The Evolution of the Tarot

The Tarot is a structured system of magical images. The date and place of its origin is not precisely known but the historical evidence points to some little time before a.d. 1450. Some have claimed a greater antiquity for it, with roots in ancient Egypt, but although, as archetypcal images, many of the figures may well have correspondences in remote antiquity, the particular characteristics of the Tarot system indicate that it is an artefact of the Renaissance period, grafted on to the newly popular games of playing cards.

Although the Tarot has come down to us as part of a card game it does not pre-date the ordinary playing card pack. Playing cards were introduced to Europe soon after 1375. The first references appear in 1377 and they are widespread all over Europe by 1400. In 1392 Charles VI of France commissioned the design of a pack of cards but there is no evidence that they were Tarot cards - although they were for some time confused with the mid-fifteenth century Gringonneur Tarot cards in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The Tarot is characterized by the twenty-two cards that we nowadays call Trump cards, although they were originally called trionfi or Triumphs. Trionfi are first mentioned in 1422 and the term tarrochi from which the word Tarot derives does not appear until 1516.

Another, less well known characteristic of the Tarot is the introduction of the Queen to the court cards of each suit. Originally the court cards were King, Knight and Page. The fourteen card Tarot suits introduced the Queen who, in the course of time, ousted the Knight from the thirteen card suits of modern playing cards.

The suit emblems of all cards were originally Swords (spade),

Wands (bastoni), Cups (coppe), and Coins (denari). When card games spread to France, Switzerland and Germany however, modified suit emblems were introduced and became nationally accepted. We inherit in the familiar Spades, Clubs, Hearts and Diamonds of today, the French system, which first appears in 1480.

The German Leaves, Acorns, Hearts and Shells, and the Swiss Shields, Acorns, Roses and Shells appeared between 1430 and 1460. The suit emblems that we associate with the Tarot are the original Italian devices, and seem to originate from Turkish dominated Egypt, with possible roots in Persia or even India. A few playing cards in the Istanbul Museum show suits of curved Swords, or Scimitars, Cups, Coins, and curved Wands that may derive from polo sticks. There is a strong tradition in Italian suit design for curved swords and wands with spatulate ends, and this may have been their origin - Mamluk Egyptian cards imported possibly through Venice. There are no Court Cards (and thus certainly no Trumps), because of the Muslim prohibition on depicting human figures.

A common theory that it was the gypsies who brought either playing cards or the Tarot to Europe does not seem likely, for gypsies did not arrive in Europe until 1417 by which time playing cards had been known for forty years. And the first mention of Trionfi, although soon after, seems associated with aristocratic circles. In all the records referring to gypsies before the nineteenth century there is no mention of telling fortunes by cards - their particular speciality was palmistry. Indeed telling fortunes by cards does not seem to have occurred to anyone prior to the mid-eighteenth century, and subsequent gypsy use would appear to have been the result of gorgio influence upon them rather than the reverse.

The earliest examples of Tarot Trumps or Trionfi that we have date from about 1450.

This was a time of great interest in meditation upon magical images, following the translations of Greek hermetic works by Marsilio Ficino under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici. A number of the works of the artist Botticelli are thought perhaps to have been commissioned for magical purposes. The Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, or Venus overcoming Mars could be cited as possible magical images, and his Fortitia, or Strength, could certainly have come straight from the Tarot Trumps.

The Visconti-Sforza cards are typical of a number of sumptuously produced hand-painted and gilded sets that would hardly seem suited for actual playing at cards, even by the most opulent of princes. If they were objets d'urt for display, and it seems that they may have been popular as wedding gifts, then they could equally have been subjects for meditation as magical images by those who were in the know. Even the Popes were interested in magic in those days - sometimes quite enthusiastically.

One of Marsilio Ficino's recommended methods of natural magic was the placement in certain designs and configurations of lamps or other symbols to counteract unfortunate astrological forces or psycho-physical distempers. The Tarot Trumps would have made excellent figures for this use.

