Origins of the Tarot Cards – An Introduction


Ancient Tarot

The origins of the Tarot Cards, who first designed them, where, when and for what purpose – remain vague and elusive despite a considerable number of books and articles which over the years have attempted to eliminate the darkness in which the cards are shrouded.  The perennial enchantment of the cards is evidenced not only by these sometimes sound and scholarly and sometimes wildy mystical writings, but also by the fasincation which the Tarot Cards continue to hold for the layman despite endless attempts on the part of the sceptic to make fun of them and relegate them to the general dustbin of tea leaf readings, crystal balls and other oddities.  Whatever it is about the Tarot Cards, they have held the human imagination for at least 500 years and possibly for much longer, and they certainly show no sign of disappearing

Ancient Italian Tarot Pack and PageWhat is it about these strange picture cards which continues to exercise such a mysterious spell, even over those individuals who consider themselves sensible and not ordinarily prone to believing in occult mysteries?  In part, the answer to this may be that the Tarot Cards are not ‘occult’ – that is, they are not supernatural or magical in the sense that those words are generally used, and they are not the especial property of the esoteric initiate although many Tarot students would like to think so.  There is evidence to suggest that in the mid fifteenth century the time scholars believed the cards were first in evidence in Europe – they were freely available to anyone who could afford a deck and who cared to make an effort to understand and use them.

Ancient Egyptian TarotWriters on the subject of the Tarot have at one times or another assigned the invention of the cards to a wide range of sources.  Some claim their origins lie in the religious rituals and symbols of the Ancient Egyptians; others suggest that they spring from the mystery cults of Mithras in the first centuries after Christ.  Still others find concurrences with pagan Celtic beliefs, or with the romantic poetry cycles of the Holy Grail which emerged during the Middle Ages in Western Europe.  More sober scholars, relying upon what may be seen and touched in museums, focus on the earliest cards we now process, and believe they were painted during Renaissance.  Certainly if we wish to base our exploration of the Tarot’s origins exclusively on factual evidence, the first documented decks of Tarot cards – those which include not only the ordinary four suits of playing cards, but also the strange images of what are now known as the Major Arcana or Tarot Trumps – spring from the second half of the fifteenth century Ancient Marseilles Tarotand were painted in Italy.  But the existence of these two beautifully designed decks of Tarot cards does not really tell us anything with any certainty.  They are simply all that we can hold in our hands. And if these are indeed the first invention of the Tarot, this historical documentation cannot reveal why we in the modern ear, who have long ago left behind the peculiar beliefs and world-view of the Renaissance, should still find that the symbols and images of the cards hold such an inexplicable air of profound significance.  These picture-cards seem to invoke elusive memories and half-known associations with myth, legend and folklore, and imply despite rational objection some kind of story or secret which cannot be totally formulated and which slips away the moment we attempt to define it too rigidly.  ~  In part, taken from an article written by Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene

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