The Origins of Tarot Cards

Tarot cards have a very mysterious and uncertain past. Tarot authors differ from tarot historians when discussing the origins of tarot cards. Tarot historians claim that the origins of tarot cards are inseparable from the origins of playing cards, and that their original use was for gaming. Tarot authors are generally writing for an occult audience that falls under the umbrella of the Western Mystery School Tradition. Frequently they refer to the origins of the cards as being lost in “remote antiquity.” They describe the original use of tarot as a means to preserve Wisdom School Knowledge in a pictorial form that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Tarot research is generally limited to extant partial decks of antique cards and the paper trails left by authors referencing tarot or playing cards. In exploring the origins of the tarot one must juggle the folkloric tales against the historic evidence. It is generally accepted that playing cards had an Islamic origin and first entered Europe with either the Crusaders returning through Italy from the Levant, or through the Moorish Caliphates in Spain. Early Italian and Spanish playing cards use the Islamic suits of swords, cups, coins and clubs or polo sticks. In 1939, an Israeli scholar of Islamic art, Leo Aryeh Mayer, discovered a complete pack of cards which could be traced to the 12th or 13th century in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul.

Playing cards are first evidenced in Switzerland in 1377, in Spain by 1378, and in France in 1392. It was during the Italian Renaissance in the early XV Century that Trionfi or the 22 Tarot Trumps first appeared in Northern Italy. Trionfi were allegorical images that were added to a regular deck of playing cards and used as part of a card game. The word tarot entered English from the French. It is derivative of the Italian Tarocchi, plural for tarocco for which the origin is unknown. The original name for these cards was trionfi (triumph) from which we get the English derivation “Trumps,” a term still used by card players today.

During the Italian Renaissance authors such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attempted a “Hermetic Reformation.” Astrology, allegorical alchemy, cabalism, and magic may have been encoded into the cards to reflect the Hermetic principle of correspondences, “As Above – So Below.” The allegorical images of the trionfi were a way of preserving Hermetic correspondences in a symbolical or archetypal language.

During the Renaissance, skilled artisans working with precious pigments executed miniature masterpieces for the privileged few. Unlike the mass-produced woodblock cards produced in Germanic workshops, these hand-painted trionfi were primarily in the domain of the nobles who could afford to patronize artists. A 1450 document from Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan requests that his treasurer send him a tarot pack. The earliest existing examples of Trionfi are the Visconti-Sforza cards created for Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan and his successor Francesco Sforza. Due to their frequent use and the fragility of the materials from which they were constructed no complete deck has survived; rather, some collections boast a few face cards, while some consist of a single card.

The name “Visconti-Sforza tarot” is used collectively to refer to incomplete sets of approximately 15 decks produced between 1451 and 1466 now located in various museums, libraries, and private collections around the world such as Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo, Cary-Yale, and Brera-Brambilla. The earliest documents referring to tarot

cards are from the Court of Ferrara in 1442. In the Bibliothèque Nationale de France there are 17 hand-painted cards from the Italian court of Ferrara.

The Use of Tarot in Divination

The term divination comes from the Latin divinare, meaning “to be inspired by the Divine.” It refers to any ritual technique that is used to gain a foreknowledge of the future. During a tarot card reading the diviner, or reader tunes into the soul or life-line of an individual in order to read events along the time-space continuum. The life-line is perceived by the reader as a series of waves or a sequencing of events representing important incidents in the past, present or future of the individual receiving the reading. During the process of shuffling and cutting the deck psychokinesis takes place. Psychokinesis is derived from the Greek: psyche, meaning “mind, or soul;” and kinesis, meaning “motion, or movement.” Psychokinesis literally refers to “mind-movement.” During the process of divination the soul or unconscious mind of the reader directs the movement of the cards to fall in such a way that the symbols reveal meaning that is recognized and interpreted by the conscious mind.

How I Conduct a Tarot Consultation

I almost always commence a consultation by doing a “cold reading.” That is looking forward into the life of the client prior to receiving any specific information from them. Although I am usually looking forward into the near future, the next 12 months or so, life events may be revealed from the present or recent past, which are still having an impact on the life of the individual. After that general reading is completed the client can then ask the specific questions which may have originally motivated them to schedule the session. I strongly recommend that the querent write down his or her questions in advance of the session in order to get the best use of our time together.

The Tarot Deck I Use

I first began my tarot studies in 1970 at age 14 when my classmate Lonnie first gave me the A. E. Waite/Pamela Coleman-Smith deck. This very popular deck is commonly referred to as the Rider-Waite deck. I worked with this deck until 1973, when I awoke one night from a very powerful dream. In this dream I had the vision of being in a cave or dark passageway where I could not discern whether or not I was floating past a series of Egyptian images or they were floating past me. I awoke immediately with a sense of great import. The next morning I shared my dream with my friend Karen who was also a colleague in a crafts cooperative that I ran in Santa Monica. Mildly amused, Karen pulled out a deck of the Brotherhood of Light Egyptian Tarot Cards from her purse and asked that I take a look at them. I immediately sorted through the cards and extracted those I had seen in the previous night’s dream. “You should come with me,” were her exact words and the following week we ventured down to an auditorium on St. Andrews Place near Western and Wilshire in Los Angeles. It was here that I was first introduced to The Brotherhood of Light philosophy. I have continued to work with and teach from The Brotherhood of Light deck to this day.