Where Did Tarot Originate? A Short History

The art of tarot reading has captivated and mystified individuals for centuries. With its intricate symbolism and enigmatic imagery, tarot cards have become a popular tool for divination, offering insights into the past, present, and future.

Whether used by professional readers or curious enthusiasts, the tarot holds a certain allure that goes beyond mere fortune-telling. It taps into the collective unconscious, providing glimpses into the depths of our psyche and guiding us on our spiritual journey.

Where Did Tarot Originate A Short History

A Brief Overview of Tarot as a Divination Tool

Tarot consists of a deck of 78 cards divided into two main categories: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana comprises 22 cards that depict archetypal figures such as The Fool, The Magician, and The High Priestess.

Each card represents universal themes and significant life events. The Minor Arcana contains 56 cards divided into four suits: Wands (representing fire), Cups (water), Swords (air), and Pentacles (earth).

These suits reflect different aspects of human experience, including creativity, emotions, intellect, and material concerns respectively. Each suit consists of ten numbered cards along with four court cards – Page, Knight, Queen, and King.

Intriguing Question: Where Did Tarot Originate?

The origins of tarot are shrouded in mystery and subject to various theories. One prevailing belief is that playing cards were first introduced in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).

These early Chinese playing cards consisted of money-suited decks used for entertainment purposes rather than divination or fortune-telling. Another hypothesis suggests that tarot has roots in ancient Egypt where symbolic imagery was deeply ingrained in their culture.

Egyptian playing cards, known as Mamluk cards, had four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. The use of these cards spread across the Islamic world and eventually reached Europe.

Historical Background

Origins of playing cards in ancient China and Egypt

The history of playing cards can be traced back to ancient civilizations, specifically China and Egypt. In China, the earliest evidence of card-like games dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

These early Chinese cards were made of paper and featured various suits, including coins, strings of coins, myriads (tens of thousands), and tens of myriads. The cards were often used for gambling purposes but also had symbolic meanings related to fortune and fate.

Similarly, ancient Egypt had its own version of playing cards known as Mamluk cards. Dating back to the 13th century, these cards were intricately designed using woodblocks or stencils on paper.

The Mamluk deck consisted of four suits: polo sticks (similar to modern-day clubs), cups, swords (later replaced by spades), and coins. Each suit had ten pip cards numbered from one to ten and three court cards – king, viceroy, and under-viceroy.

Development of paper and card-making techniques

The invention of paper in ancient China revolutionized the production of playing cards. Prior to paper’s introduction around 105 AD during the Han Dynasty, various materials like bamboo slips or wooden tablets were used for gaming purposes. Paper offered a lightweight alternative that allowed for easier shuffling and handling.

In addition to paper, advancements in printing techniques played a crucial role in the development of playing card production. In ancient China, woodblock printing was commonly employed for creating intricate designs on playing cards.

This method involved carving images into wooden blocks which were then inked and pressed onto the surface. Meanwhile, in ancient Egypt, stenciling techniques were utilized for card production.

Artists would create intricate designs on papyrus sheets or leather using stencils made of linen or bark. Ink or pigment would be applied through the stencil, leaving behind beautiful patterns and illustrations.

Symbolism in early Chinese and Egyptian cards

Early Chinese and Egyptian playing cards were not merely used for games but also carried symbolic meanings. The designs and symbols on these cards often reflected cultural beliefs, divination practices, and spiritual concepts.

In Chinese cards, the suits themselves held symbolic significance. The coins symbolized wealth and abundance, while the strings of coins represented long-lasting prosperity.

The myriads suit represented great numbers or an infinite amount of something, signifying auspiciousness. The tens of myriads were associated with vast riches and good fortune.

Similarly, Egyptian Mamluk cards incorporated symbolic imagery derived from ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Each suit had its own unique symbolism: polo sticks symbolized military power; cups represented fertility and abundance; swords represented courage or strife; coins denoted material wealth.

These early playing cards demonstrate that even in their infancy, they served not only as a means of entertainment but also as a medium for conveying cultural beliefs and ideas. The symbolism present in these ancient cards laid the foundation for the rich imagery and meanings found in tarot decks centuries later.

