Where does it come from? No matter how we treat the subject--whether we dive deep into the symbolic mysteries, or recite formulas for fortunetelling, or play with the pictures--we cannot escape the question. There are certainly enough answers. Enter the world of Tarot and stories of its origin move around you like excited birds. Here is a sample.
The Tarot depicts the sacred myths of the Romany (or Gypsies), disguised in cards for the centuries of exile from the Rom homeland in India--or Egypt--or outer space. The Tarot is a Renaissance card game inspired by annual carnival processions called triumphs. The Tarot is a card game derived from annual processions called thriambs, in honor of the God Dionysus, the creator of wine. The Tarot conceals/reveals the secret number teachings of Pythagoras, a Greek mystic who lived at the time of Moses, and who influenced Plato. The Tarot depicts the secret oral teachings of Moses, who received them directly from God. The Tarot contains the lost knowledge of Atlantis, a drowned continent first described by Plato. The Tarot is a card game imported from Palestine and Egypt during the Crusades. The Tarot is a vast memory system for the Tree of Life, a diagram of the laws of creation. The Tarot hides in plain sight the wisdom of the Egyptian God Thoth, master of all knowledge. The Tarot shows Egyptian temple initiations. The Tarot shows Tantric temple initiations. The Tarot preserves the wisdom of Goddess-initiated witches during the long, dark centuries of patriarchal religion. The Tarot maps the patterns of the Moon in Chaldean astrology. The Tarot was created by papermaker guilds who were the last remnants of the Cathars, Christian heretics brutally suppressed by the Church of Rome.
All of the above, and more, Tarot writers have proclaimed as the one, true, authentic origin of the Tarot.
The great mythographer Joseph Campbell once commented that the world is full of creation stories and all of them are wrong. The Tarot is like that: full of origin stories, and probably all of them wrong. They are wrong because they take a compelling idea as literal truth. Wrong because they need that literal belief to take the idea seriously, and if someone should disprove once and for all these origin tales they will have lost their hold on its meaning and value. But if we can learn to take these origin tales as myths, as divine play, then not only can we let go of this need to prove the superiority of one to all others, we also can appreciate the poetic truth of each one. And we can marvel at this amazing work, this pack of seventy-eight pictures that somehow adapts itself to so many spiritual and historical traditions.
The Tarot''s Secret Origin is part of its myth. One of the most remarkable things about the cards is the way people snapped at this idea the moment it appeared and have clung to it tenaciously ever since. Here is a personal story. Years ago I was in Denmark shortly after the publication of the Danish edition of my book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. Two radio stations wanted to interview me. The first, on national radio, went very well. The second was for a New Age program and I looked forward to it as a chance to discuss the Tarot in some more depth. The day before, the host called me to go over some topics. When I told him that I did not believe the Tarot came from Atlantis, or that secret occult masters crafted it and disguised it as a game, he canceled my appearance.
Though we cannot determine the exact origin of the cards, we can, in fact, pinpoint the origin of the myth. In the 1770s and 80s a man named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a nine-volume study of esoteric ideas called Le Monde Primitif (The Primitive World). The very idea of a primitive human state is itself a myth. In our time, the term "primitive" suggests people unformed, ignorant, savage. In earlier times it meant the opposite, a supposed golden age in which people knew spiritual truth and lived in perfect peace. The Garden of Eden is a variation on this myth.
In the course of his work, Court de Gébelin visited a friend, Madame la C. d''H., who showed him the latest fad, an Italian card game popular in the southern countries, called in Italy tarocchi, and in France les tarots. Court de Gébelin looked through the bright pictures and had an epiphany. The ordinary card game was, in fact, a disguised great work of occult mystery. He called it the Book of Thoth, the very sum of all knowledge.
Thoth was an Egyptian God, the quintessential master of wisdom. Thoth guided the boat of the Sun God Ra across the sky, he invented mummification to resurrect the slain God Osiris, he helped judge dead souls for the afterlife, he even gambled with the Moon to create extra days for the year (more about that story in awhile). The Greeks linked Thoth with their own Hermes, God of magic, healing, wisdom, science, commerce, and, not incidentally, patron of swindlers and thieves (you have to love a religion with a God of swindlers).
Much of the esoteric tradition originates with a shadowy figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice-great Hermes, author of The Emerald Tablet, a work composed in Alexandrian Egypt in the early Christian era. The myth of the Emerald Tablet considers Hermes Trismegistus another name for Thoth. Now Antoine Court de Gébelin had described the Tarot as an even more fundamental divine work than the Emerald Tablet itself. Thoth, he said, had given the symbolic pictures to his human disciples and disguised them as a game so it could move through the centuries undetected.
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