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5 of the TOP 10 MYTHS about the Tarot

If you are interested in learning more about the origins and development of the Tarot, you'll find a fairly comprehensive history in Stuart Kaplan's "Tarot Classic" (US Games, 1972). Just beware of the tendency Kaplan seems to share with just about every other writer on the subject, and that is to first state that there is no proof as to where the Tarot originated, and then offer many exotic and fanciful theories for your consideration.

Here, then, is a very abbreviated look at some of the myths concerning the Tarot.

MYTH #1: The mystical Tarot is older than dirt.

One writer on the Tarot claims that the earliest records of the Tarot are "approximately 35,000 years old" and that the Tarot was used to pass representations of the Universal Law down through the ages. It has been suggested by Tarot scholar Eden Gray that the Tarot was derived from the pages of the oldest book in the world, originated by Hermes Trismegistus, the councilor to Osiris, King of Egypt during a period when magic, astrology and mystic sciences flourished.

Another interesting story of the Tarot's origin is that after the libraries of Alexandria were destroyed during the Roman sack of that city, the city of Fez in Morocco became the intellectual capital of the world. In an attempt to create a universal language for the multicultural community of wise men that gathered in Fez, a book of pictures containing mystic symbols was developed, which was then converted to a seemingly simple pack of cards. These innocent-appearing cards would escape the notice of conquering armies and the public alike, preserving ancient knowledge for future generations.

Other stories attempt to trace the Tarot's origin to Atlantis, King Arthur, the Crusaders or any one of a number of other ancient cultures or secret societies. Alas, if there is any basis in truth for any of these stories, there is no evidence.

Part of the problem is the very material nature of the cards themselves. Since paper doesn't hold up well over time, it is difficult to establish when the first Tarot deck was created. The best we can do is to narrow it down to sometime around the 15th century, when the Duke of Milan commissioned the creation of a deck which has come to be known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

Even with the proof of this deck's existence, we still can't say for sure that it was the mystical Tarot we know today, and it's far more likely that it's use was limited to relatively simple card games for the aristocratic family it was created for.

The first reference to the Tarot as a mystical tool is in a 1781 book by the French occultist Antoine Court de Gebelin. It is in de Gebelin's book that the Tarot was first linked to ancient Egyptian esoteric wisdom. Other 19th Century occultists, including Eliphas Levi, Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley, followed de Gebelin's lead and attempted to drape the cards in legend and mysticism, and the practice continues to this day.

The lack of any literature about the mystical use of the Tarot prior to the 19th century is significant, considering that other esoteric sciences like astrology, numerology, alchemy and palmistry were widely written about throughout the Renaissance and subsequent centuries. One is left with the conclusion that it was either a very well-kept secret, or the Tarot was used for other purposes than divination and mystic exploration.

So it would appear that we are left with the understanding that the Tarot's use as a vehicle to explore psychic realms probably didn't begin until about two hundred years ago. As we shall see in a moment, this doesn't really have much of an impact on the sincere seeker.

MYTH #2: The Tarot was invented by Gypsies (right after Love Potion #9)

Well, if it wasn't the Egyptians, it must have been the mysterious Gypsies, right? Sorry, but this piece of misinformation was based on the commonly-held misconception that the Gypsies were originally residents of the ever-popular esoteric center, Egypt, before migrating to Europe in the 15th century. In fact, both historical evidence and Gypsy tradition indicates that their point of origin was somewhere in India.

As we've already seen, Tarot cards were already in use in Italy when the Gypsies arrived on the scene. The fact is that the Gypsies didn't start using cards in their fortune telling practice until it became abundantly clear that the public expected it of them.

MYTH #3: Church banned Tarot cards because they contained secret heresies and occult magical techniques.

It's true that the Catholic Church banned Tarot cards, along with playing cards (known as the "Devil's Picturebook"), dice and board games. All of these activities were considered to be a frivolous waste of time - time that could be spent in pious activity with the Church of Rome.

Recent scholars have suggested that the Church didn't approve of the Tarot because it teaches that truth and salvation can be found within each of us, an idea that wasn't exactly endearing to an organization that wanted to be the sole dispenser of Truth and Salvation. I tend to doubt this, though, because the notion of the Tarot as a self-development tool is a relatively recent one, having sprung from the New Age movement of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

MYTH #4: You must be psychic to be a Tarot reader.

This is simply not true (although it doesn't hurt). Although many Tarot readers may augment their understanding of the Tarot by accessing their intuitive abilities, the inherent divinatory quality of the Tarot cards makes it easy for anyone to give a meaningful and accurate reading based on the standard meanings of the cards.

MYTH #5: You are doomed by what the Tarot cards say.

Seriously, I think the only source that would disagree with this is the Hollywood film industry, which has conditioned the general public to cringe at the very sight of the Death card.

While we're on the subject, we should probably clear this one up right now. Although some ethically-challenged readers may interpret the Death card as proof positive of the impending demise of someone, the vast majority of reputable Tarot readers prefer to interpret this card as an indication of a 'transition' of a situation, attitude or way of life.

Make no mistake about it - any of these transitions can be frightening in their own right, but there's no reason to compound someone's uneasiness by foretelling their death or the death of someone close to them. And that's not even getting into the debate of whether a reader is justified in predicting the likelihood of death in the first place…

Granted, there are a number of disturbing images in the Tarot (aside from Death, The Devil, The Hanged Man and the Ten of Swords spring to mind), but it is important to realize that the images of the Tarot were intended to act as allegories, not literal representation of what is depicted in the cards.

So, the question remains - is there any validity to the predictive nature of the Tarot? Are we doomed by the appearance of a particular sequence of cards?

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