a cache of usenet and other text files pertaining
to occult, mystical, and spiritual subjects.


History of Tarot

To: (Occult Elist)
From: (nagasiva)
Subject: (O) History of Tarot (BO'Neill, LONG Compilation) (fwd)
Date: Thu, 17 Sep 1998 05:47:01 -0700 (PDT)

extracted from several posts with permission.
From: "Bob O'Neill" 

re the notion that tarot originated with or was used by the Albigenses:
The Albigensian myth was introduced offhandedly by Waite with a reference
to Bayley.  We went through Bayley sometime last year, largely deciding
that one could argue that the dualist heresies could have made a
contribution.  But its clear to anyone who examines the data, that the
Albigensians didn't have or use the Tarot images.

1) the watermarks (that Bayley presents as evidence that the early printers
were Albigensians) don't show a convincing resemblance to the Tarot images.

2) the evidence is substantial that playing cards entered Europe between
1370 and 1377 and that the Trumps were added later - somewhere between 1420
and 1442.

3) the images on the Trumps are not Provencal, they are Italian - they are
not from the 12th century, they are from the 15th century.

4) The Inquisition tried to put down the heresy, then the pope organized a
military campaign, the Albigensian Crusade.  In this effort, the errors and
sins of the Albigensians were documented (even a few invented) but no
mention of images.

You can find the evidence and the analysis in O'Neill, Tarot Symbolism,
1986: Chapter 8 - Heretical sects and their influence on the Tarot.

It appears, on analysis of the evidence, that Waite was being facetious
with his reference to the Albigensians.


If you example the images of the trumps and the religious and secular
imagery of 14th and 15th century Italy, it is clear where the images came
from.  A lot of the imagery is published in Kaplan, Encyclopedia of the
Tarot Volume 2, because I wasn't able to publish it in my own book. If you
examine the imagery (art and myth and literature of the middle ages) - just
no matches there.  If you look at the art and literature of 12th century
Provence (Albigensians) - just no matches there.


Chinese produced paper cards - earliest mention is 969AD.  They next show
up in Islamic countries (Mumlak cards in the museum in Istanbul).  These
islamic cards appear to have had court cards (but no images of humans).
They they appear to have moved into Italy.  Playing cards showed up in a
number of places in Europe between 1370 and 1377.


I don't think Butler would claim to have made "exhaustive studies of the
origin of Tarot."  You have to recognize that Butler published in 1977,
before the definitive study of the History of Tarot (Dummett, the Game of
Tarot, Duckworth, 1980) was available.  He also didn't have the
Encyclopedia of the Tarot (Volume 1 in 1978).  His scholarship didn't
extent to primary sources and so he did [not] know about the series of 
articles by Pratesi and by Decker in the Journal of the International 
Playing Card Society.  So most of the important discoveries about the 
origins occurred after he published the "Dictionary".


RE tarot having entered France by the early 16th century:

Actually, its a bit more confused than that.  The prevalent theory
(restated by Decker in his Gnosis article) is that the French carried the
cards back after their conquest of Milan.  It seems to be assumed that they
carried back a hand-painted deck - just based on the imagery, it seems more
likely they carried back a woodblock printed deck that resembled the
Milanese sheet in the Cary Collection - its the one that already has the
crayfish/lobster and 2 towers on it.  The theory is credible but has a
glitch that I haven't seen addressed:  there are French citations to
playing Triumphs in 1482 and 1496.
There is also the possibility that the Guildhall hand-painted cards are
actually French and from mid to late 15th century.  If the 1482 and 1496
references are to a deck with very different images like the Guildhall,
then it appears to be as simple as saying that an earlier tradition existed
but died out or was taken over when the Milanese decks were brought back by
the conquering army.

>There is a big gap in the VISUAL record. That is why I called the Tarot de
>Marseille 17 century images.

