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The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite, ill. by Pamela Colman Smith [1911], at

§ 4


Our immediate next concern is to speak of the cards in their history, so that the speculations and reveries which have been perpetuated and multiplied in the schools of occult research may be disposed of once and for all, as intimated in the preface hereto.

Let it be understood at the beginning of this point that there are several sets or sequences of ancient cards which are only in part of our concern. The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Papus, which I have recently carried through the press, revising the imperfect rendering, has some useful information in this connexion, and, except for the omission of dates and other evidences of the archaeological sense, it will serve the purpose of the general reader. I do not propose to extend it in the present place in any manner that can be called considerable, but certain additions are desirable and so also is a distinct mode of presentation.

Among ancient cards which are mentioned in connexion with the Tarot, there are firstly those of Baldini, which are the celebrated set attributed by tradition to Andrea Mantegna, though this view is now generally rejected. Their date is supposed to be about 1470, and it is thought that there are not more than four collections extant in Europe. A copy or reproduction referred to 1485 is perhaps equally rare. A complete set contains fifty numbers, divided into five denaries or sequences of ten cards each. There seems to be no record that they were used for the purposes of a game, whether of chance or skill; they could scarcely have lent themselves to divination or any form of fortune-telling; while it would be more than idle to impute a profound symbolical meaning to their obvious emblematic designs. The first denary embodies Conditions of Life, as follows: (i) The Beggar, (2) the Knave, (3) the Artisan, (4) the Merchant, (5) the Noble, (6) the Knight, (7) the Doge, (8) the King, (9) the Emperor, (10) the Pope. The second contains the Muses and their Divine Leader: (11) Calliope, (12) Urania, (13) Terpsichore, (14) Erato, (15) Polyhymnia, (16) Thalia, (17) Melpomene, (18) Euterpe, (19) Clio, (20) Apollo. The third combines part of the Liberal Arts and Sciences with other departments of human learning, as follows: (21) Grammar, (22) Logic, (23) Rhetoric, (24) Geometry, (25) Arithmetic, (26) Music, (27) Poetry,(28) Philosophy, (29) Astrology, (30) Theology. The fourth denary completes the Liberal Arts and enumerates the Virtues: (31) Astronomy, (32) Chronology, (33) Cosmology, (34) Temperance, (35) Prudence, (36) Strength, (37) Justice; (38) Charity, (39) Hope, (40) Faith. The fifth and last denary presents the System of the Heavens (41) Moon, (42) Mercury, (43) Venus, (44) Sun, (45) Mars, (46) Jupiter, (47) Saturn, (48) A Eighth Sphere, (49) Primum Mobile, (50) First Cause.

We mnst set aside the fantastic attempts to extract complete Tarot sequences out of these denaries; we must forbear from saying, for example, that the Conditions of Life correspond to the Trumps Major, the Muses to Pentacles, the Arts and Sciences to Cups, the Virtues, etc., to Sceptres, and the conditions of life to Swords. This kind of thing can be done by a process of mental contortion, but it has no place in reality. At the same time, it is hardly possible that individual cards should not exhibit certain, and even striking, analogies. The Baldini King, Knight and Knave suggest the corresponding court cards of the Minor Arcana. The Emperor, Pope, Temperance, Strength, justice, Moon and Sun are common to the Mantegna and Trumps Major of any Tarot pack. Predisposition has also connected the Beggar and Fool, Venus and the Star, Mars and the Chariot, Saturn and the Hermit, even Jupiter, or alternatively the First Cause, with the Tarot card of the World.[1] But the most salient features of the Trumps Major are wanting in the Mantegna set, and I do not believe that the ordered sequence in the latter case gave birth, as it has been suggested, to the others. Romain Merlin maintained this view, and positively assigned the Baldini cards to the end of the fourteenth century.