However, between 1450 and 1480 there is clear evidence that whatever the possible magical uses, the Trionfi were definitely in use as a game. A document known as the Steele Manuscript, that dates from this time, records a sermon by a Dominican father against the evils of gambling games. In the course of this he lists, in numbered sequence, the Tarot Trumps.

It is worth our reproducing this list, for it confirms that the same images were in use that have come down to us today. And we also find that they are in a different sequence. Of this, more



El bagatella


Lo impichato




La morte




El diavolo


La papessa


La sagitta


El papa


La Stella


La temperentia


La luna




El sole

Lo caro triomphale


Lo angelo


La forteza


La iusticia


La rotta


El mondo




El matto sine nulla

This numbered sequence is of interest because it is the only evidence we have of the names and numbers of the Trumps at this time. Names and numbers do not appear on the early hand-painted cards, nor on the earliest printed examples we have of c. 1475.

Of the mainstream of Tarot card design and tradition the earliest non-Italian printed set we have is the Catelin de Geofroy pack of 1557. This is something of an idiosyncracy as it is copied from a luxury set designed by a distinguished engraver, Virgil Solis, in 1544. There are only three suits, lions, falcons and peacocks, and only seven Trumps survive. However, this fragmentary pack is historically important in that its Trumps are numbered in conformity with the sequence that came to be the standard that has come down to us today.

Between 1500 and 1750 the story of the Tarot is principally that of a popular card game. Although the game originated in Italy, France became the major manufacturing country, with Rouen and Lyons being centres for exporting cards to Spain, Flanders, England, Portugal and Switzerland in the late sixteenth century. We have taxation records that give clear indications of the importance of the industry. In 1595 cards were being manufactured in Paris and in 1599 at Nancy. In 1608 the manufacturers of Lyons tried to get the rival growing industry in Marseilles suppressed. However, in 1631 Marseilles received a royal edict for its activities and became the dominant centre for card manufacture, exporting them even to Italy. It is thus that the Marseilles Tarot has become largely the modern accepted standard.

In 1622 a Jesuit comments that the Tarot is played in France more than chess, and at this time the industry was so attractive to framers of tax laws that some entrepreneurs abandoned France to set up factories in Switzerland, Savoy and even England.

The game was played in Switzerland by 1600, possibly as early as 1515, and was certainly well established in Germany by 1650. In 1664 it had reached Sicily, via Rome, from the North.

Evidence for its rise and decline in popularity as a card game can be gleaned from successive editions of the French book of games called La Maison académique de jeux. In the second edition, of 1659, detailed description of the game and play of Tarot is given. This continues through successive editions until 1718, when it is dropped.

Coincidentally, 1718 is also the date of manufacture of our earliest surviving Marseilles Tarot pack.

The Tarot rules appear only sporadically in subsequent editions of La Maison académique de jeux, and in 1726 it is described as obsolete.

This reflects only Parisian society and Northern France however, for the game continued to be popular in Southern France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. It was this fact that caused Court de Gebelin to say in his book of 1781 that the Tarot was unknown in Paris.

This book of 1781 is of key importance to the development of the esoteric traditions of the Tarot. It was the eighth volume of Court de Gebelin's Le Monde Primitif in which he announced the Tarot to be the remains of an ancient Egyptian book of secret wisdom.

Court de Gebelin (1719-1784), a Protestant pastor, born in Geneva, had wide ranging occult interests. Since the 1770s he had been a freemason and a member of the Order of the Philalethes, which was an off-shoot of the Order of Elect Cohens founded by Martines de Pasqually (d. 1774). Thus Court de Gebelin's remarks on the Tarot may well not originate entirely from him, but be the revelation of an esoteric tradition propagated in eighteenth-century secret fraternities. As I commented in A History of White Magic, the Order of Elect Cohens 'consisted of seven grades leading to that of Rose Croix and was based on belief in Biblical truth together with a general spiritual evolutionary scheme that commenced with man's existence long before the creation story in Genesis. Some of these teachings seem to derive from Jacob Boehme and Dr John Dee.'