Yes there is a big gap.  Dummett considers that the 16th century decks
French decks (Paris, Vievil and de Hautot) actually belong to a different
tradition, more akin to later Belgian decks and are preserved because they
are deluxe decks. Dummett dismisses Catelin Geofroy as a deluxe deck with
non-standard suits - didn't influence anything.  The Rouen "Classical
Tarot" is probably Venetian - backed up by them being used as the model for
the Frescoes in Trento.   If you check the "endsheets" in Game of Tarot,
you will discover that Dummett doesn't see any intermediates between the
Cary sheet ~1500 and the wealth of T de M that start appearing ~1700.  So
that is two centuries without a single surviving deck.


On the issue of whether the Tarot was invented (15th century Italy) only to
play a game:

The common folk in the Renaissance were into talismans (evidence in the
books cited in my first post).  The funniest one I know of is the "Deep
Water" Talisman -
        You make one of these and bury it on the road where a lot of young women
will step over it.  They will suddenly think they are wading through deep
water and pull their skirts up over their heads to keep them from getting wet.
(Burnett. Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages 1996 Variorum.)

So I have always believed that commoners, playing the game, would surely
have seen the trump cards as a kind of magical talisman.  Consider the
(1) they were familiar with talismans = magical images.
(2) they were exposed to "prophets" who mounted the bench in the
marketplace (rags and long beards were 'de rigeur') and told them that God
was gunna get them (and the City and Italy) if they didn't repent.  The
prophet the passed the hat and sold single sheet printed prophesies and
(see evidence in Niccoli. Prophesy and People in Renaissance Italy.
Princeton University Press. 1990).
(3) the same printers who produced the woodblock playing cards, also
produced Holy Pictures.  These were popular and cheap.  They weren't
thought of as talismans exactly, but they crtainly did have a kind of
orthodox 'magic' about them.  Some were hung in the house to protect it
from disease, fire, etc.  Some had "indulgences" associated with them: if
you looked at the picture while reciting a little prayer, you could lessen
your stay in Purgatory.  Purgatory is where you went after death and had to
stay there and suffer until you made up for all your sins (sound like karma
to you??).  The indulgences were very specific - you could buy a 100 day
picture of a lesser saint - for a bit more you could get a 5 year image -
for more shekels you could get a 'plenary' indulgence card that wiped clean
ALL you karma.
        So the people were surrounded by examples of images that were 'magic'.  It
is really hard for me to imagine that they picked up the 'cartes da
trionfi' to play a game and it never occurred to them that there was
something more here.


The Tarot trumps, designed in 15th century Italy, use
symbols that are taken from Christian sources available to the designers.
Some of the possible sources are a bit heterodox (e.g., alchemy or dualist
heresies) but just about exclusively Christian.  I don't know how strong a
case I can make for 100% Christian, but I feel confident about almost all


RE transsubstantiation vs. consubstantiation and the 30 Years War:

I don't know much about the Reformation - but some of the theological
debates that influenced the history of Europe are really humorous.  I have
been studying the influence of the Greeks on Renaissance Italy at the time
of the Tarot's invention.  There were a series of conferences trying to
reconcile Rome and Constantinople.  There were anumber of problems but the
biggest one was "Filioque".  The Latin bible said that the Father
"filioque" (and the son) created the Holy Ghost.  Using -que at the end of
a word means "and" but implies a closer association then "et filio". So
Rome believed the Father together with the Son created the Holy Ghost.  The
original Greek text doesn't use such a grammatical structure so the Greek
Church maintained that the Father created the Holy Ghost without the help
of the Son. WHO CARES!!!!!!!!!
One of the other issues is even funnier: The Roman church recommended that
their clergy shave.  The Greek thought it was terrible to shave the
"priestly beard".

>*besides points of difference between doctrinal institutional Christian
>sects, of course there's the conflict between the established churches and
>the mystics...what to do with a text like The Cloud of Unknowing or the
>Gospel of Thomas?

