The Unpredictable History of Tarot and Cartomancy

Tarot, and related card divination systems, has a wonderfully bizarre history which ranges from wealthy Italian Renaissance families (who had their own decks sumptuously hand painted) to the 18th century seer, Mademoiselle LeNormand, fortune teller to the Empress Josephine. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the tarot was developed further by a variety of colourful characters in France, Britain and America, among whom one of the most colourful was undoubtedly the self-styled 'Great Beast', Aleister Crowley.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books have been written about the tarot. More still have been written about divination or 'cartomancy' with ordinary playing cards and fortune telling decks known as 'oracles'. In all probability, you have neither the time nor the inclination to read all those books. To save you that trouble, I have condensed the entire history of fortune telling with cards into the few words which you see before you. Now, maybe you think that such a terse account is likely to be hopelessly incomplete, distorted, biased and downright unfair. And maybe you have a point. Then again, level-headed objectivity is not a quality which features largely in the history of tarot, so let's just say that I consider myself in good company.


When describing the history of the tarot, it's difficult to know where to start. This is because nobody really does know where (or when) the cards first appeared. So let us begin in Ancient Egypt. A world of mystery, arcane rituals and strange hieroglyphic inscriptions, the Egypt of the Pharaohs is a perfect place for the birth of the tarot. It is so perfect, indeed, that it would be churlish to point out that that there is not a shred of evidence that the tarot, or anything like it, existed in Ancient Egypt.

So let us move rapidly on to 18th century France. Here we encounter a fellow by the name of Antoine Court de Gebelin who was convinced that the tarot was more than just a deck of cards with unusually pretty pictures. Moreover, he was very much persuaded of the Egyptian connection. In his book, Monde Primitif, he wrote (his words here rendered in my own crude translation):

If someone told you that there still existed in our days, a work of the Ancient Egyptians, one of their books which escaped the flames that consumed their superb libraries and which contained their purest doctrines on interesting subjects, you would, no doubt, be eager to know of such an extraordinary and precious book. If you were also told that this book is very widely available throughout much of Europe and has passed through everyone's hands over a number of centuries you would be increasingly surprised....

And so he goes on at length. You will no doubt have guessed that the 'book' to which Court de Gebelin was referring was none other than the tarot!

The idea that the Egyptians had hidden various arcane secrets in the tarot was an attractive one which was taken up by numerous other seekers after the 'truth'. Unfortunately, few people could agree on what the secret knowledge might be or how it was to be decoded. Try it for yourself. Get a pack of tarot cards, spread them out on the table and then tell me precisely what the Ancient Egyptians are trying to tell us. It is, you will find, not an easy task!


It wasn't long before those people who believed that the tarot was a repository of ancient knowledge had conjured up a 'secret history' of the cards. According to this history, the originator of tarot symbolism was none other than the god Thoth, also known as Hermes Tresmagistus.

The notion of a tarot revealed to humanity by Thoth was enthusiastically taken up by a French wigmaker named Alliette. Convinced that the secret code of the cards had become obscured over the centuries, Alliette set about the task of revealing this code by 'rectifying' the deck. His rectifications included the altering of the numerical order of some cards and changing some of the images — so, for example, The Magician is replaced by Enlightenment and The Lovers are transformed into Marriage. While he was at it, Alliette also rectified his own name by reversing it to form the (presumably?) more esoteric-sounding Etteilla. His deck is now known as The Etteilla Tarot or The Book of Thoth.

But how, you may wonder, did these Ancient Egyptian cards suddenly pop up in Renaissance Europe after so many centuries? One theory was that the descendants of the Ancient Egyptians (that is, the 'gypsies') had brought them. This was, in essence, the argument put forward in an influential book called The Tarot Of The Bohemians written by another Frenchman, Gerard Encausse — better known by his esoteric nom de plume, Papus.

Papus introduced all kinds of other arcane theories about the tarot, many of which have subsequently been embroidered upon by later writers. Today we have tarot theories based on numerology, astrology, the kabalism and just about any other mystical '-olgy' and '-ism' you care to mention. These ideas may have adherents among serious students of the cards. But among the general public, probably the only tarot theory that has passed into popular mythology is their association with gypsies.

The old gypsy woman who points a bony finger at the card and cries out in horror, "Death" is one of the corniest of all clichés in horror films and ghost stories. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support the idea that gypsies brought the tarot to Europe. Then again, I suppose one could argue that, if the tarot really was such a secret, the lack of evidence is only to be expected...


