The Real History of Tarot Cards

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, there were 21 special cards that served as permanent trumps. These could be played regardless of the suit that was led, and they outranked all the ordinary cards. This was known as the “Game of Triumphs” and it became extraordinarily popular, particularly among the upper ruling class. Then, as the game spread throughout northern Italy and eastern France, changes were often made to the pictures and the ranking of the trumps. However, they usually bore no numbers on the cards themselves.

Cards from the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Around 1530, the word “tarocchi” first appeared. The reason for such a name change is apparently because someone made the innovation that the game of triumphs could be played with ordinary cards by simply declaring a particular suit to be the trumps at the beginning of each hand. Hence, “triumphs” became an ambiguous term, and a new word was needed to refer to the traditional game of triumphs. Thus, the word tarocchi came into use, although its etymology still remains a subject of conjecture. The word Tarot is not Egyptian, Hebrew, or Latin. It is not an anagram, and it does not hold the key to the mystery of the cards. On the contrary, the earliest names for the Tarot are all Italian. The cards seem to have initially been known as the “carte da trionfi”, or “cards of triumphs”. Then, the word tarocchi began to be used in Italy, while the Germans used the word “tarock”, and the French enlisted the word “tarot”, or more properly “Tarot”.

In addition to this, early 16th century poets used trump cards to create verses called “tarocchi appropriate”, which described famous personage and ladies of the court. It became more and more popular to use the trumps to compose poems describing personality characteristics in a way that was far more flattering than that of contemporary psychological profiling. It wasn’t until much later that the cards became a popular means of predicting the future. In regards to this, a Tarot reading is technically a ritual even if regalia and paraphernalia are not employed. By the mutual agreement of their coming together for the express purpose, a sort of pact is formed between a querent and the interpreter of the oracle. The earliest printed treatise on Tarot cards used in this kind of way seems to have appeared in Italy around 1540 in the work Le Sorti by Marolino. However, the first unambiguous evidence of Tarot divination, as it is commonly understood, can be seen in Bologna sometime in the early 1700s. Of course, it is known that ordinary playing cards were connected with divination as early as 1487, so it is reasonable to conjecture that the Tarot might have been as well.

Cards from the Mantegna Tarocchi deck.

There is no evidence that the early Tarot had Kabbalistic or Hermetic characteristics, and it must be understood that the cards are a product of the early Italian Renaissance. During this time a diversity of philosophies thrived. These ranged from astrology and Pythagorean numerology to Hermetic and Christian ideologies. Any, or all, of these themes, could have imprinted themselves into the later designs. It’s obvious that much of the imagery is drawn from the Christian culture of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Still, it must be understood that the Tarot has only recently become a pillar of the mystery tradition, gaining influence from various esoteric schools of thought. Thus, it wasn’t until centuries after the Tarot came to life that devotees of the occult in France and England encountered the cards and saw esoteric meanings in the enigmatic symbolism of the cards.

In certain circumstances, it was inevitable that alternative religions or mystical ideas would have to cloak themselves in secret codes, carefully guarded and made known only to the initiated. Thus, the Tarot serves as a basic compendium of philosophy and mythology that sets forth the cyclic concept of life and death in a symbol system that can be understood by children, illiterates, and scholars alike. A Tarot deck serves as a vast treasure trove of occult lore. It is a set of esoteric flashcards designed to illuminate even the most learned student of the arcane mysteries. In many ways, the Tarot is a medieval equivalent to contemporary tools of psychology, such as the Rorschach or TAT test. The cards can be an aid to psychological awareness and spiritual development, thus acting as a guide along your path in life.

This fascination with the cards led to the current reputation Tarot has as an occult artifact and tool of divination. The first such esoteric reference to the Tarot appeared in “The Fame and Confession of the Rosicrucians,” published in 1612. In this body of writing, the Tarot was given the name ROTA. It was described as a device that is to be consulted for information concerning the past, present, and future. Then, the Comte de Mellet, whose short article on the Tarot was published in Court de Gebelin’s Le Monde Primitif, in 1781, was the first to write of a Kabbalistic connection between the Hebrew alphabet and the Tarot. In that same year, Antoine Court de Gebelin made his own Tarot deck and claimed that the Major Arcana was an ancient Egyptian book containing secret wisdom. Later, Alliette took up Gebelin’s ideas, under the reversed name Etteilla, and he called the Tarot the “Book of Thoth.”

