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Debunking Common Myths About Playing Cards

Claim: Playing cards developed from Tarot cards

You'll often come across the claim that our modern deck of playing cards was developed from the Tarot deck. Occultists and fortune tellers like to make the suggestion that Tarot decks are in fact the true and original form of playing cards, and that the symbolism of Tarot cards lies at the heart and background of our modern deck.

Some even defend the view that the Tarot deck represents a deck that was used by secret societies like the Masons or Knights Templar to transmit secret information. According to this interpretation, there are secrets within Tarot cards that go back to books and playing cards from ancient times that pre-date standard playing cards.

Fact: False

In reality, Tarot cards appear to have had a separate and much later origin than regular playing cards, possibly as a means of instruction and education, and certainly not first of all as a result of an interest in the occult or a usage for fortune-telling. The earliest surviving Tarot cards date from a period much later than regular playing cards, and the historical evidence supports their original use as additional trump cards. They consisted of 22 separate designs with allegorical illustrations that were added to a standard deck, in order to create a larger overall deck which was used first of all for gaming. As such they were initially part of a 78 card deck that was primarily used for more elaborate and complex games than was possible with a standard deck of 50+ cards. The symbolism and significance of the original illustrations from the era has been lost, and likely just reflects 15th century cultural fashions in Renaissance Italy. This means that present-day interpretations of these cards don't have an early historical basis.

Tarot cards were only used for cartomancy for the first time around 1750, which is more than a couple of centuries after the expanded tarot deck was first conceived and used for games. Fortune-telling with tarot cards was only popularized in the latter half of the 18th century, and the colourful images of the tarot cards did especially lend themselves well to this purpose. Jean-Baptiste Etteilla (a deliberate reversal of his actual name Alliette, to make it appear more mystical) was one of the first and most influential fortune tellers of the time, and is considered to be the first professional tarot occultist to make a living by card divination. He claimed that the tarot cards were linked to ancient Egypt, and he assigned esoteric meanings to them, many of which are still used today. Antoine Court, a French mason in the late 18th century, made similar claims that Tarot cards were derived the occultic Book of Thot, which supposedly originated in ancient Egypt, was the source of all knowledge, and was written by the Egyptian god of writing. Studying it was claimed to reveal secrets about humanity and keys to ancient knowledge.

Many modern day practitioners of the occult and voodoo continue to perpetuate the belief that the Tarot is embedded with secret symbols and images that hail back to ancient times, and that it gives answers, direction, and spiritual guidance. Particularly influential was Arthur Edward Waite, whose approach to the Tarot deck at the start of the 20th century would influence all subsequent Tarot playing cards. He was a member of an occultic society called the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn, and the designs of the Ride-Waite Tarot that was first published in 1909 became in many ways a standard. Aleister Crowley's deck was painted over several years (1938-43) and was also very influential; it deliberately included many occultic elements, and some even find it disturbing.

Modern Tarot decks consist of 78 cards with two distinct parts. The Major Arcana (greater secrets) corresponds to the original 22 trump cards, and are numbered with Roman numerals from I to XXI, along with a Fool card. The Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) consists of 56 cards in four suits that are similar to the Italian swords, clubs, coins, and cups, although the clubs are typically called wands, rods or staves, while the coins are typically called pentacles or disks. Each suit has 14 cards, with four court cards accompanying ten number cards: King, Queen, Knight, and Page.

Despite its claims to be a tool to uncover the secrets of both past and future, it seems most likely that the Tarot is not a mystical key to the past, but rather that layers of meanings have been ascribed to it over time. Serious historians remain convinced that its origins lie in an innocent card game, and that occultists have bestowed it with a far greater significance than it ever had to begin with, adding meanings that were not present when the artists from the Renaissance painted the first Tarot cards. Academics like Michael Dummett have done extensive research on this topic and make a compelling case that the Tarot deck originated as popular trick-taking game in 15th century Italy, and that occultic interpretations were unknown prior to the 18th century. Even so, Tarot decks today are still popular. If nothing else they give artists and creative designers a larger canvas of cards to work with, resulting in some very artistically and beautiful designs.


Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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