The earliest origins of the Tarot, like that of the regular playing card, are a bit difficult to pin down exactly ... but we can get pretty close. Some say Italy in early 15th century .. some say France around the same time ... some Egypt ... anyone for Persia ... and then there's the root of the origins of cards themselves ... China.
There are some early references in France and Italy of monies paid for the commissioning of illustrated cards ... in some accounts further describing them as representative of societie's structure. It's not clear if these are tarot cards as we know them today. However, there are clear references in Northern Italy in the early 15th century for what are called Triumph cards ... adorned w/ allegorical imagery w/ members of the royal court.
Many believe Italy to be the true origin of Tarot cards and there are a few aspects of Tarot that support this. First off the earliest known names for the Tarot are all Italian ... the symbolism of the cards are predominantly influenced by Reniassance Europe ... and most of the Tarot subjects are common to what can be found in the other artistic venues of the time.
Like the early playing cards of the time ... which preceeded the first arrival of Tarot cards in Europe by about 50 years or so ... the tarot deck included number cards (1 through 10) in four suits, and court cards page, knight, and king. The suits for the early Tarots of Italy where typically Swords, Batons, Cups and Coins . The Tarot deck also included a queen and twenty two special cards ... now known as the major arcana ... and not belonging to any suit. The Major Arcana cards were adorned with colorful illustrations including such characters as the Emperor, the Pope, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, the Devil, and the Moon.
Most of the innacuracies about Tarot cards lie in their origins ... from whom and from where. Many believe that the cards were first brought to europe by gypsies but there are records showing existence of tarot cards in europe prior to gypsie emigration to europe. Another common confusion is that the cards came from egypt, persia, or china. There's little to no direct evidence of this and these theories are typically based on loose associations to design elements of the cards.
And of course, a common contemporary myth might be that one who claims to have the knowledge of tarot can somehow tell your future. Now I'm not saying that any given person you might be dealing with might not be able to do that ... but I doubt that the use of the tarot had anything to do with it.
It's a Card Game
Many documented references show that in fifteenth century Italy Tarot was a popular card game ... and cards were often commissioned by wealthy patrons (usually royalty) to produce beautifully hand painted detailed decks, often modelled after those they were being created for (some still survive in family collections today).
The tarot cards were used to play a game similar to bridge ... with 21 of the tarot trumps acting as permanent trumps. Triumphs ... as it was called ... was an unusually popular game ... particularly among the upper classes. It's popularity quickly spread through northern Italy and eastern France. Changes were often made in the imagery, the suits, and sometimes in the ranking of the trumps, which usually bore no numbers. Over time ... Tarot's use spread throuhout the rest of europe and the countries it regularly traded with.
It's for Fortune Telling
It was many years later that the Tarot deck found a new application... in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ... when practitioners of the occult arts in various parts of Europe first encountered the Tarot and recognized the mystical symbolism of the beautfully illustrated cards. Their interest in the cards has contributed to the current view of the tarot as a tool of the occult.
During the time of tarot and playing cards initial arrival in europe, chrisitainity was the dominant belief ... and the church expended signifigant energies in abolishing paganism or otherwise eliminating unorthodox christian sects. Despite the churches best efforts in destroying all that didn't align with it ... a large number of heretical doctriines survived and are today known as gnosticism. Many in these groups connected to the Tarot as many others did ... and they would often use them in their rituals. It's the connection to these groups that has given the impression today that the Tarot has some connection to the occult or evil.
Interestingly ... during the mid 15th century it wasn't uncommon for there to be bans on the sale and use of 'regular' playing cards since they were often used in games of chance and gambling (expressly prohibited by the church). Despite these bans on playing cards ... exceptions were often made for Tarots ... likely due to their popularity w/ the influential and powerful.
The Aleister Crowley Connection
Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947) was a controversial figure of the early 20th century w/ his interesting and sometimes controversial views on religion, mysticism, and other esoteric spiritual practices. Ultimately, Aleister Crowley sought to combine the entire breadth of human religious and mystical experience into a single dogma (which he called Thelema). He was a prolific writer in the spiritual realm and authored many varied works ranging from yoga, the kaballah, poetry, magik, and the tarot. One of his many writings 'The Book of Thoth' is a treatise on the use of the Thoth Tarot deck of cards.
