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The history of the Tarot is shrouded in myth and legend.  Among the stories of its origins are that the Gypsies, or Rom, brought the cards to Western Europe from Egypt in the early middle ages.  Similarly, it is said that the Knights Templar brought them back to Western Europe in the time of the Crusades.  It is also told that a group of sages met in Fez , Morocco , and produced the Tarot to preserve the body of ancient mystical wisdom destroyed at the great Library at Alexandria . 

There is no evidence to prove that any of these stories are true. But they all contain a kernel of truth.   The common thread in all of them and the fact that makes the Tarot’s origins so hard to trace is that all the stories relate to the occult and the heretical.  Occult meaning hidden, secret.  Heretical, meaning a belief which is at odds with the dogma of the established religion, which in the Middle Ages was the Roman Catholic church.  The Tarot is a pictorially camouflaged belief system that needed to be kept hidden from the dominant church because it represented ancient, pagan, pre-Christian wisdom that was thought to be heretical.

 

The Gypsies, or Rom, for example, have always been stereotypically associated with Tarot cards and reading fortunes.  Since their first appearance in Europe centuries ago to this day all around the world, the Gypsies or Rom peoples, use Tarot cards as a source of income from fortune telling, but also as their “Bible for occult beliefs”.  The Gypsies have always had to keep their culture hidden from mainstream society and they were often persecuted for their unconventional ways.  They were among the many killed in the Inquisition and the Holocaust, for example.  The Gypsies told fanciful stories upon their arrival in Europe of their origins in Egypt , thus the name Gypsies.  Hence  the idea that the Gypsies’ Tarot’s had ancient roots from the Egyptian Book of Thoth.   The Gypsies’ actual homeland can be traced to India .  The Gypsy religion is camouflaged in Roman Catholicism, but tracks its beginnings to the Hindu religion, especially the worship of Kali, a female goddess of creation and destruction, one of the many manifestations of the World Mother or the Sacred Feminine.   Thus one of the central spiritual beliefs of the Gypsies, or Rom, was feared by the church and kept hidden: The Sacred Feminine.

The Knights Templar also had an occult and heretical history. The Knights Templar was once a very powerful Christian military order during the time of the Crusades in Europe . They fought in many important battles of the Crusades.  They were a monastic brotherhood with membership by initiation in a secret ceremony, much like mystery religions.  The Knights Templar is said to be the forbearer to the Freemasons. Their origins are shrouded in secrets and mystery.  It is said that the Original Knights Templar, just nine in number, went to Jerusalem and were offered headquarters at the Temple Mount , above what is believed to be the ruins of the Temple of Solomon , thus their more formal name The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon.  Legend has it that the Knights Templar may have found such significant relics as the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, or fragments from the True Cross used for Jesus’ crucifixion during their stay at the Temple Mount . 


Upon their return from Jerusalem , the Knights Templar very suddenly gained much wealth and favor from the church, especially the Pope.  It is speculated that the Templar used their influence from their secret cache of important Christian relics to gain their wealth and prestige. In the end, nearly two centuries later when the Crusades were waning, they were labeled heretics partly due to their secret initiation rights as well as political reasons and many were tortured by French authorities under the Inquisition.  The remaining Templar lived in secrecy.  Could it be that part of the Knights Templar’s mysterious treasure was a secret book of symbols representing ancient wisdom, or the Tarot?

Again shrouded in mystery is the destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria in ancient Alexandria , Egypt .  The Library at Alexandria was said to be the largest library in the world and has come to symbolize the entirety of ancient knowledge and wisdom.  There are several accounts of its destruction including Roman and Muslim army attacks and also by the decree of Theodosius I an Early Christian Emperor who in 391 AD ordered that all Pagan Temples be destroyed.  However its demise, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria represents the tragic loss of much ancient, history, literature and learning. This pre-Christian pagan knowledge was considered to be a threat to the power of the Catholic Church.  Thus, another legend of the origins of the Tarot, that a convention of wise men, adepts and sages in Fez, Morocco, sometime after the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, formulated the Tarot as a secret symbol system representing the ancient, mystical knowledge lost in the destruction of the Library at Alexandria.  The Tarot was meant to keep the ancient wisdom alive in advance of the oppression of the dominant church.  It was also meant to be a tool to help a seeker find self-knowledge and reach his/her full potential.

The symbols and the journey through the Major Arcana of the Tarot, are representative of the initiate’s journey in ancient mystery religions, such as those dedicated to Egyptian, Greek and Roman Gods and Goddess, such as: Isis, Osiris, Orpheus, Dionysus, Mithras, Attis, Tammuz, and Persephone and Demeter of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The Early Christian Gnostic sects and later the Cathars in the middle ages also had secret initiation ceremonies.  Basically, the initiate in a mystery religion would be introduced to spiritual and magical symbols, rites and sacraments that led the initiate through several stages that culminated in the comprehension of the life-death-rebirth cycle and becoming one with the God or Goddess.  The Gods and Goddesses of the Mystery Religions, including Jesus, held in common the concept of life, death and resurrection.  In Gnosticism, for example, once the initiate went through the stages he or she (mystery religions were very tolerant and accepted all people) would attain Gnosis or the knowledge of the connection to the Divine.  The Fool, or Initiate, in the Tarot Major Arcana also goes through stages, resembling life, death and rebirth represented by the symbols in the cards and reaches a whole state represented by the last card, The World.