If it be agreed that, except accidentally and

[1. The beggar is practically naked, and the analogy is constituted by the presence of two dogs, one of which seems to be flying at his legs. The Mars card depicts a sword-bearing warrior in a canopied chariot, to which, however, no horses are attached. Of course, if the Baldini cards belong to the close of the fifteenth century, there is no question at issue, as the Tarot was known in Europe long before that period.]

sporadically, the Baldini emblematic or allegorical pictures have only a shadowy and occasional connexion with Tarot cards, and, whatever their most probable date, that they can have supplied no originating motive, it follows that we are still seeking not only an origin in place and time for the symbols with which we are concerned, but a specific case of their manifestation on the continent of Europe to serve as a point of departure, whether backward or forward. Now it is well known that in the year 1393 the painter Charles Gringonneur--who for no reason that I can trace has been termed an occultist and kabalist by one indifferent English writer--designed and illuminated some kind of cards for the diversion of Charles VI of France when he was in mental ill-health, and the question arises whether anything can be ascertained of their nature. The only available answer is that at Paris, in the Bibliothèque du Roi, there are seventeen cards drawn and illuminated on paper. They are very beautiful, antique and priceless; the figures have a background of gold, and are framed in a silver border; but they are accompanied by no inscription and no number.

It is certain, however, that they include Tarot Trumps Major, the list of which is as follows: Fool, Emperor, Pope, Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, Temperance, Fortitude, justice, Moon, Sun, Chariot, Hermit, Hanged Man, Death, Tower and Last judgment. There are also four Tarot Cards at the Musée Carrer, Venice, and five others elsewhere, making nine in all. They include two pages or Knaves, three Kings and two Queens, thus illustrating the Minor Arcana. These collections have all been identified with the set produced by Gringonneur, but the ascription was disputed so far back as the year 1848, and it is not apparently put forward at the present day, even by those who are anxious to make evident the antiquity of the Tarot. It is held that they are all of Italian and some at least certainly of Venetian origin. We have in this manner our requisite point of departure in respect of place at least. It has further been stated with authority that Venetian Tarots are the old and true form, which is the parent of all others; but I infer that complete sets of the Major and Minor Arcana belong to much later periods. The pack is thought to have consisted of seventy-eight cards.

Notwithstanding, however, the preference shewn towards the Venetian Tarot, it is acknowledged that some portions of a Minchiate or Florentine set must be allocated to the period between 1413 and 1418. These were once in the possession of Countess Gonzaga, at Milan. A complete Minchiate pack contained ninety-seven cards, and in spite of these vestiges it is regarded, speaking generally, as a later development. There were forty-one Trumps Major, the additional numbers being borrowed or reflected from the Baldini emblematic set. In the court cards of the Minor Arcana, the Knights were monsters of the centaur type, while the Knaves were sometimes warriors and sometimes serving-men. Another distinction dwelt upon is the prevalence of Chrstian mediæval ideas and the utter absence of any Oriental suggestion. The question, however, remains whether there are Eastern traces in any Tarot cards.

We come, in fine, to the Bolognese Tarot, sometimes referred to as that of Venice and having the Trumps Major complete, but numbers 20 and 21 are transposed. In the Minor Arcana the 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the small cards are omitted, with the result that there are sixty-two cards in all. The termination of the Trumps Major in the representation of the Last judgment is curious, and a little arresting as a point of symbolism; but this is all that it seems necessary to remark about the pack of Bologna, except that it is said to have been invented--or, as a Tarot, more correctly, modified--about the beginning of the fifteenth century by an exiled Prince of Pisa resident in the city. The purpose for which they were used is made tolerably evident by the fact that, in 1423, St. Bernardin of Sienna preached against playing cards and other forms of gambling. Forty years later the importation of cards into England was forbidden, the time being that of King Edward IV. This is the first certain record of the subject in our country.

It is difficult to consult perfect examples of the sets enumerated above, but it is not difficult to meet with detailed and illustrated descriptions--I should add, provided always that the writer is not an occultist, for accounts emanating from that source are usually imperfect, vague and preoccupied by considerations which cloud the critical issues. An instance in point is offered by certain views which have been expressed on the Mantegna codex--if I may continue to dignify card sequences with a title of this kind. It has been ruled--as we have seen--in occult reverie that Apollo and the Nine Muses are in correspondence with Pentacles, but the analogy does not obtain in a working state of research; and reverie must border on nightmare before we can identify Astronomy, Chronology and Cosmology with the suit of Cups. The Baldini figures which represent these subjects are emblems of their period and not symbols, like the Tarot.

In conclusion as to this part, I observe that there has been a disposition among experts to think that the Trumps Major were not originally connected with the numbered suits. I do not wish to offer a personal view; I am not an expert in the history of games of chance, and I hate the profanum vulgus of divinatory devices; but I venture, under all reserves, to intimate that if later research should justify such a leaning, then--except for the good old art of fortune-telling and its tamperings with so-called destiny--it will be so much the better for the Greater Arcana.

