Tarot Reading Guide


Chapter 2 A (Very) Brief History of Tarot

ⓘ This guide applies to Tarot Readings pages.

In This Chapter

  • Why is tarot history important?
  • Did tarot exist before the cards?
  • When and where were tarot cards invented?
  • How did tarot evolve from a game to a divinatory tool?
  • How is tarot being used today?

The tarot didn’t just pop into existence, whole and complete. Someone (maybe several people!) created it. Over time, various deck designers reordered, renumbered, and renamed the cards. Artists, too, altered the tarot pack, preserving some traditional illustrations and dramatically updating others.

Thinking of adopting tarot as a personal tool for expanding awareness, enhancing insight, or streamlining the decision-making process? Knowing more about the cards—including who designed them, and when, and why—can dispel misconceptions and build confidence in the deck’s flexibility and power. For many students, studying the origin and evolution of the cards becomes an important gesture of their dedication to and respect for the tarot.

Why Bother with Tarot History?

You can take great snapshots without knowing the history of photography. You can play a piano without knowing when it was invented. You can even write a novel in Microsoft Word without knowing a thing about programming a word processor.

By the same token, shuffling a tarot deck requires no knowledge of its history. You can deal the cards without knowing anything about the mindset of the people who first used the cards. You can deliver insightful readings without knowing beans about the intentions of a deck’s designer.

You can work with tarot without studying the history of tarot. But knowing even a little about the deck’s history will empower you to do the following:

  • Spot scams

    Con artists occasionally employ tarot decks as props. If you know the history of tarot, swindlers can’t dazzle you with tales of secret societies and Egyptian initiatory rites.

  • Combat ignorance

    Fearful critics claim tarot is a tool of the devil. If you know better, you can prove such statements are rooted in nothing more than ignorance and fantasy.

  • Preserve the past

    Increasingly, our society is mythically and symbolically illiterate. Exploring the history of tarot reacquaints you with the stories that have shaped our culture for thousands of years.

  • Become a better tarot reader

    When you study tarot history, every fact you retain becomes a catalyst for powerful associations and unexpected insights.

A little tarot history goes a long way. You don’t need a master’s degree in Renaissance art to enjoy these benefits! All you really need are the facts in this chapter … and an open mind.

Tracing Tarot’s Pedigree

Over the years, authors and scholars have told many stories—some fanciful, some factual—about the origins of tarot. Was the deck created by Egyptians? Are the cards relics from ancient Atlantis? The truth is out there … but until recently, finding it required tarot students to sift through hundreds of competing claims.

Before the Cards

Today, most histories of tarot begin in fifteenth-century Italy, when tarot cards first appeared. In a way, that makes sense: What would tarot be, after all, without the cards?

In fact, the images on the earliest trump cards incorporate symbols and themes that existed long before the 1400s. Over the years, this fact alone has convinced a small number of scholars and mystics that tarot, particularly as a system for organizing and transmitting secret knowledge, predates the appearance of the tarot deck itself.

From this perspective, the tarot deck is an occult picture book—an illustrated index of wisdom concealed centuries ago. This approach positions the cards as an underground stream of suppressed insight, accessible only to those with the connections and credentials necessary to unlock its powerful secrets. True believers claim the parallels between tarot and older magical traditions (especially one centuries-old system of Jewish mysticism, known as the Qabalah) are too strong and obvious to be coincidental.

The lack of supporting evidence hasn’t decreased the popularity of this idea. In fact, some point to the lack of evidence as proof of a massive conspiracy to suppress heretical doctrines.

Did tarot exist as a collection of secret teachings prior to the creation of the deck? Are tarot cards flashcards of occult wisdom, with hidden messages encoded in the trump illustrations? Mystics and magicians may always say yes. Historians, though, believe tarot’s origins are far less mysterious—and far more humble.

Given tarot’s spooky reputation, most people are surprised to hear that the first tarot decks have more in common with a game of Poker than they do the pyramids.

Origins of the Cards

On the first page of The Complete Guide to the Tarot (Crown Publishers, 1970), Eden Gray asserts, “Everyone agrees that modern playing cards are directly descended from one part of the tarot—the resemblances between parent and child are too striking to be coincidental.”

