If anyone ever tries to tell you that they know exactly where the Tarot originated, they are lying to you. Just as the ways in which the Tarot can theoretically be used to tell the future is an utter mystery, so are the earliest days of the Tarot somewhat vague and nebulous.
There are more theories surrounding this mystery than those that have arisen to explain how the Twin Towers became the first high rise structures in history to collapse as a result of fire, of course.
One of the oldest is that the Tarot traces back to the ancient Egyptian cultures, while our old friends the Celts get the credit in others. And just so we don’t leave the mystical East out of the picture, some credit Persia, India or even China with holding the key to the history of the Tarot.
The Tarot as it is known first began to take shape in 1400s Italy when an aristocratic family commissioned the painting of Tarot decks. For the next two centuries, this Italian Tarot was the basis for all decks, but a shift occurred during the 1600s that found France the center of Tarot. The decks that took shape during this time form the basis for most Tarot decks still in use today.
The Tarot deck is made up of 78 different cards and though most people think of it as method for fortune telling, in fact there have been several different uses for the Tarot throughout history.
In fact, from the best evidence that can be gathered, the Tarot was basically used for nothing more than as a card game that may have had certain aspects of divination to it. It was also played as what is known as a trick-taking game. This game was actually known as Tarot in France, but as Tarocchi in Italy.
Since those earliest days, the deck has undergone some changes as well as the intention of the game itself. It really isn’t known for sure whether the earliest players of Tarot really honestly believed that it could tell the future or whether it was just a pleasant diversion that took attention away from all the witch-burning and Jew-killing that was going on around them.
Tarot and the Catholic Church
As a sign that things really don’t change all that much, however, the Catholic Church banned the game and burned as many decks as they could find. This extreme action was not necessarily due to the divination component, as you might expect, but rather to the fact that the images on the decks were considered to be portrayals of pagan imagery.
In addition, when you look at Tarot deck today you will find two cards that are known as the High Priest or High Priestess. These cards weren’t always known in this way; many early Tarot decks have instead a Pope and Papess.
I’m not exactly sure what a Papess was supposed to reflect, although I realize that many ancient Popes engaged in some heavy duty orgies and sexual deviancy almost enough to make some modern day religious leaders look tame.
The resistance to the Tarot has hardly disappeared, many religious cultures still attempt to ban the Tarot and paint it as a tool of the devil. How surprising, then, that the Tarot didn’t really earn its contemporary impression as a bona fide method of divination until the 18th century. It was during that century that Major and Minor Arcana and all the abstruse significance of each card became codified.
Despite this late date for codification and explanation of the meaning of the Tarot deck, surprisingly there is no written record that gives even a hint of explanation about how the Tarot is supposed to work.
Although there are literally hundreds if not thousands of books available that provide intimate detail on what each card means and the esoteric information needed to fully provide a reading with them, there exists no literature in the world that is considered fully accurate in describing how these cards are really supposed to be used to tell one’s future.