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The History of the Tarot

June 18, 2016

by Tony Willis     

Origins of the Tarot

There is no trace of the tarot prior to the first quarter of the fifteenth century – no remnants of tarot decks, no written records referring to tarot cards. Around 1420, decks similar to the tarot make an appearance. Some have more than 22 trumps, others have more than four court cards; but the version that became popular for playing card games with was one closely resembling the tarot as defined in the preceding post. It called the Magician card Il bagatto, which can mean an illusionist, a juggler, or a mountebank, and knew the High Priestess and Hierophant as la papessa (the Papess or female Pope) and il papa (the Pope). It called the Hermit il vecchio (the Old Man), and the Hanged Man il traditore (the traitor). The card Judgment was often called the Angel, though sometimes it was the Day of Judgment. Apart from these differences in nomenclature, this tarot – tarocchi in Italian – is recognizable as an ancestor of the Waite-Smith cards published in the early twentieth century.

The game of tarocchi traveled beyond Italy, entering Germany, Switzerland and France, with each country manufacturing its own sets of cards. In 1760, Nicolas Conver of Marseille printed a woodblock deck which became the model for a group of decks known collectively as Marseille tarots. Produced for a French market, the cards’ titles were translated accordingly. Il bagatto became Le Bateleur, la papessa became La Papesse, and so on; in all cases, a direct translation from the Italian. It was one of these Marseilles tarots that attracted the attention of Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784), and in 1781, in volume 8 of his Le monde primitif, he expressed the opinion that the tarot concealed a number of occult secrets, which he then attempted to elucidate.

The Importance of the Marseilles Deck

De Gébelin made few alterations to the tarot. Mostly, the designs he produced for Le monde primitif are simply redrawings of the Marseilles tarot trumps and four aces. (See below.)

cdg-7      c0ce03becec283f7adc445041c008e41

cdg-19       tarot_logo

de g ace rods        tdm ace rods

In fact, the French school of tarot study was deeply rooted in the Marseilles tarot. Both Oswald Wirth’s tarots (published 1899 and 1927) were based on it, as was the Knapp-Hall tarot of 1929. The chief changes made in these decks were:

     the replacement of the array of sundry items on Le Bateleur’s table with the emblems of the tarot suits;

     the addition of stars on the head of the Empress and a crescent moon at her feet;

     a complete revisioning of the image representing Fortune’s Wheel;

     the addition of a caduceus, symbol of the god Mercury, or the astrological sigil for Mercury, to the Devil card: plus the Latin words Solve and Coagula written on his body;

     and the introduction of a crocodile to the symbolism of the Fool.

These changes reflect esoteric attitudes. Occultists believed that the Bateleur represented an individual capable of manipulating the invisible powers lying behind, and supporting and sustaining, the visible universe, and this trait was considered better indicated by the symbols of the tarot suits, themselves taken to signify the four metaphysical elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

le_bateleur   3 tdm   wheel 10

PapusWirth01    PapusWirth03    PapusWirth10

The Empress was identified with the woman in the Biblical Book of Revelation, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, and these features were duly added to the card. The woman from The Book of Revelation is pregnant; consequently the Empress began to be represented in that condition also. The Marseilles tarot depiction of the Wheel of Fortune is so corrupted that it is impossible with certainty to identify the two creatures rising and descending the wheel; the creature at the top was identified by occultists as a sphinx because, like the sphinx, it is a composite figure, with a human head, a body which might be that of a lion or a bull, and with the shapes either side of its head, rising from the shoulders, interpreted as wings. If any trump was in need of reformation it is The Wheel of Fortune, and occultists of the nineteenth century rose to the challenge by coming up with a new version. (See above.)

Adjustments made to the Fool are minor in comparison. The crocodile depicted in his path signifies the danger lying in wait for the foolhardy and the spiritually vain. It often appears to be lurking under a low rise in the terrain towards which the fool is headed. There is often a broken obelisk on the card; when present it points up the temporary nature of mankind’s achievements in comparison with spiritual truths, which are eternal.

tarot-vision-afbeeldingen-174              PapusWirth22

The additions to the Devil card are more obscure in origin. Solve et coagula is a motto taken from the realm of alchemy. It means that something must first be broken down in order that it can then be rebuilt in an improved form. It was attached to Trump 15 because the tarot Devil was identified with the force responsible for carrying out this process in connection with the human psyche. The association of the caduceus or the Mercury sigil with the Devil came about when the trumps were matched with a list of astrological and elemental attributions where the Devil lined up with the planet Mercury. (Reliance on this list has a lot to answer for, as we shall shortly discover.)

15               PapusWirth15

Tarots created since 1781 (the publication date of Le monde primitif) have had elements added to them either indiscriminately or in an attempt to “rectify” the symbolism so as to have it better conform to the rectifier’s understanding of occult lore. If we seek to grasp what it was that early tarot experts saw in the cards that led them to think the tarot deck worthy of their regard, we need to study and deconstruct the symbolism of their source deck – the Marseilles tarot.

But before we can do that, we must examine more closely the concept of the Symbol.

to be continued

2 Comments
  1. Apl Kont permalink

    Thank younTony
    At last, some serious and valid study onTarot symbolism!

    • Thank you for showing your appreciation, Apostoles. I hope the new series lives up to your expectations!

      Tony Willis

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