The Tarot is one of the most popularly used tools of divination in the world today. There are Tarot decks for just about any practitioner, no matter where their interests may lie. Methods of reading the Tarot have changed over the years. Many readers adopt their own unique style to the traditional meanings of a layout. In general, the cards themselves haven’t changed much. Let’s examine some early history of how decks of Tarot cards came to be used. As more than just a parlor game.
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French & Italian Tarot
Tarot cards can be traced back to about the late 14th century. Artists in Europe created the first playing cards, used for games featuring four different suits. These suits were similar to what we still use today – swords or wands, coins or discs, cups, and staves. Then, in the mid-1400s, Italian artists began painting additional cards heavily illustrated to add into the existing suits. These trump, or triumph, cards were often painted for wealthy families. It wasn’t until the printing press came along that playing card decks could be mass-produced for the average game-player.
Tarot and Divination
In France and Italy, the original purpose of Tarot was as a parlor game, not as a divinatory tool. Divination with playing cards started to become popular in the late 16th and early 17th century. In the 18th century, people assigned specific meanings to each card. And, even offer suggestions how to lay them out specifically for divinatory purposes.
Tarot and the Kabbalah
The year 1781, Antoine Court de Gebelin. A French Freemason published a complex study of the Tarot. It reveals that the symbolism in the Tarot is in fact derived from the esoteric secrets of Egyptian priests. In his article, a chapter on Tarot meanings explains the detailed symbolism of Tarot artwork and connects it to the legends of Osiris, Isis and other Egyptian gods. In 1791, a French occultist, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, released the first Tarot deck designed specifically for divinatory purposes, rather than as a parlor game or entertainment.
The Origins of Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
British occultist Arthur Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Together, they created the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which was first published in 1909. The imagery is heavy on Kabbalistic symbolism, and because of this, is typically used as the default deck in nearly all instructional books on Tarot. Today, many people refer to this deck as the Waite-Smith deck, in acknowledgement of Smith’s iconic and enduring artwork.
Now, over a hundred years since the release of the Rider-Waite deck, Tarot cards are available in a practically endless selection of designs. In general, many of these follow the format and style of Rider-Waite, although each adapts the cards to suit their own motif. No longer just the domain of the wealthy and upper class, Tarot is available for anyone who wishes to take the time to learn it.
In upcoming articles we will examine some of the individual Tarot cards and learn what they mean.
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