If you saw someone shuffling a pack of tarot cards you’d probably imagine they were about to use the brightly coloured cards for divination and you’d be right.
That is of course, unless you’d fallen back through time and found yourself in the mid 15th century, in which case they’d simply be playing a game of cards.
In the English-speaking world, where there is no tradition of using tarot cards for playing games, the cards only became known through the efforts of occultists.
The first evidence for the use of tarot cards for divination does not appear until 1735 in The Square of Sevens and by 1750 Pratesi Cartomancer which documented simple meanings for the cards as well as how to lay them out.
Cards and Fortune Telling
Casanova commented that his mistress often used a deck of playing cards for divination - maybe she used to keep up with the romantic habits of her infamously unfaithful lover.
The earliest tarot cards were hand-painted so the number of the decks made was small, and it was only after the invention of printing that the mass production of cards became possible.
‘Modern’ occult tarot began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin published Le Monde Primitif. De Gébelin claimed that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseilles represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. These are the Tarot Card images I use on my FREE TAROT.
Gébelin further thought that the name ‘tarot’ came from the Egyptian words for ‘royal’ and ‘road‘, so the word ‘tarot’ supposedly meant ‘the royal road‘. The only problem was at this point no one had deciphered hieroglyphics and to this day no Egyptologist has found anything to support these ideas, although many folks still accept his theories.
Hermetic Order of the Tarot
The meanings of the cards commonly used today are derived from the works of Etteilla and Eliphas Lévi which were spread to the English-speaking world via The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Lévi introduced an interpretation of the cards which related to The Kabala and alchemy. Tarot divination became increasingly popular in the USA from 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot in1909.
Other occultists later produced decks that reflected their own ideas, and these decks were widely circulated. In France, Papus and Oswald Wirth were influential in developing the tarot and particularly claiming the mundane gaming cards of the Tarot de Marseille for occultism.
Tarot Major Arcana
Many French tarot readers only use the Major Arcana cards for divination and French Tarot de Marseille books often only consider the symbolism and interpretation of the Major Arcana.
The Major Arcana are twenty-two cards, with no suit. Each Major Arcanum depicts an image with many symbolic elements. Usually each card also has a number and a title.
Tarot Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana has cards ranging from The Ace through to the Ten and court cards; Page, Knight, Queen, and King. Each suit of corresponds to one of the four elements.
Today, tarot cards are usually used to gain insight into the Past, Current and Future situations of the subject. Some readers believe they are guided by a spiritual force, whilst others think the cards help them tap into a collective unconsciousness or their own subconscious.
The general meanings of some cards have remained unchanged over long periods of time but the tone and depiction of each card can vary. Thus the meanings ascribed to the cards are more of a guide than a set of rules.
As a result of this it is up to the reader to decide which meaning to apply based on the card's location in the spread and the cards around it. Some methods of interpreting the tarot consider cards to have different meanings depending on whether they appear upright or reversed. Other interpreters point out that card reversal is dependent on the order of the cards before shuffling and is therefore irrelevant to the reading.
One thing remains constant, whichever pack is used and however they are read, the tarot has moved a long way from being a card game for the rich and famous!
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