Article published on the two-monthly review «Atmosphere», year XI, nr.56, Dec. 1998 Jan. 1999.
«If I were to say that someone
today found the Book of Thoth,
an ancient Egyptian text
containg an extraordinary 
doctrine of magic, I am sure 
many would be startled.
And the amazement would
mount still if I said that this text
gets shuffled in the hands 
of many people as if it were
a strange deck of playing cards.
Many might either think I am
Simply fooling or that I am
A charlatan looking for notoriety.
What I lay claim to, however, 
is absolutely true!
The Book of Thoth and Tarot cards
are the same thing!»

Thoth with the head of ibis
Relief on stone, XIII century B.C.
from Abydos, temple of Ramses II


These opening remarks, or ones like theme, are extract from an article written in 1781 by Antoine Court de Gebelin on the pages of the Monde primitif, a strnge encyclopedia. The article proceeded to describe the “aracne figures” and their alleged relation to the Egyptian religion.
At the end of the eighteen century, France was going through an autenthic “Egyptian fashion”, and this revelation therefore aroused great sensation, wich was made even greater by Court de Gebelin’s standing position as a famous intellectual. Consider that he was Royal Censor under Louis XV, and that for ten years he directed a masonic lodge, The Nine Sisters, whose members included the encyclopedists Diderot and D’Alembert, the scientists Franklin and Lalande, the political theorist Danton and Desmoulins, and other famous freethinkers.

Antoine Court de Gebelin

Engraving by F. Huot, 1784
Art and Folklore Research Institut, Bologna (Italy)

It is conclusively settled today that the Tarot game originated in Italy in the early fifteenth century. The oldest decks, now stored in various Museums and University Libraries, date back to that period and bear the heraldic symbols and mottoes of Este family of Ferrara and the Visconti family of Milan. Further documents shows that Tarot was conceived as a princely pastime and became a gambling game that spread throughout Italy and to France, Germany, and Austria during the sixteenth century.

Star, World, Sun
From The Visconti-Sforza Tarot painted by Bonifacio Bembo
Pencil, watercolour and gold over paper, 1450 ca
Star and World are in Bergamo, Accademia Carrara; Sun is in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library

In short, Court de Gebelin made a colossal blunder and, in fact, someone pointed out of the mistake. As it often happens, however, dark mistery prevailed over the light of reason. The most heeded of all the opinions was that of Jean Baptiste François Alliette, konw by the pen name of Etteilla. He held that tha Tarot was conceived in 2170 B.C. during a conference of Egyptian magicians presided by Hermes Trismegistus and that afterwards, in the course of centuries, they lost their original characteristics. Thus, Etteilla thought it wise to “restore” the primitive form and gave the new deck a name more suited to its alleged origins: Book of Thoth, or Game of 78 Egyptian Tarot Cards.

Temperance, Star, World
From Etteilla’s Book of Thoth
Lytographies, half of XIX century
Art and Folklore Research Institut, Bologna (Italy)

In a series of booklets published between 1783 and 1785, Etteilla explained that the Book of Thoth is an handbook of macig and, above all, a means to probe into the future. In order to make his ideas stand out, Etteilla founded a Society of Interpreters of the Book of Thoth, owing to wich the new theories spread all over Europe. Thus began cartomancy with Tarot cards, a divinatory practice that persists today without hinting a decline.
The fashion carried on without innovations until 1856, when Eliphas Levi published the Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. Levi, whose real name was Alphonse Louis constant, had been a seminarian and then a socialist agitator befor applying himself to occult studies. Though his good faith cannot be questioned, his writings doubtless contributed to create new confusion. Levi held that Tarot cards are in fact “symbols of the Hebrews’ sacred science”: after the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, these symbols were kept by wise Hebrew cabbalists and were then passed on the medieval culture.



Hierophant, Empress
Tarot cards designed by Eliphas Levi, 
engravings enclosed in the book
“Le Tarot divinatoire” by Papus (Paris, 1909)

Levi’s revelations profoundly influenced Western occultism. Above all, the assimilation of the “Major Arcana” to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 pathways of the Kabbalah Tree, gave birth to important mystical-philosophic theories, as the Kabbalah is a metaphisical docrtine aiming at the contemplation of Kether, the “Crown of God”.

Wheel of Fortune, Moon, Sun
From Kabbalistic Tarot painted by Oswald Wirth
Litographies enclosed in the book
“Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Age” by O. Wirth (Paris, 1926)
Art and Folklore Research Institut, Bologna (Italy)

Moreover, Levi asserted that tha Tarot figures would be modified to become a universal symbolic system. Since then, the most important esoteric teachers have taken on this task by designing new decks. For example, Oswald Wirth stressed the Masonic symbols, Arthur Edward Waite emphasized Christian esotericism, Aleister Crowley attempt to condense in Tarot cards both Western and Oriental traditions, and we won’t mention the many decks inspired by the Egyptian religion.

Adjustment, Hierophant, Moon

From Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot 
Watercolours by Frieda Harris, 1938-44

Countless artists have likewise taken a fancy to Tarot, as the writers William B. Yeats, Antonin Artaud and Italo Calvino, or the famous painters Victor Brauner, Franco Gentlini, Renato Guttuso, Salvador Dalì and Hans Ruedi Giger. Only recently the true origins of Tarot have been cleared up by eminent scholars, for exemple Michael Dummett, professor in Oxford University, and prof. Andrea Vitali, president of the “Le Tarot” Association in Faenza, and the author of this article; yet no historical truth can ever separate this splendid game from the world of magic.

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