In the first chapter of my book, The Poe Consequence, the reader is introduced to a mysterious psychic named Madame Sibilia. Her grim demeanor and ominous interpretation of the Tarot Cards during a reading launches a series of events that spiral out of control and is a major premise of the story.
The following is a brief history of the origin of Tarot Cards:
Created between 1430 and 1450 in northern Italy, Tarot Cards were only used as playing cards until 1781. It was in that year that Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French clergyman and Freemason, made the claim that Egyptian symbols were represented on the tarot card illustrations. In an essay written in Le Monde Primitif, Aanalysé et Comparé Avec le Monde Moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”), de Gébelin stated that he believed tarot was not only Egyptian in origin, but a book of mystical revelation with a deep divine significance.
A few years after de Gébelin published his book, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known by his pseudonym, “Etteilla”, became the first to devise a method of tarot divination. He soon became the first professional tarot occultist who made his living by card divination, and the first to publish divinatory meanings for cards. In 1788, Etteilla formed ‘Société des Interprètes du Livre de Thot’, a group of French-speaking correspondents through which he continued to publicize his teachings. Toward the end of his life, Etteilla produced the first deck of cards specifically designed for occult purposes by combining his ideas with older forms of French cartomancy (fortune telling by interpreting a random selection of playing cards).
In the 19th century, a French occult author and ceremonial magician, Alphonse Louis Constant, better known as “Eliphas Levi,” extended the concept of the tarot cards by suggesting that the tarot trumps were connected with the Hebrew alphabet. He also incorporated tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the tarot became an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians.
The person that arguably had the most profound influence on the tarot deck was Arthur Edward Waite, an author and Christian mystic. Waite, with the help of artist Pamela Coleman Smith, published his own revised deck in 1909. This version has been widely accepted as the standard deck to this day, and is notable for being one of the first tarot decks to illustrate all 78 cards. The major change was that they no longer resembled playing cards but were now rich with pictures and symbolism.
Tarot cards remain popular to this day and hundreds of diverse new decks have been published since the early 20th century.