A Brief History of the Tarot  


Divination - the art of foretelling the future, or seeking to foretell the future, by mystical means - has existed throughout time, in many forms. Some have sought to find the future by gazing into a crystal ball, a mirror, or a polished stone, like Nostradamus; some by reading palms; some by reading tea leaves; some by consulting the I-Ching; some by consulting the stars; some, like the ancient priestesses of Apollo at Delphi, by seeking to channel spirits or Gods wiser and more far-sighted than men; some by using a psychic gift they do not understand, just waiting for an impression, an image, or a vision to come to them with the force of something that is sure to come true. Some have sought to use the mysterious power of dreams; while others, such as the Etruscan and Roman augurs of ancient days, have looked for signs all around them, seeking messages from the Gods or hints from Fate in the flight of birds, the appearance of storms, in strange and unexpected events believed to foreshadow things to come.

Then, of course, there is the tarot.

After astrology, the tarot is probably the most widely-used method of divination practiced in the contemporary Western world. I, myself, prefer the tarot over astrology, a hundred times over, for I find the tarot to be far more flexible, fluid, personal, and responsive to the moment than astrology, whose intricate and undeniably impressive system is, nonetheless, possibly overstructured, and not as open to the free flow of intuition, or to subtle fluctuations in a personís relationship to Fate.

Where the tarot comes from, nobody is exactly sure. Its emergence as a card game can be traced back to the 14th Century AD in Italy, but whether that game had earlier roots in the Orient, is uncertain. (The idea that the cards were developed from secrets passed down from the esoteric traditions of ancient Egypt is still popular in occult circles, but not generally favored by modern historians of the tarot.) Whatever the case, the tarot enjoyed a time of great popularity in Europe, where it was particularly influenced by the players and card-makers of Italy and France. Probably won by drawing "higher-ranking" cards to beat an opponentís "lower-ranking" cards, the game combined the typical suspense and pleasure of play with the intriguing and mind-expanding effect of its fascinating images and characters, standing for many of the archetypes and forces of the world, and the cosmos.

Over time, these images underwent various changes, but the biggest change of all occurred in the late 18th Century when Antoine Court de Gebelin, and others like him, focused on the philosophical and mystical potential of the cards, and began the movement to pull them out of the realm of gaming, and to re-cast them into the realm of spirituality, as tools of metaphysical exploration, and divination. The cards seemed to have the depth, the range, and the power to allow Hidden Truths to speak through them; and sensitive seekers of occult knowledge, treating them in a different way, shuffling them and drawing them, not as gamers do, but as prophets do, began to take them up, and to place their trust in them as guides, receiving them, as they came out of the deck, as pieces of Time and Fate, brought to the surface. It is in this way that the contemporary tarot is now understood, and used (though there can be no doubt that there are also those who misuse the tarot).



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