Turning Points in Tarot History
Tarot history flows in a continuous stream through space and time, from late Medieval/early Renaissance Italy to our current global civilization. The deck has remained remarkably consistent over its six-hundred-year history. At the dawn of the Renaissance, the trump images crystalized into the same twenty-two cards in much the same order as today.
For the first 150 years of Tarot’s existence, imagery was rather fluid, within certain boundaries. The Strength card could show a man standing over a lion, a woman wrestling with a lion, or a woman with a broken pillar—but it always illustrated the virtue of Fortitude. The cards’ sequence could vary as well. In some decks, Judgment was the last card rather than the World. Depending on the region, the three virtues could be grouped together or spaced apart in various configurations. The Popess and Empress were sometimes paired with each other and sometimes paired with their male counterparts.
On four occasions either the cards themselves, or how they were interpreted, shifted suddenly. None of these changes broke from the past—every era of Tarot history builds on what came before and lays the foundation for future developments. Let’s look at these watershed events in chronological order:
- The transition from the original Italian decks to the French Tarot de Marseille pattern in the late 16th century;
- The French occult mythologizing of Tarot in the 18th century;
- The esoteric Tarot correspondences of Britain’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th century;
- The creation of the Waite Smith deck in the early 20th century.
The Tarot de Marseille
Somewhere in France (probably Lyon) in the late 16th century, someone printed a Tarot deck that became the standard deck that’s still in use today. A few cards distinguish this deck type: the dogs and crayfish under the Moon, the Star woman pouring water, and the person in a wreath on the World card. When the game of Tarot became an international favorite, the card images and their numbering were standardized, except in Italy where regional styles continued to flourish.
The Tarot de Marseille is the deck eighteenth-century occultists looked at while spinning their Egyptian fantasies. Fortune tellers read with this deck in taverns and salons. French and English esotericists assigned Hebrew letters and pathways on the Tree of Life to these cards. Because the imagery has remained so consistent, the collective wisdom of three centuries of card readers has accumulated around these cards. Every modern deck, no matter how radically redesigned, rests on a Tarot de Marseille foundation.
The Occult Tarot in France
In 1781, the public received its first hint that Tarot could be more than just a card game. Antoine Court de Gébelin’s multi-volume book of pseudo-anthropology, Monde Primitif, contained essays on Tarot by himself and Le Comte de Mellet. For the first time in print, the tarot trumps were associated with letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Tarot was now believed to be the Book of Thoth, where ancient Egyptian magi encoded their highest wisdom in a card game to preserve it for millennia. De Gébelin claimed he was the first person to see Tarot’s Egyptian connection. But it’s more likely that the Egypt/Qabala connection had been circulating in occult and Rosicrucian circles for at least a few decades.
The Parisian occultist Etteilla was a firm believer in the Egyptian origin of Tarot. He learned card reading from Italian fortune tellers, then began his professional career in 1770. He wrote books on cartomancy (a term he coined), started a school of astrology and Tarot, and laid the foundation for modern card reading techniques. His divinatory meanings for the number cards still have a huge influence on how those cards are interpreted.
French occult Tarot culminated with Eliphas Levi and his 1855 book Dogma et Rituel de la haute magie (Transcendental Magic). This book is a grand synthesis of the western magical tradition. It blends Tarot and Qabala into a unified system, then integrates it with the broader western mystery tradition—a blend of alchemy, astrology, hermeticism, and ceremonial magic. Tarot is presented as the universal key to the wisdom embedded in all creation.
Levi redesigned the Tarot de Marseille with Egyptian and qabalistic flourishes. The street hustler of the first trump card became a magus drawing down power with his magic wand. The Chariot is pulled by sphynxes, and the Devil becomes Baphomet. With a few exceptions, Levi gave only verbal descriptions, leaving it to others to design the actual cards.
His system of assigning the Hebrew alphabet to the trump cards is still preferred in Europe. He assigned Trump I, Le Bateleur, to Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, then continued the alphabet up the trumps in order. He kept the Fool unnumbered but put it between Judgment and the World. He also assigned cards to the sephiroth and pathways on the Tree of Life.
The Mesmerist and Freemason Oswald Wirth created a Tarot deck in 1889 based on the Tarot de Marseille using Levi’s Egyptian and esoteric flourishes (see the Chariot above). In 1927, Wirth published a popular book on Tarot that desseminated Levi’s Tarot/Qabala system, Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Age (The Tarot of the Magicians). In the book, he ridicules the Egyptian origin myth and says Tarot imagery is a product of the Middle Ages when images were seen as conduits for supernatural forces. He laid out the trump cards in patterns for meditation, and presented the Cross Spread, which is as popular in Europe as the Celtic Cross is in English-speaking countries.
By the mid-1700s, the Tarot de Marseille deck was considered old-fashioned. A new deck that’s still used today was invented for playing the game of Tarot. This deck has French suit symbols (like modern bridge and poker decks) and twenty-two double-headed trump cards with decorative illustrations. If French occultists hadn’t bathed the Tarot de Marseille in Egyptian glamor, promising the keys to universal wisdom for those with eyes to see, it would have dropped into obscurity. Today, the Tarot de Marseille would be known only to playing card historians; and we would be divining with Lenormand or Etteilla decks.
The Golden Dawn
Tarot was virtually unknown in Britain until Kenneth Mackenzie, an English scholar and Rosicrucian with esoteric interests, visited Eliphas Levi in 1861. This visit inspired Mackenzie to invent his own occult lodge, putting Tarot at the center of its teachings while “improving” on Levi’s system. Mackenzie set out the lodge’s teachings and rituals in the Cipher Manuscript written on artificially aged paper to fool people into believing the teachings had an ancient pedigree.
