This is an introductory treatment, and will be of necessity cursory, given that the amount of space required would take a whole book. Speaking of which, the main book I’m deriving information for this article is from Paul Huson, Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Other works, too, like Origins of the Tarot, by Dai Leon (to a lesser degree), are also a part of the information found herein.
Tarot cards are seen by most Christians as evil or Satanic, due to their being used as divination or in fortune telling- what is called cartomancy. In fact, tarot cards were called ‘the Devil’s picture book’, by many down through the centuries.
However, it would perhaps amaze and even shock some folk to realize that the tarot has deep roots within Christianity, as well as sharing it’s origins with other traditions.
How would this change our views about tarot to learn that the major arcana developed directly out of Medieval traveling plays which had strong Christian themes and elements within it? Sure, the cards were mostly used as playing cards, and later on descended into a means of fortune telling. However, they thereafter became a study for occultists and Hermeticists (both Christian and non-Christian). After becoming the subject of higher philosophical and spiritual thought, they were ‘saved’ from being used only by fortune tellers, and became a valuable tool for both serious diviners and those who use them for self-discovery.
Purpose of this blog
Knowledge dispels ignorance, and encourages greater understanding. Ignorance breeds fear based on misinformation and superstition. So, it is hoped that this writing will serve to inform and educate as to the Christian (and other) sources of tarot’s origins. While it is doubtful that there’d be a general acceptance within Christianity, given it’s wide use within the Occult, it is intended that tarot be seen and appreciated at least for it’s strong Christian beginnings.
Structure of a deck of tarot cards
A typical deck of tarot cards (not considering spin-offs or non-traditional oracle cards), contain 78 cards made up of 22 major arcana (greater mysteries) and 56 minor arcana (lesser mysteries). These were more popularly known as a playing card game called Triomphe (Triumph), which is now known in Italy and Europe by various names, Tarocchi, Tarot, etc…
Of the 56 minor arcana, also known as pip cards, from where our household playing cards evolved from, is made up of 4 suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles (or coins). These are akin to clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds respectively.
In each suit, there are 4 court cards: Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages. The knights and pages combined in our household playing cards as the Jack. The only card to survive from the major arcana in our playing decks is the 0. Fool card, known as the Joker.
In each suit, there are also numbered cards 1-10. 1 = the Ace.
Of the 22 major arcana, also known as trump cards, each are numbered with Roman numerals I. The Magician – XXI. The World, with the Fool being unnumbered, as 0.
The different traditions within tarot
The Minor Arcana: They were first introduced into Europe from Mamluk, Egypt. These were called ‘Mamluk Cards’- and they had suits of batons (or polo-sticks), cups, swords and coins. These cards and suits originated in China (having common origins with mahjong) and Persia, and carried down (and philosophically interpreted by) the Sufis, Islamic mystics, to Egypt, where it made it’s way up to Europe in the late 14th century. In Egypt, these cards served as teaching tools by the Sufis, before and concurrently with them becoming a popular card game called Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb (Kings and Deputies).
1. Polo Sticks, clubs or (known today as wands)- this identifies the deity (or fate) as the Polo Player, who takes a swing at the created person, who is the ball in this game of life. It speaks as to God being the ultimate authority, Arbiter and Sovereign over our lives.
2. Cups, chalices (also known as hearts) – The Sufi’s heart, to be filled with wine- or spiritual ecstasy.
3. Sword or scimitar- Sword of submission, and of ego-death. Of inner (greater) jihad.
4. Coins or dinar, dinarii (also known as pentacles)- World of form, image, hidden treasure (as gold from the mines made into coins), hidden divinity in the manifest world.
The Court Cards:
The Nine Worthies: these were nine personages depicting chivalrous individuals from scripture, legend and history, taken from 3 different spheres:
1. Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar
2. Jews: Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus
3. Christians: King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon
And of course you have the Mamluk designations of the King, and two deputies, etc…
These meanings underlie the 16 court cards.
Number meanings: 1 – 10 (these definitions are derived from Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic, as well as other sources)
1. The Ace (both the highest and the lowest card): The One; Oneness; Unity; Achad; The Monad; Tawhid. The Creator. Mankind (as standing upright). The first of all things.
2. The duad. Balance. Conflict. Coincidentia oppositorum. Partnership. Relationship. The Son (2nd Person of the Trinity). The Logos. The Nous. Yin and Yang.
3. The triad. The triangle. The Trinity. Synthesis. Time: past, present, future. Birth, life, death. Beginning, middle, end.
4. The tetrad. The square. The world. Nature. Cardinal directions. The seasons. Four winds. Four Western elements (air, water, fire, earth). Death (Chinese).
5. The pentad. The human being (as 5 limbs). The 5 senses. Number of grace (the 5 wounds of Christ).
6. The hexad. The cube of space. The number of man and beast. Imperfection. Work week. 6 jars of water turned to wine (1st miracle of Jesus). The Hebrew letter vav, part of the divine Name. The Son of Man. Tiphareth-beauty. The Small-Countenance.
