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Q&A: The etymology of tarot

By | April 4, 2008 | Print This Post | E-mail This Post | 2 Comments

Last week I posted a list of my top five foundational books on tarot1 – books that give a solid grounding in tarot’s history and practical use.

Ankh-f-n-khonsu commented:

I’m no tarotist scholar, and I found Decker’s article in Gnosis (#46, Winter 1998) convincing and enlightening. However, I was left unconvinced that there was no connection to esoteric Egyptian tradition. Tony Bushby…suggests that 22 Hebrew characters were ‘occulted’ in the Egyptian Book of Thoth/God, and that ‘tarot’ is a plural form of Torah. [...]

In tarot’s fairly well documented history (letters, accounting ledgers, early examples of tarot cards and “regular” playing cards, etc.), there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that tarot cards were intended for use as anything other than an innovating card game. Serious tarot practitioners know this, it’s the occultists who resist reading anything in depth outside their genre – and I say this as an occultist myself! (Probably because occultists have invested so much in the mystification of tarot they figure it’d be a shame to stop now.)

That doesn’t mean that its repurposing as an occult tool is valueless; on the contrary, thanks to Lévi’s “modern” popularization in particular, the tarot has become a nexus of occult symbolism. The tarot’s medieval Italian symbolism has been reinterpreted with everything from kabbalah, the Hebrew alphabet, the tetragrammaton, astrology, the elements, etc. being mapped on to its structure.

The tarot has become a central tool and symbol set for occultists. That it wasn’t so historically comes as a bit of a downer, but it can work – even if it is, quite often, an awkward fit.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t have paper, and the story of tablets is plainly absurd. The first European paper wasn’t made until 1151 in Spain, and it’s another two hundred years until we hear of playing cards mentioned in Europe. While there are decks of Mamluk playing cards extant dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century, the first mention of playing cards in Europe come from Bern, Switzerland in 1367. It’s not until 1442 that trinofi (tarot cards) are mentioned. Some scholars allow that it’s likely the cards were invented some years before being written about, and suggest an approximate date of 1420 for their invention – at the earliest.

The etymological origins of the word “tarot” are fairly straightforward.

Tarot comes from the Italian word trionfi, used in the fifteenth century to describe the twenty-two trump cards. Tarocchi gained currency in the early sixteenth century, first representing to the twenty-two trumps, and later to the complete seventy-eight card deck. The word tarocchi and tarocco are often used interchangeably, though tarocchi is actually the plural of tarocco. The French derivative tarot has come into widespread usage in English, though the English term “trump” is derived from the Latin triumphi.

Thanks for your question, Ankh-f-n-khonsu!

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  1. See “[cref 54]“. [back]

Psyche is the editor of and the curator for the occult resource, Psyche also operates a tarot consultation business, Psyche Tarot. She has been published in The Cauldron, Konton, Tarot World Magazine, among other magazines, and her essay “Strategic Magick” appeared in Manifesting Prosperity (Megalithica, 2008).

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  1. Alright, again, I’ve got no dog in this fight, but I do <3 facilitating discussion and as organizer of VOMUG, I try to bring in outside materials that might be of interest. Here’s one of the responses I got to your post:

    “This is much of the same old argument concerning Tarot that either misses the dyadic point of the Esoteric/Exoteric aspects, or concentrates solely on the Exoteric aspect alone. The Tarot consists of an underlying and overlying stream of understanding. The underlying being the Esoteric, the overlying being the Exoteric. To look upon Tarot with regard to only the cards, negates the underlying current within. To look upon Tarot with regard to only the underlying current negates the historical aspect of the cards. Both need to be taken in concert with one another.

    Contrary to popular belief, Eliphas Levi was not the first to connect the Majors with the Hebraic Letters. That was done by Athanasius Kircher in the 17th Century. Additionally, the Hebraic alphabet consists of 27 letters in total, not 22. The fact that the Tarot has 22 Majors is related to Pagan sources. That being the Homeric Greek alphabet of 24 letters coming through the Roman alphabet of 23 letters. In which the “y” of the Roman letters was not used for Magical inscriptions. Which left 22 letters from which to work from. The additional/leftover 2 letters that were related to the Homeric Greek alphabet were used only by senior initiates of the Hellenic Mystery Cults/Schools of the time. The predominant of which was Mithraism.

    The ordering of the Majors as seen in the Marseille decks comes from the Exoteric aspects of painted tiles, leather strips, etc… having the images of Roman deities on them and placing them them in the alphabetical sequence. Thus relating them to an Exoteric understanding. The pieces could then be reordered in sequence to other aspects to give further deeper meanings. To get a better idea of something of the “original” undercurrent of ideal of the Tarot, take a look a the Ettelia Book of Thoth deck.”


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  2. horoscopes online says:

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