Tarot History


The origins of the tarot are largely unknown, regular playing cards have been in Europe since about 1350ce originating from the Islamic world where they had been used for centuries before that, but these were not tarot cards. Many popular theories exist, I have listed a few below:

1. The tarot was brought to Europe by the Knights Templar returning from the Holy Land and buried within the symbolism of the cards are ancient secrets relating to the location of the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant. Most scholars believe these claims have more to do with fantasy than reality
2. The tarot represents the alchemical path to the Philosopher's Stone and buried within the cards is the secret to it's creation. As with the theory above these claims seem fanciful, however the strong links with alchemy may give this theory a little more weight
3. The tarot was brought to Europe by soldiers returning from the crusades. However the last crusade returned approximately 200 years before the tarot was first mentioned. It is true that other cultural, religious and scientific ideas did reach Europe this way but there is no evidence this included the tarot
4. The tarot was brought to Europe by gypsies originating from Egypt and bringing with them ancient Egyptian occult practices. This can largely be discounted as the gypsies arrived much later and actually originated from northern India not Egypt, (the word gypsie stems from Egyptian). However there remains a possible Hindu connection. The cards of the major arcana have strong similarities to images portraying the various incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. If such images were combined with the already existing playing cards or minor arcana, the resulting deck would be considered to have mystical qualities.

The devil
The only fact we can be sure of is that the first known tarot deck, the Sforza Visconti deck appeared in northern Italy around 1440ce. The theory that they were just invented one day as a game is not a very realistic proposition. The middle ages was a time of great religious intolerance and anyone possessing a deck of cards featuring images of Death, the Tower and the Devil would have been taking enormous risks. It seems more likely that the tarot would have remained underground, away from the sight of the authorities. However, the questions still remain as to why and where did tarot cards originate? One thing we do know is that the cards must have held a huge degree of importance. There is a reference to them in a sermon given by a Franciscan friar around 1460ce, in it he states that the tarot was invented by the Devil himself and condemns the use of the cards. From this alone we can conclude that the tarot must have been considered far more than just a game!
Biblical Link
The idea that looking into and foretelling the future is wrong has been a long-standing opinion of the established church. However, did not Jesus foretell the destruction of the Temple? Are we to believe that these rules should overrule spiritual doctrines? Divination, which derives from the Latin divinare, to foresee and be inspired by God, has long been practiced in ancient times. Astrologers were often consulted before battles or other decisions. Any non-Christian esoteric rituals would have been considered pagan and pagan religions were off limits to the early Christians who were required to follow the very strict code of monotheism. Spiritual acts not sanctioned by the church were considered a return to pagan ways.

I came across a theory that the tarot may be visual representation of the Bible. The cards of the major arcana have been linked with stories from the Old Testament and the four suits of the minor arcana, to the four gospels of the New Testament. It is certainly the case that back in times when most people were illiterate, images would have been a powerful medium to convey messages. However, no evidence for this yet exists, but it is certainly an interesting theory.

Historical figures with a close association to the history of the tarot include:

Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725 - 1784)A French Freemason in the late 18th century, he was fascinated by ancient Egypt and believed that the tarot was rescued from the great library of Alexandria. He believed the cards to be a visual representation of the Book of Thoth, known as The Book or all Knowledge, or to some the ancient Book of the Dead
Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 - 1791)He was known as Etteilla and was an 18th century French fortune teller. He created what he called the Corrected Tarot and assigned his own meaning to each of the cards. He is also accredited with giving separate meanings to reversed cards
Eliphas Levi (1810 - 1875)A French occult author who believed that the Tarot was linked to the Kabbalah (the book of Jewish esoteric teachings) and that studying the Tarot would reveal the ancient wisdom of the Kabbalah. He also believed that the 22 cards of the Major Arcana directly correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet
Arthur Edward Waite (1857 - 1942)An American born poet and mystic, he commissioned the now popular Rider Waite deck (featured on this site). This deck was the first to have an illustration on all the Minor Arcana cards, which up to now had just displayed a suit pattern similar to modern playing cards
Aleister Crowley (1875 - 1947)Cambridge educated English occultist and poet, he rejected the popular Christian faith to pursue his interest in the occult. Once a student of Arthur Waite, he worked with the painter Freda Harris to create a highly original tarot deck. This is considered an exploration into the dark corners of mysticism and black magic
Order of the Golden Dawn
This organisation was devoted to the study and practice of the occult, esoteric teachings, astrology and alchemy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was considered a magical order with strong links to Freemasonry and promoted the use of the Tarot for divinatory purposes. Members included Arthur Waite and Aleister Crowley.
The Sixties & the Hippie Movement
With the counter-culture of the late 1960s there was a resurgence in interest around mysticism and spirituality. The Tarot boomed and as a result there has been a lot of writings and new decks commissioned. The interest ignited at that time continues to the present day. No longer are tarot readers considered agents of the Devil and no longer is the freedom to explore spirituality condemned by the religious fraternity.

Today, as more and more people turn away from the established churches, spirituality or New Age has never been more popular. There is now a vast array of publications and web sites devoted to the subject. The laws in Australia which once prohibited witchcraft, sorcery and fortune-telling have now mostly been repealed allowing people to express their beliefs freely.

Updated: 13/11/2023