So far as regards what is indispensable as preliminaries to the historical aspects of Tarot cards, and I will now take up the speculative side of the subject and produce its tests of value. In my preface to The Tarot of the Bohemians I have mentioned that the first writer who made known the fact of the cards was the archaeologist Court de Gebelin, who, just prior to the French Revolution, occupied several years in the publication of his Monde Primitif, which extended to nine quarto volumes. He was a learned man of his epoch, a high-grade Mason, a member of the historical Lodge of the Philalethes, and a virtuoso with a profound and lifelong interest in the debate on universal antiquities before a science of the subject existed. Even at this day, his memorials and dissertations, collected under the title which I have quoted, are worth possessing. By an accident of things, he became acquainted with the Tarot when it was quite unknown in Paris, and at once conceived that it was the remnants of an Egyptian book. He made inquiries concerning it and ascertained that it was in circulation over a considerable part of Europe--Spain, Italy, Germany and the South of France. It was in use as a game of chance or skill, after the ordinary manner of playing-cards; and he ascertained further how the game was played. But it was in use also for the higher purpose of divination or fortune-telling, and with the help of a learned friend he discovered the significance attributed to the cards, together with the method of arrangement adopted for this purpose. In a word, he made a distinct contribution to our knowledge, and he is still a source of reference--but it is on the question of fact only, and not on the beloved hypothesis that the Tarot contains pure Egyptian doctrine. However, he set the opinion which is prevalent to this day throughout the occult schools, that in the mystery and wonder, the strange night of the gods, the unknown tongue and the undeciphered hieroglyphics which symbolized Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century, the origin of the cards was lost. So dreamed one of the characteristic literati of France, and one can almost understand and sympathize, for the country about the Delta and the Nile was beginning to loom largely in the preoccupation of learned thought, and omne ignolum pro Ægyptiaco was the way of delusion to which many minds tended. It was excusable enough then, but that the madness has continued and, within the charmed circle of the occult sciences, still passes from mouth to mouth--there is no excuse for this. Let us see, therefore, the evidence produced by M. Court de Gebelin in support of his thesis, and, that I may deal justly, it shall be summarized as far as possible in his own words.

(i) The figures and arrangement of the game are manifestly allegorical; (2) the allegories are in conformity with the civil, philosophical and religious doctrine of ancient Egypt; (3) if the cards were modern, no High Priestess would be included among the Greater Arcana; (4) the figure in question bears the horns of Isis; (5) the card which is called the Emperor has a sceptre terminating in a triple cross; (6) the card entitled the Moon, who is Isis, shews drops of rain or dew in the act of being shed by the luminary and these-as we have seen-are the tears of Isis, which swelled the waters of the Nile and fertilized the fields of Egypt; (7) the seventeenth card, or Star, is the dog-star, Sirius, which was consecrated to Isis and symbolized the opening of the year; (8) the game played with the Tarot is founded on the sacred number seven, which was of great importance in Egypt; (9) the word Tarot is pure Egyptian, in which language Tar=way or road, and Ro=king or royal--it signifies therefore the Royal Road of Life; (10) alternatively, it is derived from A=doctrine Rosh= Mercury =Thoth, and the article T; in sum, Tarosh; and therefore the Tarot is the Book of Thoth, or the Table of the Doctrine of Mercury.

Such is the testimony, it being understood that I have set aside several casual statements, for which no kind of justification is produced. These, therefore, are ten pillars which support the edifice of the thesis, and the same are pillars of sand. The Tarot is, of course, allegorical--that is to say, it is symbolism--but allegory and symbol are catholic---of all countries, nations and times they are not more Egyptian than Mexican they are of Europe and Cathay, of Tibet beyond the Himalayas and of the London gutters. As allegory and symbol, the cards correspond to many types of ideas and things; they are universal and not particular; and the fact that they do not especially and peculiarly respond to Egyptian doctrine--religious, philosophical or civil--is clear from the failure of Court de Gebelin to go further than the affirmation. The presence of a High Priestess among the Trumps Major is more easily explained as the memorial of some popular superstition--that worship of Diana, for example, the persistence of which in modern Italy has been traced with such striking results by Leland. We have also to remember the universality of horns in every cultus, not excepting that of Tibet. The triple cross is preposterous as an instance of Egyptian symbolism; it is the cross of the patriarchal see, both Greek and Latin--of Venice, of Jerusalem, for example--and it is the form of signing used to this day by the priests and laity of the Orthodox Rite. I pass over the idle allusion to the tears of Isis, because other occult writers have told us that they are Hebrew Jods; as regards the seventeenth card, it is the star Sirius or another, as predisposition pleases; the number seven was certainly important in Egypt and any treatise on numerical mysticism will shew that the same statement applies everywhere, even if we elect to ignore the seven Christian Sacraments and the Gifts of the Divine Spirit. Finally, as regards the etymology of the word Tarot, it is sufficient to observe that it was offered before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and when there was no knowledge of the Egyptian language.

