The Mysterious Origins of the Tarot, Meaning, and Purpose
The Tarot origin is very mysterious, and there is no consensus among historians even about the meaning of the word Tarot.
Scholars can only agree that it appeared more or less at the end of the 14th century in Europe. And the oldest surviving Tarot deck is the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, which can be found at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, where only 35 of the 78 cards remain.
But some seemingly unconnected historical facts ignored by many historians point to a possible origin. Let’s get to those facts.
The Tarot could have appeared in a dream
Around 1355, during a sleepless night, an angel came to Nicolas Flamel with a peculiar manuscript with strange characters to deliver a message Flamel did not yet understand. However, this vision kept him restless for days on.
Sometime later, someone came to his store to sell his only valuable item: an ancient manuscript Flamel recognized as the book he saw in that dream.
It was an old piece with pages engraved in bush barks. The first page read “Abraham: The Jew, The Prince, The Astrologer, and The Philosopher.
Related: Want to get a personalized Astrology Tarot reading?
The book was 21 pages long and divided into 7 chapters, illustrated by 7 pictures. After several days of intensive and obsessive study, Nicolas Flamel concluded it contained the alchemical recipe for making gold. Even if he could not yet do it.
It is important to note that transforming lead into gold, or creating gold in alchemy, means transforming ignorance into wisdom. It means to enlighten oneself.
It’s vital to notice Europe was under the Catholic Inquisition, where everyone not aligned with the religious dogma was hunted down and annihilated.
That is why alchemists only communicated through symbolic drawings and metaphors, such as turning lead into gold.
So this book that may have given birth to the Tarot is a book of Hermetic personal development.
After studying the text for 21 years, Flamel left Paris to make a long and lonely journey to Santiago de Compostela, taking a copy of the book with him.
In Spain, he also visited Master Canches in Leon. The latter confirmed to Flamel that he was the owner of an exceptional document: Abraham Rabbi’s Aesch Mezareph, which everyone believed had been lost forever.
The two go to Paris to analyze the original manuscript together. Unfortunately, Canches dies on the way, not without revealing some of his alchemy secrets to Flamel.
Returning home, Nicolas continues his studies of the raw material (Prima Materia) that can react to the processes of alchemy.
It is said that on January 17, 1382, he shifted lead into gold for the first time in his life. In other words, he became enlightened through the knowledge of the book.
The 22 Major Arcana may have originated the Tarot
Some reports that at a certain point, Flamel had some tablets made of gold that contained drawings and symbols.
Possibly he drew the book of Abraham with symbolism more contemporary to him.
Related: Want to know the meaning of 22 Major Arcana Tarot Cards?
In 1392, the painter Jacquemin Gringonneur was commissioned to draw cards for king Charles VI of France during his mental breakdown.
Before, Gringonneur was in contact with the alchemist Nicolas Flamel in Paris. Since Flamel already possessed the lost book of Abraham on gold leaves, this possibly inspired Gringonneur’s work for the king of France.
Anyone who met someone like Nicolas Flamel must have been an equally mysterious person. This is why there are not many historical accounts of Gringonneur, and Flamel, although more famous, managed to hide his alchemical studies from the public.
Unfortunately, these cards have disappeared into history, just like details about Jacquemin Gringonneur’s life.
We only know that he created for Charles VI packs of cards that possibly consisted of the 22 symbols of the major arcana.
But wait, didn’t the book Flamel bought only have 21 pages? How can there be 22 Major Arcana? It is probably the Fool card that was introduced by Flamel and Gringonneur.
Contrary to what many people think, the Tarot of 22 arcana was not a parlor game. It was a tool for self-knowledge, so the first known Tarot was created for king Charles VI during a mental breakdown.
And it was used by alchemists, starting with Nicolas Flamel, as a tool for personal development and psychological treatment.
Gringonneur’s Tarot set, better known as Tarot Charles VI, has been the model for later games - such as Bonifacio Bembo’s Tarot Visconti-Sforza, the oldest surviving Tarot game in Europe.
What about the 56 Minor Arcana?