Court de Gebelin's aim in writing the nine volumes of Le Monde Primitif was to advance his theory of an original golden age - a concept by no means unknown to the traditions of the ancient world. He proposed to substantiate this by the allegorical interpretation of myths and the etymological study of language.

As part of this great design he cited the game of Tarot as a surviving example of ancient wisdom. He claimed: that the symbolism stemmed from ancient Egypt; that Egyptian priests had rendered these symbols into playing cards to preserve them through the ages;

that from the Egyptians it passed to Imperial Rome, and thence with the later popes to Avignon, from whence it spread throughout Provence;

that the word 'Taro' derived from ancient Egyptian words tar for 'way' and ro, ros, rog for 'royal';

that the twenty-two Trumps corresponded to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

As an addendum to this part of Le Monde Primitif Court de Gebelin added an essay by an anonymous M. le Comte de

This supported the theory of ancient Egyptian origin for the Tarot, and indeed:

referred to it as 'the Book of Thoth';

derived the word Tarot from Egyptian language as meaning the doctrine or science of Thoth;

said that the Tarot came to Europe through Spain with the Muslims, and was thence carried to Germany by the troops of Charlemagne;

associated the Tarot with fortune telling, described as an ancient Egyptian practice;

drew correspondences with the Hebrew letters as part of the cartomantic method.

In his introduction to this essay, Court de Gebelin also made the assertion that bands of Egyptians known as Bohemians carried the cards throughout Europe. This is the origin of the gypsy theory.

He also provided illustrations of the Tarot Trumps and the Aces but these are crude copies of the Marseilles Tarot rendered by an amateur artist friend.

To be quite frank, Court de Gebelin, is a likable but garrulous eighteenth-century gossip of appalling scholarship, but the publication of his assertions aroused tremendous interest in the Tarot, particularly as a fortune telling device.

This was exploited to the full by a professional cartomancer, astrologer, interpreter of dreams and maker of talismans known as Etteilla, the inversion of his real name of Alliette.

Etteilla was perhaps one of the earliest card readers, and fortune telling was rife in pre-revolutionary Paris, a fashion which continued well into Napoleonic times. He had previously used a piquet pack of conventional cards and published a book on his method in 1770, which ran through several editions.

After the interest aroused in the Tarot by Court de Gebelin, Etteilla was not slow to introduce a fortune telling method using the Tarot pack, which, following the mysterious M. le Comte de M*##, he called the Book of Thoth. He followed this up with a series of booklets developing the subject and indeed claimed that he had long been aware of the esoteric significance of the Tarot. He said that from 1757 to 1765 he had studied it at the instigation of an old man from Piedmont who had given him his notes on the subject. These notes referred to the Tarot as an Egyptian book compiled by a group of magi presided over by Hermes Trismagistus soon after the Flood. The originals had been inscribed on leaves of gold and deposited in a temple at Memphis.

Etteilla then proceeded to make 'rectifications' to the existing Tarot designs, bringing them in line with his ideas of their true esoteric significance. This was the start of a tradition among occult writers that has continued with increasing proliferation.

For instance, he considered that the oval wreath around the central figure on the World Trump should be an ouroboros - the symbol of eternity - a serpent swallowing its own tail. He follows Court de Gebelin in inverting the Hanged Man and calling the card Prudence. This idea seems to have arisen from Court de Gebelin having seen a Belgian pack wherein this error of inversion is made by a careless manufacturer. He seized the opportunity to introduce the fourth Cardinal Virtue to the Trumps, (Justice, Temperance and Fortitude already being present), describing the figure as 'an upright man who has one foot poised before the other ready to take a step and examining

Figure 1

Figure 1

Oswald Wirth Tarot

the place where he is going to step. The title of this card was therefore the man with suspended foot, pede suspenso.' (See Figure i.)

