Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 22

History of the Tarot: Shadowy Origins and Secrets of the Cards

The Emperor‚ The Fool‚ Death‚ The Tower. The cards of the Tarot deck are familiar to us all as mystical symbols that supposedly foretell our destinies. Like the Ouija board, Tarot cards are an immensely popular method of fortunetelling available at any bookstore or hobby shop. The origin and true meaning of the Tarot deck, however, are shrouded in mystery and are as difficult to interpret as the cards themselves.


The Tarot deck we know today is comprised of 78 cards, 22 of which are known as the Major Arcana—a subset of cards depicting objects (like a chariot, a tower and the sun), concepts (for example, strength and temperance) and personages (such as a hermit or a priestess). Cards from the Major Arcana are generally associated with spiritual issues in a person's life. The remaining 56 cards of the deck make up the Minor Arcana. This large subset is composed of four suits— swords, wands, cups, and pentacles or coins—of 14 cards each, with each suit including cards ranging from ace to ten, as well as cards depicting a knave, a knight, a queen and a king. Cards from the Minor Arcana are thought to represent more mundane events in a person's life.

The word "Tarot" is of uncertain origin, although some historians believe it is derived from the Hebrew word "torah," which means "the law." Other theories link the name to the Taro River in northern Italy or to the Egyptian word "tarosh," which means "the royal way."

The Tarot deck itself has a similarly murky lineage. An eighteenth-century French scholar and Freemason named Antoine Court de Gebelin claimed the cards originated in ancient Egypt and were used to introduce initiates into the secrets of the Egyptian priesthood. Gebelin believed that the deck's Major Arcana illustrated secrets from the Egyptian Book of Thoth, a legendary lost tome thought to contain spiritual knowledge of the highest order. Other Tarot enthusiasts likewise claimed the deck came from Egypt. A French philosopher and physician named Papus insisted the Tarot represented images and designs found in hidden chambers below the Pyramids; these images detailed rites of initiation into Egyptian mysticism. According to Papus, the decks were created in order to preserve the details of these rites in the event the Pyramids were plundered or destroyed.

There is no definitive archaeological evidence that ties the Tarot to ancient Egypt, nor is there evidence for any of the other theories that subsequently emerged regarding the Tarot's origin. For example, a noted nineteenth-century Frenchman and prominent occultist, Alphonse Louis Constant, claimed the cards were ancient Hebrew methods of instructing people in the branch of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. Among other claims, Constant believed the 22 cards of the Major Arcana represented the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Another theory suggested the Tarot came from Morocco in the eleventh century as a sort of database encoded with much of the knowledge from the famous libraries destroyed in Alexandria, Egypt. The Tarot has also been believed to be a pictorial record of Asian Indian holy writings, as well as a record of the esoteric knowledge held by ancient alchemists and the Knights Templar, the twelfth-century secret society of Christian monks that was ultimately persecuted by the Catholic Church.

While no real evidence has been found to explain the birth of the Tarot, the first documented reference to the cards occurred in Italy in the fifteenth century. This reference took the form of a sermon by a Franciscan friar condemning the Tarot as an invention of Satan. The friar claimed that the cards of the Major Arcana, which were used as the basis of a card game played by the nobility, were heretical, and those who played the game were surrendering their souls to the Devil. Interestingly, the sermon did not mention the cards' use in divination, leading some historians to believe that the Tarot was not used for fortunetelling until centuries later.


The use of the Tarot as a means to predict a person's future began in the late 1700s, when the occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, also known as Etteilla, published a collection of divinatory meanings for Tarot cards, as well as ordinary playing cards. Coinciding with Antoine Court de Gebelin's claims that the Tarot represented ancient mystical knowledge from Egypt, Etteilla's formalized explanations of the cards spurred renewed interest in the Tarot, and the cards soon became one of the most popular and easily available means of supposedly glimpsing the future.

In addition to its divinatory use, the Tarot is seen by some scholars as a symbolic account of the themes embedded within the legends of the Holy Grail that began circulating in the twelfth century. In the Grail stories, knights such as Percival pass through various stages of initiation and maturation in order to obtain a much- desired object called the Grail, which has been defined as a plate or dish or cup, depending upon the story. This Grail has the power of restoring health, creating food and abundance, and healing lands blighted by famine or strife. Although later versions of the Grail legends were hijacked by the Christian Church and rewritten in order to associate the Grail with the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, the original Grail stories were not Christian. In fact, many scholars have seen a distinctly pagan or Eastern philosophic aura in the legends, particularly in their recurring ideas of cyclic renewal and the harmony between a person's male and female aspects.

