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The Mysterious History Of The Tarot

Tarot CardsThe Tarot has experienced a resurrection in popularity the past two decades and has become very popular recently.  Newly minted modern Tarot decks appear frequently. I remember the first time I had my tarots read the reader used the Aleister Crowley deck, I was only 15 and the images terrified me so much I didn’t listen to the reading or go anywhere near tarots for many years to follow.

Now there are many decks from which to choose, representing themes from Egyptian and Celtic to Native American and Simpsons. Yes, there is even a Simpsons Tarot deck ...not the most aesthetically pleasing deck I’ve seen but everyone to their own!  I personally use the Celtic Tarot (Julian De Burgh) The images are beautiful, non-threatening, my clients love them and being half Irish myself I can connect to the Celtic stories depicted.

Tarot cards have had their ups and downs, falling from popular interest only to be used again by those in search of the deeper meanings behind their symbolism.  The earliest known “book” of tarot cards still in existence are those from 1840-42, of which seventeen remain.  The first entire deck still in existence was painted by the Italian Bonifacio Bembo for the Duke of Milan.

There are so many theories about the origins of the Tarot. One theory is that in the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, whose female librarian Hypatia was world-renowned for her wisdom and learning, there existed scrolls (which was how books were made in those days) containing all of the wisdom of the ancient world.

One of these “books” was supposedly based on the legendary Book of Thoth, derived from the mystery schools of Egypt. The allegorical illustrations on the tarot cards are said to contain these secret teachings, which in the Major Arcana represent a course in personal development. The esoteric teachings were hidden in the seemingly innocent pictures.

Gypsies are said to have carried the cards to Europe and “gypsy” is considered a corrupt form of “Egyptian.” Considered by the Church to be “the devil’s picture book”, the cards were quickly condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. Just to possess them was a dangerous act.

There is no doubt that the cards were a means for preservation of ancient knowledge, the Church considered dangerous, or heretical, at a time when it was literally a danger to your life to believe anything other than the established Church dogma.

We can only speculate on its origins but the Tarot images are inextricably linked to ancient beliefs, mythologies, and religious systems such as the Hebrew Cabala. Others, like Pythagoras, believed that letters and numbers are in themselves divine beings possessing extraordinary powers; the Greek neo-Pythagorean school taught these ideas.
No matter the origin of the Tarot, it is clear that its motifs refer directly to fundamental human psychological and spiritual experiences. The more one studies them and practices with them, the deeper one’s understanding becomes, and the more they resonate with inner and outer events in life.  The tarots are primarily meant to be used for enlightenment and discovery of the authentic Self.

Though we will never know the true history, this shouldn’t stop us using their wisdom. The tarot cards indeed do tell a powerful story: the story of the journey of human life, challenges, obstacles to be overcome, lessons to be learned, reconciliations to be achieved, honour to be protected, love to be found and goals to be aimed for and reached.  In this universal story, each of us undertakes his or her own Way, following whatever symbolism speaks to us at the moment of a reading.  This is the beautiful and mysterious magic that has allowed the Tarot and its marvellous symbols to endure for centuries.

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