Playing the Divination Game with the Book of Thoth: a Short History of the Tarot

There are many things that were once a part of the ‘occult’ which have now found mainstream acceptance and even belief. Of the new age beliefs that have seeped into the middle class consciousness magick is one of the most popular and across the range of spiritual beliefs that have a magickal aspect there are only a small number of consistent practices. Alongside astrology and a general practice of sympathetic magick, the use of the Tarot is almost universal. Spiritual disciplines as different as Rosicrucian and Hermetic magicians, Satanists and Pagans of many varieties all accept Tarot as a part of their standard practice. With the large number of solitary practitioners that are choosing the magickal spiritual path often the Tarot’s place in their witchcraft regimen isn’t even questioned, and they take it up as a useful part of their usual practice even though it really has little or nothing to do with withcraft per se.

I have been writing short essays on the Tarot Trumps, or Atus, on my other blog where I post most of my musings on the dark arts. These posts have seen the traffic on Ankhafnakhonsu’s Magick Blog rise dramatically because of the huge interest in the Tarot. It has given me the opportunity to discuss the Tarot with more people and often I find that people that are new to cartomancy often have some common misapprehensions about their origins. Perhaps it is a part of the mystique or the numismatic power of the cards that encourages people to want to believe that they are the remnants of secret ancient Egyptian magickal mysteries, created by Thoth for the enlightenment of the wise but the truth of their genesis shifts the genius of the Tarot from the gods to ourselves where it truly belongs. The ingenuity of the Tarot and the way that we have shaped it to be a tool of our will make it one of the most potent tools for spiritual development ever devised. This power also makes them among the most deceptive and elusive of occult paraphernalia and it always pays to remember that at their base the Tarot is still a game, the divination game.

 A Short History of Cards

The are many myths on the origins of the Tarot cards; that they are a fragment of the magick of ancient Khem, that they were connected to the Knights Templar and that the Gypsy people brought them into Europe being the most common. To find the real origins of the Tarot cards it is necessary to look at the origins of playing cards more generally and we find the first playing cards in Tang Dynasty China in the 9th Century. It is thought that the first cards were money and that the games that were played with them used them for the game and the stakes of that game at the same time. These cards developed into the general configuration of four suits that we are familiar with today by the 11th Century and they had spread across Asia. Their design is also thought to have been influenced by Chinese dominos and to have evolved into the familiar MahJong tiles that are used today and the Chinese word pái (牌) stands for both ’tile’ and ‘card’.

The Chinese playing cards traveled west with the Mongol expansion in the 13th Century where the Mongol invasion of Syria first introduced them to the Islamic world. In 1260 the Mamluk Caliphate of Egypt defeated the Mongol advance and within a century almost all of the Mongols had returned to China, leaving behind the Chinese playing cards as a treasured possession of the Islamic world. The Mamluk modified the cards, mostly by altering their decorative designs while leaving the overall structure in place. The Mamluk cards were made up of four suits that were the prototype of the structure of the playing cards that we use today. The first playing cards entered Europe in the late 14th Century via Spain’s rulers, the Mamluk Caliphate, and from there the use of playing cards spread across Europe quickly and their use has been confirmed from 1377.

These first sets of cards were expensive, hand painted works of art that were available only to the wealthy and in 1392 Jacquemin Gringonneur was commissioned to create a deck of cards for Charles VI. The first set of Tarot cards appeared in Italy in 1440 and was used for playing a trick taking game similar to bridge called Tarrochi. The oldest known set is named for its patron the Duke of Milan is called the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi Deck with 74 cards from the full set known to be still existing. This is the first set that contains the twenty-two trump cards of the Tarot, a series of images of ever increasing power from the Juggler to the Last Judgement and the World.

These cards are considered to be the prototype deck that all modern sets are modeled on. The origins of the twenty-two trumps is uncertain. There is some speculation that Islamic sets of cards may have included trump-like cards, while the original card games played in China often used trading cards not unlike modern trading card games popular with children. In any event, by 1440 the components of the modern Tarot were in place and trick taking card games had become popular across Europe taking the Tarot into most of Europe where it had its next period of evolution in France with the production of a set called the Marseilles Tarot standardized the Trumps late in the 15th Century. At this same time the first sets of 52 card decks started to be manufactured in France with the familiar suits of clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds and then continued to evolve alongside the development of the Tarot.

Ye Olde Tarot Lore

The first mention by the church of Trump cards is from Italy around 1470 when it was said that playing with them was equated with the devil’s work, beginning the long association that the Tarot has with being ‘the Devil’s Picture Book’. There is also a mention of divination using cards from 1487 but it refers specifically to playing cards and it wasn’t until much later that the Tarot was attributed with spiritual powers. Another source mentions the Tarot cards in a witchcraft trial in Venice in 1589 but their use wasn’t specified. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that Tarot cards began to be associated with divination.

