The Real History of Tarot Cards

Joshua Hehe
9 min readDec 9, 2019
An assortment of Tarot cards from the Rider-Waite deck.

Some popular myths about the origin of the Tarot place the first deck in the hands of many different people throughout history. The speculations about the creators of Tarot cards include the Sufis, the Cathars, the Egyptians, Kabbalists, and more. However, all of the actual historical evidence points to northern Italy sometime in the early part of the 1400s. Contrary to what many have claimed, there is absolutely no proof of the Tarot having originated in any other time or place. The truth is that a few decades before the Tarot was born, ordinary playing cards came to Europe by way of Arabs, arriving in many different cities between 1375 and 1378. These cards were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards. They had suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks, the latter of which were seen by Europeans as staves. Like common playing cards, the Tarot has four suits, which vary by region. Over time, this would include French suits in Northern Europe, Latin suits in Southern Europe, and German suits in Central Europe. The decks also included courts consisting of a king and two underlings. Later, the fool, the trumps, and a set of queens were added to the system.

A modern playing card next to ancient Mamluk cards.

Sometime before 1480, the French introduced cards with the now-familiar suits of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds. It wasn’t until after much of this had occurred that, sometime in the first half of the 15th century, someone created the original deck of Tarot cards. A deck was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria circa 1420. The painter Michelino da Besozzo was put to work making a 60-card deck with 16 cards having images of the Roman gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were triumphs regarded as “trumps”. The duke had invented a novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus, or “a new and exquisite kind of triumphs”. Of course, these were just for fun not for fortunetelling.

Currently, the Visconti-Sforza Tarot is used collectively to refer to incomplete sets of approximately 15 decks from circa 1460, now located in various museums, libraries, and private collections around the world. These Italian cards were initially used to play a new type of game. This was similar to the game bridge, however…