History of Tarot Cards

Tarot's fascinating history.
Tarot's fascinating history.

The history of tarot cards is somewhat mysterious. There have been many papers and books written on the topic, and not everyone agrees about where the art of tarot began. There is probably some truth in all of the theories since tarot cards seem to have a worldwide appeal. It stands to reason that perhaps many cultures played a part in their creation.

The Origin of Tarot Cards

Playing cards were invented by China in the late 1300s, and this could be why there are those who feel that this is where the history of tarot cards began. Fifty years prior to the development of tarot cards, these playing cards were introduced to Europeans by Islam, possibly by Muslim Spain. The Europeans adapted the Islamic Mamluck cards. The suits in the adapted decks were cups, swords, coins and polo sticks. The court cards consisted of a king and two other male underlings.

Physical evidence of early tarot cards comes from the country of Italy in the 15th century. The cards appear to have come into existence around the year 1430, give or take a decade. These cards were originally used to play a card game that is similar to Bridge, and is still a popular card game in Europe today.

The two early Italian tarot decks that still exist today are the "Charles IV" deck and the "Visconti-Sforza" deck.

The Word "Tarot"

The word tarot is French in origin. The early names for these cards come from Italy. The cards were first called carte da trionfi which mean "cards of the triumphs". Approximately 100 years after the cards came into existence, people began to distinguish these cards from other games of trumps that used ordinary playing cards. The German word for these cards is tarock.

The History of Tarot Cards as Divination Tools

There is no clear evidence that tarot cards were invented for the purpose of divination. The practice appears to have evolved over time.

Art Imitating Life

Poets of the Renaissance used the names of the trump cards to write verses called tarocchi appropriati. The flattering poems were used to describe personality characteristics, and one verse from 1527 describes the fate of the poem's main protagonist.

Appearance in Court

Trial records from a hearing held in Venice in 1589 makes mention of tarot cards being associated with witchcraft. This first recorded accusation occurred 150 years after tarot cards were created. There are no subsequent documents with similar claims until the late 18th century.

It's All in the Cards

Regular playing cards were used as divinations tools as early as 1487, so it is likely that tarot cards were used for this purpose as well.

In the 1700s, divinatory definitions were assigned to the cards in Bologna. In the late 1700s beginning with Etteilla's deck, tarot card designs began to evolve with more esoteric meanings and divinatory designs.

The first occult writers to discuss the tarot were Antoine Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet in 1781. For the first 350 years of its history, the tarot was not mentioned in any of the many books on occult or magical philosophy. Following 1781, occult interest in tarot blossomed and the tarot then became an integral part of occult philosophy.

Additional Reading

This article is an overview of the history of tarot cards. There are many interesting books written on this subject. Many publications about tarot history have differing viewpoints and information. A few interesting books on tarot history are:

  • History of the Occult Tarot by Michael Dummett: This book outlines the importance of occult tarot in modern society. It goes back to the beginning of its influence and brings the reader up to date with the rest of the story that continues today.
History of Tarot Cards