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The History of the Tarot by Sue Perryman

The Tarot is one of the most well known and popular tools for divination and spiritual growth today, there are hundreds of different decks available to buy depending on your interests. A quick look on a popular online store brings up everything from the more traditional Rider Waite and Thoth decks to Crystal, Tattoo and Animal decks.

So what is the history of these cards, and where do they come from?

My research led me to read from many sources, the one thing that jumped out to me the most is that no one seems to know the exact origins of the Tarot, or agree! In fact according to various schools of thought they originate from Ancient Egypt, Turkey, Iran or China! So I dug a bit deeper and there are a few facts that most sources agree on.

The earliest record of card decks go back to Italy and France in the 14th century, they were hand painted by artists and used to play card games by wealthy families. The Tarot was originally known as trionfi and later tarocchi or tarock and had four suits similar to what we use now as the minor arcana: staves or wands, discs or coins, cups and swords. The major arcana wasn't added until much later. Some of these decks still exist including several created for the Visconti family of Milan, the most famous being the Visconti-Sforza deck.

It wasn't until the printing press was invented that playing card decks became more readily available for the less wealthy. In 1770 a French occultist named Jean-Baptist Alliete, better known as 'Etteilla', published the first serious book about cartomancy using a deck of 32 playing cards with the addition of a special 'Etteilla' card, he included spreads and meanings for each of the cards.

In 1781 a former protestant minister named Antione Court de Gébelin wrote a book about the history of the Tarot, he claimed that the cards originated from Egypt and contained hidden wisdom of the Egyptian gods.

Alliete published two more books in which he put forward the idea that as well as the Egyptian origin, Tarot was also connected to Gypsies and the Egyptian god Thoth. He eventually created his own deck of Tarot cards, the first which were specifically designed to be used for divination.

Although there was no proof to back up any of these claims, the idea caught on and occult interest in the Tarot spread across Europe which led to playing card decks with artwork based on Gébelin and Alliete's beliefs being produced; the Marseille Tarot is the most well known and is still available to buy today.

In the 19th century occult interest grew even more popular and due to the published work of occultists like Eliphas Levi, the Tarot became associated with the Kabbalah, astrology and inner development. Interest soon spread to esoteric and magical groups throughout Europe including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which in time required their members to create their own Tarot deck.

One of the Golden Dawn's members, the British occultist Arthur Edward Waite, commissioned artist Pamela Coleman Smith to create what came to be known as the Rider Waite Tarot deck. Smith was the first artist to use characters to represent images in the lower arcana.

The Rider Waite Tarot deck was first published in 1909 by the Rider company, and today, over 100 years later it is still one of the most popular Tarot decks and inspiration for many other decks published since it's first appearance.

Sources: The essential guide to the Tarot - David Fontana

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