In fact, just the opposite is true. Today’s familiar 52-card deck descends from common European playing cards, which, in turn, were adapted from Mamluk packs—four-suited card decks imported from the Muslim world. During the latter part of the fourteenth century, trade introduced these decks to Europe, where they were enthusiastically embraced.

At about the same time, a critical step in the evolution of card games occurred: the invention of trumps. Trump cards (usually an entire suit, picked by a player who, by virtue of winning a bid, earns the right to “name trumps”) are assigned greater value than other cards. Usually, cards with higher numbers defeat (or “take”) cards with lower numbers … but even the most lowly card from the trump suit will beat the highest card in any other suit. By allowing savvy bidders and convincing bluffers the opportunity to convert otherwise worthless cards into winners, the addition of trump cards made game play less predictable and more fun.

Playthings of Royalty

Tarot proved popular with royal families, who commissioned the creation of elaborate decks. As early as 1450, the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, wrote a letter requesting one. His relatives must have liked them: The oldest existing tarot cards today belong to any of 15 different hand-painted decks produced for the Sforza family. Of these decks, the most complete is an elaborate pack with backgrounds of gold leaf, generally attributed to the artist Bonifacio Bembo.

The Visconti cards are good examples of trumps from these early decks, which often depicted sober figures in formal poses. These recreations of cards from one of the oldest surviving tarot decks depict a lowly roadside conjurer and an enigmatic papess, or female pope.

The image of the Papess is one of the most puzzling and controversial legacies of early tarot decks. She may recall Sister Manfreda Visconti, who was elected papess by the Guglielmites, a heretical faction of the Catholic church. (She and her followers were killed for their heresy.)

Some insist the Papess recalls the legend of Pope Joan, who, while disguised as a man, was elected Pope. (Her deception, the legend goes, was discovered when she died in childbirth during a papal procession.) Another less controversial take on the Papess positions her as the Bride of Christ: the Church itself.

For a variety of reasons, later decks would render the Papess as a goddess; occult-influenced decks often retitle the card “The High Priestess.”

The trumps are illustrated with a fanciful lineup of figures: fools and jugglers, emperors and empresses, virtues and vices. To modern eyes, some of these images are unfamiliar or even frightening. But as Geraldine Moakley points out in The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo (The New York Library Press, 1966), Renaissance Christians would have been perfectly comfortable with these characters, as most of them appeared frequently in a festive event called a triumphal parade.

The Game of Tarot

But what, exactly, did the Renaissance Italians do with their tarot cards? Tack holes in the borders of some hand-painted cards suggest they were displayed as works of art. By far, though, the most widespread application was a card game still popular in parts of France today.

The basic rules will be familiar to players of modern card games, including bridge, rook, and spades. After the dealer distributes the cards, each player assesses the value of his hand and bids accordingly. Each card in the deck possesses a rank (which indicates the card’s ability to win a hand) and a point value (which determines the card’s contribution toward a player’s final score). The strength of a player’s hand depends, at least in part, on the number of trump cards in it.

In the earliest known tarot decks, the trumps are unnumbered. This suggests that the logic behind the images was so well known that players could tell which card trumped the others simply by looking at the picture on it. Later decks assign numbers and titles to each trump, but the number of trumps, their order, and their titles vary from deck to deck. The original order—if one ever existed—has been lost to time.

A Toy or a Divinatory Tool?

Nothing about the game of tarot suggests the cards were believed to hide secret teachings or possess magical properties. While the earliest trump illustrations incorporated references to Scripture and myth (and while their sequence may have been a sly commentary on the social order of the day), all evidence suggests the game of tarot was considered an entertaining pastime—and little else. The first references to tarot divination do not appear until the sixteenth century, more than 100 years after the deck’s invention.

That said, even in the fifteenth century, ordinary playing cards were used to tell fortunes. Given the fact that the tarot incorporates a standard deck, it’s possible the tarot was also used for this purpose. But tarot as a bona-fide metaphysical tool, complete with a fanciful pedigree from ancient Egypt, would not appear on the scene until 1781.

Raiders of the Lost Tarot

Given the tarot deck’s original purpose, at what point did it come to be regarded as a tool fit for everything from divination to meditation?

Inventing the Egyptian Tarot

Antoine Court de Gébelin, an ordained Protestant pastor and active Freemason, claimed to be the first to “discover” tarot’s secret origins. During a visit with a Parisian countess, de Gébelin stumbled onto a circle of ladies playing a hand of tarot. de Gébelin interrupted the game, seized the cards, and proclaimed himself the first to see what others had overlooked for centuries: the “obvious” Egyptian origins of the tarot.

Never mind that a tarot deck is about as Egyptian as spaghetti; spotting buried Egyptian treasure in a pack of cards made a great story. de Gébelin lived in an age when Europeans had a great deal of enthusiasm for, but knew relatively little about, ancient Egypt. The idea that the cards were relics handed down by Egyptian magicians seized the imagination—and proved so durable that many people repeat the tale today with absolute conviction.

Tarot Goes Pro

de Gébelin’s statements appear to have been the catalyst for a frenzy of occult “discoveries.”

Don’t be spooked by the word occult. Occult simply means hidden or secret. Occult knowledge is hidden, secret, or forgotten knowledge. Occultists were scholars, mystics, and writers who sought out or authored information not widely available to others. Given that many secret teachings, once carefully guarded, have now been published to the Web and indexed by Google, there’s very little truly occult information left!

de Gébelin himself would publish the first known essays on the occult tarot, including one by Louis-Rapha‘l-Lucrce de Fayolle, Comte de Mellet (credited mysteriously as “M. le C. de M.***”), which would be the first to associate a tarot trump with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This association turned out to be particularly important, as it opened the door for connections between tarot and Qabalah, a complex magical tradition of Hebrew origin.

de Gébelin might have been the first to assert tarot’s ancient origin, but the distinction of being recognized as the world’s first professional tarot reader falls to Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a Parisian seed salesman who, upon assuming the role of occultist, reversed his surname and published his work under the name Etteilla. In 1785, he released his masterwork, A Way to Entertain Oneself with a Pack of Cards Called tarots, which enhanced de Gébelin’s Egyptian origin stories with delightful details, including the assertion that the original cards had been etched on plates of gold.

In 1789, Etteilla published the first tarot deck specifically created for use as a divinatory tool. And while his assertions about tarot’s Egyptian origins were, like de Gébelin’s, pure fantasy, the meanings he assigned to his cards continue to influence how tarot is read and interpreted today.

Levi’s Legacy

In 1854, Alphonse-Louis Constant, writing under the name Eliphas Levi, published The Doctrine of High Magic and, a year later, The Ritual of High Magic. In these and later books, Levi outlined a comprehensive system of attributions, linking tarot cards to everything from astrology to alchemy to the Qabalistic diagram known as the Tree of Life. He projected all manner of symbolic meanings onto the tarot trump images, believing them to contain secrets hidden by magicians of bygone days

Paul Christian, a student of Levi, spun a tale of the tarot’s use in the priesthood rites of ancient Egypt and was the first to use the word arcana (meaning “secrets”) in association with the cards. Oswald Wirth, who knew Levi’s work, published yet another occult tarot in 1889, editing the trump illustrations and associations to conform to his theories.

Inspired by Levi, Gerard Encausse, writing as Papus, added a layer of complex mathematical symbolism to tarot’s growing mythology. A British secret society, the Golden Dawn, contributed Book T, which, among other innovations, changed the deck’s suit names from the traditional Batons, Cups, Swords, and Coins to Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles.

Gradually, the efforts of the occultists transformed the humble tarot pack into something entirely new. By the time Alfred E. Waite published his Golden Dawn-influenced Rider–Waite tarot (with illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith) in 1909, the deck had been transformed into an infinitely flexible metaphysical tool with links to everything from alchemy to the zodiac.

New Age, New Interest

In the early years of the twentieth century, a fascination with all things occult—including spirit mediums, sŽances, and tarot—burned brightly in both Great Britain and America. Eventually, though, many of the occult societies, plagued by power struggles and petty squabbles, disbanded; following World Wars I and II, popular interest in metaphysics gave way to a new love affair with modern technology. For all practical purposes, tarot also receded from public awareness—at least until the arrival of the flower children and the dawn of the much-touted “Age of Aquarius.”

