What are Tarot cards?
Most people know the tarot through pop culture, perhaps even Jane Seymour laying out the cards for James Bond in Live and Let Die: cryptic declarations of the future somehow tied to opaque but mysteriously beckoning images on a deck of cards several levels of enigma past those of a stage magician.
The tarot is popularly understood as a means or system of divination, but how old the tarot actually is, and where it came from, and out of what prior traditions, is open for debate.
How long have Tarot cards been around?
Historically, we can date the first tarot deck, recognized as such, to the Renaissance, and one can even today purchase reproductions of it, known now as the Visconti-Sforza deck -- and in fact, before the now more widely accepted term "tarot", the cards were known by the Italian word "tarocchi".
Today's modern deck of playing cards used in casinos and gambling parlours -- or for games of solitaire at home -- shares with the tarot four numbered suits with accompanying court cards, sometimes known as the Minor Arcana. What the tarot adds that is specific to itself are twenty-two images that constitute what are known either as the trumps or the Major Arcana.
The earliest writer to speculate on the allegorical significance of the cards -- specifically the four suits -- was Galcottus Martius in 1488. The earliest printed work that expressly treats the subject of fortune-telling and divination with the cards is Francesco Marcoli's Le Sorti, dated 1540 and dealing very specifically with the suit of coins.
What appears to be the oldest listing of the trump images, or Major Arcana, is contained in a manuscript from 1500, the Sermones De Ludo Cum Aliis, a text that declares that nothing in the world is so hateful to God as the game of trumps, which ridicules the Christian faith by depicting angels, the cardinal virtues, the Pope and the Emperor on cards.
An especially interesting series of passages can be found in another invective against gambling, this one from 1550 by Flavio Albert Lollio, which not only seems to ponder the meaning of the trumps as something inherently esoteric but treats the very use of the cards, even in the form of a mere "game", as an inherently allegorical experience.
What are Tarot cards used for?
This opens up a larger question. Though scholarship can demonstrate that the cryptic images of the tarot can be seen as part of the elaborate system of correspondences that characterized the medieval and Renaissance mind, the very indication of deeper levels of the symbolic and the ways in which they can be successfully integrated with other esoteric bodies of knowledge, including those from non-European cultures, lead one to question whether the tarot grew up in accidental isolation or whether it is a manifestation of a continuing and global body of knowledge that has been with us for as long as there has been higher conscious thought.
Tarot cards in Ancient Egypt?
It is with this line of thinking that an apparently European creation coextensive with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press began to discover for itself a provenance dating back to ancient Egypt.
In 1781, Antoine Court de Gebelin wrote an exhaustive treatise, Monde Primitif, which dealt with all aspects of ancient civilisation. Court de Gebelin advanced the theory that the Major Arcana cards constituted the Egyptian hieroglyphic Book of Thoth, saved from the ruins of burning Egyptian temples thousands of years ago. Thoth was the Egyptian god of wisdom, credited with the invention of both numbers and sacred writing, and subsequently given the name Hermes Trismegistus by the Greeks, so that his sacred works came to be called "Hermetic".
Tarot cards and the Qabalah?
In 1856, Eliphas Levi published Le Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magic, and was the first writer to link the twenty-two Major Arcana with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in turn led to studies of the Qabalah and of still further correspondences with such texts as the Sepher Yetzirah.
MacGregor Mathers, writing in 1888, combined both approaches when describing several anagrams derived from the word taro, including "Tora" (law in Hebrew), "Troa" (gate in Hebrew), and Taor and Ator (Egyptian goddesses of darkness and joy respectively).
Tarot cards in India?
The tarot has also been linked to the game of Chaturanga, an ancient Indian version of chess, either as representations of the pieces or as a more fluid and unified extension of the pieces and playing field itself. Further affinities with early Indian culture include possible mapping of the trumps onto the ten principal avatars of Vishnu, and the suits onto the four objects held by the androgynous Ardhanarishvara, though these avenues of approach have not been as thoroughly developed in the West.
Tarot and The Tree of Life.
The integration of the tarot with the Qabalistic Tree of Life has become more prevalent, so that today the odds are good that one will be learning and synthesizing both systems, producing a diagram that is at once a map of the cosmos and a map of the human body, with the totality of all possible layouts in all possible spreads representing the permutations of the elements and paths that constitute all that which is the case.
Tarot cards as our Universe in Miniature.
In this regard, the tarot can be seen as a miniaturized but comprehensive encyclopaedia of existence, the universe as a book, containing all that is and all that can be. Through methods of internalizing its structure so that it literally becomes a part of one's own mind/body complex, the totality of one's being is progressively attuned to, aligned with, and made conscious of the larger system of cosmic engineering and design. The various spreads the card reader will learn become the possible projections of one's own body onto and within the larger universal body.
The images of the Major Arcana have remained largely the same since their initial European appearance, with only slight adjustments dictated by changing historical circumstance. With developments in twentieth-century psychology -- Carl Jung's concept of archetypes, adding a collective unconscious to the Freudian personal unconscious -- the Arcana have been applied to a wide range of seemingly disparate mythologies and literary genres, demonstrating an apparently unifying substratum of recurring forms underneath seemingly every imaginable systematized narrative, while artists such as Salvador Dali have created their own versions, merging the Arcana with recurring images from their own works.
Tarot cards in conclusion.
The tarot, then, can be seen as latent in virtually any enterprise of the mind that tends toward self-sufficiency and/or imaginative completeness, and its historical aspects only incidental specifics of something far vaster and abiding both in the human mind as well as in the larger and timeless universal mind. What worlds it will open to practitioners is as varied as the world itself -- as exemplified by the case of Scottish artist Fergus Hall, designer of that deck used in Live and Let Die referred to above, who lives now in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a Scottish landscape of wet moorlands and Neolithic stone circles.