Tarot Cards

Studying the history of Tarot is no easy task. There are many myths surrounding the origin of the Tarot, and the theories that the cards were invented in ancient Egypt, India or China are often expressed. These ideas owe more to a sense of romance or wishful thinking than to any hard evidence. One popular myth, expounded in Le Monde Primitif (1781) by Court de Gebelin, is that the cards were brought from India by the Gypsies (who, as their name suggests, were originally thought to have come from Egypt).

The true origin of the Tarot cards remains a mystery, but what is known is that cards similar to those we have today first appeared in Italy and France in the late 14th century. Political and religious forces in the1400 and1500's forced Tarot into a situation where it had to be camouflaged to obscure its radical content. Generations of students and scholars have had to join secret lodges and take binding oaths to earn the right to have information.

The origin of the word “tarot”

Numerous theories exist, some linking the word with geographic place names, others much more fanciful.  Idries Shah, in The Sufis, hypothesizes that tarot is a derivation of the Arab word turuq, which means “four ways.” The earliest names for the tarot are all Italian. Originally the cards were called “carte da trionfi” (cards of the triumphs). Around 1530 (about 100 years after the origin of the cards), the word “tarocchi” (singular tarocco) begins to be used to distinguish them from a new game of triumphs or trumps then being played with ordinary playing cards. The etymology of this new word is not known. The German form is “tarock”, the French form is “tarot?. Even if the etymology were known, it would probably not tell us much about the idea behind the cards, since it only came into use 100 years after they first appeared.

Tarot after Dark Ages

During the repression, people who wanted to preserve those ancient teachings had to be very secretive. The Church forbade the common folk the right to read and write, hoping that these teachings could be wiped out if the majority were illiterate. That very strategy, however, drove the teachings into visual form?painting, sculpture, architecture and needlework. The end of the Dark Ages filled Europe with the imagery that would eventually appear on the cards. Over time, private clubs formed, like invisible churches, to allow interested parties to pursue these studies with peers who were trustworthy. In this way the Church’s policies forced its enemies to get together within what became known as the Secret Societies.

Because of the persecutions, the Tarot had to be promoted as a game for social amusement and distraction. That way, teachings could be revealed in the imagery that if spoken would seriously jeopardize a person’s reputation as a Christian. Society members, using pseudonyms, produced occult and philosophical works that hinted at the teachings contained in the Tarot, but veiled them in confusing terms or contradictory details to throw non-lodge members off the track. So although these strategies were necessary at the time, historians are left with a confusing maze of false leads and exaggerations to unwind. As well, if the historian or researcher does not think like an occultist and lodge member of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, they are simply lost at sea. It was not until I committed myself to a thorough study of the Secret Societies and their histories that I began to understand the inner dimensions of the Tarot.

Luckily for all, the faces of the cards never lie, testifying to their origins if ever so quietly. In the earliest decks, discernibly Hebrew elements appear, commingled with classical Hermetic themes, spiced with Cathar and Gugliemite heresies, and unified by an overlay of Renaissance detail. In just a few generations, the cards became so rich with associations that it was impossible to reference them all in one deck, so Tarot decks had to proliferate. This led to different “schools” or families of related Tarots based on the emphases favored over others by any given deck’s creator.


The standard modern deck consists of 78 cards split into two sections: the 22 cards of the Major Arcana (the archetypal Tarot cards, such as the Lovers, Death and Judgement), and the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana (four suits of fourteen cards, each comprised of cards numbered from one to ten, and four ‘court’ cards).

Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo painted the earliest surviving full deck in 1422.This is known as the Visconti deck after the family name of its commissioner, the Duke of Milan, but early decks were of several types with varying numbers of cards.Examples of early European decks related to the Tarot include:

1.Tarocchi of Venice (also known as the Lombardi Deck), which has the same structure as a modern Tarot deck

2. Tarocchi of Mantegna, consisting of five series of ten cards each

3. Tarocchino of Bologna, which differs from the standard structure in having no court cards in the Minor Arcana (so 62 cards in total), and is thought, probably erroneously, to have been invented by Francois Fibbia, Prince of Pisa.

4. Minchiate of Florence, a 98-card deck consisting of the standard 78 cards augmented by twenty additional major cards representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, the four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) and four cardinal virtues (Hope, Prudence, Faith and Charity; though these are often considered to be Wisdom/Prudence, Temperance, Courage/Fortitude and Justice).

5.Marseilles Tarot deck, was widely used after the 16th century


The cards, particularly the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, have strong esoteric associations, and these began to be postulated and explored from the 18th century onwards, with the cards being linked to many areas of mystical study, such as the Kabbalah, alchemy, ritual magic and divination. Whether these associations were a guiding force in the creation of the Tarot or whether these later mystics added them to the lore is, again, debatable.

The 19th century French occultist, Eliphas Levi, explored the link between the Tarot and the Kabbalah. Though others before him had suggested such a link, his was the work that cemented the association in occult study, and the Kabbalah-Tarot system became the main model for the development and interpretation of the Tarot, and of its use in the Western Mystery Tradition. Levi himself felt that the Tarot was born from Kabbalistic teachings, though there is no hard historical evidence for this belief.

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw a revival in the study and application of occult teachings, and many of the associations between the Tarot and other mystical systems were developed or refined at this time. Most influential was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an English Rosicrucian society founded in 1888. Members of the Order separately produced two of the most popular and influential modern Tarot decks: the Rider-Waite and the Thoth deck.

Arthur Edward Waite was a prominent member of the Golden Dawn. In 1910, he published The Key to the Tarot in which he wrote: “the true tarot is symbolism, it speaks no other language and offers no other signs.” He directed a fellow member, Pamela Colman Smith, in the design of the deck now known as the Rider-Waite (Rider was Waite’s publisher).
Another member, Aleister Crowley, designed the Thoth deck, which was painted by Lady Frieda Harris. The deck was developed between 1938 and 1943 (considerably longer than the anticipated three months). Though Crowley published his study of the Tarot, The Book of Thoth, in 1944, the deck itself was not published until 1969, by which time both designer and artist were dead. Thoth, incidentally, was an Egyptian god (the equivalent of the Roman Mercury), said to be the inventor of hieroglyphics.


Nowadays, most modern tarot cards are used for divination or as a symbol-system for personal growth and development.  Tarot cards are often used as vehicles for artistic expression as well, and numerous artists (including Salvador Dali) have used the symbolism of the tarot as a means of creative expression.