Various writers, teachers and explorers of esoteric arts (magic, wicca, magick, Golden Dawn, etc) have claimed that Tarot cards are repositories of ancient wisdom- with origins from ancient Egypt through various parts of Asia. While I believe that much of ‘Western’ religious tradition most likely descends from Ancient Egyptian traditions, I suspect that solid evidence of it is lost to time and/or the bowels of the Catholic Corporation archives. What we do know is that decks of cards were being used across Europe by the Romani and others for fortune telling, as well as Tarocchi, a card game. The oldest cards still in existence are from the 15th Century- generally produced for members of the Visconti families in what is now Italy.
Perhaps one of the best discussions of the history of Tarot decks is the 300+ page, heavily-illustrated, The Encyclopedia Of Tarot, Vol. 1, shown in the attached image. This is the first of four volumes (so far) written by Stuart R. Kaplan who founded US Games Systems Inc to publish and distribute Tarot and other decks of cards. The book lists European references to playing cards as far back as the 1300s. He then presents early tarocchi decks, modern tarock decks, and of course the Occult Revival interest in Tarot as a divination tool.
In many earlier decks (as well as some recent designs) the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana showed just the number of items (eight cups, three swords, etc.) reminiscent of what’s found on modern playing cards. Designs created by members of various occult groups such as Theosophical Society and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and published in the 19th Century included detailed illustrations on all the cards. The Rider-Waite deck designed by A.E. Waite (artwork by Pamela Colman Smith) and published by Rider & Company had perhaps the greatest influence on the meanings, designs and order of cards in most designs produced since.
How Does Tarot Work?
I do not believe in fate or destiny in the sense that the future is predetermined. However, we are creatures of habit, influenced by our personal & cultural histories and our biology; with varying levels of self-awareness. So can we really exercise ‘free will‘?
Keeping with the nautical theme of the quote pictured here; waves tend to rush to the shore but break-walls and winds (i.e. forces seen and unseen) may change the direction or speed of those waves. We, and existence in this reality, are complex.
I have owned and used Tarot (and other ‘divination decks’) for almost 40 years. I’ve also studied astrology and keep a small number of crystals around my work space. At their best, so-called ‘divination tools’ (whether cards, crystals, astrology, numerology, runes or any other method) help us see what lies beneath the surface and may help us understand patterns in our thoughts and behaviours. Perhaps they help us tap into Jung’s collective unconscious collection of archetypes and information. Or maybe Dolly Parton had it right in her song ‘These Old Bones‘ that the magic is inside each of us.