This one is more relevant to the Tarot:
The Church and its Mystics is another funny story - actually, you are
supposed to be a Mystic - its the highest calling.  But they want to keep
you real close, cause there is no tellin' WHAT you might say!!!.
The story may be apocryphal and I can't remember the source, but
There was this hermit mystic living in a cave above the city.  He started
performing miracles and making prophesies - so the bishop went out and
ordained him (while he was in a trance so he could'nt say no).  He refused
to come down for the sacraments, so they carried them up there to him.  He
refused to allow the priests to move into the cave with him, so he had no
official witnesses to his miracles, so he was never canonized!!!

The relevance to the Tarot is my personal theory that the Trumps show the
psychological stages of the mystical experience.  Produced in Renaissance
Italy with the Inquisition watching, it was produced as a deck of cards
with no accompanying text (that we know of).  The Church didn't want simple
explanations of the mystical experience made avaiable - most of the texts
(like the two George mentions) were kept locked up.  They wanted you to
join a religious order if you felt the calling, not go it on your own.  So
the card game might have been a wonderful subterfuge!!


what happened between the 15th century decks and the 20th century when the
Golden Dawn decks emerged.  The history is briefly traced by Dummett in
Game of Tarot and has been developed by the International Playing Card
Society (with a lot of interaction and participation by Michael
Dummett).{{Michael is the master - I, a mere apprentice, sitting by his knee}}

>From the end of the 15th century, we have four printed, uncut sheets of
Tarot cards - all of the later history evolved from these.  Either the
hand-painted decks, like the Visconti-Sforza, were copied FROM one of these
printed designs (My personal theory) - or, these printed decks were copied
from the hand-painted decks (The theory of absolutely every other competent
scholar in the world!!). Either way, the printed versions influence the
rest of the history, not the hand-painted decks.

The first is the "Metropolitan Museum" printed sheet - that variation went
nowhere and died out ~1600.

The second is the "Rosenwald" sheet - it developed into the Minchiate 
...  and the survivor of this
tradition is the Sicilian Tarot - it got there maybe in 1663 and has been
used for a card game ever since.
(My very first exposure to Tarot was back in the late 40's or early 50's,
watching Sicilian men play the game in Central Park. You don't know shit
about playing cards, until you watch a man scream, jump onto the bench and
do a little dance, then SLAM the winning card down - then watch the loser
jump up and curse the winner's female relatives back for maybe 3, maybe
four generations!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Then they embraced, kissed on both
cheeks and dealt another hand!!!! And you wonder why I got fascinated by
the Tarot?????????)
This tradition was used for playing a game, and apparently for nothing else -
There is no Pope, the Papess is "Constancy", the hanged man is hanging by
his neck, the devil is a "pretty" sailing ship, the tower is tidy and neat
(no hint that anything is wrong), and the Judgment is Jupiter sitting on a
They only played a game and the real punch of the symbolism was lost.

The third tradition derives from the "Rothschild/Beaux Art" (you didn't
know that the Rothschild family was one of the most important collectors
and preservers of Tarot history, did you?).  This variation originated in
Bologna and just flat - stayed there.  This deck is only used for playing
the game.
It became 'double-ended' like our poker decks - it was incredibly faithful
to its 15th century printed model (except for the Devil) - but it lost the
integrity of the symbols by replacing I - V with the 4 "Moors" - they are
sorta saying 'Hi there' with their right hands raised in peace!!!!!! Yuch!!!!

And the fourth tradition was the Milanese decks (probably got carried back
into France when the French discovered that God, in His Mercy and Wisdom,
had determined that Milan should actually belong to France).  Some of the
variations wandered off a bit - in some branches the II and V became Juno
and Jupiter or the Spanish Captain and Bacchus.  But for the main line, THE
Little wonder that associated with this single line of development, we find
lots of hints along the way that the Tarot was viewed as something more
than a game.
This was the line picked up by the French Occultists and this is the line
of tradition that ended up as almost every deck you have ever seen.