The deck was designed by Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris around 1943 ... and contains a rich array of symbolism in the card imagery. This symbolism is intended to incorporate the elements from various disciplines including science, religion, and philosophy. Clearly ... his extensive understanding of ... and unique pespective on the esoteric arts (including mysticism and elements of the occult) are integrated into the colorful imagery depicted on the cards. Strangely neither Crowley or Harris lived to see the deck published ... which didn't occur until the late 1960's.
See the section titled 'How Does It Work?' for the signifigance of the symbolic imagery.
Who Is Carl Jung?
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 - 1961) was born in Switzerland and worked as a theoretical psychologist and practicing clinician and is today considered to be the founder and 'father of modern analytical psychology'. His most notable contributions include his concept of the psychological archetype, the collective unconscious, and his theory of synchronicity
Jung noted an alignment between the imagery of the tarot with the archetypes of the collective unconsciousness (one of his key concepts). An archetype is difficult to explain simply ... but can be best pictured as 'an unlearned tendency to experience things in a certain way' (read that again) ... it's like a pre-existing memory residing in everyone that predisposes your reaction to a given state (or situation). These Jungian archetypes includes the shadow, the anima and animus, the wise old man, the hero, the sacrifice, rebirth, the mother, and the Self. In Jung's approach to analytical psychology, these archetypes define the core elements of the unconscious ... which underly and motivate our thoughts, feelings, and ulitmately our actions.
It should be noted that the Jung associations to tarot card imagery is not universal ... with various underlying themes and interpreations applied to different tarot decks.
See the section titled 'How Does It Work?' for info on how the imagery can be used to stimulate the unconscious mind ... and thereby Jungs archetypes.
How does it work?
The answer to this lies deep within the unconscious mind ... that deepest level of awareness that resides within each of us. Despite the fact that we are not really aware of the unconscious activity, it has tremendous sway over our feelings, thoughts, and ultimately our actions.
The use of Tarot cards and their creative imagery is used to trigger your unconscious mind to fill in w/ it's own interpreation of that image ... and it will construct a story or meaning from it. For another viewer of the card ... the interpretation and resultant story is most likely to be different. This association of an interpretation or a story to that particular image is a reflection of my unconscious mind ... a common dynamic that humans do all day w/ much that they encounter and experience. It's this that allows you to create your own reality from the things you encounter and experience.
This association of an idea w/ an image via my unconscious mind is the reason why Tarot cards can be beneficial. The imagery on the cards in not arbitrary ... but rather explicitly designed to evoke these responses from their viewers/readers. It turns out that there is likely an underlying element of commonality in all humans that can manifest as common desires, thoughts, etc. The tarot imagery represent universal themes that can be used to describe common archetypes of life.
The idea is to experience the tarot as both a personal interpretation ... with each image meaing whatever it means to you w/ your own colorful story ... and a univeral interpretation ... with each image defining an archetypical principle or idea that has been defined by others ... likely w/ a common experience as yourself ... thereby setting a context ... or a frame for which to set your own experience.
This idea is also a core fundamental of mythology ... that these old stories represent archetypes ... examples of lifes experiences and dealings w/ it's greatest mysteries ... setting an example ... a context for those reading the myth to understand their own situation in relation to it.
In reading the myth ... or the Tarot cards ... you're unconscious is reflected back to your conscious awareness by way of the story (or the cards). It serves as a way to 'tap your unconsciousness' ... obtaining an inner awareness that may not otherwise be available.
Does it really work?
So ... do you buy it? Some will ... and some wont. If you're just winging it thru life sticking your finger up in the air on any given issue then you might want to try this out ... whatta ya got to loose?
If there is truth to the claim that the cards can stimulate the unconscious mind into states that otherwise might not be available ... then there may be something to the cards ability to tell you something about yourself in a way that you weren't getting before ... and it's possible that this new perspective could help you in some way.
Never say Never!