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Divinatory, esoteric and occult tarot

Tarot reading is the belief in using cards to gain insight into the past, current and future situations by posing a question to the cards, i.e. cartomancy. Variations on the reasons for such belief range from believing on guidance by a spiritual force, to belief that the cards are but instruments used to tap either into a collective unconscious or into their own creative, brainstorming subconscious. The divinatory meanings of the cards commonly used today are derived mostly from cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette (also known as Etteilla) and Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1776-1843). The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult, divine, and mystical properties: a belief constructed in the 18th century by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons.

Major and Minor Arcana

Tarot decks of seventy-eight cards have fourteen cards per suit plus the twenty-two trumps or only the twenty-two trump cards. The trumps and suits were part of a trump style game with many historical and national variations. It was Ellic Howe, writing under the name Ély Star coined the terms 'major arcana' and 'minor arcana' In modern times suit cards are Pentacles, Swords, Cups, and Wands. Trumps are cards like the Fool, The Magician, et al. Since the introduction of the cartomantic and occult tarot there have been ongoing attempts to "get it right." Subsequently the names of both have been played with over time.


Many involved in occult and divinatory practices attempt to trace the lineage of the Western tarot to ancient Egyptian antiquity and divine hermetic wisdom. The tarot deck first appeared in a complete form (trumps, suits, etc.) in the courtly circles of Northern Italy in the 15th century, possibly for the purpose of gambling and card games, and possibly as a symbolic allegory for the Viscontis nobility of Milan.

Antoine Court de Gébelin

One of the earliest reference to Tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to Tarot as the devil's picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil's instrument. References to the tarot as a social plague continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, with no indication that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Bologna. Tarot remained a simple card game for several centuries and only became widely associated with cartomancy after general cartomancy with normal playing cards became common in France. As Dummett (1980: 96) notes, " was only in the 1780s, when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the Tarot pack for cartomancy."

Modern occult tarot begins in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first said that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name tarot came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning royal, and ro, meaning road, and that the tarot therefore represented a royal road to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies. Despite this lack of any evidence, the misapprehension that the tarot cards being linked to the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already established in occult practice and continues in modern urban legend to the present day.

The original tarot deck being intended for a card game, a game of chance, or elite allegory did not prevent individuals from making it into something more. From its humble uptake as an instrument of prophecy in France, it went on to become a thing of hermeneutic, magical, mystical, semiotic, and even psychological properties. It is was used by roma when telling fortunes, as a Jungian psychological apparatus capable of tapping into “absolute knowledge in the unconscious,” a tool for archetypal analysis, and even a tool for facilitating the Jungian process of Individuation.

The Occult Tarot


Three individuals stand out as the founding fathers of the widespread esoteric tarot (and tarot cartomancy). These individuals are Antoine Court de Gébelin, M[onsieur] le C[omte] de M.***, Etteilla (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Alliette), and Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1776-1843). The modern occult tarot appeared at the same time as the cartomantic tarot did and can be traced precisely to the publication of Le Monde Primitif, by Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Protestant pastor. Court de Gebelin's seminal book was published by private subscription several years after he became an active Freemason and member of the Lodge of the Neuf Soeurs. It is a massive opus, incomplete at nine volumes. According to Court this golden age was a reflection of "an eternal and immutable order, which unites heaven and earth, the body and the soul, the physical and the moral...." The actual source of the occult tarot can be found in two articles in volume eight, published in 1781, of his magnum opus, one written by himself, and one written by M. le C. de M.***. In a section in that volume Court De Gébelin wrote that after seeing a group of women playing cards he had the idea that Tarot was not merely a game of cards but was in fact:

In his essay Court de Gebelin wrote that "Tar" means way and "Ro" means royal, that each of the major arcana are linked with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and that the tarot is in fact a book of mystical Egyptian revelation that only escaped the fires of Alexandria because Egyptian high priests had the foresight to hide its significance"

The second essay in volume eight of Court de Gebelin's book, written by M le C de M.*** is noted to have been even more influential than Gebelin's. In that essay De M.***'s takes De Gebelin's speculations even further, agreeing with him about the mystical origins of the Tarot in ancient Egypt, but making several additional, and influential, statements that continue to influence mass understanding of the occult tarot even to this day. He:

The cartomanic tarot appears shortly after the publication of Court de Gebelin's and can be traced to the of Etteilla who:


Michael Dummett (1980) suggests that Etteilla was attempting to scoop Court De Gebelin as the author of the occult tarot. Etteilla in fact claims to have been involved with Tarot longer than Court De Gebelin.

