Book of Thoth. Etteilla is in general an interesting figure. He surfaced in Paris a few years after the rumors of the first card readings were done in Bologna. Huson gives the date to be 1753. In this year Etteilla made claims of having the Tarot revealed to him by a man from Piedmont. And from this year and until 1781 Etteillas together with his friend and student Antoine Court de Gébelin developed the connections between the Tarot and Egyptian symbolism In the years 1785-1791 Etteilla presents his rectified Tarot, which he made together with another pupil called d´Odoucet. Etteilla was considered as an undisputed authority on the subject of the Tarot, so accordingly the theories he approved were generally accepted. Gébelins work became in turn regarded as the true account of the Tarots origin. The researchers of the Tarots symbolism continued to assume the Egyptian origin of the tarot, with some exceptions that claimed that the gypsies were the source, along with some less popular theories.
One of the more interesting new theories, that became quite accepted and popular, is found in the link Eliphas Levis did between the Tarot and the Hebrew letters, which many today take as an old heritage. What happened was that Levi in his book Transcendental magic introduced this theory - and in his later book The History of Magic presented this theory as a factual and integrated part of the Tarots mystery. Two years after, in 1857, we find a further development of Levis theory in Jean-Alexandre Vaillants interesting association of the tarot suits with not only the Hebrew letters but also with the zodiacal decans. This line of thought was continued by Paul Christian in 1870 where he connects Tarot not only to the zodiacal decans but to astrology in general. This brings us to the year 1888 and the founding of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This Order developed a Tarot that associates the suits with the decans and the trumps with the Chaim Etz or rather the paths between the sephirots on the kabbalistic Tree of Life. This deck became the prototype of the famous decks of Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley. Not to forget the influential deck created by another Golden Dawn member, Arthur Edward Waite, the Waite deck.
Let us now turn back in the chronology of the Tarot and search deeper for the origins. So far we have only hinted to a different origin and presented the more modern ideas about the tarots origin. We will now turn to the century of the Italian poet Petrarcha.
In the 14th Century the Mamlûk cards were introduced in trick taking games. This game was called Mulûk wanuwwâb, meaning “the Game of Kings and Deputies”. This deck consisted of four suits, one king and two ministers in each suit (that later evolved into Knights, Knaves (princes) and Queens). The suits were designated by the following classification: Cups, Coins, Swords and Polo sticks (Polo was a game associated with kingship and thus held great importance due to King Darius of Persia that considered it a royal game). Coins and cup names given to the suits would indicate that the cards were used in games. From the ministers and deputies in the Mamlûk deck we got the court cards, the addition of the Queen being an addition in French and German decks that were adopted by Italian card makers as well in filling out the obvious gap in the royal court. In the middle of the 1400s a practice of naming the court cards were already in use by French card makers. These names were taken from the group of medieval heroes known as the Nine Worthies, three of these derived from Judaic or Biblical sources, three were considered pagan and the last three Christian. These Worthies were famous heroes like King David, Alexander the Great, King Arthur and Julius Caesar. The same pattern were followed in regard the Queens, one took famous heroins and depicted them. We are still in the 1400s and it is of course a bit early to classify the collection of cards present as a Tarot deck in the sense we know today, but there exist an interesting order in this century made by the noble family D´Este in Ferrara who orders from a painter, probably Bonifacio Bembo, four decks of trionfi, containing Cups, Coins, Swords and Batons. It seems that at this point the trumps were some kind of extra game, an addition to the suit and court cards. The imagery of these trionfi were based on medieval sources as we will shortly see, and these expensive hand painted decks were made solely for the aristocrats, like Viscontis of Milan and D´estes of Ferrara.
Early in the 16th Century the Tarot cards was referred to as tarocchi in Italy. There are many theories explaining why this name was given from relating the word tarocchi to be derived from the Arabic taraqa, which means to hammer, and refers to the art of the blacksmith and woodcutter as they made the woodblocks to produce the card, to declare the words etymology as non existent. We also have the mentioning by the French mystic and writer Rabelais who refers to a game called taratu that were played in the utopian city of Gargantua. In the end of the 15th Century the Tarot spread beyond Italy and became popular in France, Belgium and Spain. Especially the pattern of tarocchi made by Milanese artists became famous and accordingly the Milanese pattern was introduced to France in the years between 1494 and 1525. This pattern would later make up the famous Marseille Tarot. To this Milanese deck the addition of 21 trumps and one unnumbered card, which we know as The Fool, were done.
