Tarot cards first appeared in northern Italy around 1375 around the time the first playing cards were used in Europe.
There is some dispute as to the original use of the cards as many historians believe the Tarot were originally used only as playing cards until the 18Th Century, and in fact, the 56 cards known as the minor arcana, were just like a set of playing cards until 1909.
The minor arcana had some minor differences in that instead of the jack, there was a knight and a page in each suit. The suits are the traditional Italian suits of staves, cups, swords, and coins, rather than the suits we are familiar with, which are the French equivalents of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds.
The tarot deck also differs from a regular playing deck in that there are an additional 22 picture cards called the major arcane (or trumps).
These picture cards are a collection of images, some of which were common figures in the medieval world: The Fool and The Magician represent human figures; some are figures of power, The Emperor and The Pope; some cards depicted virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude; and others show the very forces of life in the Wheel of Fortune, the Death card, and The Devil card. There are images that represent the Spiritual forces, such as The Sun, The Moon, and the final Judgment.
The big mystery is why were these tarot trump cards created? Was it merely as a new card game, or was it a deliberate conceived system to portray religious or philosophical beliefs.
Historians say the original tarot cards were used to play a game similar to bridge, in which the trump cards were played if one could not follow suit, and would "triumph" (Italian trionfi is the origin of the term "trumps") over the suit cards and win the trick.
Robert O'Neill, author of the book Tarot Symbolism, makes a sound argument that the tarot were designed to depict the mystical ideas of Neo-Platonism, a philosophical system developed at Alexandria in the third century A.D. by Plotinus and his successors.
Neo-Platonism had elements of mysticism and some Judaic and Christian concepts that poses a single source from which all existence emanates and with which an individual soul can be mystically united. O'Neill says they also depict the ideas of the Jewish Kabbalah, mystical teachings of rabbinical origin that were often based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
These ideas were becoming known in Italy at the time the Tarot cards first appeared. We can trace the roots of their current meaning and how they became used today as an insightful tool for divination and guidance.
We begin with the occult movement in France in the 18th century with Antoine Court de Gebelin, the French linguist, cleric, occultist, Mason, member of the Lodge of the Philalethes, and author of the nine-volume work Monde Primitif. He noticed a deck of tarot cards and felt that the trumps must surely carry lost religious secrets from ancient times. His speculation brought great interest in discovering the true meanings of the cards.
He believed the cards birth place was in ancient Egypt, where they must have served as tools of initiation into the priesthood. He proposed that the Tarot's Major Arcana was the Book of Thoth, and was a synthesis of all knowledge once held in hieroglyphic form in ancient Egyptian temples and libraries. (He is also known to have traced the origin of regular playing cards to ancient China.)
Thus spawned the widespread belief (or myth, as the historians would say) that the cards were brought to Europe by the gypsies from ancient Egypt. Next we have Aliette, or "Etteilla", which is his name spelled backwards, a wigmaker in Napoleonic France. He believed in Egyptian magic, was a student of astrology and he theorized that the "god" Thoth-Hermes made the deck. He is believed to have been the first to correlate the cards with mathematical concepts that were similar to those of Pythagoras (father of Numerology).
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Then it seems the next to have a large influence on the cards mystical and spiritual meaning was Alphonse Louis Constant, a Rosicrucian and French Priest who lived from 1810 to 1875. He believed the Tarot was the key to the Bible, and to the Jewish Kabbalah, and all other ancient spiritual writings. He saw a link with the 22 cards of the Major Arcana to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He drew parallels between Tarot suits and the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (The mystic number four, which was often symbolized to represent God, whose name was too Holy to pronounce and so was expressed by four letters among some ancient nations; Hebrew, usually transliterated as YHWH (Yahweh) or JHVH (Jehovah), Greek qeo`s, Latin deus, etc.)
Late nineteenth-century Parisian author Jean Baptiste Pitois believed that the Major Arcana cards represent hieroglyphic paintings from ancient Egyptian galleries. He also made many parallels between the Tarot and Kabalistic astrology.
Gerard Encausse, a French doctor, philosopher, and Theosophist, was another believer in the Tarot's Egyptian sources. He lived from 1865-1916 and wrote the book The Tarot of the Bohemians.
The widely held belief that the Tarot represented ancient initiation rites, taken from ancient inscriptions in secret chambers below the Pyramids, is due mostly from his writings on the subject. He believed the priests put the designs on materials when the pyramids were at risk and later they became cards. He also furthered the link between Tarot and numerology (Pythagoras).
The greatest changes to the Tarot came from members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. MacGregor (Samuel Liddell) Mathers was the leader of the Order founded in 1886. He studied Jewish, Egyptian, Christian, and alchemical mysticism. He wrote a great deal about the Tarot. A. E. Waite, a Christian mystic, also a member of The Order who broke away and founded his own mystery school had the most profound influence on the Tarot. He published his own revised deck in 1909. The deck was drawn by artist Pamela Coleman Smith.
The major change was that the minor arcana no longer resembled playing cards but were more like the trumps: each card of the minor arcana were now also rich with pictures and symbolism. Each card gives the viewer an immediate psychological impact as though it tells a story.
It grew enormously popular, and many consider it the standard deck to this day. It is often called the Rider-Waite deck, because Rider was the original publisher. Another member of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley also developed his own deck called the Thoth Tarot (named for the Egyptian god of magic) and was painted by Lady Frieda Harris in the 1940s. The artwork is abstract and the deck itself is rather intense psychologically.
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Aleister Crowley's interpretations of the cards also differ somewhat from Waite's, but they are both based in the Hermetic Kabbalah and both are in use today, however the Rider-Waite deck is the most popular. The current revival began with the trend in the late 1960's and early 1970's when there was a turn to holistic health alternatives, and to alternative religion and alternatives to traditional counseling.
A new interest and popularity for the tarot began. Many now consult the tarot as it has become part of our culture of the folk counselors of our world today. Many new decks have been created as adaptations of the Waite-Smith or Crowley-Harris decks. Reinvented to reflect the artist's creativity and philosophy. One can find decks with many themes and meanings from Fairy Decks to Wicca decks, feminist decks, Native American decks, and so on. Some are more for those who collect games and decks of cards and not for the serious student or reader.
The history of the tarot is a reflection of the philosophical and religious currents that flow to us through the story of European culture. It reaches back in time to ancient Gnosticism, through the medieval practices of alchemy and astrology, through the fascination with the occult in recent centuries, and on into our modern "new age" movement.
The cards and their meanings have been sifted through many different subcultures and much of the symbolism has been changed by each culture and movement. The Hermit trump card was once Time, an old man with an hourglass. Strength used to depict a man swinging a club at a crouching lion. The Star once featured a woman near a precipice clutching with her left hand at an eight-pointed star. Most likely these early images evolved from still earlier ones.
We can study the Tarot's current symbolism and we have many clues about its original form, but the exact form itself is probably lost to us. We may never know what the first Tarot cards looked like. Nor do we know with certainty who created them or where they came from.
Frustrated Tarot experts have inspired countless origin theories. Perhaps this mystery is what makes them so interesting to us. Regardless of their original use, as a clever card game or a clever way to impart mystical teachings in the 1300's in Europe it is the wisdom and guidance we gleam from their images today that may be the most intriguing.
In the hands of an adept, they tell your story and portray your journey.
For further research read Stuart Kaplan, The Encyclopedia of Tarot which contains superb illustrations of the oldest decks that still survive.