Cards from the Etteilla Tarot deck.

Etteilla claimed that his Tarot deck restored the original Egyptian design. Etteilla also invented modern cartomancy using spreads. He would even lay out an entire deck of cards in some readings. In addition to this, his card meanings were the underpinning of the contemporary Anglo-American Tarot. The illustrations of French-suited trumps depart considerably from the older Italian-suited design, abandoning many of the Renaissance allegorical motifs. The first generation of French-suited Tarot decks appeared around 1740 and depicted scenes of animals on the trumps. However, around 1800, a greater variety of decks were produced, mostly with veduta or genre art. Either way, Etteilla’s fascination with the links between the Tarot and the Kabbalah led to discoveries made by Eliphas Levi, who popularized the connections between the Kabbalah and the Tarot in his 1856 work, The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. This was the established pattern that Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers would later elaborate on to form the Golden Dawn Tarot deck.

Mathers, the head of the Golden Dawn, would eventually record these esoteric attributes of the Tarot in a monumental manuscript entitled Book T, written in 1887. Their work focused a lot on the Major Arcana (“Greater Secrets”). This typically consists of a series of cards sometimes beginning with the Fool as number 0 or ending with it as number 22, depending on the deck. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn made the Tarot correspond with the Kabbalah more closely by placing the Fool card before the Magician, instead of before the Universe. They also swapped Justice with Strength. More importantly, they codified the meanings of the Minor Arcana consisting of 56 cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each. Then, a major event in the transformation of the Tarot occurred in 1910 with the publication of A. E. Waite’s Key to the Tarot which was issued with a full 78-card deck of esoterically designed masterpieces. These included the innovation of scene designs for the pip cards, which were painted by Pamela Coleman Smith who was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, along with Arthur Edward Waite. Rider was merely the publisher.

The Rider-Waite deck has since become the most popular version of the Tarot among the masses. However, in 1944 another member of the Golden Dawn wrote an even better book entitled The Book of Thoth. This next-level manuscript was painstakingly put together by none other than the famous and infamous Aleister Crowley himself. Then, he commissioned Lady Frieda Harris to paint what would become the Thoth Tarot in 1969. The illustrations of the deck feature symbolism based upon Crowley’s incorporation of imagery from many disparate disciplines, including science and philosophy and various occult systems, as described in detail in The Book of Thoth. Crowley originally intended the Thoth Tarot to be a six-month project aimed at updating the traditional pictorial symbolism of the standard deck. However, due to increased scope, the project eventually spanned five years, between 1938 and 1943 and both artists died before publication in 1969 by the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), of which they were both members. As such, the Thoth Tarot has become one of the best-selling and most popular decks in the world.

Cards from Crowley’s Tarot.

Like the Sistine Chapel, the Tarot is a perfect synthesis of art and spirituality. This has helped to make the Tarot a cornerstone of modern occultism and an incredibly useful tool for practitioners the world over. I have personally used the Thoth Tarot for more than 25 years now and although many other decks have come out since the 1960s, I believe Crowley’s deck to be the true culmination of the cards. While all the earlier attempts illustrated their topic in a simple form of a pictorial narrative, Crowley successfully abstracted the motifs by expressing the meaning of the cards in a complex symbolism. This does, however, make it difficult for a layman to use the deck. Regardless, the point is that everything that has led up to this moment has helped to ensure that the Tarot will serve as the basic framework upon which subsequent Western mysticism will be founded.

In many ways, the cards tell the oldest story of humanity following the Fool through a “hero’s journey”, as described by Joseph Campbell. This also coincides with the primordial imagery of the psyche, which Carl Jung called archetypes. In the most technical sense, attaining the Philosopher's Stone and ascending the Tree of Life is the same as the Fool’s Journey through the Major Arcana. They are all steps to Enlightenment. In other words, the Tarot speaks the common tongue of the human soul. In this way, it can be seen as the basis for the modern-day symbols and codes of esoterica, tracing all the way back to the Italian Renaissance. Thus, the cartomancers of the world possess the keys to everything in it. Ultimately, the Tarot is a veritable pictorial bible of the secret teachings of the ages. As such, it has been with us for centuries and it will remain with us for millennia…




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Joshua Hehe

Joshua Hehe

An Autodidact Polymath

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