Tarot History

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"Tarot" refers to a family of games played with an augmented deck, (that is, decks with a fifth "suit" serving as permanent trumps), and also to the decks themselves. Most other card games using trumps select one of four regular suits to serve as trumps for a particular hand. Tarot is commonly played in various areas of Europe, and has been played in Italy since the 1440s. Outside Europe, there has been a revival of interest in Tarot card games especially amongst participants in Medieval and Renaissance re-enactments. "Tarot" also refers to similar decks that are used for fortune-telling and other esoteric purposes. In English-speaking countries, despite a slow but growing interest in Tarot's gaming heritage, fortune-telling is currently the only common use of Tarot cards, even though such use did not begin until roughly 350 years after their invention.

1400 and before

"King of Cups"
Mamlûk Playing Card

Before there was Tarot


Playing cards were a Chinese invention which found their way to Europe around 1375, by way of the Mamluk empire. They spread very quickly through much of western Europe. Trick-taking games of some sort, traditionally the most popular form of card game, probably arrived with the cards. However, while we know almost nothing about the games played, the design of the Mamluk decks changed very little as adopted by the Italians, and so-called Moorish cards may have also been used in Europe. The four suits were Swords, Staves (the Mamluk decks used Polo Sticks), Coins, and Cups. Each suit had ten pip cards and three "court cards", a King, Knight, and Page, creating a 52-card deck. While that basic Italian suit system continued to be used, variations developed almost immediately. Spanish decks changed the Staves into Clubs, and altered the designs, and German cardmakers developed a number of alternative suit-systems.

In the earliest known description of playing cards, Brother John described decks in which the number of court cards and even the number of suits were increased from the norm, and some in which female figures were used on the court cards. In addition to regular decks, novelty decks were also produced in the 14th century, including one with images of gods and emblematic animals.

Although Tarot did not appear until the 1440s, the suit-cards used in Tarot were the same as standard Italian playing cards. In some regular Italian-suited decks of the period, Queens had been added to the suit cards, creating a 56-card deck, and such a deck was the basis for Tarot. The subjects illustrated on Tarot's trump cards were also well-known before the 15th century, some them dating back to classical times. Figures such as the Emperor and Pope, allegories of Love, Death, the Wheel of Fortune, the three Moral Virtues, and eschatological subjects from Revelation, were staples of medieval art. Even seemingly enigmatic subjects, such as a female figure with papal attributes or a man hanged by one foot, were far less obscure in that milieu.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1400 and before

1401 - 1500

"Charles VI' Tarot

The Invention of Tarot


The idea of trumps appears to be a European invention which first appeared in the 1420s, in the German game of Karnöffel. Tarot was probably created 10-15 years later, around 1440, somewhere in northern Italy. The earliest surviving Milanese Tarot decks and Ferrarese references to Tarot both come from that period. As noted, the Tarot deck consisted of a regular 56-card deck, augmented with a hierarchy of 22 allegorical trump cards. This created the standard 78-card Tarot deck, originally referred to as carte da trionfi, cards with trumps. Each trump triumphed over (trumped) the lower-ranking trumps in the manner of the popular trionfi motif, which also appeared in art, literature, religious processions, festival pageants, and so on.

The subjects pictured on the allegorical cards appear to have been standardized from the beginning. The vast majority of all Tarot decks in the 15th through 17th centuries share that design, and the occasional variants all appear to be derived from that archetypal standard. The series of images was similar to cycles of didactic Christian art of that era, most notably, the Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works popular from the time of the Black Death in the mid-14th century.

Tarot quickly became popular and spread in northern Italy, with Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara being early centers of the game. Richly painted decks with gold and silver leaf backgrounds were commissioned by the wealthy, while printed decks were used by commoners and nobles alike. (A record from 1436 indicates that the d'Este court at Ferrara had their own printing press for making cards.) The sequence of the trumps was altered in minor ways as Tarot spread to new locales, and the iconography was also varied somewhat. Moreover, a few complete redesigns are known, such as the classicized Sola Busca deck and the literary Boiardo deck, but they were dramatic exceptions. Changes of iconography, whether simplifying the original designs or conflating the Tarot images with other subject matter, usually left the underlying standard subjects recognizable.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1401 - 1500

