A Brief History of Tarot
No two Tarot decks are exactly the same, but most modern-day decks are pretty similar. Tarot got its current most common structure in the late 19th century, with the writings of A. E. Waite, famous for the Waite-Smith tarot deck (sometimes called Rider-Waite, omitting the artist, Pamela Smith, while including the name of the original publisher). But Tarot is far older than Waite’s initiation into the London Temple of the Golden Dawn.
In early Renaissance Italy, Tarot started just the same way you think of that deck of 52 cards you use to play poker with your buddies on Thursday nights: as cards for a game. A popular game to play with them was called Trumps or Triumphs, but people played a number of games with their cards.
The art of using Tarot for divination, as will be discussed in this blog, probably dates to around the 18th century in France. From there, it spread and by the end of the 19th century, divination was pretty common. Enough so that Aleister Crowley and A. E. Waite made decks at the same time. (And hated each other, but that’s a separate story.) These two decks, the Thoth deck by Crowley and the Waite-Smith deck by Waite are two of the most popular decks now, in the first quarter of the 21st century.
The Minor Arcana
If you are familiar with a standard deck of playing cards, then you are mostly familiar with the Minor Arcana: Ace through ten, with a royal court. You probably already think of the Ace as the defining card of the suit, which is accurate here as well. There are two changes, however: The suits are Swords, Cups, Pentacles, and Wands (instead of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs, respectively), and the royal court has four cards, splitting the Jack into a Prince and a Princess (or a Page and a Knight, depending on the deck).
The four suits of the Minor Arcana are each associated with one of the four Classical elements: Swords (Fire), Cups (Water), Pentacles (Earth), and Wands (Air). (In some decks, Wands and Swords are switched, aligning Swords with Air and Wands with Fire.) The suits are also associated with the down-to-Earth concepts of conflict (swords), emotion (cups), money (Pentacles), and hard work (Wands). These tend to be more consistent between decks.
The Major Arcana
The Major Arcana are relatively similar to The Runes: There are 22 of them (which is between the Younger Futhark’s 16 and the Elder Futhark’s 24). The Major Arcana also, like The Runes, represent powerful themes. In fact, there is even a mythology of the Major Arcana called The Fool’s Journey. It isn’t as detailed as Norse Mythology, but it is steeped in late medieval Italian Alchemy and Christian Kabala. (Christian Kabala claims to be the same as Jewish Kabala, but I have done too much work with Jewish Kabalists to think of them as the same.)
Next week, we will discuss the Aces of each suit, and therefore the suits themselves. Enjoy!