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Tarot and Ancient Egypt – A Connection?

By Debbie J Challis, on 27 April 2011

A couple of years ago, I wanted to know why there were so many Ancient Egyptian inspired objects in ‘New Age’ shops and what the connections where with tarot.  I was put in touch with a  historian and practitioner Lena Munday and thought I’d share with you what she wrote:

“A language in itself, a book of occult wisdom, a mode of communication invented by the Ancients that reaches us today despite centuries of persecution, distortion and neglect…A coded system linked directly to Astrology, gnosticism, alchemy, ritual magic and Qabala… The Tarot is a mirror and a map of the soul reflecting the entire spectrum of human experience.

From the infancy of the Fool to the completion and knowledge that finds its embodiment in the World, this system speaks the ancient language of symbols. This book has evolved into a deck comprised of 78 cards, 22 of these are the Major Arcana and the remaining 56 are the Minor Arcana with four suits- Pentacles, Swords, Rods or Wands and Cups. These number ace to ten and include pages, knights, kings and queens. For each card there is an alchemical correspondence, an astrological sign and a number.

The deck currently in widespread usage with its myriad of artistic interpretations, is based on the pack designed by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite whose book ‘The Pictorial Key to the Tarot’ was published in 1910. The occult revival during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries manifested some interesting study although much of this was male dominated. An exception was the work of Helena Blavatsky who mentioned Tarot in ‘The Secret Doctrine’ and ‘The Unveiling of Isis’ connecting the origins of Tarot with Ancient Egypt.

As a system of occult meaning and esoteric guidance, Tarot was forced underground in Medieval Europe. Disguising the Tarot as a game was a way of enabling practicioners to continue its usage without persecution. It was called ‘The Devil’s Picture Book’ by the Christian Church and heretics using it were put to death. This is why records are patchy and the Tarot appears to only to resurface at certain times. Those in the know always used it, but secretly if they needed to.

Aleister Crowley wrote in ‘The Book of Thoth:A short essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians’ (OTO 1944): ‘the origin of Tarot is quite irrelevant, even if it were certain. It must stand or fall on its own merits.’

Unlike Crowley, many are concerned with Tarot origins and among these historians, practicioners, healers, mystics and writers there are many who believe the answers do lie firmly in Ancient Egypt. The Theosophers, following on from Madame Blavatsky and her classic work ‘The Secret Doctrine’ (1888) are the alternative Egyptologists, writers that include John Gordon and Katy Noura Butler who assert that Ancient Egypt is more ancient than we think and that the Ancient Egyptians guarded the wisdom and knowledge of Atlantis.”

9 Responses to “Tarot and Ancient Egypt – A Connection?”

  • 1
    Bill Davies wrote on 4 July 2011:

    Very interesting, I had no idea tarot could be that old. Most articles about it trace it back to the middle ages but this is the first time I’ve seen this information. It seems there’s a lot more to it than most people think.

    Thank you.

  • 2
    Mohamed Hamid wrote on 20 August 2011:

    I read in a book that there were total 78 Tarot cards and have been blended with Egyptology seamlessly. Some book says that these were also used for some “Black Magic” and playing cards had entered first in the Europe through them.

  • 3
    Mike stevens wrote on 18 January 2012:

    I quite agree when you write that the Tarot is a mirror and a map of the soul that reflects the entire spectrum of human experience. I think this sentence has a mystical connotation. Either way this civilization is a mine of wealth to be aware of esoteric world.

  • 4
    Morgan Feather wrote on 5 February 2012:

    The tarot symbolism is very ancient and includes much ancient Egyptian and archaic Greek values. A new book on this topic is coming out this year.

  • 5
    Lena Munday wrote on 13 June 2012:

    Thanks for reading this. I am interested in the book you mention- could you let me know some details? Lena

  • 6
    Olga Gego wrote on 23 March 2014:

    Yes. It’s true! Check sephirotic magic and tree.

  • 7
    These Are The Tarot Decks You Need In Your Life (Your Future Self Will Thank You) | Centre.al wrote on 9 March 2016:

    […] to divine one’s future and inner self only came into vogue in France, in the late 1700s. Others suggest that tarot has roots in ancient Egypt (although its supposed source text, the Book of Thoth, offers […]

  • 8
    Michael H. wrote on 29 September 2017:

    The card shown is based on a design published in 1896. The artist was Maurice Otto Wegener, a young artist in Paris, to the specifications of Robert Falconnier, an actor at the Comedie Francaise. The card is indeed inspired by ancient Egypt, in that there are pyramids, the dogs are drawn in an Egyptian style, and a scorpion (representing the constellation Scorpio) can be seen on the Denderah circular astronomical ceiling, which had been physically extracted from its temple in Egypt and brought to the Louvre in Paris in 1821. The ceiling itself was done by the Greek rulers of Egypt after 50 b.c., attempting to merge Greek and Egyptian religion. Other than that, it is quite impossible to trace any relationship to ancient Egypt. References: for Denderah, many websites. For Falconnier, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5525090q. Falconnier in turn was inspired by Paul Christian, for whom see Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, Ch. 9. Christian gave as his source the ancient philosopher Iamblichus, even citing a specific edition of the work; but that source describes nothing remotely like those images, or any images. That is not to say that Greco-Egyptian philosophy and mythology cannot be used to interpret certain tarot images, or that some cards were not inspired in part by Egyptian images (e.g. the above moon card). But it is difficult to make even these weak claims for the earliest cards (for which see http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/visconti-tarot). They are readily explained in terms of the literature and imagery of Italy at the time.

  • 9
    Javier Ernst wrote on 14 June 2019:

    Very interesting content, I had no idea tarot could be that old.

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