Tarot by Email

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History of the Tarot

There are a whole host of opposing views on the Tarot’s origins.  The earliest historical evidence places the Tarot in France and Italy during the fourteenth century.  Many people believe that Tarot cards were first used in Arabia or ancient Egypt, more than 6,000 years ago, but there’s little proof of this.  That view suggests that the cards survive from a great fire that burned the libraries of ancient Egypt, and are the ‘hieroglyphic keys to life.’

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A selection of Rider-Waite Tarot cards

Other people believe that, in 1332, King Alfonse XI of Leon issued a proclamation against their use.  The Roman Catholic Church also condemned the Tarot, referring to it as ‘The Devil’s Picture Book.’  But historians argue that these denouncements referred to versions of ordinary playing cards and not the Tarot.

Either way, it is generally believed that the first Tarot deck was created as a game.  A letter from the Duke of Milan in 1440 requested several decks of ‘Triumph’ cards to use at a special event.  As well as the traditional four suits with cards numbered one to ten and the court cards including a king, queen, knight and page, the Triumph deck included 22 symbolic picture cards.  This differentiates Triumph cards from regular playing cards.  It’s also believed that the word triumph developed into our term ‘trumps.’

Around the late 1700s, English and French followers of the occult interpreted more meaning in the symbolic pictures of the cards than for simply playing games.  They began using the cards for divination, and from there, they became a part of occult philosophy.  To the general public, the Tarot was seen as a frightening tool for contacting spirits and, from there, they became seen as mystical and untouchable.

Some of those original decks have survived, if somewhat fragmented.  The most popular deck today is the Rider-Waite deck – my first choice for readings.  Arthur E Waite created it in 1909 whilst a member of the mysterious Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  It was published by William Rider and Son of London.  Waite commissioned the talented American artist Pamela Coleman Smith to design each card according to his exacting requirements to incorporate all the relevant symbolism.  The cards are sometimes known as the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot to acknowledge her huge contribution to their success.

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