The Origins And Evolution Of Tarot Keys

One of the major influence in the development and design of Tarot cards was the Egyptian Book of the Dead which reaches back into the mists of Time (at least 4,000 years old) and extracts of which were available at the British Museum where McGregor Mathers and Arthur Edward Waite spent most of their years seeking clues and artefacts which would reveal a secret wisdom. They might indeed have come across a manuscript entitled “The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo”, (Horapollo Niliacus-400 CE) which was circulated among several Christian monasteries then later translated into Greek from its original hieroglyphic Egyptian. Its true origins may go as far back as Plato and Pythagoras when academic exchanges were being made between Greece and Egypt. In actual fact this manuscript in its translated form found its way as an addendum to another book entitled “Aesops Fables” by the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe when Tarot cards first began to be produced and apparently being used for the purpose of divination. It is presumed by many academics that these works were a precursor to the development of Hermetic, Rosicrucian, Alchemical and Magical schools and the later foundations of Freemasonry in Europe. Originally cards were hand-painted, stencilled on vellum or card until the invention of wood-block printing and much later when the early European printing presses arrived as engravings. The Arabs may have used or introduced playing cards or Moroccan geomancy into Europe while travelling along N. Africa and conquering parts of France, Spain, Sicily and Italy around 710-842. Although it must be borne in mind that the areas of Italy where Tarot cards are thought to have developed were originally part of the Carthaginian and Etruscan civilisations who, from very early times, were both well equipped with their own systems of augury. By 1379 the Arabs and Moors became mercenary soldiers to the Popes Urban VI and Clement VII against other rival Italian Princes. They remained in S. Spain until 1492 where card games were known as “naipes” (from the Arabic word Naib), a word that may have derived from a Flemish word meaning paper (knaep), as commercial trading between Flanders and Spain was common at that time. Travelling bands of Gypsies could not have been responsible for their invention or original dissemination because the Romany people did not appear in Europe until the middle of the 15th century. Other experts have attributed the invention of Tarot cards to the ascetic military order of the Knight Templars founded in 1118 by Hugh Payens to protect pilgrims venturing to the Crusades. This idea is somewhat fanciful but may have some basis in the Templars connection with two other heretical sects; the Cathars of France, associated with Pagan Gnosticism and the Bogomils of Hungary, associated with Manichaeian Dualism. Both of these sects were despised and persecuted by the Catholic Church and the Knight Templars were also later branded similarly and some followers and leaders hunted down and executed as pagan heretics.

Some of the earliest of the court cards (pre 1500) are the Marmaluk playing cards featuring Arabic designs and motifs. However, the idea of trumps (triumphs or trionfi) appears to be a purely European invention which first appeared in the 1420’s, along with the invention of the German card game of Karnöffel. Tarot cards were probably created 10-15 years later, around 1440, somewhere in northern Italy. The earliest surviving Milanese Tarot decks and Ferrarese references to Tarot which consisted of a regular 56-card deck all come from that period. What we do know is that the 22 major trumps of tarot were in existence at the latest in 1415, from a beautiful hand-painted pack commissioned by the young Duke of Milan, Fillipo Maria Visconti. This is the earliest preserved almost complete deck of tarot cards, with four cards missing, it is known as the Italian Visconti-Sforza deck. This may give us a clue into their origin and arrival in Europe and the various transformations and versions known to the European culture thereafter. It may be that the 22 trump cards evolved separately from the 40 or 52 card packs that included the court and numbered cards and were later merged with the trumps to produce a full pack of 78. Although many variants developed there were at one time only three characters in the court cards the King, the Queen and the Marshal, the Pages as archetypes were added much later. Of course, many of these ideas correspond to the figures found in the game of chess, a game popular among the military and commercial classes. For the first 350 years of its history, the tarot was not mentioned in any of the many books on occult or magical philosophy. The first occult writers to discuss the tarot were Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet in 1781. Following 1781, occult interest in tarot blossomed and the tarot then became an integral part of occult philosophy. In conclusion, the Cary Sheet (an uncut series of prints) is one of the oldest links available to researchers speculating on the origins of the Tarot itself. Some of the iconography looks remarkably similar to what we would call the Tarot of Marseilles style, yet there are certain features that resonate more with the style of the Visconti-Sforza, d’Este, and other early Italian decks. It also has titles and thematic attributes that are uniquely its own.