7. The heptad. Perfection. The Sabbath. The center (of the cube). Spirit. Marriage between heaven (3) and earth (4). Seven primary colors (rainbow). Days of the week. Days of creation. Seven classical planets. Seven heavens. Seven Spirits (the Holy Spirit).
8. The ogdoad. Transcendence. Infinity. 888 as ‘Jesus’ in Greek gematria; 800 as ‘Lord’ in Greek.
9. The ennead. Completion. Gestation. The fruits and gifts of the Spirit.
10. The decad. A complete cycle. Number of perfection. The full circle.
The Major Arcana: Originally, these 22 triumphs (or trumps), as they were called, were the confluence of several sources:
1. Medieval Drama. The theater of the Medieval era (the 5th to the 15th century) were primarily of a Christian nature, where the stories of the Bible, such as the fall of Lucifer, creation, Adam and Eve, the fall, the crucifixion, the devil and hades, as well as ‘Hell-mouth’, judgment and eternity were dramatically displayed.
These various scenes eventually were placed on traveling pageant wagons called trionfi (triumphs)! The types of plays were called:
1) Mystery Plays, originally performed or organized by clergy, but eventually taken over by various craft guilds. They depicted Christian themes centered around the liturgical calendar.
2) Morality Plays, dramatized allegories depicting the fall followed by redemption, as well as figures from pagan mythology, such as the goddess Fortuna (as in the Wheel of Fortune). Too, were present the representations of Death, and Judgment. Mercy and Peace would be on one side of the stage, and Truth and Justice on the other side. Present, too, were all four of the Cardinal Virtues: Justice, Wisdom or Prudence (holding a mirror and thus represented by the suit of coins), Courage or Fortitude (Strength), and Temperance.
3) The Dance of Death (not too different than the Día de Muertos – Day of the Dead parades), which was a powerful instrument in lieu of the then recent Black Death, which sought to focus the wealthy and frivolous on more spiritual matters.
4) Miracle Plays, which featured religiously edifying stories of heroism and martyrdom. A German miracle play depicted Pope Joan (Frau Jutten), the Papacy’s only female pope, featured in the cards as either La Papessa (the female Pope), or as the High Priestess.
Note: One may consider the poem by Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), called I Trionfi, or The Triumphs written in the 1300’s- the earliest time that tarot cards began to make their emergence in Europe. The Italian poem depicts his unrequited love for a married woman named Laura. It depicts one virtue ‘triumphing’- or trumping the preceding virtue, in unfolding his love for her. There are six allegorical triumph carts involved, that would roll passed in procession. First, the triumph of Cupid (love) over men and gods; second, chastity (Temperance) triumphing over love, as she was married and exercised this toward Petrarch; third, the triumph of Death over Laura during the Plague; fourth, the triumph of Laura’s Fame (The Chariot) over Death; fifth, the inevitable triumph of Old Man Time (The Hermit) over Laura’s fame; and finally sixth, the ultimate triumph of Eternity (The World) over time.
2. Other Sources:
1) Pagan Mythos, such as Fortuna holding the wheel of the world (Wheel of Fortune) facing Wisdom or Prudence holding her mirror (suit of coins/pentacles).
2) The Cardinal Virtues (as mentioned): Justice, Wisdom or Prudence (holding a mirror), Courage or Fortitude (Strength), and Temperance.
3) The Last Things, a Roman Catholic doctrine concerning Death, the Devil, Judgment, and the World [to come]. If not a source of these trumps, at least a reinforcement as to their origins.
It should now be evident the rich Christian heritage in the origins of the Tarot, particularly it’s Major Arcana of 22 trumps.
But along with that tradition are the mysterious 56 Minor Arcana, which may have traveled the Silk Road from China (where playing cards were originated anyway), bringing along it’s meanings from similar sources as did Mahjong. Then travelling through Persia (modern day Iran), and then down through the Arabic world into Egypt, where they were transformed into Sufi teaching devices, as well as the Mamluk playing cards. From there they then traveled up through Venice and Italy in the 14th century, where they were eventually combined with the Trump cards, which in turn developed out of the Medieval plays and spiritual entertainment of the day.
What is not considered here are the Occult origins, necessarily. These came about much later (18th century), when they were being used as fortune telling in 1750, and then receiving divinatory meanings thereafter through the centuries down to our present day. That is itself a blog outside the scope of our considerations now, as we’re focused on the raw origins, insofar as these can be ascertained. Many works have been done by tarot scholars, and my work here is rudimentary in comparison, however, what is offered may be a jump-off point for anyone who wishes to either expand on the findings presented here, or else deepen their own understanding toward their own practice and personal enrichment.
Blessings.Invite Leon to Speak