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The origins of the tarot are somewhat obscure. Some believe that its beginnings lie somewhere in Ancient Egypt, brought to Europe by gypsies. Others believe that it was developed in Ancient China and brought to Europe by trading ships. This may have some truth to it, but historians have never been able to conclusively prove either possibility. Most historians, however, will agree that the tarot was developed in Italy during the fifteenth century.
The first clear reference that we have to Tarot cards is from a sermon that was collected with many others about 1500 in Italy found in the Steele Manuscript. The sermon is thought to date from about 1450 to 1470 and is a diatribe against games of chance. It gives a detailed description of the Tarot trumps, not only numbering them but naming them as well.
Although it is unknown who created the first pack of tarot cards, the 3 decks called the "Visconti Trumps" are generally regarded as the forefathers of the decks that are widely available today. The original intention of the tarot was, however, not as related to the occult as some may think.
The tarot was developed as a card game known as "Triumphs". This game was very similar to the game of "bridge" that we know today. Like the decks of playing cards at the time, the tarot had four suits of cards with numbers from 1 through 10, and court cards that were pages, knights and kings.
Unlike the playing cards, the tarot had an extra four court cards called queens. They also included 21 trump cards not belonging to any suit. These trump cards bore symbolic pictures on them, such as the Pope, the Emperor, Death, the Devil, the Moon and the Wheel of Fortune.
This game became extremely popular, especially among the Upper Class. It soon populated through Northern Italy and Eastern France. As the tarot spread to new locations, changes were often made to pictures and the ranking of the trumps. In time the game spread through out the Mediterranean countries and as far north as the Scandinavian countries.
The first account of divination using cards is linked to Jean-Baptiste Alliette, the French cartomancer better known as "Etteilla" (Alliette backwards), in 1770. He is believed to be the first to publish divination meanings for cards. Only 33 cards, one of which represented the querent, were included in this edition. However, only regular playing cards were mentioned.
Later, Etteilla published several works that involved the Tarot Trumps specifically. It is no surprise that these later writings coincided with Gebelin's then-recently-public treatment of the Tarot as a reference of the Ancient Egyptian arcane. Etteilla's deck was the first deck available to the public to be used for the purpose of Cartomancy.
In 1781 Antoine Court de Gébelin developed a system for divination using these cards. Gebelin, a French linguist and occultist, was convinced of the mysticism of the Tarot and linked it to Egyptian mythology. Interestingly, gypsy is considered to be a corrupt form of the word Egyptian.
He believed the tarot originated in Ancient Egypt, and served as tools of initiation into the priesthood. For Gébelin, the Tarot's Major Arcana was the Book of Thoth. He believed that it had survived the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Gébelin believed the Tarot to be a pictorial embodiment of this occult wisdom.
Around 1835, a French priest named Eliphas Levi thought the Tarot to be the key to the Jewish Qabbalah, the Bible and most other ancient spiritual writings. He set out to link the 22 cards of the Major Arcana to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, drawing parallels between Tarot suits (cups, pentacles, swords and wands) and the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, YHVH ('Yahweh').
The earliest known book of Tarot cards still in existence are from around 1841. Seventeen of these remain. The first entire deck still in existance is one painted for the Duke of Milan by an Italian artist named Bonifacio Bembo .
Shortly afterwards, a professor named MacGregor Mathers was the head of an English Order known as the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1886. He studied mysticism and wrote about the Tarot. To this day his research, in association with the Golden Dawn is still widely believed to be the authority on the esoteric.
Sir Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), the English philosopher and member of the Golden Dawn, broke from the Order of the Golden Dawn and founded his own school of mystical thought. Working with illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith, who was also a member of The Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite created a "revamped" deck featuring images on all the cards, Minor as well as Major Arcana. They produced the 78 card deck that we use today. These are now known as the Rider Waite and Universal Waite decks.
Since then various versions of this 78 card deck have been formed. Popular among these are the Tarot of The Cat People, Halloween tarot, Aquarian Tarot and the Thoth tarot. Although the cards in these decks essentially represent the same as the Waite decks, trump and suit names are varied to suit the theme of the pack. Some Readers also tend to connect better with the artwork on certain decks.
While the mid 1900s may have been somewhat dark times for mysticism, the latter part of the century has seen a substantial increase in the general populous' interest in the various disciples of the arcane. During the past twenty odd years especially, the world has seen new developments on television shows, the rise of neo-paganism and a myriad of successful occultist authors. Science has even taken a far greater interest in anything that might be considered paranormal.