A Brief History of Tarot

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Early Tarot cards were more for entertainment than divination. Image by De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

The Tarot is probably one of the most popularly used tools of divination in the world today. While not as simple as some other methods, like pendulums or tea leaves, the Tarot has drawn people into its magic for centuries. Today, cards are available to purchase in hundreds of different designs. There is a Tarot deck for just about any practitioner, no matter where his or her interests may lie. Whether you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or baseball, whether you love zombies or are interested in the writings of Jane Austen, you name it, there’s probably a deck out there for you to choose.

Although methods of reading the Tarot have changed over the years, and many readers adopt their own unique style to the traditional meanings of a layout, in general, the cards themselves haven’t changed much. Lets look at some of the early decks of Tarot cards, and the history of how these came to be used as more than just a parlor game.

French & Italian Tarot

The ancestors of what we today know as Tarot cards can be traced back to around the late fourteenth century. Artists in Europe created the first playing cards, which were used for games, and featured four different suits. These suits were similar to what we still use today – staves or wands, discs or coins, cups, and swords. After a decade or two of using these, in the mid-1400s, Italian artists began painting additional cards, heavily illustrated, to add into the existing suits.

These trump, or triumph, cards were often painted for wealthy families.

Members of the nobility would commission artists to create for them their own set of cards, featuring family members and friends as the triumph cards. A number of sets, some of which still exist today, were created for the Visconti family of Milan, which counted several dukes and barons among its numbers.

Because not everyone could afford to hire a painter to create a set of cards for them, for a few centuries, customized cards were something only a privileged few could own. It wasn’t until the printing press came along that playing card decks could be mass-produced for the average game-player.

Tarot as Divination

In both France and Italy, the original purpose of Tarot was as a parlor game, not as a divinatory tool. It appears that divination with playing cards started to become popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, although at that time, it was far more simple than the way we use Tarot today.

By the eighteenth century, however, people were beginning to assign specific meanings to each card, and even offer suggestions as to how they could be laid out for divinatory purposes.

Tarot and the Kabbalah

In 1781, a French Freemason (and former Protestant minister) named Antoine Court de Gebelin published a complex analysis of the Tarot, in which he revealed that the symbolism in the Tarot was in fact derived from the esoteric secrets of Egyptian priests. De Gebelin went on to explain that this ancient occult knowledge had been carried to Rome and revealed to the Catholic Church and the popes, who desperately wanted to keep this arcane knowledge secret.

In his essay, the chapter on Tarot meanings explains the detailed symbolism of Tarot artwork and connects it to the legends of Isis, Osiris and other Egyptian gods.

The biggest problem with de Gebelin’s work is that there was really no historical evidence to support it. However, that didn’t stop wealthy Europeans from jumping onto the esoteric knowledge bandwagon, and by the early nineteenth century, playing card decks like the Marseille Tarot were being produced with artwork specifically based on deGebelin’s analysis.

In 1791, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a French occultist, released the first Tarot deck designed specifically for divinatory purposes, rather than as a parlor game or entertainment. A few years earlier, he had responded to de Gebelin’s work with a treatise of his own, a book explaining how one could use the Tarot for divination.

As occult interest in the Tarot expanded, it became more associated with the Kabbalah and the secrets of hermetic mysticism. By the end of the Victorian era, occultism and spiritualism had become popular pastimes for bored upper class families. It wasn’t uncommon to attend a house party and find a séance taking place, or someone reading palms or tea leaves in the corner.

The Origins of Rider-Waite

British occultist Arthur Waite was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn – and apparently a longtime nemesis of Aleister Crowley, who was also involved in the group and its various offshoots. Waite got together with artist Pamela Colman Smith, also a Golden Dawn member, and created the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which was first published in 1909. The imagery is heavy on Kabbalistic symbolism, and because of this, is typically used as the default deck in nearly all instructional books on Tarot. Today, many people refer to this deck as the Waite-Smith deck, in acknowledgement of Smith’s iconic and enduring artwork.

Now, over a hundred years since the release of the Rider-Waite deck, Tarot cards are available in a practically endless selection of designs. In general, many of these follow the format and style of Rider-Waite, although each adapts the cards to suit their own motif. No longer just the domain of the wealthy and upper class, Tarot is available for anyone who wishes to take the time to learn it.

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