The History of Tarot Cards

What is the history of Tarot cards? When were Tarot cards created? Did Romany Gypsies bring cards from Egypt? Did Tarot start as a game and develop from playing cards? What is the timeline of Tarot and how do characters like Etteilla, De Gebelin, Rider, Waite and Smith fit into it?

Almost everyone has heard of Tarot and are aware of the Tarot card system, but knowing and understanding are two completely different things and very few can actually say that they fully understand Tarot and what it stands for.   

Is Tarot Historically Safe?

Despite what some commentators may imply, Tarot is not allied to the Devil and is not an evil practice that will forever condemn your soul to lakes of fire.  Like any divination practice, Tarot seeks to uncover the mysteries that already exist within your mind, and allow you to release intuition that exists in your mind but you have no way of tapping into.

Practically, anyone can learn to read Tarot cards as they help channel your own powers of divination, but it does take quite a lot of practice to become adept at reading. It is also a highly intuitive process that requires the reader to make judgements based on the cards laid out before them, so while guide books and charts will be useful in some respects, the best way to actually learn what your cards mean is to handle them, hold them, and feel what they are telling you.

Here, we will examine the history of this fascinating system. The history of Tarot is almost as magical as the cards themselves.

The History of Tarot 

Tarot are believed to have their origin in simple playing cards of the 13th century, and were no more than elaborate parlour games, probably based on the Islamic “Mamluk” cards.  Cards of the time would have been hand drawn and painted and would have been expensive toys for the rich, so time would have taken to get the detail right.   

Around 1440, a letter from Antonio Jacopo Marcello – the Duke of Milan – made reference to ‘triumphorum genus’ or triumph cards, that were used for a game called Triumph that was similar to Bridge.  The cards were different from previous packs by the inclusion of twenty-two cards with symbolic images that were different from any of the suit cards, and represented permanent trump cards. 

The game spread quickly to all parts of Europe with people referring to it as tarocchi, which was an Italian version of the French word Tarot. With these new cards in existence, the pictures became stylized and started to attract the attention of mystics who were convinced that they were capable of use in divination.

From this basis, there are two distinct histories to Tarot – one expounded by many arcane philosophies and those seeking to their capacity for divination by their use, and one that demonstrates it as simply a social gaming system. 

While gaming is an important part of Tarot, their position as a major means of clairvoyance is by far the most well-established aspect of their use, and the one that they are usually associated with, and this is a much more interesting history.  

A History of the Arcane Path 

Pinpointing any exact introduction of the Tarot as an occult tool is fairly difficult but there is certainly evidence of their use by 18th Century Occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (August 1738 – December 1791) who was a major force in exposing the pack to a much wider social audience.  In the latter years of his life, Alliette, drew and issued the first Tarot deck designed specifically for divinatory purposes, rather than as a simple card game or means of 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.

The popular arcane history of the Tarot really began in the 18th century, when Antoine Court de Gebelin came across the card pack and speculated on their ancient origins.  The former Protestant pastor from Nimes was introduced to the concept of Tarot and quickly decided that they were of ancient Egyptian origin. 

De Gebelin was an active freemason and became fascinated by the possible connection between the symbolic artwork and legends major Egyptian gods including Isis and Osiris.  In 1781 he went on to publish a major work on the subject, entitled Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”), and became widely accepted by his peers.  This well-received essay cemented Tarot as an esoteric system, and prompted other adepts and mystics to take up the practice of divination using the card system.

Interest in Tarot started to grow amongst occultists and there were increasing links made between the cards and the Kabbalah, with this link clarified by Eliphas Levi in his 1856 work, “Dogma et Ritual de la Haunte Magie”.  This connection captured the attention of the influential Golden Dawn, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers – the head of the occult group – developed the esoteric attributes of the Tarot in the seminal work Book T, published in 1887.

The Golden Dawn became fascinated with Tarot and helped make the system increasingly mainstream.  In fact, modern packs owe their structure to the Golden Dawn who rearranged the pack to correspond more with the Kabbalah, and codifying the meaning and use of the Minor Arcana cards.

The highly popular Rider-Waite deck was first devised in 1910, and were drawn by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith from the mystic instructions of academic and visionary, Arthur Edward Waite. They were published by the Rider Company, and remain one of the most used packs of cards available due to their fine heritage and simple yet effective depictions of the cases.  

Waite was a genuine scholar of occultism whose published works include The Holy Kabbalah, and The Book of Ceremonial Magic, which included an entire Grimoire of black magic. Waite became fascinated by Tarot and wrote the seminal work “The Key to Tarot” in 1910.  In this he expounded the notion that “the true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs” which was a notion that was soon adopted by other adepts and mystics.  Waite’s book and the deck were published to complement each other.

The last major influence in Tarot was in 1944 with the publishing of The Book of Thoth by the celebrated mystic, Aleister Crowley.  This short essay described the background and use of the Thoth Tarot, a deck of cards designed by Crowley and co-designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris.

Since then, there have been innumerable decks of cards published, all based on the same design of pack.  These have fueled an interest in Tarot as recognizable mystic system for divination, and that in turn has led to a growing interest in the practice for both help other and for personal daily decision making.  But the first step in being able to do that is to understand the cards themselves, and dismiss any pretensions and fallacies associated with the evocative Major Arcana in particular.

Closing Thoughts on the History of Tarot Cards

Tarot is a powerful tool that is just as relevant today as it was when it first became popular in occultism in the nineteenth century, resulting in a tool that serves as an important cornerstone in Western mysticism.  

Like any complex system, it takes time and practice to really understand the way of the cards, but hopefully this brief introduction has given you enough to start what will be a fabulous journey with the Tarot pack.

Do you have anything to add to this history of Tarot? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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