Tarot is having a bit of a moment.
In an increasingly uncertain world, people are turning to spirituality for meaning. In a 2019 survey 80% of UK and US millennials and Gen Z reported feeling a sense of spirituality or belief in a higher power. Astrology, meditation and crystals are now part of daily routines for many, and you only have to glance at your Insta feed to see that tarot is making a comeback. Even iconic fashion house Dior kicked off 2021 with a Spring/Summer collection based on the imagery and meaning of tarot cards.
There are plenty of guides out there to introduce you to the tarot deck and how to use its 78 cards (divided into the Major Arcana, consisting of 22 cards, and the Minor arcana, consisting of four suits of 14 cards each). However over the centuries, tarot cards have evolved from a game of chance to a divination tool and more. This guide is to give you a quick intro the history of the tarot deck and its origins.
For a deck that many still associate with the occult, its fitting that the origins of tarot cards are shrouded in mystery.
There are many theories about where the cards originate from – theories include ancient Egypt, the library of Alexandria and even the Knights Templar. However, the truth is slightly more mundane. It’s most likely the early version of tarot cards evolved from the Mamluk game cards brought to Western Europe from Turkey in the 14th Century. A 15th Century deck of Mamluk cards excavated in Istanbul consisted of four suits almost exactly similar to the four suits we find in the modern day tarot.
A Game of Fortune
Tarot cards as we know them today originated in the mid-15th Century in Europe, with many historians placing their creation in northern Italy. Here they were known as Carte de Trifoni or Cards of Triumph. Much like regular playing cards, these decks contained four suits and court cards (a page, knight, queen, and king). They were also accompanied by 22 illustrated trump cards, making up the composition of the tarot deck as we still know it today.
These original decks were highly prized. They were hand-painted for wealthy families and contained illustrations of allegorical motifs, often tailored to their personal interests. Only three tarot decks survive from the mid-15th Century. The most famous of these is the Visconti-Sforza tarot, commissioned for Filippo Maria Viscounti, the then Duke of Milan. Frustratingly only 61 cards out of the original 78 survive, and the deck is currently split across two museums.
During the 16th Century, the cards took on a new name – tarocchi. In France, the cards were known as taraux, a term that eventually gave us the word tarot.
Foretelling The Future
It wasn’t until the 18th Century that tarot cards started to be used for divination and fortune-telling – and eventually the occult.
The popularization of using tarot for divination can be attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alliette (who went by the stage name Etteilla) in Paris during the 1780s. He used decks of cards to tell fortunes – but there are features in the way he did this fortune-telling that are still central to reading tarot cards today. Using a ‘spread’ (the pattern in which the cards are laid out on the table) and using assigned meanings to each card both in regular and in reversed positions are features that are familiar to all modern-day tarot users.
The Rider-Waite tarot deck – now widely acknowledged as the most popular tarot deck, of which many versions are available – was not created and published until 1910. The creator, mystic and author A.E. Waite, commissioned artist and fellow occultist Pamela Colman Smith to produce a new deck. This deck was really innovative in that the Minor Arcana finally carried images, allowing readers to perceive messages and divine the future using all 78 cards in the deck.
And now in the 21st Century, tarot has entered the digital age. Online readings make the insight tarot provides accessible to all, and platforms such as Instagram have given both creatives and practiced tarot readers alike the chance to create and share modern interpretations of the traditional tarot deck (I particularly recommend the pop-culture tarot interpretations from Welsh graphic designer Meg Frewell). In a way, the history of tarot design has come full circle, and once again we are seeing beautiful and original hand-crafted tarot designs – just as if we were back in Renaissance Italy.