It looks like the Milan-France-Marseilles-Occultist tradition was the only
one tht preserved the 'punch' for us to work with today in our own
spiritual development.
Meditation on and journeying into the cards and do healing
work on inner levels of awareness in order to affect change on outer
realms... Jen


RE whether there were any decks with illustrated minors before RWS:
Yes, the Sola Busca.  15th century copper-engraved deck - not a standard
Tarot deck.  The majors are classic figures instead of the images we are
used to.  The minors are illustrated to some degree - you should look at
Kaplan's Encyclopedia Vols 1 & 2.  To my mind they are pips with some
elaboration added.  But its clear that Pamela Smith had access to a deck
(or photographs of the deck) at the British Museum and it seems clear that
she used 4 -10 of them as models for the RWS deck.

I don't think there are any others between that isolated example in the
15th century and RWS, at least I can't think of any.  Others will chime in
if they know of any.

RE historical documentation to suggest how the minors were 
   interpreted before the OGD came along:
I can't think of any before the 17th century - what little there is
suggests additional significance for the Trumps.  There is a manuscript in
Bologna dated 1750, but I think it assigns meanings to the Trumps - I
haven't seen it so I'm not sure.

Then we get to the French occultists and yes they interpreted the suit
cards.  You are looking for deGebelin, Etteilla, Levi, and Papus.  They
span the period from 1789 right up the GD.  You'll probably get better info
on their interpretations from others here so I'll shut up.


...One of the reasons we seem to
adopt paradigms is a convenience: we don't have " justify or prove or
qualify every little thing..." every time we communicate.  One of the
benefits of thinking about "paradigms"  is that they will often simply
explain contradictory statements about reality.  Let me try to explain by
pointing out some of the different and potentially contradictory
"paradigms" of Tarot that many of us have experienced - for the sake of
making the point, I will exaggerate the paradigms:

1)Crowley Paradigm:  The Crowley/Harris deck is the pinnacle of development
of Tarot - nothing since then has significantly improved the symbolic
system or added new dimensions and it incorporates and synthesizes the best
parts of everything that precedes it.  Antique variations really don't have
much to add and can be ignored.

2)Post-Waite Paradigm: The decks we work with are all derived from or
dependent in some way on the Waite/Smith deck.  So for all practical
intents and purposes, there is an underlying symbolic system that we can
discuss as common to all of these decks.

3)Historical tradition:  The occultists and GD basically distorted the
symbolism of a 400 year old tradition.  The modern decks are a passing
fancy, possibly distorted by the fact that we all speak English.  The
purest symbolism is in the Tarot de Marseilles.  After all, much (even
most) of its symbolism has been unchanged since ~1500.

4) Playing Card Historians Paradigm: The Tarot has nothing to do with
divination - its a card game and the pictures are just a random selection
from the available Renaissance imagery - everytime the game changed, the
deck changed - there isn't any underlying symbolic system.  There have been
so many variations that almost no "general" statements can be made.

Now, if anyone is still reading, lets try out some statements:

Trump VIII is Justice.  1&3 agree.  2 disagrees. 4 points out that Justice
has been 7, 8, 11, 20, and 9 and that no general statement can possibly be

A Tarot deck is composed of 78 cards with pips, courts, and 22 trumps.  1,
2, & 3 agree.  4 points out that Tarocchi of Mantegna has 50 and no pips or

Trump II is a High Priestess.  1 & 2 agree.  3 & 4 disagree - its a female
Pope and may be a joke.

You can make a general statement about Tarot symbolism without referencing
the specific deck(s) you are referring to.  2 & 3 agree.  1 & 4 disagree.

I couldn't come up with all possible combinations.
So the basic set of assumptions (~=paradigm) may lead to a disagreement
even when faced  with identical facts.  So I agree that we shouldn't have
to state every single specification in every statement (that's the
convenience and the efficiency of the paradigm in the first place - we
don't have to take up 7 pages with qualifiers for each sentence).  But in a
field as broad and varied as Tarot, it behooves all of us to understand
that a number of conflicting paradigms are abroad.


...The Renaissance was fascinated by ancient manuscripts
they kept finding them all over the place and translating them.  The
authors of many of these manuscripts either claimed to be Egyptian, or more
commonly, claimed that the wisdom they were writing had come from ancient
Egypt.  Actually the manuscripts were written by Greeks in the first few
centuries of the modern period.