But enough of all those esoteric French men. We'll whisk quickly through the next century or so of tarot history and cross the Channel to England where we arrive at one of the really big developments in the design of the deck itself. Here we meet that scholar of the esoteric, Arthur Edward Waite, who decided that the tarot once again needed to be 'rectified' in order to reveal various supposedly hidden esoteric truths.

Among many other changes, Waite replaced the suit of coins with pentacles; his Fool was no longer to be a wretched beggar but, on the contrary, a richly apparelled and carefree youth; and, most notable of all, his 'pip' cards were to be individually illustrated with detailed tableaux to illustrate their divinatory meanings. Most previous decks (with the notable exception of an odd 15th Century deck called the Sola-Busca) simply showed varying numbers of coins, cups, batons and swords (roughly equivalent to diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades in modern decks).

The illustrated cards of the Waite deck, drawn by the artist Pamela Colman-Smith, were revolutionary. To understand why they quickly became popular you only have to compare one of its pip cards with the equivalent from an older tarot deck. Let's take the Eight of Swords. In an old tarot deck, this merely shows eight swords crossed over one another to form a pattern. There is nothing to indicate its divinatory meaning. But in the Waite/Colman-Smith deck the Eight of Swords shows a picture of a bound and blindfold woman imprisoned by a barrier of eight swords. This makes it easy to recall that the card signifies crisis or imprisonment. This deck was published by the Rider card company in 1910 and quickly became the most popular deck among English speaking tarot readers. It is generally known as the Rider-Waite Tarot.

One other 20th Century tarot deck deserves special mention. This is the Thoth Tarot conceived by the notorious occultist, Aleister Crowley. Having little in common with the similarly named Etteilla deck, the Crowley tarot features brightly coloured pictures painted by Lady Freida Harris. While the artwork is very striking, Crowley's tarot has never rivalled the popularity of the Rider-Waite deck.


Part of the fascination of tarot cards is the sheer bizarreness of their imagery. With cards such as the Hanged Man, The Tower, Death, The Devil and The Wheel Of Fortune, it is hard to resist the notion that they must have a significance that goes deeper than just a game. If you are going to tell someone's fortune with a deck of cards, surely the dense symbolism of the tarot has more to offer than a mere poker deck with its four bland suits. That isn't to say that you can't play cards with tarot. You certainly can. A popular game in Renaissance Italy, it is still played today in some parts of Europe.

Just to confuse matters, fortune tellers may refer to the casting of the cards as a 'game' or 'jeu'. Etteilla's deck is known as Le Grand Jeu. And the Mademoiselle LeNormand, the famous French seer of the 18th and early 19th century, left us with two separate fortune telling decks, Le Grand et Le Petit Jeu LeNormand.

The LeNormand decks are not, strictly speaking, tarot, though the French are not as punctilious as English speakers in making this distinction. Whereas a true tarot deck has 78 cards comprising 56 suit and court cards (sometimes collectively known as the Minor Arcana) and 22 Trump cards (or Major Arcana), Mlle LeNormand's Grand and Petit Jeux have 54 and 36 cards respectively.

If you have never told a fortune before and you don't know how to go about it, Le Petit LeNormand is the ideal deck. Each card not only has a simple picture — such as a ship at sea — but, better still, it even has a small poem printed on it, telling you exactly what the card means!

Le Grand Jeu is altogether a different cauldron of kippers. To say that this deck is complicated would be to indulge in gross understatement. Each card depicts a scene from Greek mythology, along with a diagram of a constellation of stars, a letter of the alphabet, some flowers, a picture of a card from a traditional playing deck and two smaller pictures which may be of Greek or Egyptian gods or other obscure figures. If you happen to be a classical scholar with an in-depth knowledge of astronomy, astrology, numerology and a handful of other mystical disciplines, reading these cards will be child's play. If not, you would be well advised to stick to the Petit Jeu.

The relationship between the LeNormand decks available today and the ones actually used by Mlle LeNormand herself is by no means certain. The best we can say is that it seems that the modern decks to some degree resemble those used by Mlle LeNormand, though whether the resemblance is a close one is open to doubt.

If my potted history of tarot and fortune telling has whetted your appetite (or, alternatively, caused you to smoke at the nostrils and bay for my blood) then you will no doubt be itching to learn more. We'll continue in my next essay, entitled Building a Tarot Library.

[Huw Collingbourne]