No one knows exactly when or where the Tarot originated. The earliest known book of Tarot cards still in existence dates back to the early 1840s; seventeen of those antique cards still remain. The first entire deck still in existence was painted by the Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo for the Duke of Milan.
Many theories abound about the Tarot's beginnings. One is that the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, whose female librarian Hypatia was world-renowned for her wisdom and learning, housed scrolls containing all the knowledge of the ancient world. Among these scrolls was the legendary Book of Thoth, derived from the mystery schools of ancient Egypt. The allegorical illustrations on Tarot cards are said to contain these secret teachings, which in the Major Arcana represent a course in personal and spiritual development. The Minor Arcana, which was added to the Tarot at a later date, may have derived from an Italian card game known as tarrochi. Our present-day poker decks closely resemble the Minor Arcana of the Tarot.
Tarot images are inextricably linked to ancient beliefs, mythologies, and religious systems such as the Hebrew Kabbalah. The cards’ numerological associations have been tied to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who taught that letters and numbers contain divine essence and extraordinary powers unrealized by the uninitiated.
Gypsies may have carried the cards to Europe. (The term gypsy is considered to be a corrupt form of the word Egyptian.) The Church, however, believed the Tarot was “the devil's picture book,” and the cards were quickly condemned as heretical. To possess them was dangerous. Thus, during the Middle Ages, the Tarot went underground, along with astrology and many other forms of occult knowledge. (Occult simply means hidden.) Yet despite persecution, the ancient knowledge contained in the Tarot continued to be passed down in secret, until interest in the cards surfaced again during the Renaissance.
Though we may never know their true history, we can still use Tarot cards to advise and guide us, to show us what lies ahead in the future, and to help us gain access to our inner knowing and the Divine. The amazing insights contained in the Tarot and the deck's inherent flexibility make it just as relevant to contemporary Westerners as it was to the ancients.
In the view of alchemists and mystics, the symbols preserved and presented in the Tarot spring from the anima mundi, or soul of the world, a vast repository of knowledge, like a cosmic library, filled with all the memories and wisdom of the entire human race, past, present, and future. Sometimes called the Akashic Records, this source of knowledge could be accessed by anyone willing to make the effort to develop his psychic link to the source.
Within this collective pool are all the basic figures found in myths, legends, religions, and fairy tales. Taken together, these figures encapsulate a magical storehouse of profound esoteric knowledge. For example, The Empress in the Tarot symbolizes the feminine archetype, the great mother goddess of the world's most ancient religion, what Goethe called “the eternal feminine.”
Each figure in the Tarot calls forth from the individual's unconscious a deep resonance. When a user consciously contacts these images in the Tarot, their hidden counterparts in the collective unconscious are allowed to surface and become integrated into the person's life.
A properly conducted Tarot reading is a story. As in myths, the images on the cards meld into a meaningful pattern that can clarify the issues confronting the person for whom the reading is being done. In a sense, the reading can act like a dream or a flash of inspiration to impart understanding.
Tarot cards are wonderful tools to use for meditation, as well as for divination. They stimulate the intuition, which is the key to the gateway of the unconscious. They illuminate the hidden factors in a person's life, factors that the person may not be aware of that are secretly shaping her existence. Thus, the Tarot is not only a tool for answering everyday questions or telling fortunes; it is also a beacon that shines light into the darkest recesses of your inner self and illuminates the vast realms that lie beyond the limits of the conscious mind.