Many portions of the Grail stories appear in symbolic form in the Tarot deck. For example, the swords, spears, dishes and chalices that play prominent roles in the Grail legends show up in the Minor Arcana as swords, wands, pentacles and cups. Below this superficial level, though, there are other connections. In Eastern philosophy, the number 20 is considered sacred, and when certain numbered cards of the Major Arcana are paired so that their numbers add up to 20, specific ideas from the Grail legends emerge. For instance, the Lovers (number 6) broadly represents the union of the male and female, and when added to the Temperance (number 14), which suggests moderation and balance, we can see how moderation, balance and emotional harmony are inextricably linked to a person establishing a union between his or her male and female aspects—a major undercurrent in many Grail stories.

In another example of this holy arithmetic, when one subtracts the High Priest (number 5), also labeled the Pope in some early Tarot decks, from 20, the result is 15— and the 15th card of the Major Arcana is the Devil. This indicates another important Grail issue: the association of established Church doctrines with evil falsehoods that lead people astray and divert their attention from the truth. The pagan-influenced Grail stories are subliminal criticisms of Church orthodoxy, which stresses such unhealthy practices as sexual repression, subjugation of women and avoidance of the supposedly evil forces of the natural world.


The earliest known Tarot cards appeared in Italy from the early to mid 1400s. Known as Tarocchi, these cards were hand-painted, although other specimens from around this time are printed cards of inferior quality. It was not until several hundred years later, however, that more elaborate and well-known Tarot decks were created.

During the 16th century, the Tarot de Marseilles became the standard deck throughout Europe. This traditional deck got its name from the city of Marseilles, France because it originated and was manufactured there in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time period there were several incarnations of the Marseille deck, the most famous being those designed by Nicholas Conver in 1760. The Major Arcana of the Marseille deck is the most enduring and influential of all tarot designs.

The Marseille Tarot became popular among the French occultists, who began using them primarily for mystical divination purposes. Soon afterward, the use of Tarot cards by fortune-tellers became widespread throughout Europe.

In the late 1800s, Tarot cards underwent a radical change when Alfred Edward Waite, an occult philosopher and member of several secret societies, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, commissioned an artist named Pamela Coleman-Smith to create what he hoped would become the definitive Tarot. This deck became the Rider-Waite deck, which is the most widely used deck today. Waite's vision was to create a deck of esoteric images that would help the reader to fully understand the specific divinatory meaning of each card. The Rider-Waite deck was the first incarnation of the Tarot to use elaborate artistic depictions for the cards of the Minor Arcana rather than simple designs or motifs. In accordance with the beliefs of the Golden Dawn, Waite also swapped the positions of the Strength and Justice cards to make them correspond with the Kabbalah, making Strength number 8 and Justice number 11.

In the early twentieth century, the infamous occult figure Aleister Crowley wrote The Book of Thoth, which revealed his unique vision of the tarot. Years later, he worked closely with an artist named Lady Frieda Harris to bring the Thoth Tarot to life. A believer in Egyptian mysticism, Crowley imbued his deck with distinctly Egyptian symbols and themes, and Lady Frieda's vibrant and surreal artwork added a new age appeal to the cards. Crowley, who took his occult practices very seriously, specifically intended for his tarot and its corresponding book to be sold as a set, however, after his death, his deck was reprinted in a larger format and two extra Magician cards were added as a marketing gimmick.


Other popular Tarot decks have appeared in recent years, some of them serving as showcases for the works of notable fantasy artists. For example, 22 existing paintings by H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist who created the surreal sets and monstrous creature for Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, were used to illustrate a partial Tarot deck. Although aesthetically interesting, the deck's incomplete nature makes it little more than a footnote in Tarot history.

Another artistic deck that has surfaced recently is the Da Vinci Enigma Tarot, which utilizes sketches and diagrams from the famous inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Other popular modern decks have been created around motifs utilizing dragons, angels, fairies, and various other mythological deities and creatures, although many of these decks have strayed from the original conceptions of the tarot and are referred to as "oracle decks."

In 2002, gothic fantasy artist Joseph Vargo created the Gothic Tarot, a complete deck lavishly illustrated with images of vampires, ghosts, gargoyles, dark angels and other creatures of the night. Unlike many modern decks, which use art that bears little or no relation to the traditional symbolism of the individual cards, the Gothic Tarot involved the meticulous adaptation of Vargo's art to fit the traditional Tarot symbols and meanings. Because of this, the Gothic Tarot has become an extremely popular deck among serious Tarot readers worldwide.

For centuries, Tarot cards have created controversy wherever they have appeared. Many of their strange images speak deeply to those who read them, allowing the cards to be interpreted on a very personal level. Whether seen as a harmless parlor game, a window into the future or an accumulation of ancient mystical knowledge, the Tarot deck is an undeniably fascinating cipher that may never be truly understood.