The History of The Tarot
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The History of The Tarot

March 30, 2022 by PathForward
Do you know the history behind your go-to tarot cards?
Do you know the history behind your go-to tarot cards?

Whether you're devoted to your own tarot deck to find answers to your questions or you're just getting into cartomancy, learning the history of the tarot can provide useful context before you pull the next card. Learn how it all started before unlocking secrets with a Tarot Psychic Reading.

The History of Tarot: A Story of Change

At its heart, the tarot tells stories about the cycles of our lives. You may think by looking at your go-to deck that the meaning behind each card always stays the same, but in fact, the meaning of these divination cards has changed over time.

Each era the divination tools were used gave it shape, thanks to the unique culture and needs of the folks using the cards at that given time. Likewise, methods for reading the tarot have changed as time passed. Even today, readers can use their own styles for interpreting a layout's traditional meaning.

What started out as a parlor game has transformed into an invaluable tool for gleaning insights into your life, past, present, and future. So, exactly how did this change come about?

Origins of Tarot

What we know today as tarot cards got their start around the late 14th century. These tarot card ancestors were playing cards. European artists created cards for games that featured four suits:

  • Staves or wands.
  • Discs or coins.
  • Cups.
  • Swords.

Sound familiar? That's because those cards are pretty similar to the playing cards we use today!

Those first cards were used for about a decade or so. In the mid-1400s, though, change started brewing when Italian artists painted additional cards. The heavily illustrated cards got added to the suits. Known as trump or triumph cards, these fancy versions of your typical playing cards often went to wealthy families.

That's right, members of nobility commissioned artists to make their own sets of cards just for them. The triumph cards tended to depict friends or family members of the commissioning nobility member. Of course, not every regular person had the funds to hire a painter to produce their own set of cards. So, for a few centuries, those customized cards were a privilege of the wealthy few.

From Parlor Games to Divination Tools

Then came the printing press. Remember history class? The printing press led to a whole lot of changes, and those changes even impacted the playing card. The printing press meant that playing card decks could also be mass-produced, and the average, everyday card player could now get their hands on a deck.

Remember, the original purpose of the tarot in Italy and France was a parlor game. Back then, the tarot wasn't a divination tool. Around the late 16th and early 17th century reading tarot with playing cards for divination purposes started to become popular. Sure, it was a much simpler version of the way we use the cards today, but it laid the foundation for tarot as we know it.

Analysis and Symbolism

By the time the 18th century rolled around, folks were already starting to give specific meanings to individual cards. People were even starting to give suggestions for how the cards could be arranged for divination.

Antoine Court de Gebelin, a French Freemason who also happened to be a former Protestant minister, pushed things further in 1781. He published an analysis of the tarot, revealing that the cards' symbolism came from the esoteric secrets of Egyptian priests. De Gebelin claimed the ancient occult knowledge had been revealed to the Catholic Church and its popes, who desperately tried to keep that knowledge hush-hush. De Gebelin wrote a whole chapter on tarot meanings connecting the artwork of the tarot to legends of Egyptian gods like Isis and Osiris.

De Gebelin's work may not have had much historical evidence to support it, but wealthy Europeans jumped to embrace it. Decks of playing cards like the Marseille Tarot were produced with art that was based specifically on de Gebelin's ideas.

The First Tarot Deck for Divination

A French occultist named Jean-Baptiste Alliette responded to the work of de Gebelin with his own treatise, writing a book that explained how to use the tarot deck for divination. Alliette then released the very first tarot deck that was expressly designed for divination, not entertainment, in 1791.

Over time, this occult interest in the tarot grew. The tarot came to be associated with secrets of hermetic mysticism and the Kabbalah. Occultism was becoming popular for upper-class families — it wasn't all that uncommon to find find a casual seance or palm reading session at a house party around the end of the Victorian era. So, it's no surprise that the tarot also caught on as a divination tool.

Rider-Waite: Origins and Continued Influence

Arthur Waite, British occultist and member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, published the Rider-Waite deck with fellow Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith in 1909. Smith, an artist, drew inspiration from the Sola Busca artwork at Waite's suggestion.

You'll notice plenty of similarities between Sola Busca and the ultimate result of Smith's work. Smith was the first artist who added characters as representative images in the deck's lower cards. Instead of just depicting clusters of coins, cups, swords, or wands on the cards, Smith put human figures into the art. The result? That iconic deck you know today.

Heavy on Kabbalistic symbolism, the Rider-Waite deck is the go-to deck in pretty much every instructional tarot book. The deck is also known as the Waite-Smith deck to acknowledge Smith's enduring contribution.

Now, over a century after the first Rider-Waite deck was released, you'll find tarot cards in an expansive array of designs. Many use the Rider-Waite format and style, adapting the cards to their own motif. Tarot is now accessible to anyone who wants to learn it.

An intuitive Psychic can help you understand the tarot and how to use it to guide your life. Get a Psychic Reading today from a PathForward Psychic who understands the tarot and all its intricacies.




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