I have an affinity for tarot and own several decks. I don't use them in the traditional way; for me, tarot is a way to focus my attention, and the cards I draw serve as a jumping off point for whatever energies I am working with in the moment.
Tarot has been such a part of my life for so long, I take it for granted. Recently, however, I've taken an interest in learning the history of tarot cards.
There's all sorts of mythology about where tarot actually came from. Some suggest it has its roots in Ancient Egypt, while others suggest Ancient China or the Far East, and many believe that Romani people spread tarot from Asia into Europe.
However, as author Robert Place suggests in his well-researched book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, tarot cards probably began in the 14th or 15th century BCE when playing cards became popular (playing cards likely came from China). Place argues cards weren't possible or practical until the advent of paper, and papyrus or parchment, which would have been used in Ancient Egypt or China, wasn't sturdy enough for use in tarot decks.
Originally, tarot decks were not used for divination but rather as another version of a playing card game that was the precursor to what we know as Bridge today. Early tarot decks had four suits (what those suits were depended on the region they were created) with 10 pip cards (ace through 10) and four nobility cards (Page or Jack, Knight, Queen, and King). These are the cards that are known today as the minor arcana. The decks also had 21 trump cards (what later became known as Major Arcana cards) that were played in a hierarchical order, and a wild card, which was The Fool (similar to Jokers in today's playing card decks).
The earliest documented tarot cards came from Italy, and the oldest surviving deck is called the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, circa 1460. The deck was hand-painted by an artist for Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. At the time, playing cards were a good way for artists to get their work known, and many special decks were hand painted while others were stenciled and hand colored or printed using blocks. During this period, tarot decks were mostly for the well-heeled because of the work required to make them.
As use of the printing press spread throughout Europe in the 1500s, playing cards (including tarot) became widely available, as did the obsession with card games. Some of the earliest versions of printed tarot come from Marseilles, France, and the structure and design of these 78-card decks (known as the Tarot de Marseilles) remain the popular structure for many traditional tarot decks today, such as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. The Tarot de Marseilles was likely derived from earlier Milanese decks that the French came in contact with when they conquered Milan in 1499. Suits in this deck include the minor arcana Pentacles, Wands, Cups, and Swords, as well as Major Arcana cards featuring archetypal symbols. The Major Arcana cards (in order) include:
Regardless of whether you choose a traditional deck based on the traditional Tarot de Marseilles (Osho Zen Tarot is an example of this) or another type of oracle card, such as one of my current favorite decks, Postcards from Spirit, you can learn traditional methods of tarot reading or do as I do and use the cards as a point of focus.
When I use my decks (I select a deck randomly), I shuffle while focusing on a question and then draw a card. Using the imagery and symbolism from the card, as well as any thoughts or feelings the card may cause to arise, I use what I draw as a point of focus to help me find the answers to my questions within myself. In this way, tarot and oracle cards offer another tool in your arsenal for spiritual growth and development.
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