TAROT AND ITS LACK OF HISTORY
People often ask where it all began. They ask, what is its history, how did it develop, who invented it.
Before I go on any further, I must explain what is meant by the word 'history'. History is the discussion of past events based on written records; spoken ones do not count, nor do generally agreed verbal records. It can use all sorts of documents, from stone carved hieroglyphs to pieces of toilet paper smuggled out of prison, but it must be written. The content of the document can be an event, a decision or an opinion, none of which is necessarily true.
Playing cards, the type used for playing games in general, are first mentioned late in the fourteenth century, when the Town Council of Regensburg banned their use in 1378. In 1397 their use by the common people during ordinary working days was banned in Paris. Early in the fifteenth century printing from wooden blocks was first practised in Southern Germany. This process was used to print the Bible and playing cards, both of which became available to the masses. In 1415 there is mention of a hand-painted set of Tarot cards prepared for the Duke of Milan. Both ordinary cards and the Tarot cards seem to have spread throughout Europe very rapidly over the next few centuries.
During this period various packs of amusing, decorative and instructive cards appeared in various places all over Europe; interest in the Tarot waxed and waned every forty or fifty years. During the quiet periods it would only be used by Gypsies and fortune-tellers. Then suddenly it would be rediscovered and the demand for packs of these cards would be so great that every little printer would rush out a new pack, rather like hula hoops or skateboards today. That is one of the reasons why there are so many different packs available; each printer would have to prepare his own set of plates, and these would be prepared by a hack draughtsman unversed in the Tarot who would copy out an existing pack with his own minor changes and additions. You can imagine what would happen by the time a copy had been made of a copy, and so on. Later on the writers of esoteric, original books, like Levi, Waite and Crowley, would make their own interpretations of how they felt the cards should look, and so even more different packs appeared. The last ten years have seen a sudden spate of newly inspired decks, and the reprinting of many unsuitable old ones.
None of the early historical references gave any hard and fast indication of where the cards originally came from. Not until the eighteenth century did people start taking the Tarot seriously. This was the Age of Enlightenment, and everything was examined seriously. First came a certain Antoine Court de Gebelin, who wrote a series of books about customs, religion, science and ideas of ancient times, comparing them with their modern equivalents. In volume eight he discussed The Game of Tarot, speculating on its ancient Egyptian origins. These books were written in the 1770s, when European scholars were first discovering the huge hoard of Egyptian antiquities. This included enormous numbers of tablets, papyri and walls covered in hieroglyphics, which were obviously writing, but to which nobody could attach any meaning. This was about twenty years before the discovery of the Rosetta stone, which finally allowed the hieroglyphs to be deciphered. During this period all Europe was going mad about 'Egyptiana' and its ideas influenced dress and wallpapers, interior design and furniture, but above all mysticism. Seen in the context of the time, Egypt was as good a choice as any; if de Gebelin had been writing today he would have picked Tibet or the prehistoric Indus Valley.
His ideas were taken up by Alliette, a Parisian who wrote books on the subject in the mid-1780s under the pen-name of Etteilla. He enthusiastically adopted and developed the Egyptian theory, and gained an enormous following. About seventy years later the most famous of French occultists, a certain Alphonse Louis Constant wrote two major books in 1855 and 1856 under the name of Eliphas Levi. By this time the hieroglyphics had been deciphered, and it was realised that there was nothing in them about the Tarot, so Levi had to go elsewhere for his mystic source, and he chose to connect the Tarot with the Qabalah. The Qabalah is a Jewish mystical system based on the link between numbers and letters of the Hebrew alphabet. By changing the letters in a name into the corresponding number, it was possible to 'decipher' the mysterious names in the Old Testament to give support to a tremendously complicated vision of the Universe. Again, no hard evidence was offered, only that the system worked. Later on in his career, Levi became convinced that the cards originated in ancient times in the Middle East, but were actually brought to Europe by the Gypsies.
This brings us to the last major influence in the history of the Tarot, Dr Gerard Encausse who wrote, under the name of Dr Papus, a book called The Tarot of the Bohemians in 1889; the Bohemians are what we now call Gypsies. It was well known that the Gypsies had been wandering over the face of the earth for a long time, and could trace their origins to ancient Egypt.