Egyptian Tarot is the collective name of one of the most common designs of Tarot cards, leading from the French occultist Jean-Batista.

The Italian traders, namely the Lombards, Venetians as well as the Florentines (Nicolo & Marco Polo) established good trading links with the Islamic and Mongol Empire and were trading with Kublai Khan at Peking in 1266. Indeed, Marco Polo remained in service to the Mongol Empire for some 15 years and finally returned to Italy in 1291, no doubt steeped in the mythology, culture and lore of the ancient Eastern traditions. The Mongol Empire, despite the ignominious reputation of its founder Genghis Khan, was extremely tolerant of different belief systems; in particular the Zoroastrian, Nestorian, Taoist, Confucian, Shamanic and Eastern Gnostic traditions. Similarly, around the same time during the 12th and 13th centuries, Europe was undergoing a transformation in terms of religious affiliations and beliefs (See Mithraism). The Jewish, Christian and Classical Pagan civilisations became conscious of the underlying unity between their individual beliefs and strove for a greater knowledge and understanding of each other and the world in which they lived. After the fall of Constantinople monotheism came under serious review and criticism which after much struggle later led to the Reformation in Europe. The classical works of ancient Greece and those of the Jewish tradition were being translated into Latin and Arabic and this may have contributed to a multi-cultural, almost universal doctrines being made available to occultists.

One arcane work in particular by Bernard Sylvester (“De Mundi Universitate” c. 1145) stimulated a revival of interest into the old religions of European Paganism such as the pantheistic Etruscan, Teutonic, Hellenic, Celtic and Druidic traditions. The earliest French cards in actual fact date back to around 1392, and 17 cards still remain of this famous deck known as “The Gringonneur” or Charles VIth deck. It is recorded that in 1392, Jacquemin Gringonneur was paid to hand paint three decks of cards for Charles VIth. These were probably playing cards, not tarot cards. The deck in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a late-15th century hand-painted deck of the Northern Italian type (probably from Venice or Ferrara). The word Tarot which was used in France remains something of a mystery although several proposals have been offered, some people believe it is derived from an Egyptian term “Ta-rosh” meaning the Royal Way, another is that it is derived from the Latin “rota” – a wheel, another still that it is derived from the Hebrew Torah, meaning literally “The Law”. The French occultist Gébelin went even further and declared that the word is derived from Thoth, a deity of Egypt. A more simple explanation may be that since the cards were probably invented in different provinces of N. Italy (Piedmont or Venice, Bologna & Florence) that they were named after the river Taro in that region.

