History of Tarot Cards: Where Do They Come From?

Updated September 23, 2021
Fortune-telling tarot cards and mineral stones

The tarot's origin and evolution into a contemporary tool for psychological insight and creative exploration are somewhat mysterious. Many papers and books have been written on the topic, and there are many opinions but little agreement about where the tarot began.

Tarot Card History

Many believe the history of tarot cards begins with the use of playing cards to tell fortunes. However, the origin and history of playing cards are just as ambiguous as the origin and history of tarot cards. What is known is that the earliest surviving tarot cards date from a period much later than ordinary playing cards. Their use also supports the original use of trump cards.

The Trionfi

Trionfi ("triumphs") consisted of 22 different designs with allegorical illustrations added to a standard deck of playing cards. It's said this was done to create a larger overall deck, which was first used for more elaborate and complex card games.


It seems that tarot cards began to be used for divination around 1750. This is more than a couple of centuries after the more elaborate tarot deck was first conceived and used for games. This is also when people began regarding the cards as mystical, assigned an esoteric meaning to each card, and offered suggestions on how they could be laid out for divinatory purposes. Using tarot cards for divination was popular with the wealthy during the late 16th and 17th centuries, who commissioned artists to create their ornate cards. While the printing press made the cards readily available to others.

Early Tarot Cards

The mysterious allegorical imagery of the tarot cards can be traced back many centuries. Listed below are some of the early decks of tarot cards and where they came from.

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot was created in northern Italy in the first half of the 15th century. Research has attributed the deck to Bonifacio Bembo, who specialized in early Renaissance paintings, murals, and other decorated objects. These are the oldest surviving tarot cards and date back to the time when tarot was still called Trionfi ("triumphs") and used for simple game playing.

Visconti-Sforza tarot

The Sola-Busca Tarot

The Sola-Busca tarot deck, dates from the early 1490s. The Sola-Busca Tarot is the oldest known Italian deck of cards. They were named for Marquis Busca, and Count Sola. Today's experts agree these cards are closely tied to the late 1400s' hermetic-alchemic culture. They are thought to be the earliest tarot deck to be fully illustrated. It's also believed that the Sola-Busca tarot set the structural precedent for the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The name of the creator-artist-illustrator of the Sola-Busca Tarot has been lost in time.

Sola Busca-tarot cards

Tarot de Marseilles

A Protestant pastor and Freemason, Antoine Court de Gébelin, published a book in 1781 that introduced the tarot as a hidden source of timeless esoteric wisdom. In this book's chapter on tarot card meanings, de Gébelin explained the complex symbolism of tarot artwork and connected it to the legends of Isis, Osiris, and other Egyptian gods. It wasn't long before tarot card decks like the Tarot de Marseilles were produced with artwork, specifically based on de Gébelin's analysis. It's thought that the Tarot de Marseilles was created in Milan before spreading to much of France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy.

Tarot de marseilles cards

The Etteilla Tarot

Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), a French occultist and barber by trade, brought tarot divination to a broad audience. Writing under the name Etteilla, he published a book on using tarot cards as divination tools. Then, in 1788, he created and released The Etteilla Tarot, which is thought to be the first tarot card deck explicitly designed for divination. Etteilla claimed that the tarot cards were linked to ancient Egypt and assigned esoteric meanings to them. He was one of the first and most influential fortune-tellers of the time.

Etteilla Tarot cards

Thoth Tarot

Aleister Crowley, an occultist who was perhaps the most noted and controversial member of the Golden Dawn, wrote The Book of Thoth. The Thoth Tarot owes its existence to Lady Frieda Harris, who convinced Crowley to organize his thoughts on tarot. Then, between 1938 and 1942, she created oil paintings for each Thoth card. Lady Harris' brilliant art deco illustrations contain the kabbalistic and astrological attributions described by Crowley. However, a good-quality deck was not published until the late 1960s. However, by the late 1960s, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck had sealed its dominant position in both England and America. Still, the Thoth deck has its own following and has never been out of print since its first publication.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

During the early 1900s, mystical groups such as the Rosicrucians and Theosophical Society turned tarot card reading into an American fad. Many American tarot card readers used (and still use) a set of cards known as the Rider-Waite-Smith or Rider-Waite Tarot. This deck was created in 1909 by A. E. Waite, a Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn member. The artist-illustrator was Pamela Colman Smith. It's said that Waite suggested Smith use Sola Busca Tarot's artwork for inspiration, and there are many similarities in the symbolism of the two decks. Instead of using a cluster of cups, coins, wands, or swords, Smith incorporated human figures into the Minor Arcana. Her imagery is also filled with kabbalistic symbolism.

The Rider-waite-smith Tarot Deck

Tarot Card Divination

Today, tarot cards are the most popular tool for divination. Currently, there are hundreds of different styles and motifs used for tarot card decks. The meanings of the cards themselves may bend to the motif of each deck. Still, ultimately, the symbolism of each card has changed very little from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot.

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History of Tarot Cards: Where Do They Come From?