It’s All in the Cards

One of the most popular methods of divination is with ordinary playing cards or by the larger and more elaborate pack known as the Tarot. This type of divination is thought to involve intuitive stimulation believed to provide answers lying dormant in the subconscious of the diviner.

The origins of our modern card packs are still disputed, and the number of theories propounded is about as numerous, as the variations of card games. Over the course of time, cards have been made from bark, skin, ivory, bamboo, or pasteboard, and in modern times, plastic, while designs have been painted by hand, printed with blocks, or lithographed. According to some sources, cards were known in China as early as 969 CE, although Hindu legends claim they were originally invented in India by a maharajah’s wife to keep her husband, suffering from a nervous disorder, occupied. Wherever the origin, all playing cards eventually found their way to Europe around the thirteenth century. 

One of the earliest known examples of playing cards can be seen in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. They are said to have been prepared to amuse Charles VI of France (1368–1422) when he was suffering from a bout of melancholy. The four suits in playing cards represent the four classes of society at that time: spades – the military (like the points of spears), hearts – the clergy, diamonds – the merchants, and clubs – farmers and peasants.

During the Middle Ages, religious authorities were set against the practice of playing cards, and in later times, Puritans regarded it as sinful to even own a pack of cards. In modern times, playing cards are sometimes referred to as the ‘devil’s picture books’. A maze of superstitions still surrounds any card gambling game, and the summoning of lady luck is ever dependent on varying auspicious factors. Hence, superstitious gamblers are known to cross their legs for good cards, snap their fingers to drive away negative forces, or blow on the down turned cards before picking them up. All these actions are considered to bring luck to the gambler. 

Any deck of cards designed for divination or meditation is now loosely called a Tarot deck. Many people have become fascinated with New Age practices, and consequently, hundreds of different packs or decks, all emblematic of the ‘encoded mysteries of the universe’, depicting the symbolism of various ancient civilisations, myths, and legends, have appeared. Celtic, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, Egyptian, and many other Tarot decks are available; all based on mythical cycles, specific psychological theories, or channelled information. However, most Tarot cards on the market in modern times were created in the last couple of decades. 

The true origins of the Tarot are unknown, although a great many theories link this divination to different cultures and beliefs. One theory concerning the origin of Tarot cards is that the Knights Templar recorded their beliefs in the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, and that this was done before their dissolution in 1314. Although there are some Christian elements contained within Tarot cards, the connection with the Knights Templar seems unlikely. Another common myth is that the Tarot was brought to Europe from Asia by gypsies. A further suggestion holds that the Tarot is of Arabian origin and was introduced to Europe by the Crusaders, as the Tarot is most closely related to the Mamluk card deck of the Islamic world. A further suggestion is that the Tarot is a very early form of chess originating in India or that a form of Tarot goes back to ancient China. Another theory holds that while the alphabet of Thoth is the indirect origin of modern Tarot cards, the Tarot is in fact of Jewish origin. The most commonly believed, though unlikely, assumption is that the Tarot is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics, a theory explored and elaborated on extensively by the Parisian Protestant pastor, Antoine Court de Gebelin (1728–1784). 

Whatever the true origin, the Tarot, as we know it in modern times, has its roots in the Renaissance Period, when all playing cards found their way to Europe. The earliest records of the existence of the Tarot indicate that it was first known as a card game with the title Les Tarots in France and as Tarocchi in Italy. This game is a distant cousin to the game of bridge and bears no resemblance to the current use of Tarot cards for divination. In medieval Italy, Tarocchi, using the Tarot deck was very popular, especially amongst royalty. Artists were commissioned by the aristocracy to create beautiful decks of Tarocchi cards, and some of the surviving Tarot decks come from this source. The cards depict mythological symbols and figures, archetypical images conveying mystique and universal spirituality. The earliest surviving Tarot cards were made in 1450 and belonged to the Visconti family in Milan. Many packs regarded as historically genuine are, however, not Italian, but French. Plain decks were also in use, but have not survived the centuries. 

From the card game called Tarocchi, the Tarot slowly evolved to being used for divination. The entire esoteric tradition of the Tarot stems from the work of the relatively obscure Parisian Protestant pastor, Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Freemason and savant, who wrote about the Tarot in 1781. De Gebelin ‘invented’ most of the standard myths linked with the Tarot, that is, that the Tarot originated in Egypt, that it is related to Cabbalism, and many more. According to de Gebelin, whose view was accepted when little was known of Egyptian inscriptions, the most ancient form of fortune telling by cards was the Egyptian Tarot. De Gebelin proclaimed that Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, knowledge, and magic, invented the Tarot. While studying the occult, de Gebelin developed the theory that a connection existed between the Tarot and the Book of Thoth. This postulation took hold when there was an enormous interest in all things Egyptian. In the mid-nineteenth century, another Frenchman with an intense interest in the occult, Alphonse Louis Constant, popularised the Tarot deck by revising and ‘adjusting’ it for divination. Through the system he had developed, he inspired the printing of several Tarot decks. Later, the English mystic Aleister Crowly, his interest piqued, created lengthy literature on using the Tarot.

Most Tarot decks contain 78 cards: four suits consisting of numeral cards, four suits of court cards, and a series of non-suited emblematic cards. Over the years, the trumps, triumphs, or trionfi eventually became numbered, with one card, the Fool, remaining without a number or sometimes designated a zero. 

In modern times, Tarot cards are still immensely popular, with dozens of available versions offered at New Age shops, on the Internet, as well as at Psychic Expos.


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