The Origins of Tarot

The origins of the modern tarot are clouded in mystery. The first instance of the 78 card tarot deck seems to be in Italy in the 14th century, when a card game, called Tarocchi appeared, which was a 56 card deck of four suits, plus the 22 trumps.

Trumps? What were the trumps, and whence came them? The earliest known writings seem to come from the writings of the 4th century Syrian philosopher Iamblicus (c. 300-330 CE), who, after being initiated into the cult of the Magi in the chambers of the Sphinx in Egypt, wrote of his experiences in his treatise "On the Egyptian Mysteries". It is interesting to note that the Magi were not Egyptian by religion, rather they were the mystics, or priests of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, a Persian religion founded some 900 years earlier. (Another note here; archaeologists discovered a door that leads inside the Sphinx in 1996, but the Egyptian government won't let them open it).

The Minor Arcana came along centuries later. Although there is much written about the mythical (or perhaps very real) cup, wand, sword and pentacle that were transported to the British Isles prior to the 1st century, I have, as yet, not found out where they originated. The Earliest Irish documentation seems to come from the "Book of Invasions" which was written some 1000+ years after the settling of Ireland. There are also writings in the Mabinogion, the mythological writings of early Wales, and of course, the famous Arthurian legends.

The early Irish writings point to the Druids gaining their knowledge in Greece and bringing the "gifts" from there to the British Isles via Iberia, prior to the conquest of Gaul. But there is another wild card. What of the Celts that settled in Galatia after the Philistine wars? What did they learn while they were there? How much is written of them? They were firmly ensconced before the coming of the Christ, and undoubtedly they had communication with their northern relatives. Were they the ones that brought the Sacred objects to Greece? Who knows?

I will not attempt to delve into the origins of the Minor Arcana, just the Major Arcana, which, I believe, originated as a storehouse of Spiritual knowledge rather than a means of divination.

You may notice that the placement of VIII and XI have been changed, and that 0 falls between XX and XXI. I am not able to say that this placement is original, or if certain authors re-arranged the cards in order to protect the secret doctrine contained within them. Eliphas Levi is said to have discovered their mis-placement and re-arranged them to start at 0 and end with XXI, with "Strength"becoming VIII and "Equilibrium" becoming XI.

The deck I have used is the Ryder Deck, which, although not following Iamblicus' description exactly, follow closely enough for this work.

What follows here is a translation of Iamblicus' work by Paul Christian, a 19th century French philosopher and author, in his book "the History and Practice of Magic" and is representational of the Major Arcana.

    "A Magus, who here bears the name of Pastophore ['guardian of the sacred symbols'], comes to open the grating to the postulant. 'Son of Earth,' he says smiling, 'be welcome. You have escaped the pit by discovering the path of wisdom. Few aspirants to the Mysteries have triumphed over this test; the others have all perished. Since the great Isis is your protector, she will lead you I hope safe and sound to the sanctuary where virtue receives its crown. I must not hide from you that other perils lie in store; but I am allowed to encourage you by explaining these symbols, the understanding of which creates for the heart of man an invulnerable armour. Come with me and contemplate these sacred images; listen carefully to my words, and, if you can mind them in your memory, the kings of the world will be less powerful than you when you return to earth.'

    Thereupon, passing in front of each of the twenty-two paintings in the gallery, the postulant received from the Pastophore the information which follows:

    The Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in twenty-two Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs, each of whose attributes conceals a certain meaning and which, taken as a whole, compose an absolute doctrine memorised by its correspondence with the Letters of the sacred language and with the Numbers that are connected with these Letters. Each letter and each Number, contemplated by the eye or uttered by the mouth, expresses a reality of the divine world, the intellectual world and the physical world. Each arcanum, made visible or tangible by one of these paintings, is the formula of a law of human activity in its relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life.

Arcanum 1 Arcanum 2 Arcanum 3 Arcanum 4
Arcanum 5 Arcanum 6 Arcanum 7 Arcanum 8
Arcanum 9 Arcanum 10 Arcanum 11 Arcanum 12
Arcanum 13 Arcanum 14 Arcanum 15 Arcanum 16
Arcanum 17 Arcanum 18 Arcanum 19 Arcanum 20
Arcanum 0
Arcanum 21

My Den
Library Main Lobby