1501 - 1600

18th Century Minchiate Card

Appropriati and Florentine Decks


The game spread from Italy to France, then to Switzerland, Germany, and beyond, and became very popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period the Tarot trumps also found employment as a literary motif. For example, an involved riddle was published in which the answer was Tarot. There are a number of surviving sixteenth-century examples of tarocchi appropriati, suggesting a kind of parlor game in which people creatively spun out associations by which a given card or cards could be used to describe themselves or another person. The cards were not given any special meaning; instead, their obvious subjects were worked into verse as a playful exercise of verbal agility, humor, and flattery. The meaning of the Medieval allegory may have been already forgotten, and was probably ignored from the beginning. From the players' perspective, they were just trumps in a card game.

In 1540 Francesco Marcolini published in Venice a fortune book that can be considered the first known document about cartomancy. The cards that were used in the divination process were not tarot and actually played a rather marginal role.

Perhaps the most curious item from the 16th century concerns Tarot's Devil card. Venetian Inquisition records suggest that the Devil card was used by witches for Satanic ritual and adoration. Whether this was true or not, it demonstrates that some inquisitors were familiar with Tarot, but, contrary to modern Tarot folklore, did not speak against it. The Church never spoke against Tarot, and the one known sermon which strongly condemns Tarot, along with dice and regular playing cards, does not suggest that Tarot was anything other than a game of chance. The confused preacher denounces Tarot for its moral allegory in which the Emperor and Pope are subject to the same allegorical and eschatological fate as the rest of mankind. This is exactly the same kind of moral allegory painted on church walls and in Books of Hours.

Variations such as the expanded Minchiate deck were developed. In that deck additional allegorical cards were added, raising the ratio of trumps to suit cards, and it became and extremely popular form of Tarot. (Other Tarot decks achieved a higher trump/suit-card ratio by leaving out the lowest-ranking pips.) In Florence, iconographic changes were made to some trumps which altered the highest-ranking images from a medieval Christian triumph of God to a humanistic triumph of Fame. The World card showed Europe as the center of the world, and triumphing over that was the Fama card with a picture of Florence. This was more in keeping with Renaissance sensibilities and Florentine hubris. Other card games with allegorical, symbolic, or merely novel content continued to be developed, including one based on the triumphs of Petrarch, a game of Apostles with our Lord, a game of seven virtues; and a game of planets with their spheres. None of these other games became popular enough to leave any trace beyond the single document which mentions their names. One well known non-standard deck which has survived is the Hofämterspiel, showing the social structure of royal courts during the late Middle Ages. Another is the Book of Trades by Jost Ammon.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1501 - 1600

1601 - 1700

"The Star"
Jean Dodal Tarot

Surviving Rules and Tarot de Marseille-style Decks


The earliest extant rules for the game of Tarot were published in 1637 (1585?) Translation

A few decades later, rule books for various games were being published in several languages. Tarot was included among the games in a 1659 collection, La Maison des jeux academique, which included several French versions of Tarot and a Swiss one : Ancient French Rules

Although Michael Dummett wrote that "a million is probably a highly conservative estimate of the number of Tarot packs produced in France during the seventeenth century", only a handful have survived in whole or part. Nonetheless, these surviving French decks (based on a 15th-century Milanese style) include examples of the style later popularized by occultists, which is also the only style known outside of Italy prior to the mid-18th century. Although originating in Milan and produced in many areas beyond Italy and France, the style is commonly referred to as Tarot de Marseille or TdM. Tarot was also introduced to Sicily in the 1600s, where another variant deck developed.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1601 - 1700

1701 - 1800

"The Judgement"
Etteilla Tarot

The Development of Modern Tarot Decks and the Invention of Occult Tarot


The middle of the 1700s saw a great development in the game of Tarot, a modernized deck, along with a growth in Tarot's popularity. Dummett notes that "The hundred years between about 1730 and 1830 were the heyday of the game of Tarot; it was played not only in northern Italy, eastern France, Switzerland, Germany and Austro-Hungary, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and even Russia. Not only was it, in these areas, a famous game with many devotees: it was also, during that period, more truly an international game than it had ever been before or than it has ever been since...." Beginning around 1750, a modernized Tarot deck became popular in many areas. The more common French suit-signs, (Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds) replaced the older Italian ones, and around 1780 the trumps began to became double-headed. Tarot's traditional Medieval allegory was replaced with a decorative series of thematically-related but essentially arbitrary images, made possible by the use of large numerals on the trumps. This obviated memorizing the order of images, making the game that much easier to learn. The themes of these decks might include almost anything: animals, pastoral scenes, military triumphs, illustrated proverbs, even advertising. Although in decline in France and Italy, the popularity of the game elsewhere increased during this period.

The later 18th century saw an even more portentous development of Tarot, well beyond its use to play cards. Fortune-telling with playing cards had developed from their use as a randomizing device to pick a page in a book of fortunes in the 1500s, through the use of special fortune-telling decks in the 1600s, and finally to the point of regular decks being given symbolic meaning in the 1700s. A few scattered indications of this appear earlier in the century, but the first book on cartomancy was published in 1770. It was written by Etteilla, the world's first professional cartomancer, who became one of the founders of occult Tarot. In the 1780s he and two other French writers developed much of the occult lore and fortune-telling methods that would reinvent Tarot in the late 1800s.

These three writers changed Tarot forever. Neither knowing nor caring much about Tarot's 350-year history, its original and common use as a game, or the intended meaning of its allegorical cycle, they interpreted the images freely. They used the twenty-two trumps as signs designating the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These newly-minted correspondences made the Tarot deck into a novel emblem system for Cabalistic magic and mysticism. The two esoteric uses, Cabala and divination, became permanently attached to Tarot. The authors of this newly invented Tarot also wrote up a detailed fantasy about Tarot's origin and history, involving Egyptian initiations, Jewish mystics, and vagabond Gypsies. These fictional histories were intended to validate the correspondences the occultists had devised, by appeal to alleged ancient wisdom and secret traditions.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1701 - 1800

1801 - 1900

"The Bateleur"
Oswald Wirth Tarot

The Development of Occult Tarot


Although much of the groundwork for today's occult Tarot lore was established in the late-1700s, the only part that became popular during the subsequent century was fortune-telling. Before the more elaborate myths and esoteric systems could become popular, occult Tarot had to be invented a second time. This happened in the mid-19th century. New systems of correspondence were invented and additional layers of legend were overlaid. This second invention came at just the right historical moment, at the beginning of the Victorian occult revival, and by the end of the century both French and British occultists had developed various schools which took the 15th-century game to be the Absolute Key to Occult Science.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1801 - 1900

1901 - 2000

The Rationalization of Occult Tarot


During the occult revival, which continued into the early 20th century, there was a great deal of anthropological revisioning of older traditions. Arthur Edward Waite, a Christian mystic and scholar of the occult, explicitly rejected the core of occult Tarot. He wrote, "I am not to be included among those who are satisfied that there is a valid correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot Trump symbols." His own novel interpretation of the trumps drew on many sources (including the occultists) to create an eclectic but tightly integrated representation of the mystical Perennial Philosophy. The first half of the trumps illustrated an involutionary descent while the second half illustrate an evolutionary ascent, the entire spiritual cycle being closely reminiscent of Joseph Campbell's Universal Monomyth. This was all in keeping with common ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century regarding comparative religion and the universality of myth and mysticism. Waite described his new creation as "a true Tarot under one of its aspects", and "not occult, but mystical". In addition, he was the first to use pictorial pip cards to facilitate the intuition of fortune-tellers.

In the late 20th century, Tarot was widely adopted by various New Age enthusiasts, neo-Pagans, and of course, fortune-tellers, as well as people who were simply interested in using the deck for self-exploration without any spiritual or mystical motivation. It was again redefined, largely in the terms of Jungian psychology, but with borrowings from the earlier occultists and from Waite. This development was greatly facilitated by Waite's mystical Tarot deck, whose trumps and pips had been redesigned in a manner consistent with such usage. His deck served as a model for hundreds of derivative decks. The new element, characteristic of contemporary Tarot, was the belief that naive intuition and free association would reveal universal archetypes from the unconscious mind. This liberated Tarot enthusiasts from having to learn complex systems of correspondence, and having to choose between the competing systems.