The thesis of Court de Gebelin was not suffered to repose undisturbed in the mind of the age, appealing to the learned exclusively by means of a quarto volume. It created the opportunity of Tarot cards in Paris, as the centre of France and all things French in the universe. The suggestion that divination by cards had behind it the unexpected warrants of ancient hidden science, and that the root of the whole subject was in the wonder and mystery of Egypt, reflected thereon almost a divine dignity; out of the purlieus of occult practices cartomancy emerged into fashion and assumed for the moment almost pontifical vestures. The first to undertake the role of bateleur, magician and juggler, was the illiterate but zealous adventurer, Alliette; the second, as a kind of High Priestess, full of intuitions and revelations, was Mlle. Lenormand--but she belongs to a later period; while lastly came Julia Orsini, who is referable to a Queen of Cups rather in the tatters of clairvoyance. I am not concerned with these people as tellers of fortune, when destiny itself was shuffling and cutting cards for the game of universal revolution, or for such courts and courtiers as were those of Louis XVIII, Charles IX and Louis Philippe. But under the occult designation of Etteilla, the transliteration of name, Alliette, that perruquier took himself with high seriousness and posed rather as a priest of the occult sciences than as an ordinary adept in l'art de tirer les cartes. Even at this day there are people, like Dr. Papus, who have sought to save some part of his bizarre system from oblivion.

The long and heterogeneous story of Le Monde Primitif had come to the end of its telling in 1782, and in 1783 the tracts of Etteilla had begun pouring from the press, testifying that already he had spent thirty, nay, almost forty years in the study of Egyptian magic, and that he had found the final keys. They were, in fact, the Keys of the Tarot, which was a book of philosophy and the Book of Thoth, but at the same time it was actually written by seventeen Magi in a Temple of Fire, on the borders of the Levant, some three leagues from Memphis. It contained the science of the universe, and the cartomancist proceeded to apply it to Astrology, Alchemy, and fortune-telling, without the slightest diffidence or reserve as to the fact that he was driving a trade. I have really little doubt that he considered it genuine as a métier, and that he himself was the first person whom he convinced concerning his system. But the point which we have to notice is that in this manner was the antiquity of the Tarot generally trumpeted forth. The little books of Etteilla are proof positive that he did not know even his own language; when in the course of time he produced a reformed Tarot, even those who think of him tenderly admit that he spoiled its symbolism; and in respect of antiquities he had only Court de Gebelin as his universal authority.

The cartomancists succeeded one another in the manner which I have mentioned, and of course there were rival adepts of these less than least mysteries; but the scholarship of the subject, if it can be said to have come into existence, reposed after all in the quarto of Court de Gebelin for something more than sixty years. On his authority, there is very little doubt that everyone who became acquainted, by theory or practice, by casual or special concern, with the question of Tarot cards, accepted their Egyptian character. It is said that people are taken commonly at their own valuation, and--following as it does the line of least resistance--the unsolicitous general mind assuredly accepts archæological pretensions in the sense of their own daring and of those who put them forward. The first who appeared to reconsider the subject with some presumptive titles to a hearing was the French writer Duchesne, but I am compelled to pass him over with a mere reference, and so also some interesting researches on the general subject of playing-cards by Singer in England. The latter believed that the old Venetian game called Trappola was the earliest European form of card-playing, that it was of Arabian origin, and that the fifty-two cards used for the purpose derived from that region. I do not gather that any importance was ever attached to this view.

