The history of Esoteric Tarot

The previous period is often referred to as the 'pre-occult Tarot'. It was in France that the story of Esoteric Tarot starts to emerge. Little is heard about the game of Tarot until an occultist Court de Geblin (1724-1784) came across a Tarot card game being played at a friend's house. This can be said to be the beginning of Esoteric Tarot, the use of the cards as a divinatory instrument.

De Geblin believed that cards were Egyptian in origin with connections to the great god Thoth. He speculated on other connections but did not develop them, publishing his theories in 1781 in a nine volume set of books titled Monde Primitif. The Rossetta Stone was decoded in 1799 with no mention of the Tarot. However, by this time De Geblin's work had been popularized.

In 1783, the French occultist known as The Grand Etteilla was the first professional Tarot reader and the first person to design a Tarot pack to be used for divination. The word 'cartomancy' for card divination is said to be coined by him. He strongly maintained that the origins of Tarot lay in Egypt. In 1785 he published A Way To Entertain One-Self with a Pack of Cards Called Tarot. He also wrote on astrology and alchemy.

Paul Christian (1811-1877) first referred to the cards as Arcana Secrets, from which developed the terms Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Although his Egyptian theories were based on fantasy rather than fact, he put forward a very persuasive argument, to the extent that his Egyptian theories influenced other authors.

The French Kabbalist Eliphas Levi (1810-1855) (who was influenced both by Court De Geblin and Etteilla) believed the Tarot was the Egyptian Book of Thoth. He drew correlations between Hermeticism Kabbalah alchemy and Tarot. The most prominent part of his work was the synthesis of the Hebrew Kabbalah and the Tarot. In 1854 he published two books: The Doctrine of High Magic and The Ritual of High Magic.

In 1889, we have the first redesign of the Tarot, by the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth (1860-1943). Wirth was a follower of Levi and used some of his examples in his new design. In 1857, another Tarot myth escalated in a book by J A Vaillant connecting the Tarot with the Romany Gypsies.

In 1889, a founder member of The Cabalistic Order of The Rosy Cross (Rosicrucian) writing under the name of Papus published the book The Tarot of the Bohemians. Papus, a follower of Levi, refined the concepts of Levi's Kabbalistic Tarot.

In 1888, the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn was founded in England.

It attracted many artists and scholars. One of the founders, Dr Wyn Westcott, had been in contact with a student of Ephilas Levi, thus the Tarot connection were made.

This led to the introduction of Mathers MacGregor, who had already written a short article on divination and Tarot. Mathers Macgregor was the diving force behind the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He drew on all mythologies and magical systems, linking the Tarot to a whole network of correlations.

In 1910, a prominent member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite, produced the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, with the book A Pictorial Key to Tarot.

The art work was by Pamela Coleman Smith, who took inspiration for the minor Arcana from the Italian Sola Busca deck. The Ryder-Waite cards are still a widely-used Tarot deck today.


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