Mackenzie died before he could carry out his plans. His papers were acquired by William Westcott and Samuel L. MacGregor Mathers who implemented Mackenzie’s ideas by creating the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London in 1888. Mathers expanded on the teachings of the Cipher Manuscript in Liber T, and by putting Tarot at the center of the Order’s rituals.
Every occult lodge has a body of secret knowledge that only initiates are privileged to possess. The Golden Dawn’s storehouse of wisdom included its own correspondences between Tarot cards, the Hebrew alphabet with its associated astrological attributions, and the pathways and sephiroth on the Qabalistic Tree of Life. The Golden Dawn’s system deviated from Levi in important ways, laying the foundation for an Anglo-American Tarot tradition.
Contrary to Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn placed the Fool first, numbered it “zero” and associated it with Aleph. This shifted every letter of the alphabet down one card from the European system (except for the World), shifting the astrological associations as well. For instance, in Levi’s system the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet (He) is assigned to the fifth trump card (the Pope). Since He is associated with the zodiac sign Aries, the Pope is also Aries. In the Golden Dawn system, He and Aries are associated with the fourth trump card, the Emperor.
With this new lineup, the letter associated with Leo falls on the eighth card and Libra falls on the eleventh card—Justice and Strength in the Tarot de Marseille deck. The Golden Dawn switched these cards so that Strength would line up with Leo and Justice with Libra. Ever since, nearly every deck in the English-speaking world overturns four hundred years of tradition by using the Golden Dawn card order. (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot is an exception).
If the Golden Dawn’s Tarot correspondences hadn’t become attached to a deck that steam-rolled through the English-speaking world, this system might have remained obscure, known only to Golden Dawn initiates and scholars of the occult. But the Waite Smith deck and its associated instruction books disseminated Golden Dawn Tarot attributions so widely that they became synonymous with Tarot in some parts of the world.
The Waite Smith Tarot
This deck (also known as the Rider Waite Tarot) was created by two former members of the Golden Dawn. A. E. Waite was a freelance writer with occult interests who translated Eliphas Levi’s books into English. After leaving the Golden Dawn, he renounced magic and identified as a Christian mystic. P. C. Smith was a magazine illustrator and theatrical set designer who channeled paintings while in a trance.
In 1909, Waite hired Smith to illustrate his deck. Smith seems to have enjoyed a fair amount of independence designing the minor arcana, while Waite guided the design of the major arcana. These cards are a mash-up of Levi’s Egyptian flourishes, Waite’s Christian symbolism and the Golden Dawn’s astrological attributions. In spite of being created by former Golden Dawn members, the deck has little in common with the Order’s official deck. Examples of the eclectic mix of symbols in this deck: The Emperor holds an ankh, while Aries’ rams decorate his throne. The Lovers card shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, complete with apple tree, snake and angel. The Wheel of Fortune has Egyptian figures, Hebrew letters and Christian evangelists.
The following year, Waite published The Pictorial Key to the Tarot which explains the occult symbolism in the major arcana cards. He gave divinatory meanings for all 78 cards, then described the Celtic Cross and other spreads.
Waite’s deck and book were so popular that in 1916 they were pirated by an American publishing company, then picked up by a few other publishers, until U.S. Games Systems acquired the copyright in 1971. The Waite Smith deck and its clones and spin-offs have so overwhelmed the American Tarot market that they have become identified with Anglo-American Tarot. Waite’s deck has been used to illustrate numerous popular how-to-read books, making the deck a vehicle for disseminating Golden Dawn correspondences.
The most widely published twentieth-century Tarot authors writing in English are Eden Gray, Rachel Pollack and Mary Greer. Their books never go out of print and have played a major role in disseminating Golden Dawn Tarot attributions. Published from the 1960s to 1980s and illustrated with the Waite Smith deck, most of their books contain lists of Golden Dawn qabalistic and astrological correspondences, leading the reader to believe these attributions are an essential component of Tarot.
If you associate the Chariot with Cancer, the Emperor with Aries, and the Hanged Man with mysticism; if you read with the Celtic Cross and assume that Justice has always been the eleventh major arcana card, then you are using the Golden Dawn system, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
While the Golden Dawn’s teachings were changing the course of Anglo-American Tarot, authors like Paul Marteau, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Tchalai Unger, and others working with the Tarot de Marseille in France, were abandoning esoteric correspondences for an intuitive card reading style. This method relies on looking closely at details and finding meaning in the image itself, rather than referring to a mental card file of attributions and memorized keywords.
Thanks to the internet and social media, Tarot readers, collectors and historians are a global community, sharing their practices, learning from each other and discovering the many pathways leading Tarot into the future.
We hope you’ll enjoy riding through time and space with us as we follow each major arcana card around the globe, watching it respond to six-hundred years of cultural change.
Start the trip here with the Fool.
Images from top to bottom
Tarocchi Players, Fresco @1550, Borromeo Palace, Milan, Italy
Strength: Nicolas Rolichon Tarot de Marseille, restored by Marco Benedetti, 2019.
Chariot: Oswald Wirth Tarot 1926, restored by Marco Benedetti, 2019
Tree of Life Diagram from Tarot of the Spirit. Pamela and Joyce Eakins. US Games 2011
Wheel of Fortune: Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot, U.S. Games Systems, 2003.