Antoine Court de Gébelin (1720s-1784) was an intellectual, Protestant pastor, Freemason, and occultist who traveled in powerful circles. He believed that there was once an ancient, advanced civilization that spanned the globe, and that the wisdom of this enlightened culture is at the root of common elements of symbolism and language shared by all humans.
His major work was a series of books called Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World”), which set out his theories in a series of essays. The work was widely read and remarkably influential (Louis XVI was an admirer), and included an essay exploring the “history” of the cards used for the game of Tarot.
De Gebelin believed that Tarot trumps contained wisdom and hidden knowledge encoded by the vanished ur-civilization of humanity. His work was nothing more than a speculative flight of fancy that imagined the cards being transmitted to the priests of ancient Egypt and connected with the Book of Thoth, a title with a complex history, both real and imagined. Elements of Jewish Kabbalah and the Hebrew alphabet were also “encoded” in the cards. At some point, so he claimed, the cards came to Rome where they were used secretly by the Popes, who eventually brought them to France when the papacy was based in Avignon during the 14th century.
None of this had any roots in history or tradition: Gebelin simply concocted his theory based upon his interpretation of the imagery and structure of the deck.
For instance, the trump suit has 21 cards plus a Fool, for a total of 22 cards. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. Ergo, the Tarot is Hebrew in origin! The logic is airtight!
Other writers filled in more details, and within two years after the first appearance of Gébellin’s essay, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, using the pen-name “Etteilla,” published a manual for fortune-telling using Tarot, and a fad was born.
All other occult Tarot lore and “history” simply spins Gebelin into ever-more-elaborate flights of fancy. The task began almost right away with card art changed to bring out the esoteric elements. Occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) made these decks a central part of his own Kabbalistic system. Theosophists added them to their toolbox, and their usage continued to spread. Jean Baptiste Pitois (writing as “Paul Christian”) concocted “evidence” tying the images to Egyptian mystery cults and their secrets, or “arcana.” After this, the trump cards were called the “Major Arcana” and the conventional suits were dubbed the “Minor Arcana.”
The English occultists connected with the Golden Dawn (most famously associated with the poet William Butler Yeats) added Tarot to their teachings. Golden Dawn member A.E. Waite collaborated with artist Pamela Colman Smith on a new deck designed to emphasize his interpretation of the occult meaning of the “Major Arcana.” This deck was issued by the Rider Company as a bundle with Waite’s book, The Key to the Tarot. The success of the venture led to the Rider-Waite deck becoming the standard set of images most people associate with Tarot:
Every stage in the development of the occult tarot was a lie. At no point from Gebelin on did anyone trouble themselves about the truth. They merely continued to concoct ever-more-elaborate falsehoods about these simple tools of a regional game. Some were mere charlatans, others were dupes and true believers.
Try to imagine it this way: Pokemon cards are created for a collectible game in 1996. A couple hundred years pass, and people forget about them. Then someone finds a deck, and is mystified by the strange words and images. These odd harbingers of lost wisdom! Ponyta! Charmander! Lickitung! Psyduck!
Someone writes a book speculating what they could mean. Someone else pretends this speculation is truth, and writes a second book. Ten years later, people are going into dim tents and praying that the Pokemon reader doesn’t draw Mareep.
In the process of being adapted by occultists, the true purpose of the cards started to be forgotten. Certain regions of Europe retained their interest in the game, but by and large, as the association with fortune telling increased, the use of the decks for play decreased.
Finally, by the 20th century, the real history of the tarot was lost, and tarot games—when they were played at all–became games played with cards “invented” by ancient Egyptians for fortune-telling. It wasn’t until Dummett began digging deeper in the 1970s that the real story emerged, but even then it was trapped in specialty publications.
Fortunately, even many who believe in the divinatory properties of the cards are abandoning the false history. Robert M. Place begins his book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination with chapters on both the actual and the false history of Tarot, before continuing with an exploration of what he believes to be their mystical properties.
Indeed, as we’ll see, the images on the cards are the product of a fertile culture of Christian theology and imagination, and they do provide an intriguing set of symbols for examination. They were not chosen at random, but emerged from a culture in which God was an ever-present reality. They have intrigued and inspired people wholly apart from their occult connections.