The Complete Origin And History Of Tarot Cards

Astrology, Tarot, and Cabala are the most important techniques in Western mysticism. Nowadays, those who want to study Western mysticism in depth, it is best to study these three techniques together and let them complement each other, so that can deeply enter the palace of Western mysticism.

tarot cards history

Among these three techniques, tarot cards have both artistic beauty and mystery. They can be used for divination and can be viewed and collected as works of art, so they are widely welcomed by all social classes. And their colorful and dazzling patterns are also attached to various magics, myths and legends.

How Many Tarot Cards Are There? What Tarot Cards Mean?

There are 78 traditional tarot cards, which are divided into two parts. The first part consists of 22 main cards called Major Arcana, which mean “big secret”. Each card has a unique name and full meaning (such as: the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess). Their patterns are complex and profound, and can be matched with the astrological signs.

The second part is a deck of 56 cards called Minor Arcana, which means “little secret”. The cards are divided into four groups: Wand, Chalice, Sword, and Pentacle. 

Each group of cards is divided into 10 number cards (1 to 10) and 4 court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page), which are used to assist the in-depth details of the Major Arcana tarot cards and can be coordinated with the calendar. 

Minor Arcana is the predecessor of today’s playing cards. And all those 78 tarot cards have their numbers, which can be combined with Cabala.

brief history of tarot cards

What Is The Story Behind Tarot Cards?

Since the sound of the word “Tarot” has appeared in many cultures, and the patterns of tarot cards are mixed with different myths and legends, what religion do tarot cards come from is still controversial, but there is no actual evidence. 

Egypt, China, Hebrew, India, France, and Italy all have their local tarot cards history, among which the Egyptian tarot history is the most familiar, but there are also many strong supporters of origins in other regions such as Chinese tarot history and Hebrew tarot history.

1) Egyptian origin theory

Egyptian origin tarot supporters believe that the word “Tarot” is derived from the Egyptian words Tar (Tao or Dharma) and RO (King or Emperor), which means “royal” and also refers to the correct decision-making power required to be a king. 

They believe that the tarot deck and tarot reading is the ancient Egyptian wisdom and magic classic “The Book of Thoth”.

The Book of Thoth was originally patterns painted on the temple to convey the will of the gods and resolve the doubts of the pharaoh. Later, the Egyptian dynasty was destroyed, and the priests painted the pattern on the straw scrolls and escaped with them, and later spread to Europe by the Gypsies. 

This statement is represented by a series of books on tarot card theory published by French occultist Gebelin in 1781.

history of tarot card reading

2) Chinese origin theory

In the Tang Dynasty of China, there was a monk who was proficient in astronomical calculations, named Yi Hang. He invented a card game called “leaf play” in about AD 772. Each card is about the size of a leaf, and was deeply loved by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. 

Later, “leaf play” became widely popular among nobles, gentry and folks, and the card faces are painted with the patterns of various characters, and the production became more and more exquisite. In the Ming Dynasty, there was a total of 40 cards that could be divided into four suits.

Supporters of Chinese origin tarot believe that the earliest Western playing cards appeared in the 13th century, five or six hundred years later than the Chinese “leaf play”. During the period, there were two major cultural exchanges between China and the West, and “leaf play” may have flowed into Europe. 

Although the specific form of Yi Hang’s invention is currently unknown, since he is proficient in astronomical calculations, this deck of cards is likely to be related to almanac calculations and has something in common with Minor Arcana.

the history of tarot cards

3) Hebrew origin theory

In Jewish, “TARAH” means “law”. The nineteenth-century occultist Levi associated the Tarot cards with the ancient Jewish esoteric religion of Cabala. 

He found out the correspondence between the 22 letters of Hebrew and the tarot cards, as well as the correspondence between the 22 paths in the “Life of Tree” in the Cabala teachings and the tarot cards, which gave the Hebrew origin theory great support. 

Some people even think that the Tarot card is the seance of the ancient Jewish secret religion!

What is the story behind tarot cards

The Earliest Tarot Cards And Theoretical Systems

The oldest tarot deck in existence today is the 17 Major Arcana currently stored in the National Library in Paris, France. Some say it was made by the painter Gringonneur for Charles VI of France in 1392, and some say it was the playing cards of Venice in the 15th century. 

In addition, a French law in 1397 prohibited workers from playing cards outside of holidays, which is believed to be related to the tarot. In short, the earliest documents about tarot cards that can be tested are about the 14th century.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, the tarot card was regarded as a heresy by the church and was suppressed, and many churches forbade the faithful to touch the tarot card or do tarot card reading. 

In addition, they continued to vilify and burn tarot cards, so that many people still hold a positive attitude to the question “are tarot cards evil?”, which is ironic.

Under this religious persecution, the tarot cards were turned underground and kept by some secret sects, which were considered heretical, to teach people as a path to spirituality and wisdom. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, through the research and promotion of Geblin, Levi and others, tarot cards appeared in front of the world with a new look.

At the end of the 19th century, Levi’s follower Papus (he is Gerard Encause) greatly improved the theory and system of tarot cards. He applied the teachings of Cabala esoteric to the interpretation of tarot cards, and find out the association of tarot cards with their corresponding magical rituals. 

Papus’ famous book “The Tarot of the Bohemians” is the first complete monograph on tarot cards, in which Numberlogy is added to enrich the connotation of tarot decks. Therefore, Papus is regarded as the founder of modern European tarot theory and system.

Where did tarot card reading come from

When Did Tarot Cards Become Popular?

In the history of modern tarot cards, there is one of the most important events: in 1888, Ross Cross, a wizard who inherited the medieval occult school, established the mysterious association in London called “The Hermetics Order of the Golden Dawn” .

They combined tarot cards, astrology, Cabala and alchemy again, making the theoretical system of tarot cards more complete.

A.E. Waite joined “The Hermetics Order of the Golden Dawn” in 1891 and published the Rider-Waite Tarot with Ms. Smith in 1910. Soon, it became the world’s most widely circulated card, and the “International Standard Edition” recognized by most tarot researchers & readers. 

Nowadays, this deck of cards is packaged in a yellow card box, and its traces can be seen wherever tarot cards are sold. Besides, Waite wrote a book “A Pictorial Key to Tarot” to explain this deck of cards, which is used as a “textbook” for tarot cards learners.

egyptian tarot history

Today, the development of tarot cards is more diverse. Many tarot cards are combined with local culture and art to print own tarot cards, such as: Russian tarot cards, British tarot cards, Swedish tarot cards, and Chinese I Ching tarot cards. 

Also, there are some independent modern tarot masters will make custom tarot cards. It can be said that in addition to divination, tarot cards also express different cultures and customs around the world.

It is worth noting that due to the promotion of New Age, apart from the practical aspects of life, tarot cards emphasize the motivation and inner reaction of the diviner – as a “mirror of the mind” and a tool to “speak directly to the heart”. 

The famous spiritual master Ouspensky (the disciple of the occult master Gurdjieff), Osho, etc. have all published books on tarot cards & tarot deck reading & spiritual practice, popularizing the spiritual level of tarot cards.

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