Painting of woman playing cards
>1909 painting by Frank Benson

Historical Source of Tarot

There are many theories as to the historical source of tarot, and no one will probably ever be able to come up with the absolutely correct answer, because like everything else, tarot probably evolved due to many circumstances. The story I like best is this:

In the middle ages, wealthy women hung out in castles and were pretty bored just doing tapestries. The local Catholic church had successfully disallowed women from the pleasant pastime of predicting births, the outcomes of war and who would marry who. Traditional divination practices lead to the Inquisition visiting you, and these were not people with a sense of humor. At the same time, the local castle artists started painting playing cards to amuse the lonely and bored females. They'd decorate the cards with people that the women knew through court life. Well...women will be women no matter how much society thinks they should it didn't take long for women to realize that these cards would make a great divination tool! They could sit together and ostensibly be playing whisk while in actuality they'd be shuffling and picking out cards to decide if John was going to have an affair with Mary, and if Robert would come back from the war alive. If the castle Priest walked in they could easily say "bid two" and the Priest would contentedly wander off. Women are savvy creatures *grin*

A regular deck of playing cards is still used for "gypsy" fortune telling.

Meanwhile, the men in the court came back from their important fighting and hunting and other "manly" duties and some realized what the women were doing. Some of these men also had ideas that could bring the humorless Inquisition to your castle. Ideas like the world was round, that the world rotated around the sun, that one could control one's destiny and that of others if one understood the signs in the heavens...they believed in a mutable universe...and many liked to read church "banned texts." Well it didn't take long for these men to figure out that the women had a pretty good idea. They contacted the castle artist and asked for cards to be painted to their specifications, with certain key symbols in each. In those days objects had meaning, much like hieroglyphics. An educated person looking at various objects in a picture could read a message. So these cards were coded messages of scientific experiments and philosophy.

After the cards were painted they would be sent as a gift to another castle where a friend who had similar non-conventional interests lived. The cards would have the local "officials" portraits painted in them, Counts, Queens, etc. so that they would raise no suspicion if someone saw them and each position had an archetypal belief that could be utilized as part of the message. When the recipient had studied these cards, he would do his own experiments and then reply to his friend with a set of cards he had his castle artist paint. Conversations and experiments among the hidden alchemists and philosophers of court life could be carried on this way in reasonable safety since most castle priests were relatively uneducated.

Time passes...the printing press is invented...regular playing cards are mass produced and the female sector of the population continues to use them for divination on everyday issues. The men use the printing press for books and include the symbols they had been using on their cards to annotate their ideas.

Time passes...the Roman Catholic Church starts losing its total autocratic control over various parts of Europe. Men's philosophical and scientific fraternities start springing up in public such as the Masons and Rosicrucians. A gentleman who runs a society in Paris decides that his fellow members should contemplate the 22 Hebrew letters for they are said to be the key of the universe. The members decide to create drawings that represent their meditation of each letter. The members come to an agreement about the symbols and the letter correspondences. They print them up on cards for easy carrying and individual contemplation and share their findings with other fraternities. These are what are now viewed as the Major Arcana of the Tarot. But we aren't quite to a Tarot deck, as we know it...

At the beginning of this century a woman, Madam Blavatsky, appeared. Born in Russia she settled in Britain where she ran a salon (it was the "done" thing for educated women in those days and would attract artists and philosophers according to the lady's interests). Madam Blavatsky was very unique. She was multi-lingual and a brilliant scholar well versed in world religions and arcane texts and practices. She was so brilliant that she had to prove legally with a doctor's certificate that she was female, because prevailing social views had a difficult (understatement) time believing that women could be intellectually brilliant. (Times, how they do change *grin*) Finally she had the ability to demonstrate Spiritual phenomena...the main method being that of precipitation (words or pictures appearing on paper without physical contact) and claimed that she was directed from Mahatmas (teachers) who were in telepathic rapport with her.

Her salon was as unique as she was. She drew from Europe and Britain the most advanced male thinkers, philosophers, poets, writers and artists of her day...she also allowed women to study with her and encouraged them to take an active part. It wasn't long before these men and women started to form other organizations, such as the Golden Dawn to pursue their study of the "unseen worlds." As men and women started conversing it was natural that the playing card deck that was used by the women to look at everyday matters was combined with the 22 cards that the men used to understand how the cosmos worked. Finally tarot as we know and play with them was born...the 22 cards forming the major arcana and playing cards forming the minor arcana.

That's my favorite story.

In Oneness,
Kythera Ann

thin animated rainbow line

playing cards bulletTarot Course Description

playing cards bulletReturn to School Home Page

playing cards bulletSchool Statement of Purpose

playing cards bulletIndex of Courses

playing cards bulletList of Metaphysical Articles

If you have comments regarding this article
or need more information, e-mail me at:

georgeous e-mail words with stars

Email Kythera