Tarot History & Ancient Egypt
Deep in the heart of the Ancient Egyptian desert laid a secret guarded for centuries. Until, one day, a man dared to walk in the sacred passages of the ancients. Entering by way of a secret chamber within the Great Sphinx, this man soon found himself within the Great Pyramid of Giza. There he navigated through terrible ordeals meant to test the strength of his soul and character. Found worthy, he soon descended a ladder and came face to face with a long gallery of precious statues. These were the twenty-two embodied secrets of the ancients, now known as the Major Arcana. On the walls of the Great Pyramid itself was carved all the knowledge of the Ancient Egyptians. Today, these secrets are passed down in a single deck of tarot cards. At least, that’s how the origin story goes. But is it realistic, and if it’s not, why do so many cling to the idea?
The origin of tarot, for quite some time, was said to come straight out of Ancient Egypt. There were a variety of myths surrounding the discovery of tarot and each seemed to outdo the others. My personal favorite, the one shared above, comes from Paul Christian and his book The History and Practice of Magic. While it feels a bit extreme to us now, many learning tarot in the early 1900s believed their origin to solely be Ancient Egypt. Even today, many interpreting or learning Occult Tarot specifically, tend to have a difficult time accepting another origin story. This is because tarot became so intertwined with the Ancient Egyptian Mythos of the Golden Dawn and other secret societies.
Any study of Ancient Egypt apart from the Golden Dawn will reveal immense problems with Paul Christian’s myth. First of all, the Great Sphinx has never really been the guardian of any ancient secrets. In fact, the Great Sphinx was approximately built in the 4th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and somehow forgotten until the 18th Dynasty. After that though, it was likewise forgotten to time. Another obvious problem is that the Great Sphinx doesn’t even physically connect to the Great Pyramid. This is a popular myth I heard throughout my childhood even so. However, I cannot emphasize enough, this is a myth. There are no tunnels, no secret mystical chambers, and no preserved Atlantis history. None. This is a documented fact, so just accept it already.
But if tarot isn’t linked to Ancient Egypt, how did it ever get connected in the first place? Well, answering that question requires a very brief history lesson. To truly understand the link between Ancient Egypt and tarot, we need to understand the Victorian Era. Please keep in mind that many of the views we have on tarot today are shaped by those who came before us, mainly in the early to mid 1900s. But, for the people in the 1900s, they too were influenced by those that came before them. This means we need to take a closer look at the 1800s going into the 1900s. It’s not perfect, but we do learn quite a bit about modern tarot history this way. So, while this may not seem directly important, just stay with me. Hopefully you love history as much as I do, and don’t mind the context.
A very important thing happened in 1798, Napoleon began his French Campaign in Egypt and Syria. This created an interest in Ancient Egypt for wealthy Victorians in Europe. Today, this is known as Victorian Egyptomania. During this time, wealthy Victorians were known to wear Ancient Egyptian inspired jewelry, architects began including Ancient Egyptian inspired designs wherever possible, and mummy unwrapping became a form of entertainment. These trends carried well into the mid 1800s, and we have proof of it even within the Occult community. Helena Blavatsky wrote her famous, Isis Unveiled in 1877, Paul Christian wrote his book, The History and Practice of Magic in 1870, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was officially formed in 1887. Victorians were clearly obsessed with the Ancient Egyptian world.
This is the atmosphere in which A. E. Waite would have been creating the Rider-Waite Smith tarot deck. Keep in mind, the Rider-Waite Smith tarot deck was first published in 1910, towards the tail end of this Victorian Egyptomania. I cannot stress enough how the Rider-Waite Smith deck was perfect for the time period in which is was published. Consider how many of the individuals involved in recreating Ancient Egyptian beliefs were wealthy academics, or at least academics with a promising career. Victorian Egyptomania was mainly for the Upper Class, but this was not to be the case for long. For those not aware of it yet, everything changed in 1922. That year, in my opinion, provided a silent boost to the impact of tarot today. The event? The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon.
While I’ve never seen anyone analyze this particular event’s impact on tarot, I cannot imagine ignoring it. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb greatly impacted the world. While Victorian Egyptomania was taken in mainly by the Upper Class, the Egyptomania of King Tut’s tomb spread through all economic backgrounds. Oh, and remember how that Pharaoh rediscovered the Great Sphinx in the 18th Dynasty? Well, that was actually King Tutankhamen’s great grandfather. I think that’s an interesting twist to the whole Paul Christian tale. Maybe that’s just me though. The impact of discovering King Tut’s tomb is hard to gauge in the popularity of tarot today. However, I like to think it contributed to the long term impact.
At the heart of Egyptomania, particularly in the Occult societies, was a yearning for ancient knowledge. This is, in my opinion, why we want to believe the tarot dates back to the very origin of time. To the Victorians, Ancient Egypt was that origin. Nowadays, not too much has changed in that regard. We still like to think of Atlantis being preserved, or perhaps, discovering a secret chamber under the Great Sphinx. To us, it is easier to accept ancient ideas over newer perhaps unpopular beliefs. But we must remember that just because knowledge is ancient doesn’t make it more or less valid. Those in the Wicca community understand this quite well. Wicca only dates back to the 1950s, and is still prone to myths of being a perfectly preserved ancient religion.
The occurrence of this, where new ideas are linked to older ideas in an effort to justify them, is actually quite popular. Tarot is just another instance of that. Occult Tarot in particular is rife with these instances. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of the views communicated by this method. I’ll be the first one to praise a tarot deck that gets individuals excited about history. But, we still need that history to be accurate. As tarot readers, there’s nothing wrong with sharing the Tarot Mythos. Myths are a teaching tool that goes back to ancient times. Tarot may have even been used to communicate many of these important myths. But, we need to make sure others understand where myth ends and history begins.
Puffing up tarot history is actually a disservice to tarot. Many become disillusioned, having believed the tarot’s power rested in its ancient power of endurance. Don’t do this to people. Educate yourself, and come to embrace the tarot as a tool. The tarot can still communicate ancient ideas, but this process is overseen by a modern day name. I really want to believe the tarot dates back to Ancient Egypt. I’d love to think King Tutankhamen sought guidance from the tarot. In my mind, maybe this is part of the tarot mythos I’ve created. And, when I read an Ancient Egyptian themed tarot deck, that’s perfectly okay. But when I teach or talk about tarot history, well, then I have to admit tarot probably didn’t exist at all in Ancient Egypt. And that, quite honestly, is okay with me.