Although it is hard to say where tarot actually began, it was recorded in history for the first time during the 1400s in Italy, mostly in the cities of Milan and Venice. Then, it had apparently only been intended as a game of playing cards and was exclusively used amongst the highest-born people. In fact, it was given to the rulers of Milan as a wedding gift by an artist named Bonfacio in the 15th century, where they referred to the tarot as Tarrochi.
Centuries later, the tarot was documented as being used by a Freemason from France who was named Antoine Court de Gebelin, where it was called Les Tarots. The general understanding of tarot changed while under Gebelin’s study. He discerned the cards as being secrets of the universe as told by the Egyptian God Thoth.
Dear Mr. Crowley
From there, occultists, alchemists, and other men who were heavily involved in esoteric studies decided that they needed their own deck of tarot cards, which allowed them to form their own conclusions. Next, the cards had fallen into the hands of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where many of their members believed the cards had been heavily influenced by ancient Eastern medicine, alchemy, Kabbalah, astrology, Egyptian Gods and Practices, and Numerology.
Most famously the cards were under the study of a man called Aleister Crowley, a member of the Golden Dawn, who created the Thoth Tarot Deck, which is still widely used today. Crowley, however, was said to be quite a strange man, who claimed to have invoked several Egyptian deities. Even more odd still, he later wrote about his experience summoning a demon and published a novel with instructions on Sex Magick during the early 1900s in the United Kingdom.
In 1909, a man named Arthur Edward Waite from London created the most widely recognizable tarot card deck, which is still used today. This deck is known as the Rider-Waite Deck. This publishing included highly detailed imagery to elaborate the idea and meaning of each individual card. Perhaps the reason for this being what we know as the “traditional” tarot deck is due to Waite making it available to the public. Before his deck was published, it had only been available to high-born, European aristocrats, while centuries later, it was limited to men in secret societies. Each of these men mentioned had a great influence on tarot before it arrived into our own hands in the modern day.
Today, in the 21st century, there is still no one certain of where tarot started or how it got into the hands of Bonifacio in Milan, where our records of it begin. There are stories of people using tarot long before the 15th century in places like China, Egypt, Greece, ancient Babylon, and even Atlantis. Others swear that tarot was brought here to Earth by an alien visitor from a distant galaxy.
Regardless of tales, the truth is this: No one really knows where the practice of Tarot or even the tarot cards themselves came from or began!
From Within the Labyrinth,
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Court de Gebelin, Antoine”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Churton, Tobias (2011). Aleister Crowley: The Biography. London: Watkins Books.
- Crowley, Aleister (1989). The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography. London: Arkana.
- Dummett, Sir Michael (1980). The Game of Tarot. Duckworth, London.
- Pratesi, Franco (2012). “In Search of Tarot Sources”. The Playing-Cards. 41 (2): 100.
- Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, Michael Dummett (1996). A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot.