Tarot cards have a long and complex history that stretches back into antiquity. The earliest decks that survived were hand-painted in Northern Italy during the early 15th century. Still, some scholars believe that the Tarot may have been invented as much as 50 years earlier by Romani people who migrated from India to Europe. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the cards became associated with fortune-telling and mysticism, and even then, they weren’t used solely for divination.
Tarot cards were first invented in northern Italy during the 15th century.
Tarot comes from the Italian word “tarocchi” meaning “triumphs” or “trumps.” The original purpose of Tarot cards was not to tell fortunes but to play a game called “the Game of Triumphs,” a trick-taking card game similar to bridge. In fact, early decks had no association with occult mysticism at all and were nothing more than hand-painted cards that merely featured images of the 14 major arcana or triumphs.
Card Game: The Game of Triumphs played with tarot cards
The rules are similar to modern-day bridge: each player is dealt a hand of eight cards from a standard 52-card deck. The cards are ranked in four different suits, the highest being the “trumps” or “triumphs,” followed by the kings, knights, and commons. There are 21 trump cards (which rank above all other cards) and one fool card (which ranks below all other cards).
The object is to win the most “tricks,” or hands, and each trick taken is worth a certain number of points based on suit. A total of 10 points is awarded for taking the last “trick” (indicated by the one card in modern days) and an additional 10 points for taking the fool. So, at least, it’s possible to win 40 points in one hand if you take all ten tricks and the fool.
The primary use of Tarot cards in the 15th century was playing card games. They later became associated with divining the future in the 18th century when occultists in France began using them for divination.
Tarot cards became associated with fortune-telling and mysticism during the 18th century.
In the Middle Ages, Tarot cards were used for many other games. Some of these games were played with trumps, such as chess and triumphs, such as playing cards. These two kinds of games began to be included in decks, but they were still not associated with fortune-telling or mysticism since the card illustrations did not reference nor hint at these practices.
Domino cards replaced the original Tarot cards in France around 1427 and spread to England by 1450. These trumps had elaborate illustrations with various themes such as war, love, history, etc. As the popularity of these games began to wane (due to criticism from Church leaders), people started playing with regular playing cards instead. This significantly depressed the Italian Tarot card manufacturers, resulting in their market loss.
In response, fortune-telling became associated with Tarot cards. There isn’t much known about this process or who made it famous; the Church destroyed any references to this practice then. This is why little is known about the history of Tarot cards before the 18th century. However, most historians agree that a woman named Catherine Montvoisin was likely involved with this practice.
In 1781, Marie Anne Lenormand used these cards to predict the overthrow of Louis XVI, and she even started giving weekly lectures about how to read these cards. She began by providing readings to the famous and well-respected, but she also gave readings to ordinary citizens, vastly increasing her fame.
After Marie Anne Lenormand died in 1843, this trend continued with other female fortunetellers using these cards to predict their clients’ futures. This is why these women are often called “fortune tellers.”
A few famous male fortunetellers during this time, such as Étteilla and Cagliostro, but most of them were female.
Modern Tarot cards, first developed in the early 20th century, still bear many characteristics as older decks. The main difference is that the contemporary deck is based on artistic renditions of the major arcana originally developed by Etteilla.
Tarot cards most well known (and widely used) is undoubtedly Rider-Waite-Smith, created in 1909
The modern usage of tarot cards was popularized by A.E. Waite’s book “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” in 1910. He borrowed some of the imagery from Oswald Wirth’s “Le Tarot des imagiers du moyen age et de la renaissance” (1889) and rewrote it with his commentary added on.
His version of the Tarot significantly influenced the modern form of tarot divination, but it also had its critics. For instance, A.E. Waite was curious whether he wanted to use reversible cards. Because you see… “the court cards must be described as ‘illustrations’ rather than as representations..”
Nowadays, most readers feel that it’s obvious they’re meant to be reversible, but this is because they’re based on Oswald Wirth.
Though, Oswald Wirth used images from “Le Tarot des imagiers du moyen age et de la renaissance.” The deck was initially used in some sort of trumps game, and so they always had to be reversible.
Even though the trumps were optional, some decks included 0-9 pip cards (trumps) and others didn’t. So that means that you needed to look at the numbers on it to know whether or not a card was supposed to be reversible or not.
But A.E Waite originally suggested that it would be better to keep the court cards two-sided because “There is no rational ground for assuming that the Court Cards must always represent actual persons.”
This means he was considering making reversible court cards! Which does exist in some decks. Most notably, the Golden Dawn deck does have reversible court cards.
A.E. Waite was also very much against the idea of reversals in general, saying that “the practice of turning all the cards upside down to signify the direct contrary is an entire mistake.” He was so against it that he didn’t even want to use reversible courts!
The history of tarot reading reveals that the interpretation and meaning behind the cards have changed over time.
The meaning behind the cards has changed over time to what it is today; the four suits representing the four elements earth, air, fire, and water corresponded with their ruling celestial bodies being Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. This changed in 1781 when Antoine Court de Gébelin claimed the Tarot was Egyptian and had a history dating back thousands of years to ancient Egypt (he also thought the world was flat). He claimed that the Tarot represented a mystical encyclopedia with knowledge on God, philosophy, astronomy, and alchemy. This was the first time Tarot was suggested as divination, not just a card game.
The history of modern tarot divination begins in 1910 when occultist and magician Aleister Crowley (the self-proclaimed beast) and his partner Lady Frieda Harris published their Thoth tarot deck. A departure from traditional tarots, which were only 22 major arcana cards, instead consisting of 78 cards total, including the four classic suits and two extra major arcana. This deck also changed the meaning of the four tarot suits; Wands became Fire, Cups became Water, Swords became Air, and Pentacles (also called coins or discs) became Earth. Paul Marteau carried out the last modern revolution of the Tarot in 1966 who chose to use French tarot symbolism and imagery rather than traditional tarot symbology.
The changes in the meaning of tarot cards are reflected today through modern-day productions. Modern decks often depict what is known as “Rider-Waite” imagery created by Arthur Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith, using inspiration from sources such as Egyptian mythology, astrology, numerology, and Judeo-Christianity to create tarot cards. These detailed illustrations have become a standard for card imagery among many decks today.
The history of tarot reading reveals that the interpretation and meaning behind the cards have changed over time. From its origin as a card game to what it is today; being used as a form of divination. There have been many changes in the symbolism, imagery, and illustrations throughout history, which have changed what tarot cards mean today.
We will discuss the Tarot and how you can use it in your day-to-day life in future posts.