History of the Tarot

History of the Tarot

Jo Nuske posted 29 Jul 2009

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Next : What is the Tarot? An explanation of the purpose and use of Divination Cards.

The “new Age Movement”……………if we thought about it terms of “spirituality, self awareness, soul journey, etc” it can be described as a search for “ the nature of divinity “ or what is divine !   New? If you study the history of the Tarot you will discover that uncovering these “Secret Laws”  has been a tool of the cards since 1760, when a man named Antoine Court de Gebelin took pictorial cards that had been used as a game in Europe since the early 1400’s to a new level. The Visconti-Sforza tarot deck is a 15th Century deck and one of the oldest  known to exist : has had a significant impact on the visual composition of modern day packs.



MAGIC AND MYSTICISM : Antoine Court de Gebelin The tarot first became linked with    mysticism and magic in mid 1700’s by Antoine Court de Gebelin a Swiss Clergyman and     Freemason who asserted that the symbolism of the Tarot de Marsieille     ( designed by   Nicloas Conver in 1760 )  represented the mysteries of the Egyptian Deities of  Isis and Thoth, holding guidance and messages in the nature of divinity.  Note that in Colver’s drawings the chariot is pulled by horses not sphinxes as in the Rider Waite pack. 


Court de Gebelin  also said that the word taro meant in Egyptian “Royal Road’ and that Gypsies,   mostly known for divination practices were descendants of Ancient Egyptians.  While this was not supported by Egyptologists,  the link was firmly established  in modern Urban Legend.


Chariot_old                Under de Gebelin's influence the Horses became Sphinxes    Chariot_now

Eliphas LEVI The next greatest influence in the evolution of the Tarot deck was a man named Eliphas Levi.  The son of a shoemaker, he  attended a seminary but was never ordained because he fell in love and was married.  He wrote  a number of minor religious works, then 2 radical pieces which led to 2 brief jail sentences. In 1854, Lévi visited England, where he met the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and it was with Bulwer-Lytton, Lévi conceived the notion of writing a treatise on magic. This appeared in 1855 under the title Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, which was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual. Levi’s  view of magic, the magician and spiritual beliefs could have been written for today.


The Golden Dawn and its influence on the Tarot

In 1886 in Great Britain a man named Wescott  received TheCipher Manuscripts a collection of 60 folios containing the structural outline of a series of magical initiation rituals corresponding to the spiritual elements ofEarth,Air,Water andFire.

The Ciphers contain the outlines of a series of graded rituals and the syllabus for a course of instruction inQabalah(Hebrew)andHermetic(Magic)A primary concern of Hermetic Qabalah is the nature of divinity, its conception of which is quite markedly different from that presented inmonotheistic( one-god) religions; in particular there is not the strict separation between divinity and man which is seen in monotheisms[2]( esoteric imagery “ the question of divinity) magic, includingAstrology,Tarot,Geomancy( divination through shape ( sand, rocks) and Alchemy. (Transformation of substance and the basis of modern chemistry) It also contains several diagrams and crude drawings of various ritual implements. The Cipher Manuscripts are the original source upon which the rituals and the knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were based.[4]

The Cipher Manuscripts were drawn in black ink on cotton paper watermarked 1809.[1] The text is plainEnglish written from right to left in a simple substitution cryptogram ( substituting symbols for letters) known as the Trithemius cipher, attributed to Johannes Trithemius, a medieval German abbot.[2] Numerals are substituted by Hebrew letters – Aleph=1, Beth=2, etc. Crude drawings of diagrams, magical implements and tarot cards are interspersed in the text : derived from collected ancient knowledge.








By the mid 1890s, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or, more commonly, theGolden Dawn) was well established in Great Britain, with membership rising to over a hundred and including every class ofVictorian society.[5] In its heyday, many celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, became amagical order, which practicedtheurgy(rituals) and spiritual development. It has been one of the largest single influences on 20th-century Westernoccultism.(Hidden wisdom) Concepts ofmagic(conscious manipulation) and ritual at the center of contemporary traditions, such asWicca[1][2] and Thelema, (Do what you will : or TRUE WILL ) were inspired by the Golden Dawn.

The "Golden Dawn" was the first of three Orders, although all three are often collectively referred to as the "Golden Dawn". The First Order taught esoteric philosophy based on theHermetic Qabalah and personal development through study and awareness of the four Classical Elements Earth Air, Fire  and Water as well as the basics ofastrology,tarot divination, and geomancy. The Second or "Inner" Order, theRosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis(the Ruby Rose and Cross of Gold), taught magic proper, includingscrying,( as in our current pendulum work)astral travel,( out of bodytrravel) andalchemy.(changing one substance into another) The Third Order was that of the "Secret Chiefs",(higher beings) who were said to be highly-skilled but no longerincarnate;(not alive, or in body) they supposedly directed the activities of the lower two orders by spirit communication with the Chiefs of the Second Order.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is considered the founding principles of our current “NEW AGE” awareness and practices.



Around 1897, Westcott broke all ties to the Golden Dawn, leaving Mathers in control.  Mathers was the only active founding member after Westcott's "departure". However, due to personality clashes with other members and absences from the center of Lodge activity in Great Britain, challenges to Mathers' authority as leader developed among the members of the Second Order.


In 1903 Waite, Blackden and Ayton were now the leaders of the order which they now namedIndependent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn or theHoly Order of the Golden Dawn.This aimed at exploring mysticism explicitly abandoning magical operations from the beginning. Those who adhered to the reformed order included,Pamela Colman Smith, (illustrator of the Rider Waite Tarot pack. )

The new temple,  "abandoned all magical work, abolished examination within the Second Order and used heavily revised rituals designed to expressChristianmysticism.[9] These revisions were carried out by Waite putting them into action in 1910, Waite's alterations to the rituals were partially inspired by his investigations into the origins of theCipher Manuscripts which began in 1908. Waite concluded that the manuscripts inconsistencies meant they could not reflect genuine ancient Egyptian traditions as had been claimed and in fact had been composed some time in the late nineteenth century.

In 1909 he constructed the “new Rider Waite Tarot pack” , Pamela Colman Smith being the artist under his instructions.   In the publication of  “pictorial Key to the Tarot” Waite discusses and argues the philosophies of Eliphas Levi, Papas and de Gebelin, acknowledging and disputing their ideas of the tarot.  The book is a treatise of opinion, rather than an absolute, allowing for the tarot to evolve through future thought.


Next : What is the Tarot? An explanation of the purpose and use of Divination Cards


About the author

Jo Nuske
Serene Spirit since Mar, 2016

The spiritual awareness “industry” has boomed since we first launched this website in 2009. My personal journey of learning began 52 years ago when psychic awareness was considered a mental disease. I love the acceptance that now embraces the worl...

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