Tarot card reading is the practice of using tarot cards to gain insight into the past, present or future by formulating a question, then drawing and interpreting cards.
One of the earliest references to tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to tarot as the devil’s picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil’s instrument.
References to the tarot as a social plague continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are no indications that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Bologna.
As philosopher and tarot historian Michael Dummett noted:
“…it was only in the 1780s when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the tarot pack for cartomancy.”
The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult properties: a commonly held belief in the 18th century propagated by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons. One of them was Court de Gébelin.
From its humble uptake as an instrument of prophecy in France, the cards went on to become a thing of hermeneutic, magical, mystical, semiotic, and even psychological properties.
It was used by Romani people when telling fortunes, as a Jungian psychological apparatus capable of tapping into “absolute knowledge in the unconscious“, a tool for archetypal analysis, and even a tool for facilitating the Jungian process of Individuation.
Court de Gébelin
Many involved in occult and divinatory practices attempt to trace the tarot to ancient Egypt, divine hermetic wisdom, and the mysteries of Isis.
Possibly the first of those was Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French clergyman, who wrote that after seeing a group of women playing cards he had the idea that tarot was not merely a game of cards but was in fact of ancient Egyptian origin, of mystical cabbalistic import, and of deep divine significance.
Court de Gébelin published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the cards in volume VIII of work Le Monde primitif in 1781. He thought the tarot represented ancient Egyptian Theology, including Isis, Osiris, and Typhon.
For example, he thought the card he knew as the Papesse and known today as the High Priestess represented Isis. He also related four tarot cards to the four Christian Cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Strength, and Prudence. He relates The Tower to a Greek fable about avarice.
Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered, Court de Gébelin asserted the name “Tarot” came from the Egyptian words Tar, “path” or “road“, and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning “King” or “royal“, and that the tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of Life.
Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support Court de Gébelin’s etymologies. Despite this lack of any evidence, the belief that the cards are linked to the Egyptian Book of Thoth continues to the present day.
The actual source of the occult tarot can be traced to two articles in volume eight, one written by himself, and one written by M. le C. de M.***. The second has been noted to have been even more influential than Court de Gébelin’s.
The author takes Court de Gébelin’s speculations even further, agreeing with him about the mystical origins of the tarot in ancient Egypt, but making several additional, and influential, statements that continue to influence the mass understanding of the occult tarot even to this day.
He made the first statements proposing that the tarot is, in fact, The Book of Thoth and made the first association of tarot with cartomancy.
The first to assign divinatory meanings to the cards was cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette (also known as Etteilla) in 1783.
According to Dummett, Etteilla:
- devised a method of tarot divination in 1783
- wrote a cartomantic treatise of tarot as the Book of Thoth
- created the first society for tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du livre de Thot
- created the first corrected tarot (supposedly fixing errors that resulted from misinterpretation and corruption
- through the mists of antiquity), The Grand Etteilla deck
- created the first Egyptian tarot to be used exclusively for cartomancy
- published, under the imprint of his society, the Dictionnaire synonimique du Livre de Thot, a book that “systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed.”
- suggested that tarot was a repository of the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus
- was a book of eternal medicine
- was an account of the creation of the world
- argued that the first copy of the tarot was imprinted on leaves of gold
In his 1980 book, The Game of Tarot, Michael Dummett suggested that Etteilla was attempting to supplant Court de Gébelin as the author of the occult tarot. Etteilla in fact claimed to have been involved with tarot longer than Court de Gébelin.
Marie Anne Lenormand
Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand outshone even Etteilla and was the first cartomancer to people in high places, through her claims to be the personal confidant of Empress Josephine, Napoleon, and other notables.
Lenormand used both regular playing cards, in particular, the Piquet pack, as well as tarot cards likely derived from the Tarot de Marseille. Following her death in 1843, several different cartomantic decks were published in her name, including the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, based on the standard 52-card deck, first published in 1845, and the Petit Lenormand, a 36-card deck derived from the German game Das Spiel der Hofnung, first published around 1850.
The concept of the cards as a mystical key was extended by Éliphas Lévi. Lévi (whose actual name was Alphonse-Louis Constant) was educated in the seminary of Saint-Sulpice, was ordained as a deacon, but never became a priest.
Michael Dummett noted that it is from Lévi’s book Dogme et rituel that the “whole of the modern occultist movement stems.” Lévi’s magical theory was based on a concept he called the Astral Light and according to Dummett, he claimed to be the first to:
“have discovered intact and still unknown this key of all doctrines and all philosophies of the old world… without the tarot”, he tells us, “the Magic of the Ancients is a closed book….”
Lévi accepted Court de Gébelin’s claims that the deck had an Egyptian origin, but rejected Etteilla’s interpretation and rectification of the cards in favor of a reinterpretation of the Tarot de Marseille. He called it The Book of Hermes and claimed that the tarot was antique, existed before Moses, and was, in fact, a universal key of erudition, philosophy, and magic that could unlock Hermetic and Qabalistic concepts.
According to Lévi:
“An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.”
According to Dummett, Lévi’s notable contributions include:
- Lévi was the first to suggest that the Magus (Bagatto) was to be depicted in conjunction with the symbols of the four suits.
- Inspired by de Gébelin, Lévi associated the Hebrew alphabet with the tarot trumps and attributed an “onomantic astrology” system to the “ancient Hebrew Qabalists.”
- Lévi linked the ten numbered cards in each suit to the ten sefirot.
- Claimed the court cards represented stages of human life.
- Claimed the four suites represented the Tetragrammaton.