The origins of the tarot deck is highly debatable. There were many speculations, and numerous books were created by historians and tarot practitioners alike, but the origins of tarot is still shrouded in mystery. Based on the artworks in early tarot cards, different theories were made to pinpoint the geographical roots of the tarot. I’ll discuss these theories in detail, but you can find a brief summary from the image below.
Some historians believed that tarot cards came from India, and that the four divisions of Minor Arcana denotes the four Hindu castes:
Cups —> Brahmins (priests)
Swords—> Kshatriyas (warriors)
Coins/Pentacles —> Vaisyas (merchants)
Rods/Wands —> Sudras (serfs)
In Switzerland, an essay from a monk called Brother Johannes of Bredfield was documented in 1377. He wrote about seeing a deck of cards that seemed to portray the society’s structure: Cups representing the church; Swords for the aristocrats; Coins for the merchants; and Rods for the peasants.In France, a court ledger stated that King Charles VI paid the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for illustrating three decks of card with gold edgings and other colorful ornaments, which some speculated to be the early tarot cards.
The tarot has also been connected to a medieval pageant in Italy called “Triumphs.” It was often celebrated with dramatic or mystery plays ordered by noble families in Italian cities. In the 14th century, a card game also called Triumphs existed, probably to commemorate the pageant or presented to the patron as a gift from the commissioned artist.
Other tarot commentators believed that early tarot decks was originally created as pictorial representation of the Kabbalah. Some added that the cards came from a grand conference attended by Kabbalists and Masters in Morocco, but no evidence was produced to prove such claims.
Another interesting theory points to Egypt as the origins of Tarot. These occultists claimed that after the burning of the great library of Alexandria, the city of Morocco (ancient city of Fez) became the meeting point of intellectuals from different countries. In order to preserve their knowledge and to have a better form of communication, they invented picture books with mystic symbols. Later on, they decided to reproduce these symbols on seemingly pointless cards, so that its true meaning would be hard to decipher by commoners.
In 18th century, the use of tarot cards for divination became widespread across Europe; Antoine Court de Gébelin of France, author of the nine-volume manuscript – Monde Primitif, stated that the tarot is a representation of a holy book from Egypt created by high priests, and brought to Europe by gypsies from parts of Africa. But evidences negated this claim as gypsies were known to have come from Asia and not Africa, and that tarot decks had been around even before the gypsies came to Europe.
Chronological Timeline of Tarot History
1375 – 1378
Muslim conquests spread to Europe because of Mamlūk (also called Mameluke) dynasty who took control of Egypt and Syria. European adaptation of the Islamic playing cards emerged during the invasion. Reproduction of human form in images was prohibited in Islam, which probably explains why early Mamluk court cards only contained decorative arrangements. The addition of “the queen” or female character in the court card definitely came from non-Muslim origins because of strict Islamic rules.
According to a February entry from Treasurer Charles Poupart’s book, Charles VI of France paid the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur 56 sols parisiens to paint three deck of cards. It was also the same year that Charles VI was said to have fallen into insanity. Recent findings claimed that the three deck of cards commissioned were just regular playing cards, and not the erroneously associated tarot deck displayed at Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. The tarot deck, still mistakenly referred to as Charles VI deck or Gringonneur deck, was presumably of Ferrara origins, dated 1400s.
1420 – 1440
Tarot cards appeared in Northern Italy. Noble families commissioned artisans to hand paint deck of cards; these work of arts didn’t come cheap – some even lavished with gold leaf trimmings. It became a luxurious pastime of the upper classes in Italy. The mention of the word “trionfi” or triumph cards was first documented in 1440 – from a diary entry by Giusto Giusti – an Anghiara notary and public official.
“Friday 16 September, I gave to the magnificent lord sir Gismondo, a pack of triumph cards, that I had made expressly in Florence, with his arms, and beautifully done, which cost me four and a half ducats.”
Bonifacio Bembo of Italy painted the earliest tarot deck still existing today: the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi deck. It was a commemoratory gift for the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan (Filippo Maria Visconti) and the soldier Francesco Sforza. Thirty-five out of 74 cards can be found at the Pierpone-Morgan Library; 26 are displayed at the Academia Carrara; and the other 13 are at Colleoni Museum.
1440 – 1475
The formative years of tarot cards; heralded as the golden age of tarot artistry. Many aristocrats commissioned artists to paint extraordinary decks for their personal interests. Some of these decks are now archived in libraries and displayed in museums, and are still being reproduced for collectors and tarot connoisseurs. Count Matteo Maria Boiardo of Ferrara designed an unusual tarot deck in 1465. Trump cards from his deck were represented by human qualities or emotions such as desire, reason, modesty and patience. Four suit cards: eyes (jealousy), arrows (love), whips (fear) and vases (whips) were narrated with 3-line love poems, often of rather cynical message.
