Author Topic: The origins of Tarot cards  (Read 716 times)


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The origins of Tarot cards
« on: March 20, 2023, 07:29:10 PM »
The origin of allegorical images of the tarot has intrigued historians and occultists for a long time. For a long time, the most likely hypothesis seemed to be that the prototypes of tarot icons were ludus triumphorum - medieval paintings depicting triumphal processions held in Italian cities on the occasion of religious and secular festivals, during which the crowd pulled carts decorated with statues of pagan deities and depictions of various allegories (we see them on Marziano Tortona's "tarot" arcana - 1370-1425 - commissioned by Filippo Visconti, Duke of Milan Maria). This hypothesis has never convinced me. Analyzing historical sources and the literature on the subject, I came to the conclusion that tarot was born primarily as a game system, and that its structure and the selection of allegorical images are the result of coupling the mathematical system of card scoring adopted in the ronfa game with the symbolic thinking natural to man, thanks to which we look for symbols in various representations and images, thus enhancing their uniqueness, mystery and secrecy. The spokesman of another, no less likely hypothesis became in Rafal Prinke, author of the book published in 1991, "Tarot. The history of an extraordinary deck of cards". According to him, a major role in the formation of the iconographic canon of the Great Initiations may have been played by the ars memoriae (art of memory), popular in the circles of Italian and French artistic bohemia of the 15th and 16th centuries, whose endeavors focused on meditation on a carefully selected series of images depicting various ideas of religious and philosophical-Gnostic content. This meditation was aimed at imprinting in the human mind a kind of matrix - a specific structure of allegorical images making visible the hidden laws guiding the visible and invisible cosmos. Usually used for this was one hundred to two hundred (sometimes more) icons arranged in a logical sequence, expressing some content. Such procedures could be used, for example, Mantegna's "tarot" consisting of 50 engravings included in two manuscripts from 1470, as well as Tortona's 96-card "tarot" and a similar to his "tarot" 15th century deck of 97 cards called minchiate. The existence of such elaborate "tarot" is further mentioned in chronicles, which speak of decks formed from a hundred or more images. These theories assume that the tarot was born through slow evolution, which, of course, does not exclude the participation of specific people in its origin. Their flaw is that they seem to overlook a basic fact, namely that since the dawn of its history, the tarot deck has always consisted of two, integrally related parts: 56 regular naib cards and 22 allegorical icons. Such is the tarot of Jacqemin Gringonneur dating from 1392 to 1394, such is the tarot of Bonifacio Bemba from 1450. There are no tarots counting more cards beyond the minchiate cards, and these were not created until the second half of the 15th century. The same goes for the "tarot" of Mantegna and Tortova, in which one should rather see a tarot-like collection of allegories, used perhaps in the ars memoriae, but having nothing to do with the original tarot. Thus, contrary to what I wrote in the chapter Cui prodest? tarot did not have to be shaped by "evolutionary processes" at all. On the contrary. There are many indications that it entered the arena of history right away in a ready-made form. And the fact that it used the mathematical designation of the arcana, which forms an integrated system, suggests that this was not done either by accident or without some significant reason. The system is characterized by interesting regularities based on the mathematical regularities of the ratios of the numbers 3, 7, 11 and 21, which makes it possible for the arithmetic operations carried out with them to acquire symbolic meaning. Thus, 3 multiplied by 7 gives the result of 21 symbolizing the Great Initiation (plus the zero arcana of the Fool). On the other hand, 7 multiplied by 11 results in the number 77 (the number of tarot arcana plus the Fool marked with zero). Eleven multiplied by 21 "transforms" into 231 - the sum of the numerical values of the Great Initiations (0+1+2+3 and on to 21). Also, three multiplied by seven and by eleven equals 231. The same numbers, i.e. 3, 7 and 11 added together give a sum of 21 which is a "hidden" three (because 2+1=3). In addition, if we divide the Great Arcana into two parts (11 cards in each) and arrange them according to the following scheme, we will find that by adding up the numerical values of the upper and lower arcana, we always gain 21.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11

