In this article on the History of Tarot cards, we answer questions like, how old is the art of Tarot? Where did it come from? When was Tarot first used? And lots more. Here is the story of Tarot cards.
- Who Invented Tarot Cards?
- Are Tarot Cards Egyptian?
- What is The History of Tarot Cards, Where Did The Cards Come From?
- When Was Tarot First Used For Divination and Fortune Telling?
- Tarot in The Modern World
- Most Influential Historical Tarot Decks
- Where Did The Word Tarot Come From?
Who Invented Tarot Cards?
Divination and fortune telling are the first things that most people assume, when they see or hear about Tarot cards. However, the Tarot cards have changed in form and function since their first recorded appearance during the early Renaissance in Italy.
Originally Tarot was born as a game of cards and not a fortune telling magical device. It was only when 22 picture cards, known as the Major Arcana today, were inserted into an ordinary deck of playing cards, that the Tarot emerged.
There are many legends and unsubstantiated theories about the history of Tarot cards and their origins. In answer to the question, who invented Tarot cards, there is no one credited author.
Speculative history, supported by esotericists through the ages, suggests the cards originally came from either India, Persia, China or Ancient Egypt. However, no-one seems able to explain how they evolved from such exotic roots.
What is more likely, is that the Tarot went through revisions over time, possibly originating in China, until it became the more permanently structured deck recorded in early 1400s Italy.
Are Tarot Cards Egyptian?
Did Tarot cards originally come from Egypt? No, not from ancient Egypt, at least.
In the 18th century, European occultists began to take a more serious interest in Tarot as a divination tool, and inevitably, the question of it’s origin was raised. A French freemason and scholar of ancient mythology named Court de Gebelin (1725-1984) claimed that Tarot was an ancient Egyptian artifact, and his theory spread like wildfire. Gebelin teased readers by asking in an essay, What would you think if the book of Egypt had been hiding under your nose all this time?
He explained that it had become clear to him, that Tarot is in fact the Egyptian Book of Thoth – that is, texts supposed to have been written by the Egyptian god Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge. The holder of this book was supposed to be able to telepathically speak with animals and cast powerful spells. However, while Gebelin’s theories proved very influential on Tarot historical figures like Etteilla and Eliphas Lévi, they were all the same, just intuitive guesswork.
What is The History of Tarot Cards, Where Did The Cards Come From?
It has been suggested that Tarot was bought from India by traveling gypsies or romani. This hypothesis seems to rest on the similarities to the Tarot Suits of the items that the Indian god Ardhanarishvara (related to the Hindu deity Shiva) is depicted with holding in her hand. The god is depicted holding a cup, ring, sword and scepter, which some believe are very similar to the symbols of the cups, pentacles, swords and wands of the Minor Arcana cards. On closer examination, the symbols may look similar, but they are not the same. An interesting coincidence, perhaps.
Chinese and Muslim Origins
The primary reason some Tarot authors claim the cards originated in China is because the Chinese had paper and the technology of printing. China is the most likely origin of Tarot, and it is possible that the cards traveled from China down the Silk Road to the Islamic world and Empire of Mamluk. Mumluk was a state which ruled Arabia and Egypt between the 13th and 16th centuries.
Playing cards, called Mamluk cards, were popular in the region from about the 13th century. A deck of Mamluk cards typically contained 52 cards, which were divided into four suits, with 13 cards per suit. The suits were coins, cups, swords and polo-sticks (representing a popular sport in the Mamluk empire). Sound familiar?
We think so too. It is obvious that the origins of European Tarot cards were from the Muslim world, most likely bought to Italian ports by merchants and sailors.
How old are Tarot cards?
According to historical records, we can reliably date Tarot cards back to 15th century Renaissance Italy, which makes them at least 600 years old.
Renaissance Tarot History
What we know for sure, is that the first recorded use of Tarot cards was in the early 15th century in Italy. The cards were hand painted by professional painters of the Italian royal courts and were designed as playing cards for the nobility. What made the Tarot different to earlier versions of cards, such as the Mamluk deck, was the addition of 22 Major Arcana or trump cards. The standard Tarot deck by the 15th century contained 78 cards in total.
Unfortunately, no complete deck has survived from the mid 1400s. The hand-painted Visconti-Sforza Tarot cards are the oldest and most complete deck we have from that period. The first complete deck which survives today is the Sola Busca, which was engraved in 1491.
With the advent of printing presses, Tarot was played in taverns as a gambling game.
The Marseille Tarot was invented in about 1650 and became the first standardized and mass-produced deck. The Marseille is not a single deck, there are many different variations of the Marseille with different designs and symbolism. Rather, it is an iconographic template, and it became a point of reference for printers.
When Was Tarot First Used For Divination and Fortune Telling?
Historians are not aware of any fortune telling uses or meanings for Tarot cards before 1760. Up until this time, as far as we know, Tarot was only used for card games.
In the late 18th century, a popular new type of deck, called the Marseille Tarot, spread throughout Europe. It coincided with the rise of esotericism, mystery schools and secret orders like The Rosicrucian.
Occultists began to adopt Tarot as a source of ancient wisdom, and practitioners interpreted the cards in an esoteric framework that included the Qabalah, alchemy, Hermeticism, Enochian magic, ancient Egyptian magic, Christian mysticism, geomancy, astrology and numerology. Their studies, books and papers on the subject soon transformed Tarot into an art of divination.