The first mention of the Tarot in relation to magick or divination was in 1781 by Antoine Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet in the book, “Le Monde Primitif” (The Primitive World). Mellet was the first to make the connection between the twenty-two Trumps and the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet while Gébelin was the first to attribute them to ancient Egypt and to attribute secret occult origins of the Tarot cards. The Hermetic attribution of the Tarot was readily accepted, so much so that by 1788 the first deck designed specifically for divination, the Ettellia Tarot deck was published with alteration to their designs that reflected their new Egyptian connection. It is interesting to note that this is the first time that the meanings of the cards was printed on them, a feature of many modern Tarot sets.

The fact that Barrett’s Celestial Intelligencer makes no mention of any sort of divination by cards at all indicates that, at the beginning of the 19th Century, there was little use being made of the cards for divination by any serious students of occultism. The real evolution of the Tarot from a set of playing cards for Italian Nobles into a systemized method of divining the future took place during the ‘Occult Revival’ of the latter half of the 19th Century.

Eliphas Levi Names the Devil

The absolute kabalistic alphabet, which connected primitive ideas with allegories, allegories with letters, and letters with numbers, was then called the Keys of Solomon. We have stated already that these Keys, preserved to our own day, but wholly misconstrued, are nothing else than the game of Tarot, the antique allegories of which were remarked and appreciated for the first time in the modern world by the learned archaeologist, Court de Gebelin.- Dogma et Rituel, Eliphas Levi,

The next development in the mystification of the Tarot came in the 1850s when Alphonse Constance, better known as Eliphas Levi, mused upon the connection between the Qabalah and the Tarot. His book Dogma et Rituel forever cemented the Tarot and the Qabalah together and was the penultimate step in the development of the modern Tarot and its uses. Levi also further clouded the Tarot’s connection with magick by associating XV The Devil with Baphomet, the Ass headed idol that the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping. In one stroke Levi had connected Hermetic magick, the Knights Templar and all of Rosicrucian Freemasonry and the Tarot Trumps forever. The names for the two divisions within the Tarot deck, the Major and Minor Arcana are also attributed to this time, first mentioned in Paul Christian’s (Jean Baptiste Pitois) 1870 book, The History and Practice of Magic. The final pieces of the modern Tarot were put in place at the end of the 19th Century by a group of occultists belonging to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Golden Dawning of the Tarot

In the hands of the Golden Dawn the Tarot was developed completely into its modern form. It is very likely that S L MacGregor Mathers was most responsible for creating the full connection between the Tarot and the Hermetic Qabalah that is the foundation of the Golden Dawn system of magick. He almost certainly wrote Book T which is the first attempt ever to collect all of the designs,  esoteric meanings and divinatory interpretations into one book. Book T was distributed amongst Golden Dawn Neophytes and many of them drew up their own sets of cards based upon them, most notably the Robert Wang deck that was designed under the instruction of Israel Regardie in 1977. The systemization that MacGregor Mathers applied to the Tarot cards made them an excellent mnemonic device for learning the Qabalah. He had repurposed the Tarot into a tool for mystical introspection. Even so, the secret nature of the Golden Dawn teachings meant that Book T wasn’t published until the 1960s and it was left to another Golden Dawn adept to begin to promote the Tarot to the level of popularity that it was to achieve.

 The person who was most responsible for bringing the Tarot to the attention of popular culture was A E Waite whose 1910 book The Key to the Tarot was targeted at a popular audience and was accompanied by a set designed by Pamela Coleman Smith, but because it was published by Rider Press it became known as the Rider-Waite Tarot. Waite’s book is ponderous and cursory, although it has the essence of the Golden Dawn philosophy in it, but it had the effect of raising the profile of the Tarot as a tool of serious occultists.

Three other Golden Dawn adepts had an even greater influence on the development of the modern Tarot; Dion Fortune, who clearly and concisely linked the Tarot to the Qabalah in the ultimate development of the Hermetic Qabalah, her book The Mystical Qabalah (1935), Paul Foster Case whose voluminous writings on Tarot have influenced every book that has followed him and Aleister Crowley, whose Thelema incorporated the Tarot into his Thelema, the first religious system of the new age which he entitled the Aeon of Horus. Crowley’s influence on Tarot as a tool of the magician is incalculable as it formed so integral part of his work that it is almost impossible to understand his writing without having a comprehensive understanding of the Tarot.