These anomalies would never have arisen if the zero arcana, the Fool, had not been attached to the 77 tarot cards. He, by the way, is the best proof that, contrary to what many occultists preach, tarot could not have been born in ancient Egypt, nor could it have reached Europe with Joseph of Arimathea. The Egyptians did not use zero in mathematics (because they did not know it). Neither the ancient Gnostics nor the disciples of Pythagoras operated with it. Zero was invented by the Hindus at the turn of the era, in the 7th-8th centuries it was taken over from them by the Arabs, and from the Arabs (in the 12th century) by European scholars. The snag is that until the end of the 13th century it was used very rarely in Europe, the idea of zero was taught only in a few universities, and even that secretly, since its non-Christian provenance made this branch of mathematics suspect. It wasn't until the second half of the 14th century, with the development of banking, that zero became a concept more widely known and used mainly in banking. That's when Europe went crazy over naib cards, and soon after that came tarot and the game of ronfa. Thus, whoever created the first tarot deck must have come into contact with naib cards. He must have known the concept of zero and its mathematical properties (which suggests that he was an educated man). He must have been fascinated by the combinatorics of numbers (the mathematical system of tarot). He must have been familiar with popular iconographic motifs used in, among other things, the ars memoriae (some of which he visualized on the Great Arkansans, while others he creatively transformed). We do not know why he added four figures (knights) to the 52 naib cards. Why he limited the number of allegorical images to 22 remains a mystery. Finally, it is unclear why he chose these and not other allegories for the Great Initiations. What is clear instead is that the tarot was invented and created somewhere in Europe between 1329 (the first historically certain mention of naib cards) and 1392-94 (Jacqemin Gringonneur's dating of the tarot). And that behind the selection of more or less random images of it is an integrated, mathematical system. Every system, even the most abstract, results from some pre-accepted philosophical (scientific, esoteric) doctrine, which it firstly expresses and secondly justifies. It can, of course, be assumed that in the case of tarot it had strictly utilitarian purposes (it served the ronfa game), however, the game could perfectly well do without such combinations. And since this is the case, let's look for the "deeper bottom", that is, the doctrine behind the system, while keeping in mind that they are not born in a cultural void, free from the influence of ideas prevalent at a given time. Without deciding what kind of doctrine it might have been, we assume that it was characterized by:

1.Secrecy (otherwise there would have been no need to encode it in card images);
2.It was connected with some living, functioning esoteric tradition in the second half of the 14th century (hypothetical date of origin of tarot, its condemnation by the Church);
3.It was based on the rules of arithmetic and numerology (mathematical system of tarot);
4.She used allegorical, symbolic and mythological language (reflected in the allegorical cards of the Great Initiations);
5.It had a holistic vision of the universe, taking into account its harmony and dynamics (the tarot can be read in a chronological sequence of cards, i.e. from 0 to 21 and on to 77, and after reshuffling, shuffling and rearranging them);
6.It highlighted the active role of the man operating the cards, locating him in the central point of the micro and macrocosm as the operator and perpetrator of the actions taken (the one who shuffles the cards, interprets them, uses them for various purposes).
Of the several esoteric traditions found in Europe at the time, only two spiritual transmissions fulfilled these characteristics. They were alchemy (Hermeticism) and Kabbalah.
Alchemy had two forms. The first, historically older, focused on the material aspect of the Great Work - an operation divided into four phases aimed at producing a philosopher's stone that transforms all metals into gold. The second, slightly younger, was called spiritual alchemy. Its Great Work, too, consisted of four phases, and was carried out in the heart (ego) of man, who, through meditation and visualization, identified himself with the "suffering" ordeals of transubstantiation and sought mystical union with the Soul of the Universe (Anima Mundi), and through it - with God. The method of this mystical Opus Magnum was best described by a hermetic formula called VITRIO, which was a commentary on the most important hermetic text, the Emerald Tablet, whose authorship was attributed to Hermes Trismegistos. The name VITRIOL comes from the letters beginning the seven words of this formula: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem (descend into the interior of the earth, purifying you will discover the hidden stone). Its initiatory meaning is obvious. The road to heaven always leads through hell, spiritual perfection is the fruit of exploring the darkness and purification of the human soul.
