Let me make it clear from the outset that it is extremely implausible to suppose that the tarot sequence (the 21 triumphs plus the Fool) originated in ancient Egypt or in any Egyptian-inspired cult elsewhere in Greco-Roman times. While some individual subjects can be related to ancient Egypt well enough, no sequence of images even remotely resembling the tarot sequence has been found in any temple, tomb, or papyrus in Egypt or any walls or pillars of any temple, basement, or tablet devoted to Egyptian gods or their syncratic equivalents in Roman times. I am talking about the particular combination of images and ideas that make up the 22 tarot images, or some significant part of them, not isolated images and concepts in isolation. The tarot is above all a set of images or ideas. That sequence, or at least that part of it preserved in the earliest known cards, is far more plausibly related to the images and literature of pre-15th century Italy, of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante, as well as some of the most common imagery of the medieval Church: in particular the "Triumphs" of Petrarch and the seven virtues of the Church. The other cards also depict common features of medieval Italian life and ideas.
The first person who first speculated in print on an Egyptian origin seems, to have been Court de Gebelin in 1781, over three centuries after the tarot appeared in Northern Italy, based on the tarot of his time. But even if someone had speculated earlier in some document about an Egyptian origin, that would not in itself by evidence of such origin, but rather of someone's theory about the tarot. However that does not preclude a relationship between the mythology of Egypt and the tarot as it existed before de Gebelin.
Similarly, the contrary, the lack of such speculation in extant documents before de Gebelin, does not in itself preclude that the fantasy of Egypt affected the imagery of the tarot and its interpretation. People did not write analyses of the symbolism of details in works of art, much less playing cards, except sometimes in so far as they illustrated some tenet or other of the Christian faith. Thus, for example, there is no account in the early centuries of the specific imagery in Botticelli's "Primavera" or even of the details in the six Petrarchan triumphs that were painted over and over again in manuscripts and wedding chests, most of which Petrarch didn't even mention. People still didn't write much about the symbolism in playing cards, even in the early 18th century. I want to make it clear that I am only talking about details, not the general themes (Love, Time, Death, etc.), which were of course written down in numerous places by around 1500.
In this post I will give one example of what I mean, namely the sphinx at the top of the Wheel of Fortune. It seems to me obvious and something that has been pointed out often, although usually in connection with Eliphas Levi's other creatures, Hermanubis and Typhon (which I do not claim to find in the dog- or donkey-like and monkey--like creatures to the right and left of the sphinx).
In the Tarot de Marseille I (Tarot of Marseille, style I) of Noblet (below left), 1660s, the Wheel of Fortune has a king on top, pure and simple (the banner could be taken as suggesting wings; but without further attributes it is not). In Chosson (below right, from either 1672 or the 1430s, but seen also in the Madenie of 1708, not shown), that same king is most reasonably seen as having the face of a man and the body of a lion, which is what defines the Egyptian sphinx.
Such a characterization may be seen in Clement of Alexandria, in the section of his Stomata entitled "Egyptian Symbols and Enigmas of Sacred Things" and so not hard to notice (Book V Ch. 7 at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02105.htm)
The change from king to sphinx, I submit, was meant as a deliberate reference to the sphinxes of Egypt, not only the Great Sphinx (of which only the head was above ground) but the smaller sphinxes that lines the approaches to temples. Given that the lion was popularly seen as the king of beasts, it a fitting image for one who has the power to raise his subjects up and throw them down. Moreover, it has a little goatee reminiscent of the false beards put on statues and reliefs of gods and pharaohs.Besides, the lion is with them the symbol of strength and prowess, as the ox clearly is of the earth itself, and husbandry and food, and the horse of fortitude and confidence; while, on the other hand, the sphinx, of strength combined with intelligence— as it had a body entirely that of a lion, and the face of a man.
