A Very Brief History of the Tarot

The first known tarot cards date from around 1430 CE and were created for the wealthy Italian Visconti family. They were not intended for divination but for playing a card game called Tarocchi. They contained four suits plus twenty-two hand-painted pictorial trumps which featured characters representing mediaeval social types, virtues and moral allegories. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that books began to appear setting out instructions for using cards for telling fortunes.

Despite this, it hasn’t stopped many people claiming that tarot cards are much older and the repository of various forms of ancient wisdom. Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784), for instance, said that the tarot contained the secrets the ancient Egyptians, despite that the fact that Egyptian hieroglyphs had yet to be translated.  Occultists have also asserted correspondences between the cards and the Cabala, an esoteric Jewish philosophy which largely concerns itself with the study of the Tree of Life and the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Western magicians applied the latter to the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana and the four letters of Jehovah’s name YHVA to the four suits. Certainly, this can be made to work very well, but there is absolutely no evidence that this was intended by the creator of the first deck, or that the Visconti family had connections to any occult group.

Another myth is that there is a ‘standard deck’. In fact, the order of the Major Arcana cards and the card illustrations have been fluid over the years. Eighteenth century French decks depicted animals on the trump cards. The mid nineteenth century Swiss Tarot substituted Juno and Jupiter for the Papess and Pope, while later decks changed the name of the Papess to High Priestess. The earliest decks had the Angel, rather than Judgement, and the Magician was the Juggler.  Some decks even had different numbers of cards, such as the Minchiate which had ninety-six and the Tarocco Siciliano which had sixty-four.

The Rider Waite Tarot has been so influential that the vast majority of tarot packs that followed it have been virtually identical reworkings of the same designs – so much so that some tarot readers complain about any variation at all. Many erroneously consider it to be the traditional deck, forgetting that it was actually a radical departure when it first appeared, published in London by Rider in 1910 and created by the British occultist A.E.Waite and illustrated by fellow Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith. It was the first deck to have pictures instead of ‘pips’ to illustrate the meanings of the Minor Arcana, it re-ordered the sequence of the Major Arcana cards to suit Waite’s vision, changed the symbolism and meaning of some of the cards and substituted of pentacles for coins.  It should be said that Waite intended his deck as an aid to esoteric study and did not like the idea of it being used for divination at all.

© Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer, 2015


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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