The origin of the suit cards has been subject to many kinds of speculations from ascribing them to Celtic origin and the Grail mysteries to the Jesuite antiquarian Ménestrier who ascribed the suit cards to functions in society, like Hearts representing the Church, the Spades the aristocracy and so forth. This theory Mènestrier presented were not a new understanding of the Tarot, on the contrary he continued the ideas presented in the 14th Century treatise by Rheinfelden who ascribed the suits to the feudal structures of medieval society. Huson however suggest both a similar and a quite different possible origin to the suit cards, keeping in mind that we cannot give an absolutely true account about the history of the Tarot cards before the appearance of the Mamlûk cards. He is taking us to the year 160 C.E. and to the writings of Apuleius. Apuleius had four teachers in the art of magi and these four teachers were associated with what later became the Cardinal Virtues. The Virtues made their way into the Tarot in the form of Prudence (Wisdom). Justice or Temperance - and Fortitude (Strength). Huson is suggesting this simply because the imagery of the four Cardinal Virtues were identical with the suits of the tarocchi as it entered the Renaissance. If this is the case it suggest that the sources of the Tarot suits are far older than could be assumed, as the Cardinal Virtues were discussed by Plato in his treatment on the Republic, and also became subject for the neo-platonic and hermetic thinkers. We can also trace a lengthy history in regard the organization of the Mamlûk cards into classes of society and also the Mamlûk cards were praised by some Sufi poets, like Omar Khayyám as a vehicle to insight into the divine. So, maybe both theories were true, the one a mirror of the other where the classes of society were a reflection of divine hierarchies. In the same vein of thought we find Nigel Jacksons considerations of the Tarot in regard the Pythagorean Tetraktys key, this means that the numbers 1,2,3 and 4 are composing a pyramid of fullness. This leads to the conclusion that the number ten (1+2+3+4) have a special organizational functions for the ordering of the divine mind and through this give mystical access. This then will serve as a Key to the mysteries of the Tarot where the trump 1 and 11 can be viewed together as expansion and contraction, as cause and effect as well as many other philosophical and magical considerations in the platonic and hermetic way of thinking.
As we have suggested earlier, the Suit cards and the trumps were not originally part of the same game. The trumps were a later addition and as Huson suggest it might be that the origin of the trumps partly were staged or used by the Church for moral education as well as being images that preserved deeper mysteries concerning the wheel of life and the dance of death. First let us have a deeper look at Francesco Petrarca, the friend of Giovanni Boccaccio (author of The Decamerone). Petrarca occupied himself with studies of Latin and literature, his great passion. But his greatest passion was Laura de Noves, a married young woman that never reciprocated his love for her. She died during the plague of the Black Death in 1348. Petrarca wrote a series of sonnets for Lauras glory and in praise of the love she never returned. This poem he entitled I trionfi. Here he describes in the form of allegorical themes how one allegory triumphed over the other. It is six allegories that are described in his poem from the traveling float celebrating Cupids victory until we find Time in the shape of Death ending everything. We find here the prototypes to trumps like The Chariot, Wheel of Fortune, The World, The Devil and Death. But this is just a part of the story. It seems that this idea were not uniquely “petrarchian” but an idea borrowed from the pageant theaters. The Medieval Drama plays or Theatre came in different formats that made their ways into the Tarot trumps. One of these performances was the Mystery Plays. It is from this the word mystery is derived, from Latin ministerium meaning a church service or alternatively from the French mystére, originally a reference to the art practiced within Craft guilds. The Mystery plays were intended to be educative for the people and present in a good and direct way the importance of good moral and conduct. But here we find themes like The Tower, The Sun, The Moon, The Devil, boats, lakes, fights etc. Close to the Mystery Drama we also had morality plays that more explicitly were focusing on educating the sense of morality amongst the people and less about the mysteries of Christendom. It was the Mystery plays together with the Black Death that probably gave rise to the trumps. As we know the Black Death wiped out large amount of people in the years between 1347 and 1364 in Europe. With the plague riding through Europe sparing no one whether you were peasant or aristocrat, poor or rich the Plague spared no one and from this we have the famous imagery of Dance Macabre. Especially Von Wyls sixteenth century painting of the procession is interesting as we here find most of the figures in the known set of trumps. We find the fool, the emperor, the empress, the pope and the popes, we find the hermit and of course we find death him self leading his flock of people from all layers of society in their dark and joyful procession toward lifes unavoidable gateway, death. This led us to another assumption, the importance of Lady Fortuna as she is depicted blindfolded with the wheel of life in her hands. A powerful imagery about Life, Death and Fate, which is in essence what cartomancy is about.
If we lastly turn to Agrippa, just to mention his voluminous tome on the Occult Philosophy we find many interesting considerations in regard the casting of Lots that should indicate that not only the trumps but the Tarot itself was subject for great occult admiration in the renaissance for its occult properties. We also find more than hints to the hermetic origin or at least a hermetic understanding of the Tarot. This in turn can connect it to Etteillas notion that the Tarot was rightly The Book of Thoth. And Toth himself is one of the many epitomes for Hermes Trismegistus, suggesting the possibilities for a depth for the origin of the Tarot that are deeper and wider than this short essay intend to breach.
This essay was largely based upon Paul Husons excellent study of the Tarot in the book Mystical Origins of the Tarot (Destiny Books, 2004).