It turns out that the Greeks were absolutely fascinated by Egypt - the
incredible architecture, the symbolic language (which they could not
translate).  Authors of esoteric material (magic, astrology, alchemy) often
claimed their ideas came from Egypt to give them more "prestege".  In many
cases, it was a matter of humility - you didn't sign the manuscript with
your own name, you attributed it to your teacher (or your teacher's
teacher) - you were merely conveying THEIR wisdom.  The practice was quite
common (but the Renaissance didn't know this).  So in many cases, the
Renaissance thought they were finding the wisdom of ancient Egypt - when
actually they were finding the wisdom of Greece!!!

The clearest case of this is the "Corpus Hermeticum"  a body of writing on
esoterica attributed to Hermes Trismagistus (= master three times over) the
great sage of Egypt.  (Actually "Hermes" is a Greek, not an Egyptian name).

 Hermes was cited as the ultimate authority in all kinds of manuscripts
that they found.  Its quite likely that "Hermes" never existed.  But the
Renaissance had seen little quotes from this work in many, many
manuscripts.  And, of course, this ancient Egyptian, Hermes, was the
greatest prophet of all time, since he predicted the coming of the
Christian age (actually not that amazing since the text was written in
Now the plot thickens:

The philosophical system that the Renaissance was developing (partly in
reaction to "Scholastic Dogmatism" and partly because of the influence of
the Latin and Greek mansucripts) was Neoplatonism.  (George protests that
is a bit simplistic - like everyone thought the same way - He is right but
nevertheless Neoplatonism was influential and 'chic').  They were
attempting to integrate this Neoplatonism with the ancient wisdom they were
finding.  And DAMN if it didn't fit like a glove!!!!!!!!  They were finally
finding the ultimate truth - the arabic mathematicians agreed!!  the
alchemists agreed!! Hermes agreed!!! The "Egyptian" astrologers agreed!!!
The QBLH agreed!!!!  Surely they had found the TRUTH and all of the authors
they translated all agreed that Egypt was the point of
{{Course it all actually came from Greece during the period of time when
the Neoplatonic philosophy was first developed.  But the Renaissance didn't
know that}}

So it actually is perfectly reasonable to say that the Renaissance
designers of the Tarot were convinced that they were capturing the wisdom
of ancient Egypt.  Of course, they didn't know a damned thing ABOUT ancient
Egypt - the architecture was buried under the sand, the language
(Hieroglyphics) was undeciphered, the key manuscripts (like the Papyrus of
Ani) wouldn't be dug up for centuries.  But one can put together a strong
argument that they were convinced that their symbolic system captured the
wisdom of ancient Egypt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

None of the scholars have traced the steps between the designing of the
Tarot in the 15th century, and the French occultists who declared that the
Tarot was an Egyptian symbolic system.  But Decker points out that in 1781,
Court de Gebelin "...interpreted the Tarot according to a creation myth
that he pretended was Egyptian.  He also said that the cards were
disseminated by the gypsies." (at the time, the "gypsies" were believed to
come from Egypt - but that was later proven to be incorrect).  In an
appendix to Court de Gebelin's 1781 work, de Mellet says that the Tarot is
properly called the "Book of Thoth".  Decker quotes the occultist Etteilla
as saying that "...the first Tarot was inscribed on sheets of gold arrayed
in a 'fire temple' near Memphis."

All of that is just silly, made-up stuff.  But the fact remains that the
Renaissance (false) belief in Egyptian origins somehow got transmitted to
the French occultists some 200 years later.

So the Tarot symbolism doesn't have a damned thing to do with Egypt.  But
the Renaissance designers might very well have thought thaqt it did - and
that belief was somehow transmitted over 200 years to the French Occultists.

So that's where all that nonsense came from!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Try to actually get anybody to change their web site -
"The origins of Tarot are buried in the mists of time, but some say it came
from Egypt..."
Me???????  I have [not] gotten a single person to change that nonsense.