Modern secret societies such as the Freemasons, the Rosicrucian’s, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Builders of the Adytum are similar to mystery religions in that they have secret initiations and promote spiritual understandings.  These societies’ tenants also relate to ideas from other aspects of the occult such as alchemy, Hermeticism, and the Kabbalah.  The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Builders of the Adytum both have created two of the most widely used and admired Tarot Decks: The Waite-Smith Deck and the B.O.T.A. deck.  These decks are said to be true decks and are based on extensive research and access to ancient secret mysteries.  I used representations from both decks in research and inspiration for the creation of The Crimson Tarot, which is an art deck of only the Major Arcana.

The first documented appearance of Tarot cards is substantiated by fragments of a deck that can be found in the Biblioteque Nacional in Paris dated 1392.  Evidence points to Charles VI of France ordering the deck among 2 others from the artist.  The Visconti Deck painted for the Duke of Milan dates to the early 1400’s and is the first full deck to be recorded in history.  Even though there is no evidence in the historical record existing before these particular decks, these cannot be the first ever Tarot decks.  The artists, as I was, were most likely inspired by previous decks that in turn had evolved over time.  Cards used for games and fortune telling were used by the Arabs (Moors, Saracens) since at least the 8th century.  Cards with images of deities and displaying their attributes are often used in Eastern Religions as well as cards showing images of and prayers to Saints in Christianity have a long history.  The parade of venerable figures in the Tarot’s Major Arcana can be linked to the idea of a sacred procession of deities or pageants that have existed up to today in many cultures around the world.  These mystery plays or sacred dramas consisted of a series of moveable floats or stages displaying a tableau of divine persons or symbols intended to entice a mystical revelation.  So, the Tarot Major Arcana could have evolved into a concrete two dimensional visual form of these pageants and mystery plays.

The main language of the Tarot is archetypal symbols, the language of the soul.  It is a language without words.  The symbols represent archetypes which are manifested by all people in all cultures and stem from the collective unconscious.   Archetypes are also found in myths and dreams.  Thus the symbols in the Tarot can be appreciated by everyone on many levels, from simple to profound.  The symbols promote a connection to hidden springs of knowledge that communicates to our Higher Self, our Divine Self.  This hidden language of symbols would have been advantageous to the early users of Tarot when the meanings needed to be kept secret from the oppressive church.

When most people think of Tarot cards one of the first things that pops up in the mind is fortune telling or divination.  Divination means a prediction or divine inspiration.  The root word of divination is divine, or emanating from God.  So in using the Tarot cards one seeks evidence of future trends or guidance from a higher source.  I usually see it as a communication device to our Higher Self that is connected to the Divine.  People seek the Tarot to answer the questions of the Great Mysteries of Life and as a guide in daily life.  Ultimately the Tarot can lead the seeker to spiritual growth, self-knowledge and a connection to the Divine Source.


Conclusion

In my research and meditations of the Tarot I found a running theme: secret, hidden, arcane, occult, mystery, heretical, esoteric.  It makes sense that in most of the history of the Tarot, its meaning and use needed to be hidden because it was considered heretical to the dominant oppressive church.  People were tortured and killed for using the Tarot!

Today, however, even though the Catholic Church still wields a great deal of power, its dominion is waning.  People are much less likely going to be burned at the stake for using Tarot!  Even the Catholic Church is slowly catching up to the more open mindedness of the mainstream population.  The Tarot was probably always used by pockets of peoples that had faith in a pagan, heretical pre-Christian belief system.  It is my opinion that the ancient, powerful, mystical wisdom hidden in the archetypal symbols of the Tarot needs to emerge from hiding!  It no longer needs to be secret, occult, esoteric, mysterious or heretical!   The teachings of Tarot are very powerful.  The Tarot teaches those who pay attention to function on a higher level, to grow spiritually and connect with their Higher Self, Divine Self.  The Tarot acts as a guide in times of personal crisis and world crisis.  We are living in a time of great change and confusion, and the wisdom that was hidden for so long needs to not only be revealed, but put to good use in order to help humanity!

Sources:
1. Answers.com
2. Gearhart, Sally and Susan Rennie, A Feminist Tarot, Persephone Press, 
Watertown , Massachusettes, 1981.
3. Jayanti, Amber, Living the Tarot, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire , England , 2000.
4. Walker , Barbara G., The Secrets of the Tarot: Origins, History and Symbolsim, Harper San Francisco , 1984.
5. Wikipedia

 
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