A.E. Waite – Great Symbols of Tarot

Published in The Occult Review; January 1926; pp11-19 (transcribed June 2003 by Jean-Michel David from an original copy) On the hypothesis that there is or may be a deeper meaning in the chief Tarot Symbols than attaches thereto on the surface, it becomes necessary to establish certain preliminary points as an initial clearance of issues, and I will premise in the first place that by chief Symbols I mean those found only which I have been in the habit of denominating Trumps Major in other writings on the subject. First among the preliminary points there is the simple fact that we know nothing certainly concerning the origin of Tarot cards. As

usual, however, in matters belonging to occult arts and so- called science, the place of knowledge has been occupied

by uncritical reveries and invention which is not less fraudulent because the fraud may be frequently unconscious. When the artist Gringonneur, in or about the year 1393, is affirmed to have to have produced a set of picture-cards for the amusement of King Charles VI of France, it has been affirmed that some of their designs were identical with Tarot Trumps Major. The evidence is the fact of certain beautiful and antique card-specimens – in all about twenty-six – which are scattered through different continental museums and were attributed in the past to Gringonneur. They are now held to be of Italian origin, more or less in the early years of the fifteenth century, and there are no extant examples prior to that period. But to establish this point on expert authority at its value is not to fix the origin of Tarot cards in respect to date or place. It is idle, I mean, to affirm that Venetian, Bolognese and Florentine vestiges of sets allocated to 1400-1418 are the first that were ever designed.

In view, however, of the generations of nonsense which we have heard testifying on the subject, it must be said that it is equally idle and mischievous to affirm that they are not. When, towards the close of the eighteenth century, Court de Gebelin first drew attention, as a man of learning and an antiquary, to the fact of Tarot cards, he produced sketches of the Trumps Major in the eighth volume of Le Monde Primitif. In the form that he had met with they were not priceless works of art like those in the Bibliothטque Nationale, but rough, primitive and barbarous, or precisely of that kind which might be expected to circulate in country places, among lower classes of players and gamblers, or among gipsies for purposes of fortune-telling. Supposing that they had been designed and invented originally about the period mentioned, nearly four centuries had elapsed, which were more than ample time for them to get into general circulation throughout the countries in which they were traced by Court de Gebelin – namely, Southern France, Spain, Italy and Germany. If the Trumps Major were originally distinct from the minor emblems, there was also full opportunity for them to be joined together. But alternatively the designs, perhaps even in several styles, may have been old already in the year 1400 – I am speaking of the Trumps Major – in which case they were married much later to the fifteenth century prototypes of our modern playing-cards. It will be seen that the field is open, but that no one is entitled in reason to maintain either view unless evidence should be found to warrant it in the design themselves, apart from the real or presumptive age of the oldest extant copies.

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