Origins of The Tarot

When I first started studying the Tarot, I worked with the Aleister Crowley “Thoth” deck. His explanation for the origin of the Tarot was that it emerged from the Egyptian mysteries. Indeed, Thoth was the Egyptian God, cognate with Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, and the conveyor of wisdom and esoteric knowledge to mankind. Thoth’s title “thrice great” was carried over into the name “Hermes Trismegistus.”


The name “Book of Thoth” is thus singularly suitable for the Tarot, which is regarded as conveying, especially in its major arcana, the concentrated wisdom of the pathway to illumination. Indeed, Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, first published, in 1781, the claim that the major arcana of the Tarot represented the mysteries of Thoth and Isis. However the Egyptian origin he claimed, and following him, the occultists of the Golden Dawn, and French occultists such as Eliphas Lévi, is now considered by mainstream historians to be without foundation.


Playing cards are known to have been brought to Europe, around the time of the 14th century, and were in wide use by the end of that century. One theory is that they came via Persia and Egypt from China or India. Certainly the original Italian decks shared with the Egyptian Mameluke deck the suits of sticks, coins, swords and cups. These are the same suits as appear in most Tarot decks today, which are first recorded in northern Italy in the early 15th century. However the fact remains that the sequence of trump cards does not appear to be found in decks of playing cards outside Europe. We may therefore assume them to be graphical representations of archetypal images, seemingly associated with a European spiritual tradition.


It is now accepted by mainstream scholars that a series of images given in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” correspond closely to the images of the major arcana. Dante was also reputed to be a member of the Rosicrucian fraternity, at least according to some Rosicrucians. Be that as it may, he was certainly influenced by the troubadours, if not more intimately involved with them. The troubadours were the poets of southern France, and related linguistic areas of northern Italy and Spain, who flourished in the 12th to 14th centuries. They adapted and expanded upon the corpus of Arthurian romance, which originated in the bardic traditions of Celtic Wales. R.J Stewart, in his discussion on the life of Merlin makes the argument that many of the archetypal images contained in the “Vita Merlini,” represent the oral teachings of a Celtic mystery tradition, and are identical with the images in a number of the Tarot trumps.


The Cathars and Templars were Christian groups that some say were responsible for introducing the Grail mysteries into European literature and public consciousness. There is a school of thought that the Templars transmitted a body of esoteric lore emanating from Jewish mysticism (The Essenes), based on the teachings of King Solomon, and through him, on the mysteries of ancient Egypt. The Templars gave rise in their turn to Freemasonry, according to some speculators. The Cathars are thought to have espoused Gnostic doctrines, with their emphasis on personal gnosis, or experience of the Divine. The Gnostic tradition has also been linked to the Egyptian and Judaic mysteries, and Christian sects who venerate John the Baptist. Both the Cathars and the Templars were active in the centuries just prior to the life of Dante, and both were being viciously suppressed by papal decree in the early years of the 14th century, when Dante was writing the Divine Comedy. Certainly Dante was no lover of the contemporary popes, reserving a spot for them in Hell, stuffed upside down in holes, with burning flames applied to the soles of their feet! While this may indicate some sympathy, at least, with the Cathars and Templars, Dante belonged to an anti Papal political faction of Florentine nobles, which is usually considered sufficient explanation of his willingness to publicly mock and denounce the papacy.


The Tarot cards may represent in pictorial expression the merging and fertilisation of classical and medieval Christian symbolism with one or more of these esoteric traditions – the Templar/Masonic stream, the Cathar/Gnostic stream, the Egyptian/Rosicrucian/Hermetic stream, and the Celtic/Bardic stream, perhaps through the Troubadours, the story tellers of Europe. In particular, the Troubadours and Cathars both flourished in the south of France, which is famous for its black Madonnas, which some have linked to the cult of Isis.


So it may be that Anntoine Court de Gébelin was actually not far off the mark when he declared that the Tarot was the “Royal Road” of the Egyptian mysteries of Thoth and Isis, when one considers the influences bearing on the imagery. Practically speaking, if this wasn’t the case originally, it may as well be the case now, through the influence of people such as Eliphas Levi and Arthur Edward Waite, who both were firmly rooted in the Hermetic and Masonic traditions, and whose influence has set the mold for the Tarot of today.