What Is Tarot and Where Does it Come From?

The Devil’s Picture Book by Paul Huson

Open the book. Read the first page.

The classic 1972 book on the history of the Tarot Cards by Paul Huson called The Devil’s Picture Book, opens with one of the most evocative first pages about the “wicked pack of cards” ever written. So I quote the whole thing:

“Whether you know it or not, each time you pick up a deck of playing cards you are putting your soul in immediate danger of hellfire. So the church once said. The tarot was the medieval prototype for our present day deck. Instead of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs, it used cups, coins, swords, and batons as symbols. In addition, it also contained a series of twenty-two mysterious picture cards called trumps. The main use for tarot cards, apart from simple gambling, was for telling fortunes. This was their true danger. Worse still, within the cards lurked devils disguised as kings and heroes. To quote a seventeenth century moralist on this point:

The playe of the Cards is an invention of the Devill, which he found out, that he might the easier bring in ydolatrie amongst men. For the King and Coate (Court) cards that we use now were in olde times the images of idols and false gods; which since, they that would seeme Christians, have changed into Charlemaigne, Launcelot, Hector, and many such like names, because they would not seeme to imitate their idolatrie therein, and yet maintain the playe itself.

This indicates the connection between playing cards and witchcraft. That witches practiced rites drawn from old pagan cults is becoming more and more a matter of common knowledge. That remnants of these old cults have boldly remained on display for all to see down the ages is not so well known…”

How I First Found Tarot

They were boldly displayed for me at a fair.

The first time I saw a pack of tarot cards was in my early teens in the 1970′s. It was a Coleman-Smith- Waite deck, called back then Rider Waite. The images in the cards had a strange, mysterious feel to them that instantly attracted me. I was drawing constantly back then, making black and white Bearsdleyesque illustrations for fairy tales, heavily influenced by the seventeenth century energies still streaming in the aethers of Massachusetts. The pictures on these Tarot cards tapped into those aethers, suggestively masking an unseen world populated by spirits who wished to communicate with us.

It wasn’t long before my boyfriend gave me my first tarot deck — a castoff given to him by someone else. It was the Rider Waite, one of the very few tarot decks published at that time.

I spent a long time brooding over the pictures on the cards, more interested in the art, and the effect it had on me, than in divination. That was much too daunting to learn, having to memorize all the meanings: right side up and up side down, and in all sorts of combinations between.

So, I began drawing my own. Here are my very early attempts at a Tarot Deck:

The Magician looks like an occult guy I used to know back then. The Fool I think is me.

It shouldn’t be a surprise the Tower card looks wonky.

The Hanged Man was the first one I drew. He is so autumnal, like a leaf hanging from a tree.

This was all I did. The task of making a complete Tarot deck was more than I could commit to at 17 years of age.

But, it doesn’t matter. The importance is that by just brooding over the  tarot images seeded my already receptive imagination and anchored it deep into the archetypes. This led to an ability to write poetry from a deep and primal source, to continue to make images drawn from the  depths of the unconscious that can hold its attention like a magnet.

The tarot was, and still is, the most accessible gateway into the Occult, introducing you to numerology, astrology, Qabbalah, symbolism, and many other fascinating realms of magic and mystery. The cards can be called upon to guide almost every avenue of occult study, and can be used to construct rituals, story plots,  artworks, dances, and many other artistic creations.

I was once involved in a piece of street theater that was based on the tarot. We were all dressed as various tarot figures — I was High Priestess and then Death. The Fool met each one of us at various  picturesque stops along the way like doorways, under trees, beside the river, until we had a grand procession following him down the streets of Boston.  I would love to do that again in London.

Mystery plays are still performed in Chester and other cities in the U.K.

How Medieval Mystery Plays Inspired Tarot

In The Devil’s Picture Book, Paul Huson discusses the connection of the Major Arcana or Trumps of the tarot deck with the ancient Mystery religions. He gives examples of the use of tarot-like figures in talismanic art, hymns to the pagan gods and goddesses, planetary and magical workings invoking the Gods through icons like those found on tarot cards. The Empress is the Goddess, the Devil is Lucifer, the Magician is Hermes and so on. He calls on Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s magical correspondences to create a thesis for the origins of Tarot that is wonderful to read and ponder. He also makes a fine case for the use of tarot images as memory devices for teaching spiritual truths the mostly illiterate people of the times.

In 2004, Paul Huson wrote a second book on the history of Tarot called The Mystical Origins of the Tarot. In this carefully  and lovingly researched book, he introduces the 15th century Mamluk playing cards from Persia called Muluk wanuwwab, or the “Game of Kings and Deputies. ” The four suits displayed in the Islamic deck consist of Cups, Coins, Swords, and Polo Sticks. Huson writes: “In 1980, Dummott fairly conclusively demonstrated that they all showed more than a significant similarity to the suits of the Italian playing cards.”

Huson develops a fascinating argument that the images of the Major Arcana were originally based on stock characters from medieval Mystery Plays. In Italian cities during the Renaissance, processions of  pagan Gods, seated on thrones and carrying symbols appropriate to their functions,  were pulled  by chariot through the streets with great fanfare. It was a time when pagan Gods and Goddesses were in high  fashion, eclipsing the state religion of Christianity, until zealots like the monk, Savaranola, preached fire and brimstone in the streets, demanding the sheep return to the fold. Under the spell of this fanatic and the social guilt he stirred up, the great Botticceli tragically burned some of his paintings of pagan subjects — thank God his Birth of Venus wasn’t among them! Playing cards, and  especially the use of cards in fortune telling, went underground as a climate of fear sprang up around notions of the Devil and his secret followers.

But the deed had been done. Playing cards combined with Trumps or Triumphs had  become Tarot and thus went on to create mysteries of its own. The cards stayed in the shadowy occult underground for centuries, until no one could remember where they came from, or how they came to be. Under the influence of the 19th century Theosophical Society, and others, Tarot was brought back. Tales were spun about the mysterious cards origins in the ever popular ancient Egypt. They were brought into Europe by Gypsies who preserved them through the murk of the Middle Ages until they could be restored to their proper spiritual plane by modern Magicians.

With my experience of our 1970′s tarot guerrilla theater behind me, it was not difficult to believe Huson’s suggestion that the tarot images were illustrations of medieval Mystery Plays, Morality Plays and even Christian Miracle Plays performed in a pre-literate age when deep truths were taught through the use of allegory and iconic images. The Dance of Death, frequently performed during the plague years, also had a strong influence in developing ideas in tarot.

These are very rich subjects, and Paul Huson brings so much to the study of tarot. His history, much more accurate than that of Eliphas Levy, or the Golden Dawn, is still full of wonders, and charged with magical overtones. The first theatrical productions in ancient Greece, were ruled by Dionysus. Theater evolved into religious folk drama during Medieval times, and  went on to be preserved in the majestic Major Trumps of the Tarot. Their actual lineage is indeed steeped in spirituality of a rather more earthy, than lofty, kind, but is no less powerful and beautiful.

Please return for my exclusive interview with Paul Huson. We will go much deeper into these subjects and also discuss his new Tarot Deck, Dame Fortune’s Wheel.

Below are most of Paul Huson’s excellent books if you want to buy them here!

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