RE hostile Christian reaction to the use of tarot:
Next time you get a hostile reaction - try this:

1) The symbols were created by Christians in Christian Italy in the 15th
Century.  The Tarot is a Christian symbolic system (though not exactly

2) While games of chance, such as dice, were forbidden by the Christian
authorities in the public piazzas on holidays.  The public edicts usually
permitted tarocchi (Italian for Tarot).

3) The mystical journey outlined in the trumps follows closely the writings
of the Christian mystics of the preceding centuries and the writings of
Christian authors such as Dante and Petrarch.

4) Perhaps the most influential "occult" deck of the present century, the
Rider-Waite deck was designed by a self-proclaimed Catholic mystic.

[copyright Bob O'Neill -- permission received by the author
 to repost with requested changes subsequently made -- tn]

To unsubscribe send "unsubscribe" to
To unsubscribe send "unsubscribe"

The Arcane Archive is copyright by the authors cited.
Send comments to the Arcane Archivist:

Did you like what you read here? Find it useful?
Then please click on the Paypal Secure Server logo and make a small
donation to the site maintainer for the creation and upkeep of this site.

The ARCANE ARCHIVE is a large domain,
organized into a number of sub-directories,
each dealing with a different branch of
religion, mysticism, occultism, or esoteric knowledge.
Here are the major ARCANE ARCHIVE directories you can visit:
interdisciplinary: geometry, natural proportion, ratio, archaeoastronomy
mysticism: enlightenment, self-realization, trance, meditation, consciousness
occultism: divination, hermeticism, amulets, sigils, magick, witchcraft, spells
religion: buddhism, christianity, hinduism, islam, judaism, taoism, wicca, voodoo
societies and fraternal orders: freemasonry, golden dawn, rosicrucians, etc.


There are thousands of web pages at the ARCANE ARCHIVE. You can use ATOMZ.COM
to search for a single word (like witchcraft, hoodoo, pagan, or magic) or an
exact phrase (like Kwan Yin, golden ratio, or book of shadows):

Search For:
Match:  Any word All words Exact phrase


Southern Spirits: 19th and 20th century accounts of hoodoo, including slave narratives & interviews
Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by cat yronwode: an introduction to African-American rootwork
Lucky W Amulet Archive by cat yronwode: an online museum of worldwide talismans and charms
Sacred Sex: essays and articles on tantra yoga, neo-tantra, karezza, sex magic, and sex worship
Sacred Landscape: essays and articles on archaeoastronomy, sacred architecture, and sacred geometry
Lucky Mojo Forum: practitioners answer queries on conjure; sponsored by the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.
Herb Magic: illustrated descriptions of magic herbs with free spells, recipes, and an ordering option
Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers: ethical diviners and hoodoo spell-casters
Freemasonry for Women by cat yronwode: a history of mixed-gender Freemasonic lodges
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church: spirit-led, inter-faith, the Smallest Church in the World
Satan Service Org: an archive presenting the theory, practice, and history of Satanism and Satanists
Gospel of Satan: the story of Jesus and the angels, from the perspective of the God of this World
Lucky Mojo Usenet FAQ Archive: FAQs and REFs for occult and magical usenet newsgroups
Candles and Curios: essays and articles on traditional African American conjure and folk magic
Aleister Crowley Text Archive: a multitude of texts by an early 20th century ceremonial occultist
Spiritual Spells: lessons in folk magic and spell casting from an eclectic Wiccan perspective
The Mystic Tea Room: divination by reading tea-leaves, with a museum of antique fortune telling cups
Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology
Yronwode Home: personal pages of catherine yronwode and nagasiva yronwode, magical archivists
Lucky Mojo Magic Spells Archives: love spells, money spells, luck spells, protection spells, etc.
      Free Love Spell Archive: love spells, attraction spells, sex magick, romance spells, and lust spells
      Free Money Spell Archive: money spells, prosperity spells, and wealth spells for job and business
      Free Protection Spell Archive: protection spells against witchcraft, jinxes, hexes, and the evil eye
      Free Gambling Luck Spell Archive: lucky gambling spells for the lottery, casinos, and races