From 1783 Etteilla advertised his 'corrected' pack for sale, though none of these survives. They are, however, well described in his books and modified sets were subsequently issued by his followers after his death in 1791. Grand Etteilla Pack I appeared in about 1800, and II and III in the 1840s. They are still available but Etteilla's fertile imagination soon lost connection with the original Tarot and his work is really an idiosyncratic fortune telling system.

In this he was followed by a whole generation of society clairvoyants practising cartomancy. The most celebrated was Mlle. Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (d. 1843) who claimed the patronage of the Empress Josephine. From 1825 many fortune telling packs were published and although some claimed a Tarot origin, the connection was generally very tenuous. An extensive ephemeral literature accompanied these packs, lasting through to about 1875.

A more serious continuation of the estoeric Tarot tradition is to be found in the works of Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-75) who wrote under the pen-name of Eliphas Levi. Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie appeared in 1855/6, Histoire de la Magie in i860, Le Clef des Mystères in 1861 and Le Science des Esprits in 1865.

Like Court de Gebelin he considered the Tarot to be a book of ancient wisdom. l ie called it the Book of Hermes and considered it to have come from a time long before Moses, ultimately from the patriarch Enoch. He had little time for Etteilla or the plethora of contemporary fortune telling packs and insisted on the need to go back to the Marseilles Tarot.

Ile related the twenty-two Trumps to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten numeral cards of each suit to the ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. He saw the Court Cards as representing stages of human life and linked the four suits to the four letters of the Holy Name of God. Ile accepted the Trump sequence of the Marseilles Tarot but placed the Fool between Trumps XX and XXI. He also expressed the desire to issue an esoterically rectified Marseilles Tarot but never achieved this ambition.

In 1852 he was approached by a writer and former librarian named Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811-77), who took lessons from him, and wrote subsequently under the pen-name of Paul Christian. L'homme rouge des Tuileries, of 1863, took the form of a supposed manuscript written by an old monk, copied from a breviary based upon seventy-eight gold leaves that had been arranged in a great circle in an Egyptian temple at Memphis. There is no mention of correspondences with the Hebrew alphabet although the figure is alleged to have been known to the rabbis as the Samaritan Oracle. It is, of course, the Tarot, though- .with a full blooded Mystery nomenclature deriving largely from Egyptian assumptions.


The Magus


The Gate of the Sanctuary


Isis Urania


The Cubic Stone


Master of the Mysteries of the Arcana


The Two Roads


The Chariot of Osiris


Themis, or The Scales and the Blade


The Veiled Lamp


The Sphinx


The Muzzled or Tamed Lion


The Sacrifice


The Skeleton Reaper or Scythe


The Two Urns or Genius of the Sun




The Beheaded or Lightning Struck Tower


The Tower of the Magi

XVIII The Twilight


The Blazing Light


The Awakening of the Dead or Genius of the Dead


The Crocodile


The Crown of the Magi

It will be observed that the sequence follows that of Eliphas Levi.

In 1870 Paul Christian published a History of Magic, in which he describes an initiation ceremony under the pyramids of ancient Egypt. The candidate is led up seventy-eight steps and passes through a hall of images of the Tarot Trumps. However fanciful this may be in historical terms it nonetheless has the hall-marks of a powerful creative visualization exercise or initiatory 'path working'. Thus for those concerned with practical occultism his ideas should not be lightly dismissed. It may give the clue to nineteenth-century occult praxis in some of the secret fraternities and their antecedents.

There is a lull in published work on the Tarot until 1888, when Eugène Jacob, the husband of a professional cartomancer, devoted fifty pages to the subject in an astrological work, written under the pen-name of Ely Star. He follows Paul Christian quite closely but places the Crocodile (The Fool) at the end of all the Trumps and numbers it XXII.