Duchesne and Singer were followed by another English writer, W. A. Chatto, who reviewed the available facts and the cloud of speculations which had already arisen on the subject. This was in 1848, and his work has still a kind of standard authority, but--after every allowance for a certain righteousness attributable to the independent mind--it remains an indifferent and even a poor performance. It was, however, characteristic in its way of the approaching middle night of the nineteenth century. Chatto rejected the Egyptian hypothesis, but as he was at very little pains concerning it, he would scarcely be held to displace Court de Gebelin if the latter had any firm ground beneath his hypothesis. In 1854 another French writer, Boiteau, took up the general question, maintaining the oriental origin of Tarot cards, though without attempting to prove it. I am not certain, but I think that he is the first writer who definitely identified them with the Gipsies; for him, however, the original Gipsy home was in India, and Egypt did not therefore enter into his calculation.

In 1860 there arose Éliphas Lévi, a brilliant and profound illuminé whom it is impossible to accept, and with whom it is even more impossible to dispense. There was never a mouth declaring such great things, of all the western voices which have proclaimed or interpreted the science called occult and the doctrine called magical. I suppose that, fundamentally speaking, he cared as much and as little as I do for the phenomenal part, but he explained the phenomena with the assurance of one who openly regarded charlatanry as a great means to an end, if used in a right cause. He came unto his own and his own received him, also at his proper valuation, as a man of great learning--which he never was--and as a revealer of all mysteries without having been received into any. I do not think that there was ever an instance of a writer with greater gifts, after their particular kind, who put them to such indifferent uses. After all, he was only Etteilla a second time in the flesh, endowed in his transmutation with a mouth of gold and a wider casual knowledge. This notwithstanding, he has written the most comprehensive, brilliant, enchanting History of Magic which has ever been drawn into writing in any language. The Tarot and the de Gebelin hypothesis he took into his heart of hearts, and all occult France and all esoteric Britain, Martinists, half-instructed Kabalists, schools of soi disant theosophy--there, here and everywhere--have accepted his judgment about it with the same confidence as his interpretations of those great classics of Kabalism which he had skimmed rather than read. The Tarot for him was not only the most perfect instrument of divination and the keystone of occult science, but it was the primitive book, the sole book of the ancient Magi, the miraculous volume which inspired all the sacred writings of antiquity. In his first work Lévi was content, however, with accepting the construction of Court de Gebelin and reproducing the seventh Trump Major with a few Egyptian characteristics. The question of Tarot transmission through the Gipsies did not occupy him, till J. A. Vaillant, a bizarre writer with great knowledge of the Romany people, suggested it in his work on those wandering tribes. The two authors were almost coincident and reflected one another thereafter. It remained for Romain Merlin, in 1869, to point out what should have been obvious, namely, that cards of some kind were known in Europe prior to the arrival of the Gipsies in or about 1417. But as this was their arrival at Lüneburg, and as their presence can be traced antecedently, the correction loses a considerable part of its force; it is safer, therefore, to say that the evidence for the use of the Tarot by Romany tribes was not suggested till after the year 1840; the fact that some Gipsies before this period were found using cards is quite explicable on the hypothesis not that they brought them into Europe but found them there already and added them to their stock-in-trade.

We have now seen that there is no particle of evidence for the Egyptian origin of Tarot cards. Looking in other directions, it was once advanced on native authority that cards of some kind were invented in China about the year A.D. 1120. Court de Gebelin believed in his zeal that he had traced them to a Chinese inscription of great imputed antiquity which was said to refer to the subsidence of the waters of the Deluge. The characters of this inscription were contained in seventy-seven compartments, and this constitutes the analogy. India had also its tablets, whether cards or otherwise, and these have suggested similar slender similitudes. But the existence, for example, of ten suits or styles, of twelve numbers each, and representing the avatars of Vishnu as a fish, tortoise, boar, lion, monkey, hatchet, umbrella or bow, as a goat, a boodh and as a horse, in fine, are not going to help us towards the origin of our own Trumps Major, nor do crowns and harps--nor even the presence of possible coins as a synonym of deniers and perhaps as an equivalent of pentacles--do much to elucidate the Lesser Arcana. If every tongue and people and clime and period possessed their cards--if with these also they philosophized, divined and gambled--the fact would be interesting enough, but unless they were Tarot cards, they would illustrate only the universal tendency of man to be pursuing the same things in more or less the same way.

I end, therefore, the history of this subject by repeating that it has no history prior to the fourteenth century, when the first rumours, were heard concerning cards. They may have existed for centuries, but this period would be early enough, if they were only intended for people to try their luck at gambling or their luck at seeing the future; on the other hand, if they contain the deep intimations of Secret Doctrine, then the fourteenth century is again early enough, or at least in this respect we are getting as much as we can.

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