Tarot for Today

From there the Tarot was well established as a tool of the occultist in the popular mind, so much so that it formed the central theme to Ian Flemings Live and Let Die in 1954. In less than a century the Tarot had gone from being an obscure study, tenuously connected to divination, to the well known tool of the fortune teller. In fact the Tarot has even attained academic acceptance with Carl Jung saying;

They are psychological images, symbols with which one plays, as the unconscious seems to play with its contents. They combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to the playful development of events in the history of mankind. The original cards of the Tarot consist of the ordinary cards, the king, the queen, the knight, the ace, etc.,—only the figures are somewhat different—and besides, there are twenty-one cards upon which are symbols, or pictures of symbolical situations. For example, the symbol of the sun, or the symbol of the man hung up by the feet, or the tower struck by lightning, or the wheel of fortune, and so on. Those are sort of archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment. It is in that way analogous to the I Ching, the Chinese divination method that allows at least a reading of the present condition. You see, man always felt the need of finding an access through the unconscious to the meaning of an actual condition, because there is a sort of correspondence or a likeness between the prevailing condition and  the condition of the collective unconscious.“-Notes of the Seminar given in 1930-1934 by C. G. Jung

The popularity of the Tarot grew and gradually became a central new age spiritual practice and a central set of symbols for the Aquarian age. The huge growth in the number of commercially available Tarot decks can be attributed to Stuart R Kaplan whose US Games Systems now publishes over a hundred sets. Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of the Tarot (1978) is a catalogue of all known Tarot decks and is currently in its 4th Edition with hundreds of decks listed. What is accepted as Tarot has become more flexible as several sets that have almost no connection with the historic symbolism of the Tarot are now classed as Tarot decks, until reading Tarot cards has become synonymous with the practice of cartomancy generally.

As with the ‘traditional’ history of many modern occult practices the ancient lore of the cards is nothing more than myth. Does this in any way detract from the magick of the Tarot? Or the genius of conflating them with the Qabalah to form the framework of an entire occult system that spawned a spiritual movement? By repurposing the Tarot the Golden Dawn took advantage of a set of symbols that they could easily manipulate to represent the archetypal principals of Hermetic symbolism. The adepts of the Golden Dawn even adopted the four suits as their four principal magickal implements and in some ways it could be said that the four suits already had a natural affinity with the elements but it is much more likely that the divisions of the suits represented similar divisions in society in the original Islamic decks and the realignment to fit a Qaballistic paradigm was more likely to have been a case of altering the cards to suit the Golden Dawn usage rather than the Golden Dawn adepts finding the key to the hidden mysteries in the Tarot. The vital achievement was to have connected the Tarot to the much older Platonic influenced Qabalah and adapting the Tarot to a long established occult study. As a mnemonic device for Qaballistic contemplation the Tarot is the best magick tool bar none.


About dgmattichakjr

D G Mattichak jr was born in 1963 in Syracuse New York and immigrated to Melbourne Australia with his family in 1972. He was educated in one of Melbourne’s exclusive private schools before studying art at Preston Technical College. D G Mattichak jr has been a student of the occult arts since the early 1980s and has become well known in Australian magickal circles and, in recent years, around the world due to a string of essays on a variety of occult subjects . He discovered the “key to the order & value of the English alphabet” from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law in 1983 and has since used this English Qabalah to unlock the secrets of Thelemite magick. Success in these methods admitted him to the highest levels of attainment in various Hermetic disciplines and until recently he has been passing on his knowledge to private students, many of whom have gone on to become notable occultists in their own right. After almost three decades of study and development D G Mattichak jr has finally been able to distil his knowledge of magick and Thelema into a book- A Comment on the Verses of the Book of the Law, the first in a planned series of books on Hermeticism and Thelemite magick, revealing, for the first time in over a century, the secrets of magick that have been hidden in Crowley’s magnum opus, the Book of the Law. D G Mattichak jr currently lives in Melbourne Australia with his artist wife Michelle and their two cats. He has had a long career as an al a carte chef in Melbourne’s vibrant hospitality scene and now spends his time writing blogs on cooking, writing and, in the guise of Master Ankh af na Khonsu, about magick. He is also one of the founding members of the Mt Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering and regularly contributes to its official website as both an administrator and as an author. D G Mattichak jr’s first book Loot was released in 2009. His books are available through at G Mattichak&x=13&y=20 .
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5 Responses to Playing the Divination Game with the Book of Thoth: a Short History of the Tarot

  1. Ed Hurst says:

    My own research was hardly as in depth as this, but it was sufficient to debunk the silly fears of some Christians about standard playing cards. Funny how your post simply confirms it from another angle. It’s not the etymology of the cards themselves, but how the cards are used.

    • I have always thought that it is strange that people attribute any sort of intrinsic power to bits of pasteboard. I have several sets of Tarot cards and I have always been happy to let people satisfy their curiosity by looking through them without worrying that they will disturb my vibes. Personally my favorite use for the cards is a good game of poker.

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