By Prammit Saran
One of the earliest reference to Tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to Tarot as the devil’s picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil’s instrument. References to the Tarot as a social plague continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are no indications that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Bologna. As Dummett (1980: 96) notes, “…it was only in the 1780s, when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the Tarot pack for cartomancy.”
The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult properties: a commonly held belief in the 18th century propagated by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons. One of them was Court de Gébelin.
From its humble uptake as an instrument of prophecy in France, the Tarot went on to become a thing of hermeneutic, magical, mystical, semiotic, and even psychological properties. It was used by Romani people when telling fortunes, as a Jungian psychological apparatus capable of tapping into “absolute knowledge in the unconscious,” a tool for archetypal analysis, and even a tool for facilitating the Jungian process of Individuation.
De Gébelin published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the Tarot in volume VIII of work Le Monde primitif. He thought the Tarot represented ancient Egyptian Theology, including Isis, Osiris and Typhon.
Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered, de Gébelin asserted the name “Tarot” came from the Egyptian words Tar, “path” or “road”, and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning “King” or “royal”, and that the Tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of Life. Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin’s etymologies.