A Very Brief History in Tarot


A Brief History in Tarot

I wrote this brief history so I could have it straight in my own mind how the Tarot Cards evolved over time….

First came the playing cards….they originated in Imperial China in the 9th century, with the first reference to cards in 868AD, written in the Collection of Miscellenea at Duyang. They gained popularity and spread throughout Asia in the 11th century.

These playing cards arrived in Europe by the late 14th century. The first documented evidence of the cards in Europe was a ban of their use in Switzerland in 1367. At this time the playing cards had four suits….swords, staves, cups and coins, and only 52 cards, with no queen cards or trump cards. The trump cards were an apparent European invention and showed up in Germany in 1420 but it wasn’t until about 15 years later that the Tarot Deck appeared in Northern Italy. The word Tarot may have derived from the Italian word for trumps. This new card set consisted of the 52 cards stated above, with four queens added (one for each suit), and then 22 trump cards were also added. The grand total being 78 cards. Yeah, the start of the Tarot Deck!

The Sola Busca Deck is probably one of the oldest decks with 78 cards. The trump cards contained figures that were identified by their names on the card, they mainly consisted of characters from Ancient Rome. This deck was first published in 1491 in N. Italy, made from engravings in copper. This Tarot deck was used only for game playing.

Around the same time the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Decks were commissioned. These card were only used as a game. They portrayed the Sforza and Visconti family wearing period dress, set with a period backdrop. Several different decks were produced. Some of these cards from the Sola Busca deck and the Visconti-Sforza decks have survived until modern times and can be seen in various museums around the globe.

Another notable deck is the Tarot of Marseilles, probably invented in N. Italy in the 15th century and introduced into France around 1499. This set has 56 pip cards with the standard suits and 22 trump cards, and has traditional Christian imagery, for example, the Pope, the Devil, the Reaper and the Last Judgement. This Tarot deck was used as a card game.

Rules for the game of Tarot have survived from 1637.

In 1540 Francesco Marcolini published a book of fortune, this may be the first book of cartomancy, but the cards used in the book were not Tarot cards. Probably the first book published on Tarot cartomancy was in 1770, written by Eteilla, the worlds first cartomancer. He and two other Frenchmen developed much of the esoteric Tarot lore and fortune-telling methods that would re-invent the Tarot from a card game to a divination tool.

More detailed myths and occult lore were added in the mid 19th century, at the beginning of the Victorian occult revival. During the occult revival, which continued through the early 20th century, Arthur Waite (1857-1942) added his own interpretation of the trump cards. Waite was co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Golden Dawn member Pamela Coleman Smith illustrated the cards for Waite and they were first published in 1909 and are still in publication today. The inspiration for this deck was partly from the Sola-Busca Tarot Deck, the first and only fully illustrated Tarot Deck up until the first publication of the Rider-Waite deck.

Waite’s deck then went on to inspire the hundreds of modern Tarot Decks that followed.

Robert M Place, The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination


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