Many things (true, false, and speculative) have been written about the history of the tarot. This page
addresses some oft-repeated statements about the tarot that may seem like historical fact, but are actually
without basis in the evidence presently available. This is not to say that there is no room for speculative or
non-factual stories about the tarot. Myths and lore express the human soul and creativity. These myths tell us
much about the significance tarot has on an inspirational growth level. They speak an inner truth that is, at
times, more personally true than external facts. However, both history and myth may suffer when the two
The information given here consists mostly of conclusions that recent tarot historians have drawn from
studying the evidence of written documents and cards that have come down to us. Other interpretations might
be drawn from the same body of evidence. Readers interested in examining the evidence for themselves and
drawing their own conclusions are directed to the references listed at the end of this sheet for useful starting
places. Readers should also be aware of the limitations of relying on documentary evidence alone. Although
written records are our most reliable contact with centuries past, they do not preserve everything that people
thought or did, especially pertaining to an aspect of popular culture, such as the tarot.
The information on this sheet may be freely used, although direct quotations must be credited and an
acknowledgement to http://www.tarothermit.com/infosheet.htm would be appreciated if you found this sheet
especially useful. Permission is granted to photocopy for educational, nonprofit uses.
The time and place of the origin of the tarot
Inaccurate: The tarot comes from Egypt; India; China; Fez, Morocco; the Sufis; the Cathars; Jewish Kabbalists
or Moses; or the origin of the tarot is unknown.
Current Historical Understanding: The tarot originated in northern Italy early in the 15th century (1420-1440).
There is no evidence for it originating in any other time or place. The earliest extant cards are lavish
hand-painted decks from the courts of the nobility.
The origin of the word "tarot"
Inaccurate: The word is Egyptian, Hebrew, or Latin; it is an anagram; it holds the key to the mystery of the
Current Historical Understanding: 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.
The cultural source of the tarot symbols
Inaccurate: The symbolism of the trumps comes from Egypt (or India, or other exotic locale).
Current Historical Understanding: The symbolism of the trumps is drawn from the culture of Medieval and
Renaissance Europe. Most tarot subjects are distinctive to European Christendom. Illustrations virtually
identical to each of the tarot subjects can be found in European art, and such precise analogs are not found in
Tarot censored by the church
Current Historical Understanding: The Inquisition documented in considerable detail what the church regarded as
evidence of heresy and the tarot is never mentioned.
Many printers made their living printing both religious cards and playing cards. Playing cards were sometimes
restricted or outlawed because of their use in gambling. Tarot cards were, in fact, sometimes explicitly exempted
from bans on playing cards, perhaps because of their association with the upper classes. In 1423, playing cards
(tarot cards were not mentioned) were among many things thrown on the fires in Bologna by followers of Bernadino
of Sienna during an attack against all studies and pastimes not focused on religion.
After the Reformation, the church did object to the cards depicting the Pope and Papess, and cardmakers
substituted less controversial images.
Original use of tarot cards
Inaccurate: The tarot was originally used for divination/magic/teaching secret doctrines/etc.
Current Historical Understanding: Written records tell that the tarot was regularly used to play a card game similar
to bridge. The game was popular throughout much of Europe for centuries and is still played today, particularly in
France. Early poets also used the titles of the trump cards to create flattering verses, called tarocchi appropriati,
describing ladies of the court or famous personages. Although it is possible that tarot cards might also have been
are no references connecting tarot with magic or divination until the 18th century. (See also next three questions.)
invented. Records from a trial in Venice in 1589 suggest that tarot may have been associated with witchcraft (at
least in the minds of the accusers) at this date, about 150 years after the appearance of the tarot. After this, there
are no references connecting tarot with magic or divination until the 18th century. (See also next three questions.)
Tarot and divination
Inaccurate: Tarot was not used for divination before Etteilla and Court de Gébelin around 1781.
Current Historical Understanding: There is evidence of such use, but it is fragmentary and suggestive rather than
conclusive. Tarot was used as early as the 16th century to compose poems describing personality characteristics
(tarocchi appropriati). In one case (1527), the verses are presented as relating to the person's fate. There are
records of divinatory meanings assigned to tarot cards in Bologna early in the 1700s. This is the first unambiguous
evidence of tarot divination as it is commonly understood. However, it is known that ordinary playing cards were
connected with divination as early as 1487, so it is reasonable to conjecture that tarot was also. From the 1790s
with Etteilla's deck we find tarot design being modified specifically to reflect divinatory and esoteric meanings.
Occult philosophy and the original design of the tarot
Inaccurate: There are no hermetic, heretical, or kabbalistic characteristics in the original tarot.
Current Historical Understanding: This topic is still open. The early Italian Renaissance, which gave birth to the
tarot, was a time of great intellectual diversity and activity. Hermeticism, astrology, Neoplatonism, Pythagorean
philosophy with roots in Alexandrian Egypt, and heterodox Christian thought all thrived. Any or all of these may
have left their mark on the design of the tarot. Although it should be remembered that all of the symbolism of the
tarot has close analogs in the conventional Christian culture of the time, many scholars today believe that these
philosophies, which are foundations of occultism, were important in the design of the tarot.
Tarot and the western esoteric tradition
Inaccurate: The tarot has always been a pillar of the western esoteric tradition.
Current Historical Understanding: The first occult writers to discuss the tarot were Court de Gébelin and the Comte
de Mellet in 1781. For the first 350 years of its history, the tarot was not mentioned in any of the many books on
occult or magical philosophy. Following 1781, occult interest in tarot blossomed and the tarot then became an
integral part of occult philosophy.