1888 was an important year in two other respects in that it saw the foundation of two influential occult societies, the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross in France, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in England.

The French order was founded by Marquis Stanislaus de Guaita (1861-97), who was a great admirer of Eliphas Lévi. In 1887 he met an amateur artist named Oswald Wirth (1860-1943) and together they set about realizing Eliphas Levi's expressed intention of 'restoring the twenty-two Arcana of the Tarot to their hieroglyphic purity.' In 1889 an edition of 350 copies of the Trumps was published. They were numbered o to 21 and given an appropriate Hebrew letter correspondence in accordance with the system of Eliphas Lévi. The designs followed the Marseilles pattern but with esoteric modifications.

Dr Gerard Encausse, a co-founder of Stanislaus de Guaita's society, used the Oswald Wirth illustrations together with those of the Marseilles pack in the first published book devoted exclusively to the Tarot. This was Le Tarot des Bohémiens, published in 1889 under the pen-name of Papus. The method of interpretation is a numerological one based on the four-fold symbolism of the Tetragrammaton, the Holy Name of God. It is influenced by both Eliphas Levi and Paul Christian.

Another work published in France before the turn of the century was by R. Falconnier, an actor in the Comédie Française, and enthusiast of the Egyptianized Tarot. Indeed, the extended title of his book, published in 1896, says it all: Les XXII lames hermetiques du tarot divinatoire, exactement reconstituées d'après les textes sacrés et selon la tradition des mages de l'ancienne Egypte. Designs for the cards were taken from original frescos and bas-reliefs in the Louvre and the British Museum but they nonetheless retain a very French flavour.

In similar vein a Tarot Hiéroglyphique Egyptien was issued in 1897 by Madame Dulora de la Haye. Twenty-two cards only, with explanatory text incorporated on the pictures, that is in effect a mélange of Etteilla and the Marseilles Tarot.

The English interest in the Tarot may have been stimulated directly by Eliphas Levi. He visited England in 1854 and 1861 and is known to have had contacts with individuals who later became prominent members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, founded in 1866, namely Lord Lytton (1802-73) and Kenneth Mackenzie (1833-86).

Mackenzie was particularly interested in the Tarot, discussed it with Levi, and wrote a book on the subject that was, however, never published. He was an important influence on Dr William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925) who was one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Tarot played a significant part in the Golden Dawn curriculum, although the Knowledge Papers on the subject were probably the work of another founder member, Samuel Udell Macgregor Mathers (1854-1917). He had published a booklet on the subject in 1888 in which he referred to the French occult authorities on the subject and used the sequence and numeration of the Trumps promulgated by Eliphas Lévi. For the most part it was an elementary instruction book on divination. It is interesting that he used a different sequence in the Golden Dawn papers.

Eliphas Lévi's works were now being translated into English by A. E. Waite, who had already translated Papus' Tarot of the Bohemians in 1892. Lévi's Dogme et Rituel was translated in 1896 as Transcendental Magic, and also a hitherto unpublished work by Lévi on the Tarot, the Sanctum Regnum. This translation carried a preface by Dr Westcott which stated that the Levi/Christian/ Papus sequence, and Hebrew letter attributions, was incorrect. He alleged that this was a blind to preserve the secret tradition from profanation by the uninitiated, and that he had seen a manuscript, some 150 years old, in cipher, giving the correct version.

This kind of portentous secrecy and mystery mongering was typical of the Golden Dawn leaders. Whether there was such a document is open to conjecture. It may have been yet another 'blind'. There is circumstantial evidence at least to suspect that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia may have been influenced by, if not derived from, a German Rosicrucian tradition. This might well account for the differences from the French tradition.

Although all published work on the esoteric Tarot throughout the nineteenth century was French, the British occultists were adamant in refuting, at first in private and then publicly, the French system of correspondences.

