History of Tarot Cards

The history of tarot cards goes back to the fourteenth century but their true origin is still mysterious, shrouded in myths and legends.



The archetypal images of these cards embody the collective wisdom of many different peoples and the esoteric teachings of many orders, so in a way all the stories about the origins of the tarot have elements of truth.

Tarot cards as we know them, appear to be a medieval creation but the symbols on them are certainly much older.



Early History of Tarot Cards

Some tarot historians claim that the history of tarot cards is thousand of years old but there is little or no evidence to support this claim.

Historical records of tarot games go back only to the fourteenth century.

Tarots were used for playing and gambling and their use was so widespread that their first historical mention are proclaims against them.

In 1376 they were banned in Bern, in 1376 in Florence and in 1382 in Barcelona and in Lille

The tarot were also condemned by the Roman Catholic church as instrument of the Devil.

These decks of cards however were not tarot as we know them, they had no trump cards and different suit symbols. As the game spread through Europe, more symbols were created.

The use of these cards for fortune telling is testified by two Renaissance books that gave instructions about how to use these cards for divination.

Before the invention of the press, beautifully painted card decks were commissioned by the nobles to celebrate a special event like a marriage.

The oldest Italian tarot decks are form the XV century and come from northern Italy.

They were painted by hand for the Renaissance nobility of Milan. The early history of tarot cards is closely linked to the Visconti family and the city of Milan.

The decks were used to play but were also designed as a didactic tool to educate about mythology and ethics.




The Visconti decks that survived to our times are known with the name of their owners.

The Pierpont-Morgan or Colleoni is the most famous Visconti tarot deck.

It was probably created shortly after 1450 by Bonifacio Bembo, painter and miniaturist, to celebrate the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti.

After many changes of ownership the Donati family sold them to Alessandro Colleoni who sold them separately.

Now the original cards of this deck are divided between the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York, the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo and the private Colleoni collection in Bergamo.

Fourteen original trumps survived to our times: The Fool, The Magician, The Pope, The High Priestess, The Emperor, The Empress, The Marriage, The Chariot, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hermit, The Traitor, The Death, The Justice, The Judgement.

In 1480 Antonio da Cicognara, added The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, The World, The Strength and the Temperance.

The Cary-Yale tarot deck belongs to the collection of playing cards of the Cary family at the University of Yale.

The deck belonged to the countess Amelia Visconti Gonzaga and was sold by Uberto Visconti di Modrone to Melbert B. Cary and this is why it is also known as Gonzaga or Modrone deck.

The cards with figures are decorated with gold, the numeral cards in silver and the frames are pink with light blue flowers.

These decks made the history of tarot cards and became the cornerstone for many future decks.

Another ancient tarot deck that survived to our days and can be seen at the British museum, is the Mantegna deck, designed around 1470 by an unknown author of Northern Italy.




The images represent the nine Muses plus Apollo, the social stations of mankind, the Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Cardinal Virtues, and the Heavenly Spheres.

Much of the popularity of the tarots comes from the intriguing images of the trump cards.

The Sola-Busca tarot deck is the only one that survived intact to our days. It was probably made in Venice and is the first one to have numbered trumps.

During the Renaissance, riddles and mind games were very popular and, according to a theory, the tarot images are related to the ars memorativa, a pictorial memory system elaborated to enhance mnemonic abilities.

The memory systems of the Renaissance were later connected to magic and occult sciences and the tarot was seen as a kind of code to teach occult disciplines to the initiates but keep the secrets hidden to the untrained eye.

The origin of the name Tarot probably comes from Italy were these cards were called Tarocchi.

The game of tarocchi was introduced in southern France from Italy and the name then became tarot in France and tarok in Germany.

In the XVI century the minchiate, another version of the tarots were created in Florence. This kind of cards contains 40 trumps that include the Christian virtues, the zodiac figures and the Fool.

In the sixteenth century there was a breakthrough in the history of tarot cards when the card makers in Marseilles, the tarotiers, began to print and sell their cards in all France and Europe.

The cards were all labeled and numbered and the tarot de Marseille became the standard and the basis for the modern tarot.


Modern Tarot Cards History

In the eighteenth century Antoine Court de Gebelin, a French protestant pastor, linguist and occultist, became convinced of the mystical meaning of the tarot.

In an essay, without producing any historical evidence, he developed a history of tarot cards that linked them to an ancient Egyptian book, the book of Thoth.

Gebelin believed that the mysterious Egyptian images contained in the book arrived in Europe during the Middle Ages but in time their meaning became lost or misinterpreted.

Maybe from this writing came the notion that the gypsies coming from Egypt spread the use of tarot cards throughout Europe.

In his work "The Primitive World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World" he published a chapter about tarot and included the seventy-eight images that became the base of many subsequent tarot decks.

An essay included in "Le Monde primitif" established a mystical connection between the Major Arcana the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Soon after, in 1785, the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as Etteilla, published his ideas about tarot divination and the correspondences between tarot, astrology, the four classical elements and the four humors.

He was the first to design a tarot deck for divination purposes and the first professional tarot reader.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a renewed interest in occult disciplines such as astrology, numerology and tarot.

Eliphas Levi (1810 -1875) was a French writer, magician and philosopher.

He thought that the roots of tarot cards could be found in the Hebrew alphabet.

He included tarot cards into his magical system and had a strong influence on the later ideas that inspired the twentieth century revival of magic.

The Golden Dawn was the most influential group of this movement.

Arthur Edward Waite, a leading member of this group, with artist Pamela Coleman Smith, designed the Rider-Waite tarot deck that became the most popular deck of the twentieth century and a landmark in the history of tarot cards.

In the 1940s, Alister Crowley, a former member of the Golden Dawn, designed the Thoth tarot deck in collaboration with of Frieda Harris.


Contemporary History of Tarot Cards

Also psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) became interested in ancient systems of divination as tarot cards and I Ching.

He linked his idea of synchronicity to the concept of a pre-established harmony and the Greek concept of cosmic correspondence.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, filmmaker, author, play writer, spiritual guru and one of the most influential artists of the psychedelic movement was deeply influenced in his work by the tarot cards and their symbolic meaning.

He spent years reconstructing the Tarot de Marseille in its original form because he considers it to be far more than a simple divination tool.

In his book The Way of Tarot , he explains us that the entire deck is structured like a mandala, an image of the world and a representation of the divine.



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