Tarot History

The history of the Tarot is shrouded in mystery. Very little in the way of concrete information is known about its origin although many things (true, false and speculative) have been written about it. We will probably never know the truth as fact and fiction seem to be irrevocably mixed nowadays.

The Tarot originated in northern Italy in the early 15th century, sometime between 1420 to 1440. Despite the fact that it is often attributed to originating from China, Egypt, India, or Morocco to name just a few there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. Nor, as is often quoted, is there any evidence whatsoever that the Tarot was brought to Europe by the Romanies.

The name Tarot is often attributed to being Egyptian, Hebrew, or Latin. This is not the case. The earliest names are all Italian in origin. The cards were originally called Carte de Trionfi (literally cards of the triumph). Around 1530 the word Tarocchi began to be used to differentiate them from a new game of triumphs (trumps) that was in vogue at the time. The etymology of this new word is unknown. The German variant was known as Tarock and the French Tarot.

The symbolism for the Tarot is drawn from the culture of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Tarot subjects are distinctive to European Christendom. The symbolism does not come from Egypt or any of the other exotic locales often mentioned.

It is often stated that modern day playing cards (with the joker as the only remnant of the major arcana) evolved from the Tarot. This is not the case. Modern day playing cards came to Europe courtesy of Islam. They were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards. They appeared quite suddenly in many different European cities between 1375 and 1378. These early cards had suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (seen by Europeans as staves), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings. . The Tarot adds the Fool, the trumps, and a set of queens to this system. Some time before 1480, the French introduced cards with the now-familiar suits of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds. The Joker is not original to either the early form of modern-day cards, or to the Tarot, but instead originated in the USA around 1857 and was used as a wild card in poker as well as the highest trump in Euchre.

It is also often stated that the Catholic and Protestant churches outlawed the Tarot and all who used it in an effort to stamp out so-called heretical teachings. This is not the case. The inquisition documented what the church considered as evidence of heresy in great detail. The Tarot was not even mentioned. After the Reformation less controversial images for the Pope and Papess were substituted by card makers as the church had objected to the original images.

It is often said that the Tarot was not used as a divination tool prior to 1781. The Tarot was used as early as the 16th century to compose poems describing personality characteristics (known as tarocchi appropriati). There is historical evidence that in one case at least (in 1572) these verses were presented as relating to the person’s fate. In other words – divination. Divinatory meanings were assigned to the Tarot in Bologna in the early 1700s and this is the first unambiguous evidence of Tarot divination. Ordinary playing cards were connected with divination as early as 1487. It is not unreasonable to think that the Tarot was also.

The Tarot has often been attributed with being a pillar of western esoterica – occultism. This is certainly not the case. The first occult writers to discuss the tarot were Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet in 1781. The Tarot was not mentioned in any occult work for the first 350 years of its existence.

The terms "major arcana", "minor arcana", "High Priestess", and "Hierophant" are anachronistic when referring to the older tarot decks. The historically appropriate terms are "the trumps and the Fool" (the Fool was not usually regarded as a trump), "the suit cards", "Papess" or "Popess", and "Pope". Likewise "pentacles" and "wands" are relatively recent substitutions for the traditional suit names of "coins" and "staves" or "batons".
The original Italian titles of the cards were in some cases different from the later French titles (and their English translations) that have become familiar to us through the Tarot de Marseille and its descendants. Also, the ordering of the trumps varied considerably in Italy where the cards originated; it is not known which ordering is the earliest one. Even the number of cards in the deck varied a great deal! So care should be used in making statements about the original meaning of the cards based on the familiar titles and ordering.

Many believe (mistakenly) that the Waite-Smith (or "Rider Waite") Tarot is the original, standard, or most authentic Tarot deck in existence. This is absolutely untrue. The Waite-Smith/Rider Waite deck was created in 1909, not even 100 years ago (at the time of writing) making it a relative newcomer in the almost 600-year history of the Tarot. There is actually no "definitive" version of the Tarot.