It is generally accepted that the tarot is old but the insistence that the tarot is of truly ancient origin has been largely slammed by those who rely on hard evidence. There simply is no proof that the tarot as a deck of 78 (or so) cards predates the age of Enlightenment. However it is believed by many that the tarot has its origin in Islam.
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There is however a history of card games entering Europe via the Saracen Spanish and the Gypsies (supposed to be Hindustani by way of Egypt) in the 14th century. This is in fact a reliable history so we can effectively say that the tarot is at least 500 years old, since these original games used decks which employed painted characters similar to what modern decks display today. These early decks were not the tarot as we know it, at least we’re not sure if they were used for anything but gambling but they certainly were the first stages of what would become the tarot. Some of the characters painted in the early decks them were carried over into modern tarot, and furthermore, if the decks were in fairly widespread use in Europe in the 14th century, and were brought in by Gypsies or some other immigrant folk, they must have been in use even earlier by these people in some (perhaps less refined) form.
The symbols used today are at least as old as Christianity but some are much older and nearly all spring from pagan roots. The fact that the tarot traverses the ages only points up how basic realities of life remain intact, whatever the culture, and whatever the society’s accepted notions. Some symbols in the deck could be considered unacceptable in a strictly Christian society. Indeed, some Christians believe the tarot is, at best, sinfully vain trying to second guess God. At worst, a tool of the Devil. Traditional tarot (such as the Waite deck) still bears unmistakably Christian influences.
In the last two centuries an entirely new generation of decks has emerged, incorporating new symbology recognizably an outgrowth of the East’s influence on the West. Thus many of the decks available today are an amalgam of symbols which mankind created and carried over from one Age and culture to the next.
However, where one draws the line between what is ‘the tarot’ and what goes beyond a tarot deck is entirely subjective. By its own definition it is a system of life’s symbols in small, pictographic form. The more traditional (read: Western) decks probably started out in very preliminary form as a game, looking quite different and they certainly had their roots in a non-Christian environment. Christian layers were added, some substitutions were made. But as a sort of metaphysical system, the tarot (or something very like it) has been around a long time and remains something that connects directly, often astonishingly, with the spiritual crises we all go through in life.
In fact, each character, prop, and event in the tarot (traditional or contemporary) is a symbol of something else, something deeper and more profound than the obvious pictograph. Each corresponds to something within the psyche, whether mundane or profound and all that is mundane can also be profound. This is one of the tarot’s lessons. The sword, which certainly looks like a Medieval prop, is also read as Intellect, which like the sword is a dangerous tool that cuts both ways. Cups correspond to Emotions, Pentagrams to Earth and therefore the body, Wands to fire, births & beginnings, the Life Energy contained in each human vessel. Interpretations of the suits and the Major Arcana do vary from source to source, but overall there are still elements which remain consistent despite differences of opinion.
From the time of Alliete the Wigmaker (1750-1810), the tarot has been connected to both astrology and the Cabala. Since then just about every branch of the occult has been connected somehow to the tarot, though it is highly doubtful that the original creator(s) intended this. Nevertheless, like the Cabala, the tarot lends itself well as a system of organization and categorization, which is useful when exploring the depths of the occult and its innumerable mysteries, let alone when examining one’s inner life. If one finds it useful to link the cards with other (apparently) unrelated studies, so much the better. There are books that link it not only to Cabala, but also astrology, numerology, neopaganism, etc. etc. Since these other subjects are also essentially systems of metaphysics, their correspondences usually work.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tarot decks existent in the world today. There was a huge boom in new tarot decks in the mid 1970’s, and since that time at least one new deck a year appears. And the images of the traditional tarot are creeping into other mediums. Card games now copy the tarot, comic books steal characters, novels include them. However, an exhaustive comparison of all these images is not the purpose of this page.
One of the wonderful things about the newer decks is that they exhibit a sense of humor while still being useful as a system. Images from current culture abound and it remains to be seen just how many of these modern images will wear well, whether they’ll become ‘charming’ as they age or if they’ll become ‘colloquial.’