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The History of Tarot, Part I: Symbolism

Before we can know Tarot's place in history, we have to understand the history of symbolism itself.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," as the saying goes; pictures of creatures, events, and even metaphysical concepts can transmit ideas oftentimes more quickly and effectively than the spoken or written word.

Pictures---symbols---are especially valuable for possessing less ambiguity, in many cases, than words, which can be twisted and misunderstood due to all kinds of factors: mispronunciation, poor translation, and so on.

Symbolism has existed ever since man first began scratching images onto stones and into dust. At first, these images were often straightforward, depicting fertility, natural cycles, or primitive activities. Over time, images became gradually more complex, with more advanced ideas expressed in art.

Notably, entire pantheons of deities, across many different cultures, formed around a core of symbolism. In classical Greece and Rome, for example, people viewed the gods not necessarily as literal beings but rather as expressions of ideas, feelings, and concepts indelibly connected to human life. Aphrodite (or Venus) was not merely the "goddess of love"; she symbolized the very essence of womanhood, fertility, and love. Yet she also symbolized the negative aspects of related ideas: thinking with the heart rather than with the head, acting on feelings rather than on rationality, and falling prey to lust.

The most important symbolism for the purposes of Tarot's history is that associated with the original Christian church. For centuries (and up to today, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church and to a lesser extent in the Roman Catholic Church), glorious artwork featuring Christ, the saints, and various events filled and beautifully decorated Christian places of worship and reverence across the world.

These icons, as lovely as they were and are, were not mere decorations. They were means by which to teach and instruct the devout in Christian theology and to enhance the understanding of both the human and divine realms.

Icons were so important to the Christian church that their usage was considered integral to teaching, expressing, and learning the Christian faith, notwithstanding brief periods of "iconoclasm" in which opposing political forces, basing their ideas on misreadings of Scripture and their own selfish opinions, sought to remove all iconography.

The Church restored the use of icons some time thereafter and icons have remained an important part of Christian worship and heritage ever since.

These icons, as we noted, depict various figures and events from Christian theology as well as from day-to-day existence: from Christ himself to the saints, from Biblical events to the Roman-Byzantine emperors. Each icon, each figure, and each event was not only a representation, it also was a symbol of various ideas and concepts.

For example, an icon of the Apostle Mark was not only a depiction of the man himself, but a symbol for law, courage, and authority.

Hence, a devout Christian could visit a church and reflect or meditate on an icon of the Apostle Mark, and consider what the Apostle represented. Was that church visitor showing enough courage in his life? Was he living up to the ideals the Apostle stood for? How could he change and improve his life, in order to follow in the Apostle's footsteps more closely, and reap the spiritual rewards for doing so?

This Christian use of icons as meditative, teaching, and spiritually-empowering tools directly connects to the origin and development of Tarot cards.

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