The Italian Tarot artists of the 15th century called the 22 major arcana “trionfi” - meaning triumphs.
Later, with the introduction of the 56 minor arcana, the deck began to be called “Tarocchi.” The French, English, and German loanword “tarot” is probably derived from Tarocchi.
It wasn’t until the creation of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot around 1450 that the 56 Minor Arcana apparently appeared. One of the possible inspirations for the Minor Arcana comes from China.
The similarity between the Chinese Money Cards and the Tarot is intriguing. Possibly as early as the sixth century, the Chinese played a deck game consisting of four suits. But these cards were not the direct ancestor of our Tarot deck.
The cards had to make a centuries-long odyssey along the Silk Road from China to Persia. Then, India and Egypt. Underwent many designs and deck structure changes before entering Europe in the 14th century.
But did the 56 minor arcana really appear in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot in 1450?
No one knows for sure when the Tarot de Marseille was designed. We know it was created in northern Italy in the 15th century and introduced into southern France when the French conquered Milan and Piedmont in 1499.
It’s known that Nicolas Flamel traveled many times to Italy. The last project of Nicolas Flamel’s life, who died in 1418, probably was the creation of the 56 minor arcana in the format now known as the Tarot de Marseille.
For alchemy, the Major Arcana is directly connected with our unconscious mind. The Minor Arcana, on the other hand, represents the force of the elementals, the energies that surround us.
That is why with the introduction of the minor arcana, the Tarot started to gain divinatory characteristics. Because these 56 cards highlight energies, something extremely esoteric even today.
The Tarot to predict the future and fortune-telling
Today the Tarot is probably one of the most used divination tools in the world. Although not as simple as other methods, such as pendulums or tea leaves, the Tarot has been drawing people to its magic for centuries.
Today, the cards are available for purchase in hundreds of different designs. Whether you are a fan of Lord of the Rings or baseball, there is probably a deck for you to choose from.
But divination with playing cards became popular only in the 18th century. When the meanings of each card became known, as well as the techniques of how to use them.
In 1781, a French Freemason named Antoine Court de Gebelin published a complex Tarot analysis. He revealed the detailed symbolism and the art of divination using the Tarot.
In 1791, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a French occultist, released the first Tarot deck explicitly designed for divinatory purposes and a guide on how to use it.
These works created a frenzy among wealthy Europeans who became massively interested in this esoteric knowledge. In the 19th century, the Tarot of Marseille gained great popularity.
As we have seen, the Tarot of Marseille was created in the 15th century. But its name was coined only in 1856 by the French historian Romain Merlin. Then it was popularized by the French fortune-tellers Eliphas Levi, Gérard Encausse, and Paul Marteau.
The Tarot de Marseille was the most popular deck in the 19th century. Today’s most famous tarot deck, Rider-Waite, is derived from the Tarot de Marseille.
The Tarot as a tool for personal development
The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung founded analytical psychology. Even today, his work strongly influences psychiatry, anthropology, philosophy, and mysticism.
Jung coined many terms used in everyday life: introvert, extravert, synchronicity, anima, persona, archetype, and individuation.
Jung studied Alchemy, and this invariably led him to the Tarot. As we have seen, the Tarot was created as a tool for self-awareness. Excited about the Tarot, Jung referred to the cards in a series of letters and lectures.
He realized that the Tarot helped provide that layer of unconsciousness we cannot understand with our human minds.
Jung believes the cards’ symbols connect the collective unconscious and the unconscious of the person receiving the message through synchronicity of their appearance and position.
Unfortunately, the use of the Tarot among therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists has not yet been popularized. My mission here is to spread the use of the Tarot for personal development purposes. And I thank you very much for sticking with me till here.
The information quoted here is not intended to formulate an absolute truth about the origin of the Tarot. It is the result of personal research out of curiosity because I am passionate about this art that helps me find, understand, and live my true essence.
If you want to know how the Tarot can help you on your personal journey, I invite you to get to know the Astrology Tarot Method.
Let the magic happen!
* Special thanks to my mentors Helio Couto and Stefano Gradi.