Tarot cards have been around for centuries, but they have not always been associated with magic, the occult or divination. What is common to all Tarot decks are beautifully illustrated cards full of symbolism that has evolved over time. Most evidence suggests that tarot cards were originally regular playing cards, which were brought to Europe from Asia or the Arab world.
The first references to the cards came from northern Italy during the Renaissance. Italian noble families, such as the Visconti’s in early 15th century Milan, competed with each other to create games to amuse their courtiers. Using lavishly illustrated decks of cards, nobles played a game of skill and chance called tarocchi (the word may have originally meant “foolishness”). About 16 decks of cards (some incomplete) commissioned by the Visconti family survive today. The most complete set is the Visconti-Sforza deck, 74 cards that are held among the Morgan Library in New York City, the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, Italy, and the Colleoni family in Bergamo.
The symbolism in the early decks reflect the heraldry of Italian noble families, as well as Italian art and architecture. It is interesting that many of the figures on the cards were blond because, unlike most Italians, the Visconti’s were blond, and the images often symbolized Visconti strength and strategic alliances. For example, the lion shown on the Fortitude card is probably a reference to a military defeat over Venice. The quince and fountains on the cards are emblems of the Sforza family, whose son Francesco married Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441. The palm and the laurel are symbols of ducal power, which suggest that that particular deck was created after Francesco Sforza became the duke of Milan in 1450.
In the 15th century, the cards were called carte de trionfi, or “cards with triumphs.” The “triumphs” refer to the 22 allegorical trump cards, which today constitute the Major Arcana. The trump cards were aligned with four sets of “suit cards” that featured cups, batons, swords and coins, which are now known as the Minor Arcana. The term “trionfi” may derive from Petrarch’s Trionfi, which are allegorical verses written and illustrated in the mid-14th century.
The Visconti-Sforza cards became the model for many subsequent decks. From Italy, the game spread throughout Europe; in France it was renamed tarot in the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the game gained esoteric associations. At first, the cards were linked to Egyptian mysticism perhaps because of Napoleon’s discoveries in that country. Then in 1789 the first deck was published that was specifically designed for divination. As interest in the occult surged in the late 19th century, tarot decks were modified to fit newly developed theories. One of the most famous was created by Arthur Edward Waite, a British poet and mystic. He commissioned artist Pamela Colman to illustrate the cards. She created symbols from Christianity, Freemasonry, astrology and the kabbalah, modeling several of the figures on her friends in London’s feminist and suffragist movements at the turn of the 20th century. Now known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, it has been in print since 1909. It is the deck most often found in occult bookstores.
The next major milestone in the evolution of Tarot cards also came from England. In 1944, an occultist named Aleister Crowley published “The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians.” However, the deck based on his ideas wasn’t published until 1969, which coincided with the surge of interest in the occult linked to the New Age culture of the 1970s. The Thoth and the Waite decks are still popular today, although new decks inspired by pop culture, nature and mythology are published every year. The innocent card game originally created for Italian nobles has come a long way!