A major event in Tarot exegesis occurred in 1910 with the publication of A. E. Waite's Key to the Tarot issued with a full pack of esoterically designed cards. These included the innovation of picture designs for the numbered suit cards as well as the Trumps. This pack incorporated the Golden Dawn system of attributions and sequence and it is important in having influenced much subsequent esoteric pack design. Waite had been a member of the Golden Dawn briefly in 1891/2 and again from 1896, until in 1903 he took over control of a society that was beginning to splinter into factions. He dissolved his part of the Order in 1914, and founded a new group, the Fellowship of the True Rosy Cross, in 1916.

Another Golden Dawn member who played an important role in the development of esoteric ideas on the Tarot was Aleister Crowley (1875-1945). He joined in 1898 but by 1907 had formed his own group and in 1912 published a study of the Tarot in his journal The Equinox.

His most prominent contribution however was in 1944 the publication of a full length study of the cards, called The Book of Thoth together with a set of highly original and competently executed cards painted by Lady Frieda Harris. This again is generally based upon the Golden Dawn system but with some idiosyncratic developments of considerable complexity and subtlety.

More in the main stream of the Golden Dawn tradition was the work of Paul Case (1884-1954) in the United States, who had originally headed up the Chicago temple of that body. He later founded his own group, the Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) which still functions in Los Angeles. He published The Tarot in 1927 and issued a pack in 1931, with a modernized version of the Waite Trump designs in black line outline so that the student could personalize them by painting in the colours. He reverted to the old tradition of geometric patterns for the suit cards.

Hitherto, the principal impact of the Tarot in the United States had been A. E. Waite's translation of Papus, which crossed the Atlantic in 1910, and copies of Waite's cards by the de Laurence Publishing Company in 1918.

Manley P. Hall also wrote knowledgeably about the Tarot in his monumental An Encyclopaedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy of 1928, which is now more familiarly known as The Secret Teachings of All Ages. From this project was developed a new set of designs by his artist J. Augustus Knapp which generally follow the rectified Marseilles tradition first effected by Oswald Wirth. In France, a new and revised version of Wirth's pack was published in 1926.

Another American promulgator of the Tarot was Elbert Benjamine whose Sacred Tarot of 1936 closely followed the French/Egyptian tradition of Falconnier, with closely reasoned but idiosyncratic Qabalistic correspondences.

In 1937 to 1940 the Golden Dawn system was revealed to the American public and the world in four volumes of the Order's papers published by Israel Regardie (1907-85). It had been the practice in the Golden Dawn for members to copy a set of their own from a single master set. Regardie had made his own set in this manner in 1923, by which time certain modifications had been introduced. However, in 1977, with Robert Wang doing the art work, Regardie published a copy of such a pack, modified to be as close as possible to the original Golden Dawn master set.

For a period of twenty years after the Second World War there was a dearth of Tarot exegesis apart from a little book by Frank Lind and a set of traditional type cards issued with a six lesson course by the Insight Institute.

At the time I wrote A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism in the early 1960s it was very difficult to find a pack of Tarot cards. Even the Marseilles pack was not to be found unless one travelled to the appropriate part of Europe where the game was still played. And A. E. Waite's Key to the Tarot as well as the works of Regardie and Crowley and the others were rarities on the second-hand book market.

Since 1970 the scene has been utterly transformed. There has been an explosion of books upon the subject and also of esoteric packs, with reprints of most of the older versions too. A whole host of specialist packs cater for every conceivable taste. There are packs designed to appeal to students of witchcraft, Tibetan Buddhism, astrology, Mayan legend, even Pop/Rock. No doubt many of these will prove to be ephemeral but this burst of publishing activity indicates that in the Tarot there is a response to a modern need.

How this need may be met in more practical terms we hope to show in this book, but first, by analyzing the evolution of the design of each card, we must identify the basic idea or archetype that each one expresses.

Continue reading here: Tarot Trump Imagery

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