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In fact, although much of imagery looks mysterious or exotic to modern users, nearly all of it reflects conventional symbolism popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Nearly all of it may easily be interpreted as a reflection of the dominant Christian values of the times. Thus, the earliest Tarots may have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the Christian season of Lent or the related motif of hierarchical powers found in Petrarch's poem I Trionfi. These trionfi or triumphs were elaborate productions which layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption. Notably, the earliest versions of the World card show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine's "Heavenly City", and it is not coincidence that it often closely follows the Judgement card.
Several other early Tarot-like sequences of portable art survive to place the Visconti deck in context. Later confusion about the symbolism stems, in part, from the occult decks, which began a process of steadily paganizing and universalizing the symbolism to the point where the underlying Christian allegory has been somewhat obscured (as, for example, when the Rider-Waite deck of the early Twentieth Century changed "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess"). It is notable that between 1450 and 1500 the Tarot was actually recommended for the instruction of the young by Church moralists (reference is urgently needed here); not until fifty years after the Visconti deck did it become associated with gambling, and not until the 18th century and Gébelin and Etteilla with occultism.
The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille asserted represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name "tarot" came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning "royal", and ro, meaning "road", and that the Tarot therefore represented a "royal road" to wisdom. Gébelin asserted these and similar views dogmatically; he presented no clear factual evidence to substantiate his claims. In addition, Gébelin wrote before Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that supports de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies, but these findings came too late; by the time authentic Egyptian texts were available, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian "Book of Thoth" was already firmly established in occult practice.
Although tarot cards were used for fortune-telling in Italy in the 1700s, they were first widely publicized as a divination method by Alliette, also called "Etteilla", a French occultist who reversed the letters of his name and worked as a seer and card diviner shortly before the French Revolution. Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseille designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. Etteilla decks, although now eclipsed by Smith and Waite's fully-illustrated deck and Aleister Crowley's "Thoth" deck, remain available. Later Marie-Anne Le Normand popularized divination and prophecy during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was due, in part, to the influence she wielded over Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. However, she did not typically use Tarot.
Interest in Tarot by other occultists came later, during the Hermetic Revival of the 1840s in which (among others) Victor Hugo was involved. The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Levi and passed to the English-speaking world by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Lévi, not Etteilla, is considered by some to be the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic)introduced an interpretation of the cards which related them to Cabala. While Levi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot, especially the Tarot de Marseille, to the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy. On the other hand, to this day some of Etteilla's divinatory meanings for Tarot are still used by some Tarot practitioners.
Tarot became increasingly popular beginning in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images related to divinatory meanings on the numeric cards. (Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Golden Dawn). In the 20th century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some vastly different. Thanks, in part, to marketing by the publisher U.S. Games Systems, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been extremely popular in the English-speaking world beginning in the 1970s.
Tarot decks depict the archetypes of spiritual life, see iconography.
Le Chariot, from the Tarot of Marseille.
Differences among decks
Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Traditionally, a variety of styles of Tarot decks and designs have existed. A number of tyical regional patterns emerged. Historically, one of the most important design is now usually known as the Tarot of Marseille (French: Tarot de Marseille). This standard pattern was the one studied by Court de Gébelin, and cards based on this style illustrate his Le Monde primitif. The Tarot of Marseille was also popularized in the 20th century by Paul Marteau. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseille design go back to a deck of a particular Marseille design that was printed by Nicolas Conver in 1760. Other regional styles include the "Swiss" Tarot; this one substitutes Juno and Jupiter for the Papess and the Pope. In Florence an expanded deck called Minchiate was used; this deck of 96 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional Tarot cards.
Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such "art decks" sometimes contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) sometimes bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. However, under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, decks used in the English-speaking world for divination often bear illustrated scenes on the numeric cards to facilitate divination. The more simply illustrated "Marseille" style decks are nevertheless used esoterically, for divination, and previously for game play. (Note that the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th-century design. Such Tarot decks generally have 22 trumps with genre scenes from 19th-century life, a Fool, and have minor arcana that closely resemble today's French playing cards.)
An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). (See also discussion of the general expression "Rider-Waite-Smith" below, to indicate a category of decks that includes the "Rider-Waite" deck as well as decks which use the line drawings of the Rider-Waite deck, such as the Universal Waite deck.) (In contrast, in French-speaking countries, the Marseille deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.) The images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. While the deck is sometimes known as a simple, user-friendly one, its imagery, especially in the Trumps, is complex and replete with occult symbolism. The subjects of the trumps are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from 'Marseille'-style decks is that Smith drew scenes on the numeric cards to depict divinatory meanings; those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and others) and from divinatory meanings first espoused by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Smith were members. However, it isn't the first deck to include completely illustrated numeric cards. The first to do so was the 15th-century Sola-Busca deck; however, in this case, the illustrations apparently were not made to facilitate divination.
The Lovers, Rider-Waite-Smith deckSome individuals object to the Rider-Waite deck due to its relatively small selection of colors and "flat" appearance. However, several decks, such as the Universal Waite, copy the Smith's line drawings, but add more subtle coloring and three dimensional modeling. The limited number of colors and "flat" appearance in the orignal Rider-Waite-Smith decks were virtually unavoidable due to the limits of printing technology in the early 20th century.
In Internet tarot discussion groups, the Rider-Waite deck and very similar decks, e.g., the Universal Waite, are sometimes referred to by the collective term "Rider-Waite-Smith", "RWS" or "Waite-Colman-Smith" (or similar expressions). Numerous other decks that are loosely based on Rider-Waite (as noted below)have been published from the mid-20th century through today. They are sometimes called Rider-Waite-Smith clones; however, the term is misleading. They are not exact copies as the term clone would imply. Instead, they are variations.
A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced "tote" or "thoth"). Crowley engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck. That said, many consider the Rider-Waite deck and the Tarot de Marseille also to be 'esoteric' decks.
In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case's B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot, which is apparently based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers and clearly based on the teachings of the Golden Dawn. Numerous other decks exist, including the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot.
The Marseille style Tarot decks generally feature numbered minor arcana cards that look very much like the pip cards of modern playing card decks. The Marseille numbered minor arcana cards do not have scenes depicted on them; rather, they sport a geometric arrangement of the number of suit symbols (e.g., swords, rods, cups, coins) corresponding to the number of the card (accompanied by botanical and other non-scenic flourishes), while the court cards are often illustrated with flat, two-dimensional drawings.
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