Who among the readers, taking the Tarot cards into their hands, wasn’t disturbed by the question where all those images came from, what message they contain, who are those strict figures from Major Arcana with their severe looks, which stories could the royalty from the Court deck share, and why and where all those crowds from Minor move? They all speak to us yet remain silent about their genesis, they look at us and our Querents, yet tell only what we need at the moment; holding their own secrets and inviting the curios minds to explore and dive into the fanciful labyrinth of its own story.
Being a path and mystery, Tarot themselves couldn’t be left without its own legends. One has it that the four suits derived from a hypostasis of the Indian god Shiva or monkey god Hanuman, who hold a cup, a sceptre, a sword and a ring in their four hands. Scholars believe, the cards were invented in China and Korea, as a pack of the paper deck of four suits. However, these exotic versions hadn’t gained popularity, and 16th century became the starting point to discuss Tarot origin and spread. The 15th-century Italian writer Covelluzo tried to explain Tarot appearance by the tight economic connections with the “country of Saracens”, whose merchants introduced a new game calling it naib. The theory has sense, as Arabic expansion over Iberian Peninsula could provoke dynamic cultural exchange between the two worlds. Nevertheless, The Arabian Nights don’t contain any memory about the cards, which causes doubts in this approach.
A popular association with gypsies, for whome Tarot became an integral part of their identity and who enhanced its fortune-telling function, motivates to think about the cards as their invention. However, according to the official records, gypsies spread over the Europe in the 15th century, meanwhile, the cards were known in Europe hundred years before. The first mention was made in a German monastery in 1377, and the classical trumps as we know them today, existed in 1415 as a deck of Duke of Milan Filippo Visconti. Since then the records inform us that the card game of Tarocco, or Tarocchi has been condemned or abandoned in Europe, however, hand-painted decks are widely created for the richest families of Northern Italy, one of which is used today, the deck of Visconti-Sforza. From the 14th century King Charles seventeen cards, there were ninety-seven variety of the cards in Italy of 16th century.
The geography of Northern Italy and Southern France leads our thought towards the sect of the Cathars, who in 12-13th century became influential here. Their philosophy of liberation from the bonds of matter, and spiritual purification is partly is seen in Tarot topics of trials, virtues and victories over destructive forces within the soul. Gnosticism with its view on the soul as a “divine spark” in the material body is reflected in the Fool’s Journey represented by the Major Trumps symbols. Step by step, from the zero Arcana Tarot show the guidelines to the wholeness and peace, or, returning home, to the divine bosom, to be born again and repeat the path over and over again.
Tracing Tarot history leads to at least one clear conclusion: it is not a product of a single culture, country or people. Bearing the energy of the source, it inevitably absorbed plenty of other spiritual teachings, ideas and conceptions, inevitably blending times and cultures of the Orient and West, Pagan traditions and occult philosophies, monotheistic religions and medieval Christian sects, and, like a river, which accepts feeders on its way from the source and turns into divided delta at its mouth, Tarot became too rich in symbols and meanings to see its core.
Many occultists and writers were exploring the beginning of one of the most intriguing tools of psyche and the most attractive to them was the Egyptian version, according to which the Arcana were used by the priests in temple initiations. The pioneer was Court de Gibelin, who claimed The Book of Thoth and saw Arcana as a developed system of Hermetic training. Eliphas Levi, Oswald Wirth, Mathers explored and found more and more links with various systems. It was 1887 when the Golden Dawn order was formed, to whome Edward Waite belonged, the creator of a classic Tarot deck, most widespread in English-speaking environment.
Since that time a lot of new decks appeared allowing spiritual searchers express their discoveries in new images and conceptions. However, it is impossible not to reflect about the initial hidden source of all those images and figures. How were they born, did they have any prototypes, are there mythical plots encoded or the secrets of history hidden? Being covered with many lays of truth and fable, Tarot offers each seeker to decide for himself. Depending on how we perceive them, so we will work with them. If we accept it as a gift of Thoth, an Egyptian god of the Moon, numbers and knowledge, Tarot will be magic and divine; if we link them to Torah, Hebrew “law”, it will be a revelation of a strict Cabalistic structures and connections; if we think of them as Latin anagram “rota” (a wheel), it will focus us on eternal and unpredictable Fate; if we follow the Egyptian view of them as “Ta-rosh” (the royal way), Tarot will lead us to sequence of trials, training our spiritual selves.
Tarot status mirrors the attitude of humanity to its own soul and self. If in ancient times self-growth was not seen without the gods, and gaining harmony with spiritual realms, later epochs accentuated on warfare success, possessing, and power, which modern era enveloped into softer terms of personal growth and career prosperity. From sacred initiation in Antiquity (if the Egyptian version is true) to game in Medieval times, today Tarot returns its status of sacredness, through consulting practices of divination for the Querents regaining the connection to the divine, which thanks to the modern psychologists has been relocated from the Olympus to human consciousness.