Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Brief History and Introduction to The Tarot

(First published in ‘In*Sync’ in August 1997)

It is now perhaps too late to discover the true roots of the Tarot, so steeped are these cards in mystery and secrecy. Considered and banned by the Church as "The Devil's Picture Books" there are three possibilities to their origin.

They were thought to have been introduced into Europe by bands of wandering gypsies, who brought the cards out of India; as the word "tarot" is derived from the Sanskrit word "Tarut" meaning a deck of cards.

The four suits referred to the main castes, the Cups to the Brahmans or priests, the Swords to the Kshatriyas or warriors, the Coins to the Vaisyas or merchants and the Batons to the under-dogs or Sudras.

The second theory is that they came from the very Far East and under the influence of Buddhism with the symbolism of the Major Arcana. The Fool represents the wandering monk or Sannyasin, the Emperor and the Empress Suddhodana and maya Devi, the Chariot, the fearful Juggernaut of Vishnu, the Wheel of Fortune, the wheel of karma or rebirth, etc., etc.

The third theory is that the cards came directly from Egypt and they are the remains of the ancient book of magical wisdom, none other than the great mythical Book of Thoth, written by the God Thoth himself.

Within this book were supposed to be two fearful spells. The first would enable a man to cast an enchantment over the entire earth and sky, which would enable him to understand the language of birds and beasts. He would also be able to hover over all the oceans and listen to the speech of the fishes, even those hidden in the deepest parts.

The second spell would give the seeker power over death and the tomb, and enable him to see the divine forms of all the Gods and sport with them. Although this sounds very strange, the tarot cards certainly contain the elements of some such message, distorted as they are by the passage of time.

In 1392 King Charles VI of France, defying the Church, possessed one of the first Tarot packs in existence today. It was beautifully painted in blue and gold by Jaquemin Gringonneur. Seventeen of these tiny scraps of vellum can be seen in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, but generally speaking the Tarot was unknown by the general public and only used by the gypsies of the Mediterranean countries.

By the 18th century, there was a great increase of interest in these cards, due to the publication, in 1781, of a nine-volume work “Le Monde Primitif Analyse et Compare avec Le Monde Mooderne” by Antoine de Gebeline, a Freemason and Occultist much preoccupied with the mysteries and secret lores of Egypt. The fashionable world in France became besotted by it, and many designs for the pack were created.

Interest in the Tarot and the various interpretations has never ceased since then. In the 1900’s AE Waite, that great ‘seeker’, inspired by his involvement in the doctrines of the Rosacrucians designed his now very well-known pack, Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi, Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune- all contributed their thoughts and designs. There are now other types of cards, such as feminist ones, but these are not taken seriously by adepts, who consider that only the Marseilles Packcan be regarded as genuine and possessing the true aura of so many ‘diviners’, which by virtue of its antiquity carries the seeker to the planes key and the ‘here and now’ to areas of ‘time and space’ and openings to the world of that great God Thoth - Hermes Trimegistos himself promised.

With the spread of the cards, those who wish to lift the veil of understanding should do so in prayerful and sincere humility, conscious of the echoes of the footfalls of the Gods, down the corridors of time.

In the next post we will discuss the only un-numbered card, The Fool, known in the Middle Ages as the Lord of Misrule, as Dionysus to the Neoplatonists, and who in the spread represents the seeker, the cosmic cypher or everyman.

Copyright © Janus 1997