The final founding figure is Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand. Lenormand outshone even Ettielle and was the first cartomancer to the stars (being the personal confidant of Empress Josephine, Napoleon and other important people). Lenormand used both regular playing cards, in particular the Piquet pack, as well as cards derived from Etteilla's Egyptian root. She was so famous that a deck was published in her name, the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, two years after her death in 1843.

Forward into the Mysteries

The concept of the cards as a mystical key was extended by Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875). Lévi (whose real name was Alphonse-Louise Constance) was educated in the seminary of Saint-Sulpice, was ordained as a deacon, but never became a priest. Dummett (1980, pp. 114) notes that it is from Levi's book Dogme et rituel that the "whole of the modern occultist movement stems." Lévi wrote that an astral light is contained within all of reality. On the tarot, Lévi claimed to have "been the first to 'have discovered intact and still unknown this key of all doctrines and all philosophies of the old world'; 'without the Tarot', he tells us, 'the Magic of the ancients is a closed book....'" Dummett (1980, pp. 118). Lévi rejected Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols going instead back to Tarot de Marseille, called it The Book of Hermes, claimed it was antique, that it existed before Moses, and that it was in fact a universal key of erudition, philosophy, and magic that could unlock Hermetic and Cabbalistic concepts. According to Lévi, "An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.

Notable contributions of Levi include:

After dismissing Lévi's contribution to magic as the product of "an advanced state of intellectual deliquescent," he notes that Lévi's made a major contribution to the history of occult lore. Dummett (1980: 120). Occultists, magicians, and magus's all the way down to the 21st century have cited Lévi as a defining influence. This trend began immediately when Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811), writing under the name Paul Christian, wrote L'Homme rouge (1863) and later Histoire de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples (1870). Christian repeats and extends the mythology of the tarot and changes the names for the trumps and the suits (see table below for a list of Christian's modifications to the trumps). Batons (wands) become Scepters, Swords become Blades, and Coins become Shekels. Interestingly, Dummett (1980) singles out Christian's writing as one of the worst examples of what he calls false ascription to be found in the occult literature. False ascription is the process of invoking authoritative figures from a (real or mythical) past in order to lend authority to a specific text. Notably, the problem of false ascription is not something we find just in the tarot literature. E.J. Holmyard finds the same problem in early literature of Alchemy. Holmyard notes of the authors of early alchemical texts:

In order to give some show of authority to their nebulous doctrines, alchemists busied themselves in composing treatises that they then attributed to any philosopher or celebrity of earlier times whom their whim led them to select. Thus works of alchemy were ascribed to Hermes, Plato, Moses, Miriam his sister, Theophrastus, Ostanes, Cleopatra, and Isis....Legends and myths were given alchemical interpretations; the golden fleece, which Jason and the Argonauts carried over the Pontic Sea to Colchis, and was claimed to have been a manuscript on parchment, teaching the manner of making gold by alchemical art, and even the "Song of Solomon' was supposed to be an alchemical treatise couched in veiled language."

Following Christian the occult tradition of tarot was carried by Ellic Howe and Marquis Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1897). Ellic Howe, under the name Ély Star published, in 1888, the book Mystères de l'horoscope. A section of the book is devoted to Tarot, however Star mostly repeats Christian's modifications. Star's primary contribution was the introduction of the terms 'major arcana' and 'minor arcana,' although he did number the Crocodile (the Fool) XXII instead of 0. In 1887 the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita met the amateur artist Oswald Wirth (1860-1943) and subsequently sponsored a production of Lévi's intended deck. Guided entirely by de Guaita's he Wirth designed the first neo-occultist cartomantic deck (and first cartomantic deck not derived from Ettielle's Egyptina deck). Known as the Arcanes du Tarot kabbalistique it consisted of only the twenty-two major arcana.

Through the Temple Door

Shortly before Oswald Wirth published his first deck, the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita formed the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross (1888) along with Dr Papus, François-Charles Barlet, and Joséphin Sar Péladan (1858-1918). Prior to this there had been a general decline of occult secret brotherhoods but de Guaita's foundation of the Rosy Cross Order rejuvenated the occult movement. At this point that the Tarot enters into the temple as an important aspect of ritual, in particular initiation. The association of Tarot with initiation was formalized by François-Charles Barlet whose 1889 essay Le Tarot initiatique give an interpretation of the trumps as an initiatory sequence chronicling the spiritual development from neophyte to adept. This was followed by the publication of Le Tarot des Bohémiens by Papus, which was claimed to contain the wisdom of the ancients and the divinatory properties of the occult Tarot. Prior to the publication of Le Tarot des Bohémiens occultists had simply held the Tarot as a masterpiece without ever enumerating the details of the Secret Doctrine contained within.


Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah. In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being influenced by the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and bearing illustrated scenes on all the suit cards. The images on the Rider-Waite deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite published by 1909. Its imagery is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. and its subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been modified to reflect Waite and Smith's views. A difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith used scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards.

Order of the Trumps

The following is a comparison of the order of the trumps up to and including the A.E. Waite deck. This table is based on Dummett (1980) and actual inspection of the relevant decks.

Tarot de Marseille Court de Gébelin Etteilla's Egyptian Tarot Paul Christian's Egyptian Tarot
(divinatory meaning in bold)
Oswald Wirth Golden Dawn A.E. Waite Book of Thoth (Crowley)
1 - the Bateleur (Mountebank) Bateleur Ideal/Wisdom the Magus / Will Magician 1 - The Magician I - The Magician I - The Magus
2 - the Popess High Priestess Enlightenment/Passion Gate of the (occult) Sanctuary / Knowledge Priestess 2 - The High Priestess II - The High Priestess II - The Priestess
3 - the Empress Empress Discussion/Instability Isis - Urania / Action Empress 3 - The Empress III - The Empress III - The Empress
4 - the Emperor Emperor Revelation/Behaviour Cubic Stone / Realisation Emperor 4 - The Emperor IV - The Emperor IV - The Emperor
5 - the Pope Chief Hierophant Travel/Country Property Master of the Mysteries/Arcana / Occult Inspiration Hierophant 5 - The Hierophant V - The Hierophant V - The Hierophant
6 - Love or the Lovers Marriage Secrets/Truths Two Roads / Ordeal Lovers 6 - The Lovers VI - The Lovers VI - The Lovers
7 - the Chariot Osiris Triumphant Support/Protection Chariot of Osiris / Victory Chariot 7 - The Chariot VII - The Chariot VII - The Chariot
8 - Justice Justice Tenacity/Progress Themis (Scales and Blade) / Equilibrium Justice 11 - Justice XI - Justice VIII - Adjustment
9 - the Hermit Wise Man Justice/Law-Maker the Veiled Lamp / Wisdom Hermit 9 - The Hermit IX - The Hermit IX - The Hermit
10 - Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune Temperance/Convictions the Sphinx / Fortune Fortune 10 - The Wheel of Fortune X - Wheel of Fortune X - Fortune
11 - Fortitude Fortitude Strength/Power the Muzzled(tamed) Lion / Strength Strength 8 - Strength VIII - Strength XI - Lust
12 - the Hanged Man Prudence Prudence/Popularity The Sacrifice / Sacrifice Hanged Man 12 - The Hanged Man XII - The Hanged Man XII - The Hanged Man
13 - Death Death Marriage/Love Affair The Skeleton Reaper / Transformation Death 13 - Death XIII - Death XIII - Death
14 - Temperance Temperance Violence/Weakness the Two Urns (the genius of the sun) / Initiative Temperance 14 - Temperance XIV - Temperance XIV - Art
15 - the Devil Typhon Chagrins/Illness Typhon / Fate Devil 15 - The Devil XV - The Devil XV - The Devil
16 - the Tower the Castle or Plutus Opinion/Arbitration the Beheaded Tower (Lightning Struck) / Ruin Tower 16 - The Tower XVI - The Tower XVI - The Tower
17 - the Star Sirius or the Dog Star Death/Incapacity Star of the Magi / Hope Star 17 - The Star XVII - The Star XVII - The Star
18 - the Moon Moon Betrayal/Falsehood the Twilight / Deception Moon 18 - The Moon XVIII - The Moon XVIII - The Moon
19 - the Sun Sun Poverty/Prison the Blazing Light / (earthly) Happiness Sun 19 - The Sun XIX - The Sun XIX - The Sun
20 - Judgment the Creation Fortune/Augmentation the Awakening of the Dead / Renewal Judgement 20 - Judgement XX - Judgement XX - The Aeon
21 - the World Time Law Suit/Legal Dispute the Crown of the Magi / Reward World 21 - The Universe XXI - The World XXI - The Universe
Le Mat (Fool) Fool Madness/Bewilderment 0 the Crocodile (between 20 and 21) / Expiation Fool 0 - The Fool 0 - The Fool 0 - The Fool

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