Origins of the Tarot

round the middle of the fifteenth century, not so long after the first written references in Europe to cards of any kind, an artist named Bonifacio Bembo painted a set of unnamed and unnumbered cards for the Visconti family of Milan. These pictures comprise the classic deck for an Italian game called 'Tarocchi': four suits of fourteen cards each, plus twenty-two cards showing different scenes and later called 'triomffi' - in English, 'triumphs', or 'trumps'.

Now, of these twenty-two images many can be interpreted as simply a catalogue of medieval social types, such as (to give them their later names) 'the Pope' or 'the Emperor', or else common medieval moral homilies, such as 'the Wheel of Fortune'. Some represent virtues, like 'Temperance' or 'Fortitude'. Others show religious-mythological scenes, such as the dead rising from the grave at the trumpet call for 'the Last Judgement'. There is even a card depicting a popular heresy, the image of a female pope, which we can describe as a joke on the Church with rather deeper significance than most ecclesiastical humour. Still, we can view this heretical picture as deeply rooted in popular culture, and therefore obvious to someone representing medieval 'types'.

One figure, however, stands out as rather strange. It shows a young man hanging upside down by his left leg from a simple wooden frame. His hands are held casually behind his back to form a triangle with his head at the bottom, his right leg is bent behind his knee to produce the figure of a cross, or else the numeral four. The face appears relaxed, even perhaps entranced. Where did Bembo derive this image? It certainly does noi represent a criminal hanged at the gallows, as some later artists have assumed.

Christian tradition describes St Peter as being crucified upside down, ostensibly so he could not be said to be copying his Lord. In the Elder Edda, however, the god Odin is described as hanging creation, the four basic elements of medieval science, four stages of existence, four methods of interpreting the Bible, and so on. There are four court cards in each of Bembo s four suits.

Finally, the Qabalah works with the number ten - the Ten Commandments and ten sephiroth (stages of emanation) on each of the four Trees of Life And the four suits contain cards numbered from one to ten. Do we wonder then that Tarot commentators have claimed that the deck originated as a pictorial version of the Qabalah, meaningless to the masses, but highly potent to the few? And yet, in all the thousands of pages of Qabalistic literature, not one word appears about the Tarot.

Occultists have claimed secret sources for the cards, such as a grand conference of Qabalists and other Masters in Morocco in 1300, but no one has ever produced any historical evidence for such claims. Even more damning, Tarot commentators themselves do not mention the Qabalah until the nineteenth century. And of course, the names and numbers sequence, so vital to their interpretations, came after the original images.

If we accept Carl Jung's idea of basic spiritual archetypes structured into the human mind we can perhaps say that Bembo unconsciously tapped hidden springs of knowledge, allowing later imaginations to make the conscious connections. And yet, such exact and complete correspondences as the twenty-two trumps, the four court cards and ten pip cards in the four suits, or the position and ecstatic face of the Hanged Man, would seem to strain even such a potent force as the Collective Unconscious.

For years Tarocchi was seen primarily as a game for gambling, and to a much lesser extent as a device for fortune-telling. Then, in the eighteenth century, an occultist named Antoine Court de Gebelin declared the Tarot (as the French called the game) to be the remnant of the Book of Thoth, created by the Egyptian god of magic to convey all knowledge to his disciples. Court de Gebelin s idea appears far more fanciful than factual, but in the nineteenth century another Frenchman, Alphonse Louis Constant, known as Eliphas L6vi, linked the cards to the Qabalah, and since then people have looked deeper and deeper into the Tarot, finding more and more meanings, wisdom, and even, through meditation and deep study, enlightenment.

Today, we see the Tarot as a kind of path, a way to personal growth through understanding of ourselves and life. To some the Tarot s origin remains a vital question; for others it only matters that meanings have accrued to the cards over (he years.

For Bembo did create an archetype, whether consciously or from deep instinct. Beyond any system or detailed explanations, the upside down from the World Tree for nine days and nights, not as a punishment, but in order to receive enlightenment, the gift of prophecy. But this mythological scene itself derives from the actual practice of shamans, medicine men and women, in such places as Siberia and North America. In the initiation and training the candidates for shamanism are sometimes told to hang upside down in precisely the manner shown in Bembo's card. Apparently the reversal of the body produces some sort of psychological benefit, in the way that starvation and extreme cold will induce radiant visions. The alchemists - who, with the witches, were possibly the survivors of the shamanist tradition in Europe - also hung themselves upside down, believing that elements in the sperm vital to immortality would thus flow down to the psychic centres at the top of the head. And even before the West began to take Yoga seriously everyone knew the image of the yogi standing on his head.

