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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The People Behind The History of Tarot

It’s well known that Tarot started as a playing card game in Italy in the 1500s, and turned into an occult divination practice over time. There were many influential people who helped mold Tarot into the modern practice we all know and love today.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of a few key players and how they contributed to the history of Tarot. You’ll notice we start in the mid 1700s. That’s for two reasons. One, is that previously Tarot was more of a playing card game than a divination tool. And two, there is less known about individual contributors to Tarot before this time.

Etteilla (1738 - 1791) - Let’s start at the beginning with Jean-Baptise Allite, also known as Etteilla. Born in Paris, Etteilla went on to become the first person to introduce an occult interpretation guide to the cards. In the mid 1780s, Etteilla published Manière de se Récréer Avec le jeu de Cartes Nommées Tarots or Way to recreate yourself with the deck of cards called Tarot in English. He was also the first person to be a professional card reader. In 1789, Etteilla created and produced his own Tarot deck. He had a large influence in turning Tarot into a divination practice in the mid-1700s.

Etteilla didn’t only explore Tarot as a divination tool, he also studied astrology and other occult and mythological topics.

Marie Anne Lenormand (1772 - 1843) - Marie Anne Lenormand was also a French cartomancer who took inspiration from Etteilla. Once she became an established fortune-teller, many famous and influential people sought readings with her. Including Tsar Alexander the first, Empress Josephine and leaders of the French Revolution. Lenormand used the Etteilla Deck.

After her death, her name was lent to cartomancy decks which are still used throughout the world. This style of divination has two versions of decks. The grand version includes a full deck of playing cards and the petit style includes 36 cards, resembling traditional playing cards but with added illustrations. I actually have several decks, handed down within my family, that qualify as Lenormand cards.

Arthur Edward Waite (1857 - 1942) - A.W. Waite created what remains one of the most popular Tarot decks of all time. Waite was born in Brooklyn, New York but spent most of his life in the United Kingdom. Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, an occultist secret society.

The Rider-Waite deck was originally released in 1910 and was illustrated by fellow member of the Golden Dawn Pamela Coleman Smith. I actually have a first edition copy of the illustrated guide book, which was released a year later, called The Pictorial Key to The Tarot.

The Rider-Waite deck is filled to the brim with symbolism. In some ways, you can track the historic origins of the cards in this deck. In other ways, they differ so significantly from the simplicity of early Tarot cards.

Waite made revisions to traditional Tarot decks so that his deck aligned with the teachings of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. For example, he switched the order of the Justice and Strength card, so that Strength was matched with the astrological symbol Leo. Astrology was a big focus of the Golden Dawn.

Pamela Coleman Smith (1878 - 1951) - Smith, a member of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, is responsible for some of the most lasting Tarot imagery of all time. She illustrated the Rider-Waite deck, sometimes also referred to as the Waite-Smith deck.

Smith originated from London, and was known as “Pixie” in her occultist circles. Smith moved to Brooklyn, New York where her family was from and went to Pratt Institute to study art. Some historians believe that Smith modeled figures on the cards after the likeness of her friends.

Smith’s contribution to modern Tarot is immense, the Waite-Smith deck remains the most broadly used even to this day.

Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947) - Crowley is a famous English occultist among many other things including the invention of his own religion called Thelema. Crowley claimed that a being named Aiwass dictated Thelema’s spiritual text to him, called The Book of The Law.

In 1944, Crowley wrote a book called The Book of Tarot that accompanied his Thoth Tarot deck (painted by Lady Frieda Harris.) Crowley infused the Thoth Tarot with occult and scientific symbols. It differs quite a bit from the Rider-Waite Deck.

One of my favorite research projects was putting together this historic guide to the Major Arcana. It made me realize how sprawling and vast the history of this cartomancy practice really is.

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