1450 – 1500
Several documents of contradicting dates reported a monk (possibly Franciscan) preaching against the use of dice and playing cards. The manuscript, Sermones de Ludo cum aliis, was authored by San Bernardino. He mentioned the trumps and suits separately; supporting the popular speculation that minor and major arcana came from different origins. He condemned the use of trumps because they were, according to him, created by the devil, and those who choose to play it, loses his soul to the devil.
Cartomancy or the use of regular playing cards for divination was first mentioned, but it wasn’t clear if tarot cards were also used in this way.
Gutenberg press was invented and it paved way for mass production of tarot cards. Tarot packs spread from Northern Italy throughout Europe, almost all bore Italian labels. The names and numbers of trump cards were standardized by card makers, and tarot became available even to commoners. There are no existing inexpensive 15th century playing cards today, but one evidence of an uncut sheet survived. The sheet, bearing the individual cards, was preserved because it was erroneously used as fillers in book binding.
In Florence, Minchiate tarot deck was created in the early 1500s. It was an expanded 97-card pack that included 12 zodiacal signs.
The name trionfi, referring to the triumph cards, was changed into “tarocchi” to distinguish it from the regular playing cards being used in the new triumph games. The german version of this game was called tarock, and Parisians called it ‘tarot.’
An inquisition in Venice associated the use of tarot cards with witchcraft. Isabella Bellochio was found guilty as her housemaid testified seeing her burning a candle and praying to the devil and the tarots, with the hope of getting her lost lover back.
A deck called Tarot de Marseilles became popular, and most of the succeeding tarot decks were derived from it. Marseilles deck was believed to have come from France, but Michael Dummett’s research claimed that its roots probably came from Milan, and introduced into France during the French invasion. The first Tarot de Marseilles deck was created by Jean Noblet of France.
Antoine Court de Gébelin of France published an essay – Le Monde Primitif and claimed the tarot to be of Egyptian origin. He was also the first to refer to tarot cards as an object for divination or occult practices.
“Yes this is a true fact. This Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, exists to our day; it is even so common that no savant has designed to trouble himself about if, no one before myself having suspected its illustrious origin. This book is composed of seventy-seven leaves or illustrations, or rather of seventy-eight, divided into five classes, which each present objects as various as they are amusing and instructive. In one word, this book is the PACK OF TAROT CARDS.”
Excerpt from Le Monde Primitif, translated by Donald Tyson
The first tarot deck for cartomancy/divination was published by Jean-Baptiste Alliette. More commonly known as Etteilla, this card reader and alchemy student is now regarded as the first modern tarot card reader. Etteilla’s deck supported the Tarot-Kabbalah connection.
Famous occultist and magician, Eliphas Levi, further supported the Tarot-Kaballah connection. He published Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic, one of the most significant exposition in western occultism.
Major and Minor arcana was first coined by Paul Christian (real name: Jean-Baptiste Pitois) to represent the trumps and the four suits.
Arthur E. Waite, the British poet and mystic, published the Waite-Smith Tarot deck. He asked a fellow member of the English Rosicrucian society (Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), Pamela Coleman Smith to illustrate the deck. His deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tarot has become notably popular for it was the first to have illustrations for all 78 cards. It has become the basis of most divination-based tarot decks of today.
1938 – 1943
Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck was created and discussed in his book, The Book of Thoth. Crowley’s wife, Lady Freida Harris, also a member of his occult organizations, created paintings for the cards. The deck bore Kabbalistic and alchemical origin, but it wasn’t published until 1969, when both Crowley and his wife were already dead. The reproductions came from low quality photos, thus another set of deck was published in 1970, this time based on the photos of the original Lady Freida paintings.
The first volume of the Encyclopedia of Tarot was published by Stuart Kaplan. Thousands of decks from 15th to the 20th century, and hundreds of references to the origins of tarot has been presented to the public for the first time.
“I liken myself to The Fool in the Tarot deck. Every day is a new adventure for me between researching, managing U.S. Games Systems and the Creative Whack Company, collecting, and traveling.”
Stuart Kaplan in an interview by Stephen Winick
The design of the modern day tarot cards echoes significant developments in sexuality, religion and cultures of man. Tarot’s existence spanned thousands of years, and still remains highly influential today because it relies on the universal language of symbolism.
It is good to know the history and origins of tarot as it gives us a broader understanding of its significance in the ancient times. It also showcases the rich cultural, religious and philosophical backdrop of the tarot. You won’t be able to differentiate between facts and myths, if you don’t go back to its roots. If you plan on becoming a reader, the history of the tarot will deepen or develop the relationship you have with your cards. It can also provide a better understanding of your readings. Whether it really came from playing cards in China, India or other parts of the world, or as symbolic representations of secret teachings that only a few can decipher, one thing seems plausible – tarot was and will remain a mystery – albeit a mystery worth knowing.