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A Very Short History of Tarot

When I first started studying tarot, "history" was not a word I would have used to describe its origins, based on what I was reading. "Myth" would have been more like it. At the time I received my first tarot deck in the 1980s, many books were still treating tarot history as they had in the 1880s. It was an occult endeavor, with a mysterious, unknown beginning, perhaps created by an Egyptian god, perhaps carried through Europe in "Gypsy caravans*," perhaps... the possibilities endless, because not much thought was really being put into the issue. People may have been simply content with these mystical explanations, or maybe they found tarot that much more appealing because of them. Many versions of tarot's history seemed unlikely to me, though I did little myself to discover its real origins, at that time, instead focusing just on learning the cards and how to use them.

In more recent years, people have done much research into the real origins of the tarot. They have treated it as any other subject, worthy of respect, and still worthy even when the truth turned out to be more mundane than mystical. They have found that it is still difficult to know exactly how tarot originated, but they have some good ideas now. Thanks to their persistent efforts, we know that tarot showed up in Europe in the fifteenth century, as a form of card game, which was limited to play by nobility. A number of noble families commissioned decks, and this is well documented. Later, with the advent of the printing press, more decks were made and became accessible to the larger public.

It was in the eighteenth century that occultists began claiming a unique, mysterious history of the tarot that went back to Egypt, based largely on a misperception of ancient Egyptian religious traditions. These early occultists, as wrong as they were about tarot's history, did have a big effect on the development of tarot as a divining art and tool of transformation, and even today influence our use of tarot. In the nineteenth century, occultists made connections between tarot and Kabbalah, and began assigning specific numerological correspondences to the cards. In the early 1900s, Arthur Edward Waite, a member of the Golden Dawn, designed a new way of looking at the tarot. He commissioned the talented Pamela Colman Smith for the work, and their images are known to just about every tarot enthusiast today. The Rider-Waite, or Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, as it is popularly known, is the first deck of many tarot readers, and many modern decks are based on Waite's insights and Pamela Colman Smith's artwork.

Despite my own very short outline of tarot's history - and my avoidance of writing much about it, I do find it fascinating and would encourage anyone with an interest to take a look at the variety of resources available.

by Nellie Levine

Now that you have taken a look at a very brief history of tarot, continue to Tarot Today.

* with regard to "Gypsy," I am quoting many older sources and their specific wording

Publishing tarot deck reviews, original tarot spreads, articles, and personal reflections for tarot enthusiasts, practitioners of the intuitive arts, and followers of alternative spirituality since 1999. Woman owned.
All writing, reviews, and photography © Nellie Levine, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2022