Did Bembo simply wish to represent an alchemist? Then why not use the more common image, that of a bearded man stirring a cauldron or mixing chemicals? The picture, titled 'the Hanged Man' in subsequent decks and later made famous by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, appears not so much as an alchemist as a young initiate in some secret tradition. Was Bembo himself an initiate? The special crossing of the legs, an esoteric sign from secret societies, would suggest so. And if he included one reference to esoteric practices, might not other images, superficially a social commentary, in reality represent an entire body of occult knowledge? Why, for instance, did the original deck contain twenty-two cards, not say, twenty or twenty-one or twenty-five, all of which are more commonly given significance in Western culture? Was it chance, or did Bembo (or perhaps others whom Bembo simply copied) wish to slyly represent the esoteric meanings connected to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet? And yet, if any evidence exists anywhere connecting Bembo or the Visconti family to any occult group no one has produced it for public scrutiny.

A brief look at the stunning correspondences between the Tarot and the body of Jewish mysticism and occult knowledge, called collectively the Qabalah, will demonstrate the way in which Bembo's cards seem almost to demand an esoteric interpretation, despite the lack of hard evidence. The Qabalah dwells very deeply on the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters are connected to the paths of the Tree of Life and they are each given their own symbolic meanings. Now, the Hebrew alphabet contains, as noted, twenty-two letters, the same number as the trumps of Tarocchi. The Qabalah also goes deeply into the four letters of God's unpronounceable name, YHVH. They represent the four worlds of pictures. In some cases, such as the six of Swords, the picture suggests far more than Wane's stated meaning, while in others, particularly the two of Swords, the picture almost contradicts the meaning.

Whether it was Waite or Smith who designed the pictures, they had a powerful effect on later Tarot designers. Almost all decks with scenes on every- card rely very heavily on the pictures in the Rider pack.

Waite called his deck the 'rectified Tarot'. He insisted that his pictures 'restored' the true meanings of the cards, and throughout his book he scorns the versions of his predecessors. Now, by 'rectified' many people will think Waite's membership in secret societies gave him access to the 'original' secret Tarot. More likely, he simply meant that his pictures gave the cards their deepest meanings. When he so drastically altered the card of the Lovers, for instance, he did so because he thought the old picture insignificant and his new one symbolic of a deep truth.

1 do not mean to suggest that Waite's cards are simply an intellectual construction, like a scholar rearranging some speech of Hamlet's in a way which makes more sense to him. Waite was a mystic, an occultist, and a student of magic and esoteric practices. He based his Tarot on deep personal experience of enlightenment. He believed his Tarot to be right and the others wrong because it represented that experience.

I have chosen the Rider pack as my source for two reasons. Firstly, 1 find many of its innovations extremely valuable. The Waite-Smith version of the Fool strikes me as more meaningful than any of the earlier ones. Secondly, the revolutionary change in the Minor Arcana seems to me to free us from the formulas that dominated the suit cards for so long. Previously, once you read and memorized the given meanings of a Minor card you could not really add to it; the picture suggested very little. In the Rider pack we can allow the picture to work on the subconscious; we can also apply our own experience to it. In short, Pamela Smith has given us something to interpret.

Above I wrote that 1 chose the Rider pack as my 'primary' source. Most books on the Tarot use one deck alone for illustrations. This self-limitation perhaps stems from a desire to represent the 'true' Tarot. By choosing one deck and not another we are really declaring that one is correct and the other is false. Such a declaration matters most to those writers, like Aleister Crowley or Paul Foster Case, who consider the Tarot a symbolic system of objective knowledge. This book, however, looks upon the cards more as an archetype of experience. Seen that way no deck is right or wrong, but is simply a images themselves, changed and elaborated over the years by-different artists, fascinate and entrance us. In this way they draw us into their mysterious world which ultimately can never be explained, but only experienced.

Continue reading here: Different Versions of the Tarot

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  • toini
    What does recitified tarot deck mean?
    11 years ago