Demystifying the Mystic: Tarot Cards

Tarot Cards, or The Tarot, is an arcane, card-based system used for divining the future. Or, is it? Some claim the Tarot has its roots based in Kabbalah, others say its power comes from the ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth; while still other believers say that their reading of the cards is guided by spirit. But, which of these explanations is true? Is the Tarot an ancient method of divining the future from those guided by ancient powers?

In a word –- no. There is nothing ancient or mystical about Tarot Cards. Let’s examine the claims to establish why these statements are untrue; beginning with the connection to Kabbalah

Kabbalah is an ancient belief, (some say it is over 4,000 years old) of an all-powerful creator, from whom all of the world’s forces emanate. We are familiar with some of these forces, such as gravity, while others remain beyond our comprehension. There are a few flaws with the claim of a Tarot connection.

The major concern is that the followers of Kabbalah state that Kabbalah does not contain any magic, curses, or divination. They further state that Kabbalah is a system of knowledge and is in no way supernatural. Since Kabbalah is based on the belief of one creator, the idea of multiple gods or powers (that the Tarot draws upon) directly contradicts this belief.

Then there are the claims to link the Tarot to the Book of Thoth, and, to a certain degree, these claims have some validity; albeit very minor. But, to fully appreciate why neither of these claims is completely true, let’s first investigate the Tarot’s birth certificate.

Tarot cards are not ancient as a number of users would have you believe. The origins of the Tarot is based on a 15th century Italian card game called Tarocchini, which may itself have been based on an Egyptian card game. The games played with these cards employ complex strategies and trickery to win using a 78-card deck. It is still played throughout Italy, Portugal and Spain today, following many of the same rules that were used over 700 years ago.

The game later migrated to France and Germany, where it was a popular parlour game; again based on strategy and trickery. It was not until the game surfaced in England, (estimates roughly place the appearance in the 18th century) that the cards began to be used for divination. While the exact reason why are unclear, the most educated guess lies in the fascination at the time with the occult and supernatural. It stands to reason that the symbolism on the cards played well into the belief of the arcane, and the cards were adapted as a divination tool for that reason.

At the end of the 18th century, the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt brought back many wondrous artefacts and strange legends. Europe was enthralled, and soon the love of all things Egyptian swept across Europe. But, as with many fads and sudden interests, this died out. The fascination was rekindled again and again over the next century and a half, sparked by the discoveries of tombs, mummies and art by various expeditions to Egypt. Europeans sought the origins behind the legends they had grown up with.

During the mid to late 18th century, two men who would be pivotal to our current perception of the tarot, were born. The first in 1857 was A. E. Waite; the next was Aleister Crowley in 1875. Both of these men would write extensively about the occult, and shape our views of the Tarot by producing two Tarot card decks that are still in use today.

In 1910, A.E. Waite, along with artist Pamela Colman Smith, produced a Tarot card deck for the Rider Publishing Company. This deck was to be used for divination. The commonly known Rider-Waite Deck is still widely used and remains one of the most popular Tarot decks currently on the market.

The next, known as the Book of Thoth deck, was created by Aleister Crowley, with art by Lady Frieda Harris. The deck was created during a six month project (which actually lasted five years; from 1938 – 1947). They attempted to update the illustrations and the deck was not released until 1969. New designs were released in 1977 and 1986 when the artwork was re-photographed for each release.

Crowley originally intended the release of The Book of Thoth deck to complement the publication of his version of the Book of Thoth, from which he drew ideas for his deck. However, Crowley used interpretations of the Egyptian language which were not entirely accurate; and when the actual Book of Thoth was discovered, it was not found to be a great source of powerful magic, as Crowley and other mystics had claimed. This casts a shadow over any claims Crowley made regarding his knowledge of the Book of Thoth and Egyptian mysticism.

Although Crowley did not witness the publishing of his deck while he was alive, The Book of Thoth deck still remains a popular version of the Tarot deck. And that brings us back full circle to the claims of influence from ancient mysticism.

While the Tarot leaned upon misunderstandings of ancient beliefs and borrowed heavily from ancient symbolism, much of what it drew from was not accurate. The use of the Tarot as a divination method was both quite recent and fairly regional in its origins. As has been shown, any claims of the ‘ancient’ and ‘mystical’ history of the Tarot is equally false, since the Tarot is quite easily explained; and there are people alive today who are older than the most popular version of the Tarot deck which is being hailed as an ancient mystical source.

So, the next time you decide to pay someone to tell you your Tarot fortune, just remember that you are paying someone to tell you all about your life using a method that was derived from a source of entertainment, which strategically employed trickery to win.

John Goodale is the author of ‘Johnny Gora’ (available through Amazon.com), and a number of articles here on TMRZoo.com. His monthly column ‘Indy Comics Spotlight’ appears here and through his blog Indy Comics Spotlight

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