The earliest surviving Milanese Tarot decks and any Ferrarese references from that period to Tarot suggest that they consisted of a regular 56-card deck, augmented with a known hierarchy of 22 allegorical trump cards. This gave rise to the standard 78-card Tarot deck still in use today, originally referred to as “carte da trionfi”, cards with trumps. The idea being that each trump triumphed or won over (hence “trumped”) the lower-ranking cards in the manner of the popular trionfi motif, that is elements in order of importance that also featured in art, literature, religious processions, festival pageants, and so forth. As a result the game of Tarot quickly became popular and spread throughout northern Italy, with Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara being established as early centres of the game. From these regions we find richly painted decks ornamented with gold and silver leaf backgrounds that were commissioned by the wealthy, while the less elaborate printed decks were used by commoners and notaries alike. A record from 1436 indicates that the d’Este court at Ferrara had their own printing press for making cards. The earliest extant rules for the game of Tarot were published in 1637 (or 1585?). The earliest text to define accurately the Tarot Keys and their meanings is “Book T” (1300 CE) which was, and probably still is in the possession of the Golden Dawn. This manuscript is thought to be the original text held by Christian Rosencreutz who founded Rosicrucianism in Germany and was buried with him in his tomb. These secret heretical or magical texts were probably written or in the possession of Johann Valentin Andreae, a follower of Rosicrucianism. This appears to represent an attempt to reinstate alchemy that occurred during the French Revolution along with the inspiration of the humanitarian muse Marie Antoinette. Therefore we can say that the Tarot was literally “dug up” for future generations to muse and speculate over. The only 20th century books or texts to contain accurate extracts from “Book T” are “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” (1910 Arthur Edward Waite), “The Book of Thoth” (1944 Aleister Crowley), and “The Tarot: A Key To The Wisdom of the Ages” (1947 Paul Foster Case). Now the question remains how did McGregor Mathers come across this early manuscript which became the foundation stone for the Golden Dawn system of Tarot images? His decoded cipher alphabet was probably influenced by the remarkable work of the master magician Trithemius who produced his own “Polygraphiae”, a cipher system to conceal hidden meanings for students and practitioners of Alchemy. The angelic attributes for example are taken from various grimoires and treatises on magical invocation of spirit powers that have been derived from arcane classical works on the subject including for example the Lemegeton, the Goetia, the Sepher Yetzirah, and the Zohar.

Therefore, it would be advisable to consider the categories and classifications as well as the different orders and hierarchies that they are collectively archived under. The most common are the 7 traditional planets/days of the week, the 12 zodiacal signs or the 360 degrees of the circle, the 24 planetary hours, the 36 decanates, and the 8 cardinal and 24 inter-cardinal directions. These were taken largely from the original documents which date back to Solomon and King David that were copied and listed in numerous occult manuals written around the 12-14th century and then revised by various experts and practitioners in the field of occult research much later in the 17th-20th century for example Eliphas Levi (1856-“Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie”), and the French occultist Etteilla (1785). Among the most notable being the Abbot Trithemius, his pupil Cornelius Agrippa, Ramon Llull, Francisco Giorgio, Athanathius Kircher, and in more recent times McGregor Mathers, A.E. Rider-Waite and Aleister Crowley, members of the Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Goetia, or Greater Key & The Lemegeton, the Lesser Keys of Solomon is a complete manual for magical arts transcribed from the Hebrew into Greek and much later into English. The source documents (copies of the originals made in 1203) are in the British Museum and were examined by Crowley and Mathers amongst others. These documents also contain aspects of the “Black Arts” that are considered genuine conjurations of evil demons which some authorities have felt obliged to omit in their revised lists. The Clavicula Salamonis contains names, orders and powers of all good and malevolent spirits, the Lemegeton or Clavicula contains names, orders and powers of all malevolent spirits contacted by Solomon the King, the Key of Solomon itself contains names, orders and powers of all malevolent and benevolent spirits and their talismanic seals (Total: 72). The Ars Paulina contains the spirits of the planetary hours, 360 degrees of the zodiac (Sabian Symbols) and the 7 spirits of the planets. The 4th part of which the Almadel of Solomon the 22 Chief Spirits who govern the 4 altitudes/quarters. The 5th part contains the orations, ceremonies and prayers, perfumes, magical weapons, metals and gemstones etc. The Greater Key of Solomon has a description of the 7 major planetary pentacles inscribed with the appropriate sigils, 7 pentacles consecrated to Saturn, 7 to Jupiter, 7 to Mars, 7 to the Sun, 5 to Venus, 5 to Mercury and 6 to the Moon. What is often neglected to point out or rarely discussed in these matters is their various orders, their spheres of influence and dominion. Furthermore, there have been several spurious and veiled correspondences and lists of these hierarchies and even “spoof” renditions masquerading as occult manuals that were in fact cryptographic manuals and codes. These were employed for the purposes of writing encoded messages, spying, and other forms of espionage and general secrecy in light of the Catholic Inquisition and other heretical purges in Europe. The first periodic list is taken from E. J. Gold‘s book “The Hidden Work”, where he lists all the Archangels and Angels in the form of a periodic table, very much in the manner of the scientific elements. A great deal of misleading books have since been written which have distorted the core elements of Tarot study for example the value of Kings being attributed to that of Knights which retain a higher value in fact than Kings.