It is also not a Greek sphinx, because that one had the head of a woman and was not a king; nor did the Greek sphinx. Yet it does obliquely suggest the Greek sphinx, by association, by the banner behind suggesting wings, and its symbolic appropriateness, given the traditional interpretation of the card. In particular what fits is the famous sphinx of Oedipus, who while granting him the throne of Thebes thanks to his solving her riddle, also led him into her trap, that of marrying his mother, the seed of his downfall. Hence the falling figure on the 15th and 16th century Italian cards (below, 16th century Ferrarese, 1440s Brera-Brambilla, 1450s PMB), wiser than his upward counterpart, as indicated by his humanoid head, continuing in that respect the tradition in which the one aspiring to reign had an ass's head, and the one descending had only an ass's hindquarters. (The one on top as a complete ass--as opposed to a figure whose actions are sometimes enigmatic-- would not have been looked upon with favor in the age of French absolutism.)
I do not exclude the possibility of animals in other TdMs before the standard Tarot de Marseille II, having a monkey on top, or a cross between a king and a donkey--even the Noblet has a trace of that, in the King's left leg--or some other animal. It is usually fairly vague what animal it might be; I know that the Payen is sometimes seen as the baboon of Thoth (http://www.tarot.org.il/Payen/10%20La%2 ... ortvne.png), but that is too much of a stretch for me.
The Tarot de Marseille II figure is also clearly not a cat (as in the Egyptian cat-god), except perhaps in the Payen or in the sense of the genus "big cat". Yet in that latter sense people might have related what Plutarch said about Isis's sistrum (even though the top of a sistrum is not a wheel either), if only because it fits the by then standard theme of the card (On Isis and Osiris section 63, at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/R ... is*/D.html):
Nephthys was sometimes called "End" (Plutarch sect. 59), because she was identified with that part of the land that borders the sea (sect. 38), the sea being her husband Typhon (sect. 33). With birth at the bottom right of the card, the course upward, counter-clockwise, is of the young person seeking recognition. With death on the bottom of the other side, that side is the downward course toward obscurity and death after whatever recognition one has received.The upper part of the sistrum is circular and its circumference contains the four things that are shaken; for that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon, and all things in it are subjected to motion and to change through the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. At the top of the circumference of the sistrum they construct the figure of a cat with a human face, and at the bottom, below the things that are shaken, the face of Isis on one side, and on the other the face of Nephthys. By these faces they symbolize birth and death, for these are the changes and movements of the elements; and by the cat they symbolize the moon because of the varied colouring, nocturnal activity, and fecundity of the animal. ... By the human features of the cat is indicated the intelligence and the reason that guides the changes of the moon.
Such an interpretation would be supported further by the image of the sun dial, whose pointer goes at least half way around a circle from dawn to dusk and which can be presumed to have been omnipresent in Egypt, as a land of sunshine. Both this and the association to the Plutarch passage just quoted are very secondary associations to Egypt, of the second type that I characterized initially (those probably unintended by the card designer); that of the sphinx is of the first type.
From Plutarch's interpretation it is then not a large jump to that of Eliphas Levi in 1856, in which Plutarch's Isis becomes Hermanubis and the Good Daemon, Nephthys her husband Typhon and the Evil Daemon, and the sphinx an image of God, which sends evil downward and elevates the good, a version of what Clement said about the Egyptian sphinx, at the end of the chapter already cited:
Of course kings in this world were meant to be seen, in 17th century France, as representatives of the divine in both functions.Therefore also the Egyptians place Sphinxes before their temples, to signify that the doctrine respecting God is enigmatical and obscure; perhaps also that we ought both to love and fear the Divine Being: to love Him as gentle and benign to the pious; to fear Him as inexorably just to the impious; for the sphinx shows the image of a wild beast and of a man together.
My general theme at this point is changes in the tarot sequence from the time of the Tarot de Marseille I of Noblet, i.e. around 1660, to the TdM2 of Chosson/Madenie up to Conver 1761, that reflect ways Egypt was imagined then. In the Wheel the sphinx is primary, the course of life from birth to death secondary. I have similar examples in other cards, but I will stop here, in case people have other comments on changes in the Wheel from c.1660 to c.1760 in relation to how people, at least educated people, in France imagined Egypt then.