Is Tarot a closed practice? A Concise History of Tarot and Cartomancy

Well hello there, Coven!

Today we are going to discuss the actual history of Tarot. The reason I am doing this is because I am seeing a lot of arguments on social media about the origins of Tarot and if it is a closed practice or not. So worry not, I deep dived and am sharing the knowledge below…

Top Level Overview: 

  • Tarot reading is not a closed practice and open to everyone who has a calling to learn divination 
  • “Dukkering” or ‘Bocht’ which is the Romany style of ‘future telling’ Cartomancy is closed. As this is only taught Romany to Romany via word of mouth and actually living the Romany life. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you will ever come across the knowledge or life experience to appropriate this. (See below quote)
Rider Waite Colmen Smith Tarot deck

The Origins of Tarot 

The Tarot actually started in Europe and was considered a parlor game for the first few hundred years. The 78 card deck that we now and love today originated in Renaissance Italy around the 1430’s when they added a 5th deck to the standard 4 deck playing cards. This new 5th deck was called ‘Triumphs’ but we know it as the ‘Higher Arcana’ in modern day. The 4 other decks are commonly known as the ‘Lower Arcana’. Translated into the modern standard playing card decks (also known as the French Deck) these are:  

TarotStandard Playing CardsElement
WandsClubsFire (or Air)
CupsHeartsWater
SwordsSpadesAir (Or Fire)
PentaclesDiamondEarth

These Italian “carte da trionfi” or “cards of triumph” were played like you would play bridge and wealthy families would commission artists to create their own decks so the illustrations differed widely. 

Oracle cards were also gaining in popularity over the 18th century onwards for divination and these were commonly known as Lenormand cards until recently due to celebrity card-reader Mademoiselle Marie Anne Lenormand, making them so popular in the 19th Century – although her 36 card deck wasn’t published in her name until after her death. 

I recently acquired some Lenormand cards and they are simply beautiful to look at and I will do a full post on them as well….but for now, let’s focus on the history of Tarot! 

Lenormand Oracle Deck

The move from Tarot as a game, to Tarot as Divination

As the game moved on from it’s Italian origins into the courts of France, Teacher and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette wrote his first book on the tarot in 1791, called “Etteilla, ou L’art de lire dans les cartes,” meaning “Etteilla, or the Art of Reading Cards.”. This book implied incorrectly that the art had come from ancient Egypt but he introduced to the masses the concept that the cards can be used for divination. 

The modern standard Tarot deck that we widely use today is called the Rider Waite Colman Smith deck – but is often abbreviated as just the ‘Rider Waite’. William Rider was the publisher, and popular mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate the deck wrote a book to accompany the cards. This was released in 1909 and hasn’t been out of print since. 

What Pamela Colman Smith did to revolutionise the deck was to create scenes for every card in the lower Arcana, so that a narrative could be easily picked up from each card. Now, rest assured I am working on her blog post as I type this. As a Female and person of Colour, she certainly deserves her name to be known widely within the Tarot Community as the history of most occult topics tends to be a bit of a pale sausage fest and doesn’t reflect the women who also helped develop the craft. 

Tarot really took off in the late 1970’s when Stuart Kaplan obtained the publishing rights and released his 1977 book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. He has since written several more books on the subject of Tarot and that audience has grown and shared their love for Tarot with others…and I guess the rest is history? But there is one last thing that we need to clear up on the history of Tarot…

Art Oracle Cards

The Romany Traveller Tarot Connection  

The Romany are a beautiful community of travellers who have become deeply connected with Tarot. This is because in the 18th Century onwards the Roma people people took Tarot into their hearts and offered readings as they travelled around Europe and beyond. The Roma are fans of Cartomancy in general and in fact, often used the traditional French standard deck that we use for playing cards for their readings rather than the 78 card Tarot deck that is most commonly used today. 

The Roma have two words when referring to their style of Cartomancy and they are: 

  • “Dukkering” – modification of a Wallaco-Sclavonian word meaning something spiritual, other worldly or ghostly
  •  ‘Bocht’ – a Persian word meaning or connected to the Sanskrit bhagya, which means fate

Regarding the closed practice question, the fabulous Lisa Boswell, a Romany Tarot reader explains this very well on her blog Divinerisim (Do check her out!) 

‘Only someone who was raised in a traditional manner will be able to read your fortune in ‘Gypsy’ style. Anyone advertising as a Gypsy and advertising chakra cleansing, aura sprays, yoga, or anything similar (I can confidently say) does not read in the traditional Gypsy manner. I know this because their reading style is clearly influenced by Gorger (Non Romany) culture and only a tiny percentage of Gypsies know what these things are….Like I said before, it is not sufficient to be 100% Romany; you have to be raised like us, to be one of us.

It is possible for Gorgers to, hypothetically, learn how to read like a Romany person through an understanding of our symbolism. However, our spirituality is tied mostly to the way which we live which, in turn, is tied to our upbringing. This worldview is not something you can learn from a book; we live this way from when we wake in the morning to when we go to sleep at night, and our laws and rules affect every area of our life.’

Lisa Boswell

Fabulous resources here for more on the history of Tarot, the Romany Tarot spread and Romany Cartomancy history: 

Ah, that was a lovely lesson wasn’t it? Just knowing the history of Tarot makes me love it even more. Hopefully, you enjoyed it too and maybe learned something you didn’t know before? I’d love to hear your thoughts below and on my social channels. 

Until next time, Darlings! 

Top Image: “Tarot” by kpishdadi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

17 thoughts on “Is Tarot a closed practice? A Concise History of Tarot and Cartomancy

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