Some occult researchers have suggested that McGregor Mathers may have been given a manuscript by the occultist Wynn Westcott who struggled to decipher it and that it was previously owned by a recently deceased friend, Frederick Hockley. In any case the document when deciphered also contained the German address of Anna Sprengel, the secret contact for the European Rosicrucian lodge. This theory was debunked in 1972 when Ellic Howe challenged it in his book “The Magicians of the Golden Dawn”, saying that these documents were misleading forgeries produced by Waite and Mathers themselves who were attempting to obscure their real sources either in the British Museum or elsewhere. They originally pretended that they had found some lost manuscripts in a local flea market in Paris but this also proved insubstantial and misleading. Similarly W. B. Yeats also challenged their theoretical origins so a schism broke out among a number of its members. Mathers then suggested that he had discovered the secret order of the Tarot Keys from an earlier Qaballistic text “The Book of Formation” which A. Crowley plagiarised in his own book “Liber 777” (1909) without mentioning his original source which caused even more conflicts within the Golden Dawn Fellowship.

Paul Foster Case presumed that the origin of the use of Tarot Cards came from Fez, Morroco (1200 CE) even though there appears to be no real evidence for this assertion. It may be that Case was merely referring to the 16 court cards rather than the 22 trumps. The Court cards represent a western alternative to the Eastern 5-fold Tattva counter-changes with the exception of only 4 elements in operation, although some Tarot decks have made various alterations and substitutions to allow for a 5-fold counter-change with the addition of such terms as: Princess, Prince and Knave. The Kings were then converted into Princes, the Queens mating with the Knights to form a new Father/Mother polarity – the Prince finds its complementary opposite in the Princess and lastly the Knave/Page may correspond to the Maiden leaving them to represent essentially the four basic elements. The Court Cards can also be used in readings as “significators” which represent either the personal characteristics of the querent’s friends or their enemies and perhaps even associates.

Numerous methods are employed to delineate the court cards to the qualities or keys of the Zodiac which is a mnemonic key to their use in interpretation. One method is to define the cards in terms of the elemental triplicities to the 10 degree decanates so that the Knight is akin to the first degree, the Queen to the second degree and King to the third degree. Finally, the Page often represents the transition from one element to the next. This system may vary with respect to another factor – the hierarchy associated with each set – the Kings, Knights, Queens, and Pages. Some systems say the order is King, Queen, Knight, and Page. Other occultists maintain that the order of importance runs Knight, King, Queen, and Page. Another system dispenses with Knights altogether and replaces them with Princesses. However, the 16 court cards can also be aligned as 16 Invisible paths of the Tree of Life. In fact so much contradiction occurs as a result of these circumstances that it can be very confusing for the novice and the reason for this difference or variance in correspondences is rarely fully explained by authors writing on the subject. Another frequently used method is to apportion each court card to the zodiacal triplicities of the 12 Sign Zodiac in a purely consecutive manner. In this manner we begin with the first series as the King of Wands which represents Aries & Fire, the Queen of Wands to Taurus & Earth, the Knight of Wands to Gemini & Air and the Page to Cancer & Water. In actual fact the earliest evidence of the use of Tarot cards derives from Jacquemin Gringonneur who created three packs of cards in 1392 of which only fragments survive. The theory that asserts the ancient Egyptians built a long underground corridor composed of 22 alcoves wherein sculptured vignettes were revealed to initiates as they walked through remains unproven largely because the corridor is believed to exist deep underground beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza. This essay is a mere “snapshot” of the origin of Tarot cards although a thoroughly researched and compiled “History of the Tarot” has now been completed and is available in book form or on Wikipaedia.

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,