By 1850, Tarot was at the center of a renewed interest in esotericism.
Enjoying the History of Tarot Cards? Check out my Tarot Guide for more articles.
Tarot in The Modern World
The 78 card meanings and Tarot card symbols that we associate with Tarot today, were codified by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1909, a member of the order Arthur Waite, and colleague artist Pamela Colman Smith created the Rider Waite deck. This deck has become the gold standard for tarot readers ever since.
After the First World War ended in 1918, esoterism and spiritualism declined, and along with it, the popularity of Tarot cards and divination. It wasn’t until the 1960s, that Tarot and cartomancy experienced a revival as a result of the New Age movement and its interest in spirituality and healing.
At present, there are hundreds of different types of Tarot decks based on a myriad of spiritual traditions, from Druidry, Paganism, Wicca, to Zen Buddhism and Arthurian mythology. While most retain the basic structure laid out originally in the Marseille Tarot, the images, iconography and iconology have drifted away from earlier versions.
These days, modern readers often rely on their intuition and use more than one deck in a Tarot reading, rather than sticking to specific interpretations in Tarot books. What is clear from the history of Tarot, is that there is no absolute Truth to Tarot. It is what the reader, or author, makes of it.
Most Influential Historical Tarot Decks
This is in fact a collection of decks commissioned by the Visconti and Sforza families of Milan.
Sola Busca Tarot deck
This is the only complete and oldest deck from the fifteenth century that still exists.
Marseille Tarot or Tarot de Marseille
The city of Marseille, France, became a leading center for Tarot card production in the 1730s when they adopted a standard model for Tarot cards. The decks they created over the years varied in detail and coloring, but the main themes and elements of the card remained the same. When the French Cabbalists in Paris began to study Tarot, they used the Marseille decks for instruction. Under their influence, the Marseille Tarot became the standard model for Tarot for the purposes of mysticism and divination. Soon, both French and English schools of mysticism, ended up accepting the Marseille as the genuine model for Tarot.
Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), more commonly known as Etteilla, was Europe’s first famous Tarot reader. He expanded on Court de Gebelin’s Egyptian theories of the card’s origins, and he organized a unified meaning for each card. Before he came along, fortune tellers tended to rely on palm reading and tealeaf reading for their clients. Etteilla promoted the use of cards through his books, and his orderly system made it much easier for fortune tellers to understand how to use the cards for predicting the future. In his lifetime, he made a living from cartomancy, which means card reading, a word he is credited with inventing. He also provided astrological readings, Tarot lessons and spiritual counseling.
In 1788, Etteilla published his own deck called Petit Etteilla. It was the first deck designed specifically for the purposes of divination. Even until this point, the Marseille Tarot was still being used by many as playing cards.
Cards created by Oswald Wirth (1860-1943), a Swiss occultist and kabbalist. His deck, the Wirth Tarot, follows the standard of the Marseille Tarot closely but included occult symbolism. He had a particular interest in Freemasonry and astrology, which comes through in the symbols and iconography of his deck.
Rider Waite Tarot
This deck of card was not created in a vacuum, but was born from the Golden Dawn order. Members of this secret organization were more interested in the philosophical and mystical principles, that they felt, stood behind Tarot. In fact, they thought these principles could better be expressed through symbolism, which is why they added new representations to the basic structure laid out in the Marseilles deck. The result was the Rider Waite Tarot, also called the Rider Waite Smith Tarot. This deck combines the structure of the Marseille and esoteric knowledge of the Golden Dawn.
Aleister Crowley, occultist, mystic, ceremonial magician and member of the Golden Dawn, created the Thoth Tarot. Completed in 1942, it was accompanied by the Book of Thoth. Only 200 books sold at the time, and it would not be until US Games bought the rights in 1977, that the cards began to grow in popularity. The cards were illustrated by the British artist Frieda Harris, and contain a mix of symbols drawn from Gnosticism, to Buddhism, Taoism, astrology, alchemy and Kabbalah.
Where Did The Word Tarot Come From?
The English word tarot is most likely derived from the Old Italian word tarocchi. In the 15th century, a card game called Tarocho was popular, and a century later it was renamed tarocchi.
Books on The History of Tarot Cards
- The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert Place
- The Game of Saturn Decoding the Sola-Busca Tarocchi, by P. M. Adams (2018)
- A Cultural History of Tarot from Entertainment to Esotericism, by Helen Farley (2009)
- Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility, Arthur Rosengarten (2011)
- The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, by Carl Jung
Famous Historical Tarot Books
- “The Primitive World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World” by Gebelin (1775)
- “Etteilla, Or a Way to Entertain Yourself with a Deck of Cards” (1770) by Etteilla
- “History of Magic, the Supernatural World and Fate, through Times and Peoples” (1870) by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (also known as Paul Christian)
- “The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic” (1854) by Éliphas Lévi
- “The History of Magic” (1860) by Éliphas Lévi
- “The Key to the Great Mysteries” (1860) by Éliphas Lévi
- “Major Keys and Minor Keys of Solomon” (1890) by Éliphas Lévi
- “Tarot of the Gypsies: The Most Ancient Book in the World”, also known as “Tarot of the Bohemians” by Gerard Encausse (known as Papus)
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Karina, author of Tarot in 5 Minutes.
History of Tarot Cards