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The Occult History of the Tarot, I

April 28, 2012

The Occult History of the Tarot

Tony Willis


“If I were to say that someone today had found the Book of Thoth, that ancient Egyptian text containing an extraordinary doctrine of magic, I am sure many would be startled. And the amazement would mount yet further if I asserted that this text gets shuffled in the hands of many people as if it were a strange deck of playing cards. Many might either think I am simply joking or that I am a mountebank seeking to gain notoriety. What I claim, however, is absolutely true! For the Book of Thoth and Tarot cards are the same thing!”

This, in paraphrase, is what Antoine Court de Gébelin says of the Tarot in his book Le monde primitif (1781). As an occultist, I would very much like to believe in de Gébelin’s claims. A direct link between the Tarot deck and the fabled Book of Thoth would indicate an uninterrupted transmission of esoteric lore across a period of up to possibly five thousand years. This fact in turn would suggest that tenets assiduously passed on from one generation to the next over such a stretch of time must themselves be laudable, instructive, efficacious. Sadly, there is no historical proof that the Tarot had any serious connection with occultism until de Gébelin himself introduced the idea in Le monde primitif.

The first physical evidence for the Tarot’s existence dates from the 15th century. An elaborate, hand-painted Tarot, known as the Visconti deck, survives from Italy, and is dated circa 1440. It is now generally accepted by historians that the Tarot was devised somewhere between 1425 and 1450 in Northern Italy. And that is what the documentary evidence confirms.

At the same time, it is accepted as a matter of faith by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Study of the iconography of the earliest tarots using standard comparative-historical methods, however, pins down the time and place of their creation toNorthern Italy in the early Renaissance period. In other words, the same time-scale and region of Europe attributed to the Visconti deck.

We can, for example, place the invention/creation of the Tarot after the Black Death, because the skeletal Death-with-a-scythe motif found on almost every early version of Trump 13 does not predate that period. Prior to that era, skulls in pictorial art were primarily a symbol of scholarship and learning. Hence this comment from a book on folk-lore: “Death’s-head rings.— Rings engraved with skulls and skeletons were not necessarily mourning rings, but were also worn by persons who affected gravity . . .”

The earliest versions of The World (Trump 21) show a conventional image, known from religious art of the period, representing St. Augustine’s “Heavenly City”. It is surely no coincidence that the card depicting the Heavenly Jerusalem comes immediately after the Judgment card in the order of the Trumps, that being where it falls in Christian eschatology (i.e. the doctrine of what happens to the soul in “the last days”).

It may be that the esoteric doctrines associated by occultists with the Tarot cards have been in existence since the time of ancient Egypt, but the doctrines are one thing – the images on the cards quite another. Since there are no extant versions of the Tarot earlier than the Visconti and similar Italian decks, one is left to conclude that the cards of the Major Arcana were devised in a Christian, Western European ethos at a time when there was a Pope and an Emperor, both of whom were thought of as more powerful than the mere kings and queens depicted among the court cards of the Minor Arcana.

De Gébelin equates Trump 5, The Pope, with Osiris and Trump 2, The Popess or Female Pope, withIsis. But he admits that he is using guesswork, or functioning intuitively. Sometimes his guesses take him in odd directions. For instance, he believed that the image on Trump 12, The Hanged Man, had become reversed over the years. (He means the thousands of years during which the cards had, according to his theory, been in existence, not the three hundred or so years that had elapsed since the time of the Visconti deck. In fact, from the era of the earliest extant decks to de Gébelin’s own time, The Hanged Man had always been depicted hanging head downwards.) De Gébelin saw Trump 12 as a misrepresentation of Prudence. He averred that the illustration ought to show a young man with one foot tethered to a peg set in the ground, his other foot raised. According to de Gébelin, the youth is about to test the solidity of the earth ahead of him with his raised foot, before deciding whether or not to rest his weight on that spot. For de Gébelin, the figure on Trump 12 is literally in the process of “testing the ground”.

Sadly for this theory, there is no cognate image in European art either before or after the assumed date of the Tarot’s devising, whereas other figures depicted in the Major Arcana – Temperance, The Sun, etc., and even the Female Pope – are well known subjects of contemporary art for the early Renaissance period. So is the image of a man suspended by his feet, or one foot. It was commonly used, mainly inItaly, to symbolize a traitor, suspension by the feet being a customary punishment in that area of the world for traitorous behavior. By this point, de Gébelin’s theory concerning Trump 12 has fallen apart at the seams, because his depiction of “Prudence” has no antecedents, making it the odd-man-out among the 22 images of the Major Arcana.

Some believe that, because these 22 images exist as individual entities prior to the creation of the Tarot deck, it follows that the esoteric doctrines associated with them by occultists such as Eliphas Levi, S.L. Mathers and Paul Foster Case were also linked to them far earlier than 1440, the speculative date for the Visconti deck. Attractive as it may appear, this theory has yet to be verified. It may be true, but as things stand, no one has produced enough evidence to establish it beyond doubt. In fact, there is no incontrovertible evidence that anyone was viewing the Tarot as an occult aid, or even as an established method of divination, before de Gébelin himself came up with the idea.

There are signs, in the second half of the eighteenth century, that the Tarot was being used for fortune-telling in Bologna. A single sheet of manuscript now in the library of the University of Bologna lists 35 cards from the Tarocco Bolognese along with their divinatory meanings. This is, however, an isolated case apparently unconnected, so far as one can tell, to any tradition of fortune-telling either esoteric or exoteric. The same can be said of the glimpses we receive, at a slightly later date, of card-reading in France.

Significantly, there is no evidence either for fortune-telling with ordinary playing cards until the middle of the eighteenth century. Casanova records an encounter with this form of divination when, in 1765, he witnessed a Russian slave-girl lay out 25 playing cards in a square (five by five) and proceed to offer up a reading. As with the previous two instances, there is no evidence of an established tradition lying behind this girl’s efforts. Sadly Casanova’s comments are unhelpful to anyone interested in cartomantic methods and technique: he didn’t understand the procedure and therefore discounted the entire incident. As he tersely records: “I saw nothing [in the cards]; but she imagined she saw everything.”

Despite the fact that the manuscript sheet in the University of Bologna’s library presents a set of divinatory meanings seemingly unconnected to a tradition of Tarot-card-reading, it is worth closer examination. In many cases, particularly with regard to the Major Arcana, one can trace the process at work by which the cards have been allotted their meanings.

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