Thus preached Hermes: “O people of the earth, men born and made of the elements, but with the spirit of the Divine Man within you, rise from your sleep of ignorance! Be sober and thoughtful. Realize that your home is not in the earth but in the Light. Why have you delivered yourselves over unto death, having power to partake of immortality? Repent, and change your minds. Depart from the dark light and forsake corruption forever. Prepare yourselves to climb through the Seven Rings and to blend your souls with the eternal Light.”— An excerpt from the Hermetic Writings
The powerful little box of perfection known as the Tarot, the deck of 78 cards divided into 22 cards of the Major Arcana and 56 cards of the Minor Arcana, is one of the most profound divination tools passed down to us. The origin of its name has been traced to two Egyptian words, Tar, meaning “road,” and Ro, meaning “royal.” Thus, the Tarot constitutes the Royal Road to Wisdom, and when understood properly, the cards themselves herald the complete process of one’s own awakening.
The archetypal images it contains, like all true symbols, resound spontaneous self-expressions from the psyche’s deepest springs; and for that reason, they hold up magic mirrors to whatever reactions we bring to them. Like all authentic artistic creations, the Tarot is ultimately a mystery: It is because of this that many beings and I appreciate it so much.
The precise origin of the Tarot is masked in myth and legend, and we do not know what the most ancient original Tarot cards looked like, exactly where they came from, or who created them first. We don’t even know how many were contained in the earliest sets.
Tarot as we know it today is a collection of images and symbols from a wide variety of cultures, from the ancient Greeks to the prehistoric Norse peoples, from the ancient religions of India and Egypt to the medieval courts of Italy, Spain and France. Some believe that a form of Tarot goes back to ancient China; some even trace it to glorious Atlantis. In my opinion, all ancient civilizations developed their own systems of divination based on similar symbolism and archetypes, and that specific forms evolved to suit specific cultures.
The earliest Tarot Cards we have in fragments, have been dated to around 1392 and are said to have been commissioned by Charles VI. The first full deck to be recorded in history is the Visconti Deck, dated to the early 15th century. Though these are the first decks of which we have full knowledge, it’s not possible that these were the starting point of the tradition—the artists and creators must have been inspired by the work of those who came before them. We also know that cards were used for divination in the Arabian world since at least the 8th century and that cards depicting deities and their attributes as well as cards showing Christian Saints antedate these early decks.
A curious story relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum (Library) of Alexandria, a large body of attendant priests and priestesses banded together to preserve the secrets of the rites of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. Their descendants, the Gypsies, carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library–the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot)–became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birth right of magic and mystery. In this view, the Gypsies disseminated the Tarot Cards into Europe.
The opinion has also been advanced that the cards reached Europe from India by way of Arabia. It is probable that the Tarot cards were part of the magical and philosophical lore secured by the Knights Templar from the Saracens or one of the mystical sects then flourishing. In support of these contentions, researcher and author May King Van Rensselaer states: “That cards were brought by the home-returning warriors, who imported many of the newly acquired customs and habits of the Orient to their own countries, seems to be a well-established fact; and it does not contradict the statement made by some writers who declared that the gypsies–who about that time began to wander over Europe–brought with them and introduced cards, which they used, as they do at the present day, for divining the future.”
It is in my belief that the Tarot we have received is a form of the most sacred of the ancient Hermetic teachings.
Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the texts, may in himself represent the unification of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Both were gods of writing and magic in their respective cultures. While Hermes Trismegistus walked the earth with men, he entrusted to his chosen successors the sacred Book of Thoth. This work contained the secret processes by which the regeneration of humanity was to be accomplished, and also served as the key to his other writings. Nothing definite is known about the contents of the Book of Thoth other than that its pages were covered with strange hieroglyphic figures and symbols, which gave to those acquainted with their use unlimited power over certain divinities. The secret processes of the Mysteries stimulate key parts of the brain and therefore the consciousness of man is extended and he is permitted to behold the Immortals and enter into the presence of the so-called superior gods or realms. The Book of Thoth described the method whereby this stimulation was accomplished. In truth, therefore, it was something like a “Key to Immortality.”
It has been asserted that the Book of Thoth is, in reality, the mysterious Tarot–a strange emblematic book of seventy-eight leaves that has been in possession of the Gypsies since the time when they were driven from the Serapeum. Many, I among them, feel quite confident that what we currently call Tarot Cards is in fact the mysterious Book of Thoth.
There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In the many systems of interpretation based on the Golden Dawn, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. There is considered to be numerological significance hidden in the Tarot, and it is thought that elements in the cards correspond to various other systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Qabbalah, the I Ching, and others.
The symbolism and the journey of the Tarot are deeply linked to the path of the initiate in the ancient mystery religions. The Fool in the Major Arcana can be seen as the initiate, going through the stages of life, death, and rebirth, his path marked by the symbols of the cards. In the end he attains gnostic completion, a state of wholeness.
Other theories suggest that Tarot Cards are:
- Allegories of Sufi masters
- Depictions of Holy Grail legends
- Indian Holy Texts
- Gypsy Mystical Heritage
- Representations of Greek Philosophy
- Symbols handed down from prehistoric oral stories
- Wisdom of prehistoric matriarchal cultures
- A creation of alchemists, the Tarot containing hidden alchemical imagery
At its essence, the Tarot is a treasure trove of symbolism and meaning, a work of immense archetypal richness. Its power can be experienced by anyone from the simplest to the most sophisticated, and its symbolism provides a doorway to the deepest heart of what it signifies to be human, and to all that is possible for us to attain.