In addition to fortune telling, modern Tarot applications include soul-searching exercises and meditation for personal growth, and as a randomized input for free association and brainstorming techniques. Not surprisingly, they have even been used by some psychologists in a therapeutic context. The main distinctions between Waite and the contemporary Tarot enthusiasts are specificity and authority. Waite was in some ways closer to the earlier occultists who saw and emphasized a particular design to the trumps and their sequence, rather than the contemporary approach which validates any intuition one might posit about what are seen as archetypal subjects. Waite's authority for his design was personal insight and the history of Christian mysticism, whereas the contemporary Tarotist is likely to cite C.G. Jung and neo-Jungian psychologists.

Also in the late 20th century, more historically sophisticated writers have attempted salvage as much of the earlier occult fictions as possible while abandoning most of the obviously false elements. As with other late 20th-century Tarot writers, their basic premise is the existence of universals which are intuitively understood. Given this premise, Tarot must have always been something very close to what it is currently understood to be -- otherwise the supposed universals are not universal. Critics of this viewpoint would say that this preconception leads to the invention of secret coded messages in the trump cards, supported by nothing beyond the anachronistic belief that what people see in the images today must have always been there.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 1901 - 2000

2001 - present

"The Wheel of Fortune"
Liber T - Tarot of Stars Eternal

Tarot History in the Making


The most popular book to expound on Tarot in the new century has been Dan Brown's 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code. Taking most of its background ideas from Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh's 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Brown also includes ideas on Tarot taken directly from the writings of Margaret Starbird. Both writers call the Trumps a flash-card catechism of heretical teachings, and repeat earlier statements about coded secrets, Knights Templar, Freemasonry, heretical doctrines, Albigensians, pagan mysteries, and so on.

Despite the invention of new Tarot legends and perpetuation of some of the old ones, another trend is developing. The Internet has begun to provide popular access to the work of playing-card historians. During the last two decades of the 20th century, a great deal of historical evidence was collected, collated, analyzed, and published. Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot (volumes I & II) presents a great deal of information. However, it is the series of books authored or co-authored by Michael Dummett (from 1980 through 2004) which has thoroughly tried to debunk the majority of earlier Tarot lore while putting the pieces together to form a coherent history of Tarot, the great many forms taken by the game and deck, secondary historical uses such as appropriati, and perhaps most intriguingly, documenting in great detail the development of occult Tarot from the 1780s till the beginning of the modern era, around 1970. Most of that factual history, both pre-occult and the development of occult Tarot itself, remains unknown to some contemporary Tarot enthusiasts. However, some of it is now being presented on the Internet rather than being limited to a few hard-to-find books. One of the reasons for Tarotpedia's Tarot History section is to expand the online availability of that kind of information.

Another important contribution to the history of the Tarot came from two Italian historians, Giordano Berti and Andrea Vitali. Since 1985, Berti and Vitali made in Italy a great number of exhibitions on Tarot cards illustrating the evolution of the Tarot symbolism from the 15th to the 20th century. Most important exhibitions were held at the Castello Estense in Ferrara (1987), at City Archeological Museum in Bologna (1994), at the National Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (1995), at Barolo Palace in Turin (1997). These exhibitions are characterized by the great historical rigour, being based on original documents collected in museums, public libraries and private collections. Exhibition catalogues are signed by Berti and Vitali, other important scholars such as Michael Dummett, Detlef Hoffmann, Thierry Depaulis, Alberto Milano and Franco Cardini.

Detailed Timeline

Tarot History: 2001 - present

Theories and Possibile Connections to the Early Development of Tarot

While there is a large consensus among historians that tarot originates in 15th Century northern Italy, other views abound. Alternative theories on the origin and development of tarot exist, in part often based on considerations of related iconography that can be found both elsewhere and earlier. None of these theories are considered likely by historians, yet each have content that may be interesting and worthy of further exploration. Below are some of these theories:

Bardic origin of Tarot
Tarot of the Skull
Astrological origin of Tarot
The 5x14 theory of the origin of Tarot [1]
The Medieval French Benedictine Theory of Origin [2]

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