Tarot cards are hundreds of years old. They’ve been attributed to everyone from the Egyptians to the Devil. But where did they really come from? And were they always used for “fortune telling”?
Tarot cards were originally called “triumph cards.” Where they came from is unknown, but based on known events it seems most likely they were invented in Italy near the beginning of the 15th century.
One of the first written references to the cards is a request by the Duke of Milan for a set of “triumph cards” or, if those could not be obtained, playing cards. This makes it fairly certain that the two were not the same thing. However, they both seem to have been used only for games, including at least one that was similar to today’s game of bridge.
Triumph cards and playing cards had similar structures. Both had named suits consisting of numbered “pip” cards and a group of “court” cards. However, playing card decks had only 52 cards – four suits of 13 cards each (10 pips and three court cards). Triumph decks were bigger, with four suits of 14 cards (10 pips and four court cards), and an additional 22 permanent “trumps” – cards with specific pictures painted on them – for a total of 78 cards.
A new identity
At the time triumph cards appeared gaming was growing in popularity, and in less than a hundred years it had spread from Italy to France, Germany, and the rest of Europe. Possibly because triumph card decks, being bigger, were more awkward to play with, games which had originally used only triumph cards began to be adapted for playing cards. It must have been confusing for the card players, because in the first half of the 16th century the Italian name for triumph cards – “trionfi” – was changed to “tarocchi,” probably to distinguish triumph cards from playing cards.
What isn’t known is the origin – or meaning – of the word “tarocchi.” It is known that the French version of this word is “tarot.” And it’s the French word that has stayed with the cards since that time.
Tarot cards continued to be used for gaming until the late 18th century in France. At this time someone decided to start using them for divination – information, advice, and predicting the future – probably based on the belief that they came from ancient Egypt and their pictures contained mystical symbolism.
By the late 19th century tarot cards were quite popular with mystical groups like the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Some groups even created their own versions of the cards. But the cards’ fame really spread when they were essentially reinvented at the beginning of the 20th century by Arthur Edward Waite.
The Tarot’s “rebirth”
Waite, wanting to publish a “corrected” version of the tarot, commissioned artist Pamela Coleman Smith to paint new images for the cards. Smith broke new ground by being the first to include actual images for the pip cards, which, like playing cards, had previously contained only symbols of their particular suit – for example, cups and swords. She also created other symbols that have inspired many modern tarot decks.
Tarot cards are still used primarily for knowledge, mainly to help people get through stressful periods in their lives. But they aren’t limited to “fortune telling.” They’ve also been used for meditation, creative inspiration, and even their original purpose – games. It seems that their use is limited only by the imaginations of their users.