By 1970, with the exception of a U.S. Games edition of the Rider–Waite–Smith tarot, tarot decks were relatively scarce. Still, stirred by a renewed interest in astrology, spirituality, and metaphysics, tarot began to reestablish itself as a divinatory tool. Eden Gray published A Complete Guide to the Tarot in 1970, and in the 1980s, new books by Rachel Pollack (Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom) and Mary K. Greer (Tarot for Your Self) provided eager audiences with practical, accessible introductions to the cards.

Over the next 20 years, tarot continued to gain momentum. New books—some well-informed, but many repeating the tales of the French occultists as legitimate history—appeared. Publishers, including U.S. Games, Llewellyn, Lo Scarabeo, and many others, produced hundreds of decks. These new designs reinterpreted tarot’s illustrations and ideas in terms of almost every conceivable magical, mythical, cultural, and psychological milieu.

The Twenty-First Century Tarot

Twenty-first century tarot has inherited both the structure of the early Italian decks and the rich legacy of associations forged by occultists over the last two centuries. Many psychics and intuitive readers still use the cards as a tool for revealing the future, but tarot is no longer exclusively associated with fortunetelling. Applications for the deck include the following:

  • Divination

    Unlike fortunetelling, which seeks to reveal “what must come to pass,” divination highlights trends, illuminates the deeper meaning of everyday events, and encourages consultants to explore several possible courses of action.

  • Dream analysis

    Forging associations between dream content and the symbols on tarot cards is an increasingly popular means of accessing repressed information that would otherwise remain out of the reach of the conscious mind.

  • Self-analysis

    Just as dreams can produce unexpected insights into the self, the dream-like images confronted in a tarot reading can prove equally revealing. A simple self-analysis builds connections between introspective questions and the images on the cards, helping participants to see concerns more objectively.

  • Free association

    In brainstorming sessions, participants allow the images to suggest new associations, connections, and solutions through the process of free association. Writers can draw cards to suggest character histories, settings, or plot twists. Photographers allow the cards to suggest random subjects or themes. Business owners, executives, and marketing professionals draw random cards to inspire creative approaches to daily challenges.

  • Meditation

    The evocative illustrations on tarot cards make perfect subjects for meditative focus. Some use the reading process as a way of winding down and relaxing the mind prior to meditation. Others prefer to focus on a single card, meditating on its theme, re-creating the card in their minds, or projecting themselves into the card to interact with the characters found there.

  • Magic

    Magicians, witches, and serious practitioners of modern magic can use the cards in various magical operations. One contemporary text on magical practice (Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magick) recommends that witches and magicians should always use the cards to divine the ultimate outcome of the spells they cast. The cards can also be used to decorate altars, with appropriate cards being chosen for their relationship to a specific season, astrological event, Sabbat, or theme.

  • Collection

    Many people see tarot decks as the twenty-first-century equivalent of Beanie Babies: collectible items, almost certain to increase in value. Exquisite, handmade decks sell for more than $100 when new. Even mass-produced decks, once they go out of print, can become rare and valuable, going for up to 12 times their cover price. Antique copies of the Rider–Waite–Smith deck regularly sell for more than $1,000.

In a Nutshell

  • Knowing just a little about the history of tarot insulates you from scams, empowers you to combat misconceptions, reacquaints you with the deck’s rich legacy of myth and magic, and positions you to be a better tarot reader.
  • Tarot decks were an innovation, appending a fifth suit of permanent trumps to popular four-suited decks already in use.
  • Early decks were often elaborate works of art commissioned by royal families. The cards were primarily used to play a trick-taking game; the first reference to tarot divination appears around 100 years after the cards were created.
  • Occultists fabricated fanciful stories of tarot’s Egyptian origins, but their most important contributions were elaborate symbolic systems associating tarot with everything from astrology to Qabalah.
  • In modern times, the game of tarot has been all but forgotten, but growing interest in tarot as a tool for divination and creativity has generated an explosion of books, decks, and new applications for the cards.