Tarot cards have a surprisingly mundane and non-esoteric beginning. In fact, it began as a card game similar to bridge. So, how did a mere card game grow from a form of entertainment into one of the most powerful esoteric tools?
The earliest references to tarot all date back to around the 1440s and have their origin in Italian cities like Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino. However, historians do often point out that due to the complicated nature of tarot at the time of its emerging popularity it is likely that it had begun evolving earlier in the century.
In the late 15th century the game continued to develop and even became art pieces and a way to show off family wealth. Collector’s Weekly notes, “Wealthy families in Italy commissioned expensive, artist-made decks known as “carte da trionfi” or “cards of triumph.” The tarot cards were marked with “suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (eventually changed to staves or wands), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings. Tarot cards later incorporated queens, trumps (the wild cards unique to tarot), and the Fool to this system, for a complete deck that usually totaled 78 cards. Today, the suit cards are commonly called the Minor Arcana, while trump cards are known as the Major Arcana.”
It is believed that, originally, the imagery was designed to reflect important aspects of the real world that the players lived in, as well as mixing some Christian-with-a-dash-of-occult symbolism in the cards.
Throughout the late 15th century and into the early 16th-century diving became more popular, especially by the more elite classes who often had fortune tellers, magicians, and more to entertain them. As tarot’s divinatory usage became more popular, illustrations evolved to reflect a specific designer’s intention. “The subjects took on more and more esoteric meaning,” says graphic designer Bill Wolf, “but they generally maintained the traditional tarot structure of four suits of pip cards [similar to the numbered cards in a normal playing-card deck], corresponding court cards, and the additional trump cards, with a Fool.”
But when, exactly, did the card game transition from pastime to divination tool? Well, we can likely thank the enlightenment era in the late 1700s and Egyptomania. A Frenchman by the name of Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a seller of prints and entrepreneurial astrologer, wrote several books and other works under the pseudonym ‘Etteilla’ (which is Alliette, reversed). These writings purported to offer a way to entertain oneself with a pack of tarot cards. One of the ways was using the alleged (but likely false) Hermetic-Egyptian-astrological significance and following the techniques of cartonomancie (card-drawing), to allow the reader to analyze and ascribe particular meanings to the cards drawn, based on what they were and where they faced.
This isn’t exactly how tarot cards are read today, but it was the first step in making them the occult tool they are known as today. Alphonse-Louis Constant, who also wrote under a pseudonym (Éliphas Lévi) decided to further raise the occult importance of the tarot card based on Alliette’s works. Aeon describes his transition much more succinctly than I could: “Constant/Lévi was struck by the coincidence between the number of tarot trumps, the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and the paths along the kabbalistic Tree of Life: 22. He devised a system of arcane correspondences, disgorging a fresh wave of potential symbolic associations between individual cards and occult wisdom traditions, incorporating astrology, Mesmerism, and alchemy, as well as the Kabbalah. Lévi wrote that a prisoner with no books, but only the tarot and the knowledge of how to use it, could ‘acquire universal wisdom, and speak on any subject with unequaled knowledge and inexhaustible eloquence’.”
Over the centuries people have taken this understanding and run with it, developed it, and continued to practice. Today, there are largely two schools of Tarot: The school of thought who think that the cards help them access unconscious wisdom and those who believe that the deck channels the supernatural or has its own power/energy to channel.
The header image is liscensed Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) under by Mike Licht.