History of Tarot Cards

The Hermit. The Hanged Man. The Fool. Tarot cards are often seen as a rustic antiquity. A mystical practice left behind from ruins of an older time. Yet, the ancient iconography adhered to the cards are often thought to hold a certain symbolism unparalleled by anything of modern design. And although individuals not well-versed in the practice may deem the practice occult, the simplistic imagery sometimes seems to have an inherent ability to bring light to complex problems within our lives.

The History of Tarot Cards

Tarot cards have a long history of occult attribution. However, they were originally intended as a sort of card-game, similar to the modern game of bridge. The artwork was often commissioned by wealthy Italian families and the corresponding decks were referred to as “carte da trionfi”, or in English, “cards of triumph”.

These decks originally included a court of a king, two male underlings, and corresponding suits of coins, cups, swords, and polo sticks, although the polo sticks were later changed to staves or wands. Later additions include the queens, trumps, and fool cards. This equated to a total of 78 cards.

It is believed that the use of these cards for divination dates back to about the 14th century due to culture exchange between Western Europe and Turkey. Later, around the 1500s, Italian aristocrats invented and played a game known as “tarocchi appropriati”. In this game, players were dealt random cards and used the corresponding associations to aid in writing poetry.

Eventually, as the decks evolved and changed, their usage began to become more esoteric in nature. The use of tarot cards for divination purposes likely began in the 15th century, with the earliest printed treatise on tarot cards being used for divination appearing in Italy around 1540 in the print known as Le Sorti by Marolino.

However, the first known esoteric reference in the history of tarot cards appeared in “The Fame and Confession of the Rosicrucians,” which was published in 1612. In this publication, tarot was referred to as ‘ROTA’ and was described as a medium which could be consulted for information regarding the past, present, and future.

The 17th Century

In 1781, famous French Freemason (and former Protestant minister) Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote that tarot cards were based on a religious text written by Egyptian priests and published his own tarot deck. Although his texts had some slight inaccuracies, his publications were highly influential during their time. It was around this time that practitioners began to assign specific meanings to each distinct tarot card.

Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a French occultist, responding to Antoine Gébelin with a treatise on how to use tarot cards for divination. He also released the first tarot deck to be used strictly for divination purposes, referred to as the ‘Book of Thoth’. With this deck, Alliette claimed to restore the original Egyptian tarot designs. He also popularized the connection between Kabbalah and Tarot in his 1856 publication known as Dogma et Ritual de la Haunte Magie.

By the 18th century, these practices migrated from Italy to other regions of Europe. The prior events of Gébelin and Alliette led Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers, the head of the Order of the Golden Dawn, to create the Golden Dawn Tarot Deck. Later, in 1887, he recorded the esoteric attributes of the tarot cards in a manuscript known as ‘Book T’.

The Origins of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and nemesis of Aleister Crowley, who was also involved in the order, Arthur Waite was the driving force behind the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith, who was also a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, published the Rider-Waite tarot deck in 1909.

Smith used the Sola Busca artwork for inspiration in her artwork, and there are several symbolic similarities between Sola Busca and Smith’s artwork. Prior to this deck, the lower cards were never shown as humans.

Smith was the first artist to incorporate human characters into a tarot deck. The Rider-Waite tarot deck remains iconic is one of the most easily recognizable decks in history. Many people credit Smith for changing the way tarot decks were drawn and contributing to the history of tarot cards.

This article was last revised on 02/26/2020.

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