Tarot decks have been shrouded in myth and mystery for centuries, yet their origins are not quite as ancient as many sources would have you believe. Contrary to popular belief, the beginnings of the tarot don’t have anything to do with the Ancient Egyptians, gypsies, or the kabbalah. In fact, their early history is fairly earthbound — though that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

A game of skill and chance

A messy pile of playing cards
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Most evidence suggests that tarot cards evolved out of regular playing cards, which may have been brought to Europe from Asia or the Arab world. The first references to the cards we now call tarot come from the correspondence of Italian noble families during the Renaissance, and in particular the Visconti family, starting with Duke Filippo Maria Visconti in early 15th century Milan. At the time, Italian courts, particularly in the north of Italy, often competed with another to create games to amuse their courtiers, including lavishly illustrated decks of cards. These cards weren’t used for divination, however — leisure-loving nobles used them to play a game of skill and chance called tarocchi. The game may have been a bit like bridge, although the details of how to play it have been sadly lost to history.

About 16 decks commissioned by the Visconti family still survive, in various states of completion. According to scholar Helen Farley in her "Cultural History of Tarot," the symbols of these early decks reference not the dark arts but the heraldry of Italian noble families, as well as icons from Italian art and literature. The most complete is the Visconti-Sforza pack, 74 cards that are now distributed among the Morgan Library in New York City, the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, Italy, and the Colleoni family. “Reading” these decks is a bit like peering back into Italian past — Farley notes that many of the figures are blond because the Viscontis were blond, unlike most Italians, and the cards often depict images symbolizing Visconti might and strategic alliances. (The lion depicted in the Fortitude card, for example, likely references a military defeat over Venice, which is associated with the animal through its patron saint, St. Mark.) Tarot scholar Giordano Berti also notes that the quince and fountains on the cards are emblems of the Sforza family, whose son Francesco married Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441. The palm and laurel are symbols of ducal power, indicating the deck was created after Francesco Sforza became the duke of Milan in 1450. The cards are indeed fit for a duke: they were embellished with gold leaf and engraved or impressed with special tools to create elaborate designs.

The Visconti-Sforza cards went on to be the model for many subsequent decks. But at the time, the cards themselves weren’t called tarot. In the 15th century, they were known as cartes de trionfi, or “cards with triumphs.” The “triumphs” referred to the 22 allegorical trump cards, or what tarot readers today call the Major Arcana. These trump cards were joined to four sets of suit cards, featuring cups, batons, swords, and coins, or variations (now known as the Minor Arcana). According to Berti, the trionfi term may have something to do with the poet Petrarch’s "Trionfi," allegorical verses written in the mid-14th century that were often illustrated and took the medieval carnival as their theme. Others have suggested ties to medieval theatre and morality plays, such as the "Danse Macabre." According to Farley, however, any such links are less likely direct borrowings and more likely evidence of a general system of iconography that would have been familiar to most artists and aristocrats of the Italian Renaissance.

An occult rebirth

Pile of colorful tarot cards
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From Italy, the game spread throughout Europe, including to France, where it was finally renamed tarot in the 16th century. But it took until the late 18th century before the game earned any esoteric associations. In 1773, the scholar Antoine Court de Gébelin began publishing a multi-volume encyclopedia, "Le Monde primitif," which included a section on the cards. Gébelin linked the tarot to ancient Egyptian magic, and in particular a lost work known as the Book of Thoth. According to him, the symbolism of the cards was supposedly tied to an “ancient and wise Egyptian priesthood, forced to conceal their most precious secrets in a game to ensure their survival,” as Farley writes.

The connection was totally spurious, but highly influential. It helped that Gébelin’s work appeared at a time when many Europeans were fascinated with all things Egyptian, thanks to Napoleon’s recent discoveries in the country. Many intellectuals thought that Egyptian mysticism might contain all the secrets of the universe, particularly before the Rosetta Stone was translated around 1822 and hieroglyphics finally made sense.

The tarot’s supposed occult ties were strengthened in the late 18th century, when an algebra teacher-turned-publisher named Jean-Baptiste Alliette began publishing guides to the cards as a magical and divinatory tool. Alliette, who wrote under the pseudonym “Etteilla,” also published his own deck in 1789 — one of the first explicitly designed for divination. About six decades later, the cards found one of their biggest popularizers in the French occultist Eliphas Lévi, who argued that the tarot’s symbols were connected to the Jewish system of mysticism known as the kabbalah. Lévi was also one of several scholars of the era who thought the tarot had been carried to Europe by the gypsies, an idea that modern historians dismiss.

Starting in the late 19th century, amid a general surge of interest in the occult, several schools of mysticism felt that the tarot decks needed to be modified to fit their newly developed theories. One of the most notable adaptations was created by the poet and mystic Arthur Edward Waite, a member of an influential British secret society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite commissioned the artist Pamela Colman Smith, a fellow Golden Dawn member, to illustrate the deck. Smith created a deck rich in symbols drawn from Christianity, Freemasonry, astrology, and the kabbalah, modeling several of the figures on her friends in London's feminist and suffragist movements from the turn of the century. Now usually known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (“Rider” after its publisher, William Rider), the pack has been continuously in print since 1909; it’s the starter deck you’ll find in any occult bookstore.

The Beast and beyond

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The tarot found their next major champion in the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley, who called himself the Beast 666. Like Waite, he was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. One of the last accomplishments of Crowley’s long and eccentric life was the 1944 publication of the "Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians." Crowley's close friend Lady Frieda Harris later painted a deck of cards based on his’s ideas, and while the paintings were exhibited in London, the deck wasn’t published until 1969. The Thoth deck went on to be a major success, and is also widely used today, although it differs from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in several respects — the “Strength” card is replaced by “Lust,” for example, and “Temperance” by “Art.”

The publication of the Thoth deck coincided with an explosion of interest in tarot during the rise of New Age culture in the 1970s. Tarot divination became a fad in America and elsewhere, especially after Stuart Kaplan, the man responsible for bringing tarot cards to the attention of major sellers in the States and founder of U.S. Games Systems, republished the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in 1971 and published the first two of four editions of his book "Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling" during the decade.

Interest in the tarot has never really gone away. Today, new decks are published many times a year, inspired by pop culture, nature, mythology, and beyond. When you think of the deck as something originally created for Italian nobles, it makes sense that modern users would want to reinterpret its symbols — whether or not the cards have anything to do with the secrets of the universe.

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