By a strange coincidence, VITRIOL has 56 letters, as many as the cards of the Minor Initiations of the tarot. Considering that as early as the turn of the 15th century it was associated with the four elements mentioned in the Emerald Tablet, the correlation seems puzzling to say the least, though not entirely clear. We know that a few decades before the invention of the tarot, a Latin translation of the Tablet reached European Hermeticists, and that this was done by the alchemist Raimundus Lullus (1235-1315), author of several treatises discussing the spiritual aspects of the Great Cannon, a man with a great interest in Neoplatonism and the Hermetic writings of the Hellenistic period. We also know that the engravings included in Hermetic writings not only illustrated their contents, but also served as icons, the contemplation of which helped alchemists to understand the inner meaning of the Hermetic message. An example of such a collection of images are two treatises: Rosarium Philosophorum of 1550 and Solomon Trismosin's Splendor Solis of 1582. And here is another analogy. Each consisted of 22 allegorical images. After all, reviewing them, we find that they have little in common with tarot allegories (if we don't count the superficial similarities of a few illustrations to the Sun, Power, Lovers, Emperor and Eremite cards). Both of these works, by the way, were created later, at a time when tarot already existed. However, there are many indications that their authors took their model from an older, lost book. This was the Book of Abraham the Jew, which came into the possession of the famous French alchemist Nicolas Flamel ((1330-1419). He allegedly received the book in Santiago de Compostella, Spain, from a certain Canches, a man well versed in the secrets of alchemy and kabbalah. With it, he accomplished a Great Work in 1382 - he produced the Philosopher's Stone. After which he became a devout Catholic and devoted the rest of his life to building hospitals and lodging houses for beggars and wanderers. According to Flamel's own account, the Book of Abraham the Jew was made "from very fine plant fibers coming from young trees." It contained 21 pages filled with Hebrew text and as many engravings. The seventh, fourteenth and twenty-first cards depicted a young woman being swallowed by a snake, the same snake hanging from a cross, and a desert with snakes coming out of springs. The others showed images of a man with a caduceus, an old man with an hourglass on his head and a scythe in his hands, a high mountain overgrown with flowers tugged by the wind - the seat of dragons and griffins, a blooming rose bush shaded by an oak tree, a king wielding a sword and giving orders to soldiers to kill children in whose blood the moon and sun bathed, etc. How do we know about this? Well, from the fact that a description of the treaty's appearance along with several copies of the engravings decorating it was placed by Flamel on a triumphal arch located in the Cemetery of Innocents in Paris. This arch was destroyed in 1742, but the engravings depicting it have survived.
"The Kabbalistic figures of Abraham the Jew, which gave Flamel the ascendancy of his knowledge," argued Eliphas Levi five hundred years later in Ritual Magic, "are none other than the twenty-two keys of the tarot (...). The Sun and the Moon appear there under the figures of the Emperor and the Empress, Mercury is the magician, the great hierophant represents the adept (...) the same is true of death, judgment, love, the dragon or the devil(...). Nor can it be otherwise, since the Tarot is the source book and the key to the entire vault of knowledge, it must therefore be hermetic, just as it is magical, kabbalistic and theosophical...". It seems that Levi was too hasty to identify the Book of Abraham Jew with the arcana of the tarot, in which we would look in vain for - typical of alchemical iconography - snakes devouring their own tails, naked couples entwined in a loving embrace, or androgynous men dying and being reborn. Hermetic and tarot iconography are two, different iconographies. On the other hand, Flamel's manuscript of 21 engravings and the books Rosarium Philosophorum and Splendor Solis, consisting of 22 images, are evidence that as a result of the gradual spiritualization of Hermeticism and the emphasis on its initiatory, spiritual and mystical content, the contemplation of esoteric images was an important aspect of Hermetic spiritual practice. This practice leads us to the ars memoriae, and the numbers 21 and 22 to the Kabbalah and its teachings on the esoteric powers and meanings of the 22 Hebrew letters. According to Kabbalah, God created the world from light, which he emanated from its unknowable center. Shaping space and time, it concentrated in the ten hypostases of God called sefirot forming the structure of the universe shown as the Tree of Life The branches of this Tree are connected by 22 "channels" for the flow of divine power signed by the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet with which God wrote down the heavenly Torah and which were used by Moses and the prophets to write down its earthly version. This idea was first formulated in the book of Sefer Yitzirah, which dates back to the 3rd century, where we read that having proceeded with His creative work, God "carved (...), chiseled, balanced (...), permutated, blended, melted and formed through them the essence of all creation and the essence of all future creation." This thought was developed by later Kabbalists, while it acquired its full shape in the book Zohar, published in 1290 by Moses of Lyon.
Representing various aspects of divine power and being the spiritual warp of being, the letters fell into three categories. The three most important, called the mother letters, embodied the trinity of the basic archetypes of the universe: the male, fiery, active archetype (the letter shin); the female, passive, water archetype (the letter mem); and the archetype unifying these oppositions (the letter aleph). Seven double letters (beth gimel, daleth, kaf, pe, resz, taw) referred to planetary powers, while twelve single letters (he, waw, zain, cheth, , teth, yod, lamed, nun, samwekh, ajin, cade, kof) referred to the zodiacs. Each letter was also assigned a specific numerical value (from 1 to 400). They were calculated according to two, basic systems: the simple system and the inverted system. The former tied aleph to the number 1, beth - to 2, gimel - to 3, daleth - to 4, etc., up to 400 (the letter taw). The latter, bearing the name athbash, was its opposite. According to it, the letter alef (1) had the value of the last letter of the alphabet (taw - 400), beth (2) - the penultimate (shin - 300), etc. For ease of reference, the relationship was represented this way, placing the letters in two rows, 11 in each:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 20
400 300 200 100 90 80 70 60 50 40 30