There have been countless tales told about the origins of the tarot, but undoubtedly the most popular of these was that it originated as a simple card game in late medieval Europe. Known as Les Tarots in Frances, or Tarocchi in Italy, this accounting of the roots from which the cards sprang states that it was nothing more than a parlor game that later acquired a much more unusual divinatory use.
Although nonetheless still shrouded in mystery, historians generally agree that the first Tarot deck as we know it today was in fact painted during the late 15th by an artist named Bonifacio Bembo in Milan. It is said that the deck he created had been commissioned to celebrate the wedding of two noble Italian families, and this deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza, still carries the names of his wealthy patrons.
Like those that would come after, this deck draws on some of the most common archetypal figures of the late medieval period, such as the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Devil. These characters were represented often in allegorical morality plays which were commonly staged during that time. These dramas often featured human protagonists intermingling on stage with personifications of more abstract concepts like Temperance or Death. The objective was to impart a moral lesson to viewers, with the hope that they would be inspired to live a more virtuous life.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Antoine Court de Gébelin proposed a radically new theory for the time in his book, Le Monde Primitif regarding the true origin and purpose of these cards. He asserted that rather than being a simple card game, the Tarot was in fact a pictorial representation of the ancient philosophies of the Egyptian god Thoth (known later to the Greeks and Romans as Hermes or Mercury). According to him, the Tarot contained within them an ancient, hidden wisdom which could be discerned by those who knew how to interpret the various symbols depicted in the cards.
By the time Le Monde Primitif was published, the most common Tarot deck available or in use at the time was what is known as the Marseilles deck. This was in many ways simpler and more stylized than its predecessor, the Visconti-Sforza. The hand drawn images contained more of the abstract, symbolic imagery that became the precursor for what we see in tarot decks today.
For example, in this deck we see The Magician standing at a table with his ritual implements, wearing a hat bearing the figure 8, or infinity symbol, an innovation which would reappear later in the great majority of tarot decks in use today.
The most well-known and popular of these decks, the Rider-Waite, was created in 1909 by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In particular, occultist & scholar Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith were responsible for the creation of this Tarot deck, and it remains one of the most popular decks in use even today.
It has remained so popular due to its easily accessible symbolic imagery containing within them many of the principles and ideas held by the Golden Dawn. It was radically innovative for its time, as it was the first deck to ever feature pictorial, representational images printed on each of the 78 cards. In the past, what are known as the “pip” cards (or 1-10 of each suit) consisted only of an arrangement of a corresponding number of wands, cups, swords or pentacles (much like today’s common playing cards).
This addition of representative scenes from daily life made using the deck much easier, both for study and for divination. Waite and Smith had designed each card in such a way that each object, gesture, and even quantity carried some symbolic meaning that could lead to deeper insight and understanding.
However, some have argued that the real value of this deck lies in Smith’s evocative artwork, which itself requires little interpretation, and speaks directly to the unconscious mind itself. Each card of this new Tarot deck had the power to evoke a strong, clear impression or feeling in the observer that could give meaning on its own. This development was crucial in sparking a new era of popularity of the tarot and introducing many to this art of divination.
The Rider-Waite-Smith is still the most common deck in use today, not only by individuals and professional readers, but also among teachers, and in books and other reference resources. Among the many new decks which have emerged afterwards, more than a few are what is known as Rider-Waite derivative, meaning that they are simply artistic re-imaginings of the same basic set of images contained in the original.
The RWS deck is what I will primarily be using here as a reference for my posts on each of the cards and their meanings. It is the deck I first learned with, and it is also the deck I most often use in readings (both personally, for myself, and professionally with clients), although I have since acquired many others.
With that said, I did want to also mention another important and highly influential deck in use today. This deck, the Thoth tarot, is one which also has its roots in the Order of the Golden Dawn. It was developed quite a bit later than the Rider-Waite, in conjunction with the artist Frieda Harris during World War II, only to be published sometime in the late 1960s.
There are some, indeed, who take the Thoth deck to be the only “true” tarot, believing it more faithfully represents the secret teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The artwork by Harris is stunning, and I have found the inclusion of the Hebrew letters and astrological associations very useful. From my personal experience, I have found it less useful in my professional readings, as these typically deal with common, everyday issues in my client’s daily lives. While I find the Thoth deck fascinating and intriguing, the more abstract nature of it makes it less easily applicable to the more common mundane situations encountered in a typical tarot reading.