When we examine all the writing on the subject, as far as I have been able to find out, not a single book can quote an authoritative source or even a mention or a hint much before the fourteenth century. There has been a great deal of speculation; it has been related to the ancient Greek mysteries, to the old pre-Christian religions in Europe and around the Mediterranean and linked with witchcraft. Others have discovered Middle Eastern, Qabalistic or Sufi origins, Indian or even Chinese sources. Yet nobody is willing to find or give evidence, and that is why there is so little history of its development or discovery.
Perhaps the history of it doesn't matter, in the same way as the history of the wheel, or fire, is nowhere nearly as important as the fact that we use it every day. Perhaps we feel that if we knew the original intent with which the Tarot had been put together, we could then gain a much better idea of the real meaning of the cards. But are we able to use the wheel, or light a fire, any the worse for knowing nothing about its original inventor?
An even more telling comparison concerns the Quaker religion, which is generally known for its rational, humanistic and idealistic framework. Yet originally the Quakers were known as such because in the revival-type meetings held before and during the rule of the Roundheads they literally 'quaked' and shook as a sign that they were possessed by the Lord, rather as other groups might speak with tongues. Only after the Restoration did they slowly emerge as the group we know today; in earlier days they had to work hard to 'kill' their bad image. Does it really help us to understand present day Quakers if we know their origins? The most important thing is to understand what they are doing now, and what they can and will do in the future.
Similarly, the actual history of the Tarot is not as important as the use you make of it. It may help you, however, if you consider the following story, which is imaginary but can be found in many books on the Tarot.
A long time ago, before the dawn of history, there were ancient civilizations; they are all so long ago that their memory has perished. As you may remember from school, in the Middle East there were a number of these civilizations, each of which rose to a peak, and then crashed because the Barbarians at the Gate conquered it. The common people were enslaved, which merely meant a change of masters, and the upper crust were killed; the priests, who were usually also the civil servants, were often kept alive and in their old jobs, firstly because someone who knew the secret of writing could prove to be useful, and secondly, as the civil service, they were probably the only people who could actually run the country.
You must imagine that the official religion of the outgoing regime had its exoteric and its esoteric sides, something we have already discussed. Initiates would be taught the mystic hidden secrets, and perhaps perform the priestly functions at a later date. The common people were left to their own superstitions, rather in the same way as an Italian peasant will celebrate his Saint's day without knowing exactly why that person became a Saint, or even caring. As long as the Saint provides a good excuse for a Fiesta and looks after the crops and welfare of the parish, that's all he cares about. But the Jesuit priest is expected to go into the history, the mysticism, the ideas and the theory of his religion in order to gain greater understanding. In the same way, in ancient days, the initiate would be taught the inner mysteries, and this esoteric teaching would primarily be designed to help him evolve into a better human being, a saner and healthier person. Each individual would have to learn what being an evolved person was about. Obviously there would have to be a guide to help him, and this was one of the duties of the priests.
Now, when for the umpteenth time the civilization was about to be overrun by a particularly brutal set of barbarians, the priests talked it over, and decided that if they were all to be killed, it would be a shame to lose all that esoteric guidance. They cast about for ways to keep their ideas alive and lasting; stone tablets might be defaced, books might be lost or burnt, and in any case few people could read. Then one of them had the idea of designing a game which people could play but which incorporated all the major elements of the teaching. The uninitiated common people would be playing the game, and thus keep alive the tradition, which would thus stay available for potential candidates for initiation; an esoteric idea under an exoteric guise. The priests were indeed killed, but the cards are still there, and still form a guide, if correctly used and understood, to spiritual development.
We can see that the search to discover the original esoteric meanings of these cards should really serve as a focus in the development of our own evolution. If the above story were really true, then nothing is lost by knowing the veracity or authenticity of this story. If we use the Tarot in modern times to connect our conscious and our subconscious, then it is surely serving the same purpose it was originally intended to serve; we have only changed the terminology.