Astrological, elemental, and kabbalistic correspondences
Inaccurate: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (or Eliphas Lévi, Papus, Zain, Case, etc.) knew the true
astrological, elemental, and Kabbalistic correspondences to the Tarot and corrected previous errors.
Current Historical Understanding: There are many, many systems of correspondences for the tarot. None can be
shown to go back to the tarot's origins, although the French tradition exemplified in the works of Eliphas Lévi
predates the English tradition now familiar through the works of Waite and Crowley. Most sets of correspondences
have a rationale and system that make them meaningful and useful when studied within their own tradition.
Correspondences are a matter of individual choice and of intention or adherence to a school of thought rather
than right or wrong.
The gypsies and tarot
Inaccurate: The gypsies brought the tarot to Europe and spread its use.
Current Historical Understanding: This idea was popularized in the 19th century by several writers, notably
Vaillant and Papus, without any basis in historical fact. There is no evidence that the Rom (gypsies) used tarot
cards until the 20th century. Most of their fortune-telling was through palmistry and later through the use of
ordinary playing cards.
Relationship between tarot and ordinary playing cards
Inaccurate: The 52-card deck evolved from the tarot, leaving the Joker as the only remnant of the major arcana.
Current Historical Understanding: Playing cards came to Europe from Islam, probably via Muslim Spain, about 50
years before the development of tarot. They appeared quite suddenly in many different European cities between
1375 and 1378. European playing cards were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards. These early cards had
suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (seen by Europeans as staves), and courts consisting of a king and
two male underlings. The tarot adds the Fool, the trumps, and a set of queens to this system. Some time before
1480, the French introduced cards with the now-familiar suits of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds. The earlier
suits are still preserved in the tarot and in Italian and Spanish playing cards.
The Joker originated in the United States around 1857, used as a wild card in poker and as the highest trump in
Euchre. It appears to have no direct relationship to the Fool of the tarot.
. Magus Eliphas Levi
. (1810 - 1875)
A French Occultist and Author
Tarot and the Hebrew Alphabet
Inaccurate: Eliphas Lévi (c. 1850) was the first to ascribe Hebrew letters to the tarot.
Current Historical Understanding: The Comte de Mellet, whose short article on the tarot was published in Court
de Gébelin's Le Monde Primitif (1781), was the first to write of a connection between the Hebrew letters and the
cards. Court de Gébelin also mentioned the idea in passing in his own essay.
The "Charles VI" or "Gringonneur" tarot cards
Inaccurate: The tarot was invented to amuse Charles VI of France in 1392, as evidenced by a deck by
Gringonneur in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
Current Historical Understanding: It is recorded that in 1392, Jacquemin Gringonneur was paid to paint three
decks of cards for Charles VI. These were probably playing cards, not tarot. The deck in the Bibliothèque
Nationale de France is a late-15th century hand-painted deck of the Northern Italian type (probably from Venice
Inaccurate: The Waite-Smith (or "Rider Waite") Tarot is the original, standard, or most authentic tarot.
Current Historical Understanding: The Waite-Smith deck was created in 1909, making it a relative newcomer in the
almost-600-year history of the tarot. A. E. Waite was a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn. The deck owes much of its symbolism to that group and represents a departure from the earlier French
tradition. The artist, Pamela Colman Smith, contributed her own vision, especially in the innovative creation of fully
illustrated scenes for the minor arcana. For many years, the Waite-Smith deck was the only one readily available
in the US, so it became familiar to whole generations of tarot readers. There is actually no "definitive" version of
The well-known Celtic Cross spread, publicized by Waite as "an ancient Celtic method of divination" is also
relatively recent, although it was not invented by Waite.
Some things to be careful of when writing about tarot history.
The terms "major arcana", "minor arcana", "High Priestess", and "Hierophant" are anachronistic when referring to
the older tarot decks. The historically appropriate terms are "the trumps and the Fool" (the Fool was not usually
regarded as a trump), "the suit cards", "Papess" or "Popess", and "Pope". Likewise "pentacles" and "wands" are
relatively recent substitutions for the traditional suit names of "coins" and "staves" or "batons".
The original Italian titles of the cards were in some cases different from the later French titles (and their English
translations) that have become familiar to us through the Tarot de Marseille and its descendants. Also, the
ordering of the trumps varied considerably in Italy where the cards originated; it is not known which ordering is the
earliest one. Even the number of cards in the deck varied a great deal! So care should be used in making
statements about the original meaning of the cards based on the familiar titles and ordering.
The intention of the original designer(s) of the tarot in selecting the symbols for the trump cards is unknown,
although there are many conjectures, some more plausible than others. Writers should avoid giving the
impression that the intention is known or obvious.
Sources and suggested reading:
Decker, Ronald, Michael Dummett, and Thierry Depaulis, A Wicked Pack of Cards
Dummett, Michael, The Game of Tarot
Giles, Cythnia, The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore
Kaplan, Stuart, The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. I & II
Moakley, Gertrude, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo
O'Neill, Robert V., Tarot Symbolism
Williams, Brian, A Renaissance Tarot
Williams, Brian, The Minchiate Tarot
Note: The above information was compiled and edited by Tom Tadfor Little and is from the website:
Thank you for the use of the above material on our website:
The Rider-Waite Tarot is THE classic Tarot deck, the most well-known in the Western world. Called the first
modern Tarot deck, commissioned by Waite, the cards were drawn by Pamela Colman-Smith. The Rider-Waite
deck was the first to use detailed pictures on the minor arcana cards.
Arthur Edward Waite
. Occultist (1857 - 1943)
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