For a very long period of time, tarot was associated not with divination, but with a simple game of cards. Some of the earliest traces of Tarot appearing in history are in fact in the 15th century in northern Italy, with courtiers playing the game, often with gambling involved. Over several hundred years, the practice gained a reputation for being unsavoury, and even a ‘social plague’, until in the late 18th century when it emerged as an occult idea.
In 1781, Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Swiss clergyman, published an enormous study and collection of works called Le Monde Primitif, in which he asserted that Tarot was far more than a simple game of cards as had been believed. He claimed that the cards had originated not in Italy, but in ancient Egypt; an idea that still stands for many today. Not only that; he believed that they were of the kabbalah, and they were capable of divination, which is where the first ideas of using Tarot for such practices came from.
Gebelin and a variety of other philosophers, occultists and writers had numerous theories as to how Tarot came about, and wrote at length the reasons that they believed what they did. Ideas ranged from the Tarot being an account of the Book of Thoth (an Egyptian god) to it being a description of the world’s creation.Debates are still had to this day over exactly what Tarot means, and where it truly came from
Much of what was written must be taken with some scepticism, as there was asurge of activity in the 1780s. Researchers would make increasingly more outlandish claims about the origin or significance of Tarot in order to be recognised as the more prominent discoverer.
Once Tarot had been established as a divine activity, it was not long before decks of cards designed specifically for this purpose were in widespread circulation.There are now a great many different sets available, ranging from the original Italian decks, to ones designed by famous occultists such as Alastair Crowley and the Golden Dawn. The principles are usually the same, but with some additional symbols and ideas.
The true nature of Tarot may never be understood, but the history of its research is an interesting one. On the one hand are historians who believe the cards to be nothing more than a gambling game, and on the other are dozens of occultists with their own ideas and interpretations.