Birth of Tarot in Medieval Europe

Emergence of Tarot Decks in 14th-Century Italy

In the rich tapestry of tarot’s history, its birth can be traced back to 14th-century Italy. It was during this time that the first tarot decks emerged, captivating the imaginations of both noble elites and commoners alike. The earliest surviving examples, such as the Visconti-Sforza deck and the Tarocchi di Mantegna, exemplify the artistic splendor and intricate symbolism that would characterize future tarot decks.

The Visconti-Sforza deck, created by Italian nobility in Milan around 1440, stands as a testament to the luxury and opulence associated with early tarot. Crafted on beautifully gilded cards, this deck was not only a divination tool but also a status symbol for the powerful ruling families.

It featured intricate hand-painted illustrations depicting courtly life, allegorical figures representing virtues and vices, and scenes from mythology. These visually stunning cards were commissioned with meticulous attention to detail and served as both a form of entertainment and a reflection of high society’s taste for arts.

Tarocchi Decks as Luxury Items for the Elite

Tarocchi decks quickly became highly sought-after luxury items among Italian aristocracy during the Renaissance period. These exquisite works possessed an inherent elegance that appealed to their refined sensibilities.

The creation of these decks involved skilled artists who employed techniques such as gold leaf application, delicate brushwork, and vibrant color palettes to bring each card to life. The demand for tarocchi decks extended beyond their aesthetic appeal; they were regarded as symbols of power and prestige.

Owning one signified social standing among noble families who prided themselves on cultural refinement. The exquisite craftsmanship applied to these sets elevated them above mere playing cards, transforming them into coveted collector’s items that showcased the wealth and taste of their owners.

Early Use of Tarot for Gaming Purposes

Although tarot decks were initially created as luxury items for the elite, they also found use in the realm of gaming. The historical records indicate that in their early days, tarot cards were employed in a variety of card games across Europe. These games varied in rules and style but shared a common thread of utilizing the tarot deck as both a means of entertainment and competition.

One notable example was the game known as “tarocchi,” which emerged in Italy during the 15th century. This game resembled modern-day bridge or euchre and involved players using strategic thinking to win tricks with specific tarot cards.

It is important to note that during this period, tarot decks did not possess fixed interpretations or divinatory significance—they were primarily regarded as objects for gameplay. By exploring the birth of tarot in medieval Europe, we gain insight into its origins as both luxury items for the elite and decks used for gaming purposes.

These early manifestations set the stage for the development and transformation of tarot into an intricate divination tool with profound symbolism and mystical allure. The subsequent sections will delve deeper into how these foundations evolved over time, solidifying tarot’s place as one of history’s most captivating metaphysical practices.

Tarot’s Connection to the Occult and Mysticism

Influence of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Alchemy on Tarot Symbolism

The enduring allure of tarot lies in its deep-rooted connection to the occult and mysticism. Tarot symbolism draws heavily from esoteric traditions such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and alchemy. These ancient philosophies provided a rich tapestry of symbols and concepts that found their way into the cards, adding layers of meaning to their interpretation.

Hermeticism, an ancient philosophical tradition originating in Hellenistic Egypt, played a pivotal role in shaping tarot symbolism. The Hermetic principles—such as the concept of “as above, so below” and the belief in the interconnectedness of all things—are reflected prominently in the Major Arcana cards.

Each card represents a distinct archetype or spiritual concept that mirrors larger cosmic truths and universal order. Similarly, Kabbalah—the Jewish mystical tradition—left an indelible imprint on tarot symbolism.

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life acts as a blueprint for understanding the universe’s structure and our place within it. In tarot’s Minor Arcana suits (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles), each suit corresponds to one of the four Kabbalistic worlds: Atziluth (Fire), Briah (Water), Yetzirah (Air), and Assiah (Earth).

This intricate interplay between Kabbalistic concepts and tarot suits deepens our understanding of spiritual themes within readings. Alchemy also played a significant role in shaping tarot symbolism by infusing it with transformative imagery.

The alchemical process seeks to transmute base elements into higher forms—an allegory for personal growth and enlightenment. The Fool’s Journey—a recurring motif in many decks—mirrors this alchemical transformation as he progresses through the Major Arcana cards, symbolizing the soul’s evolution towards self-realization.

Hermetic Principles Reflected in Major Arcana Cards

The Major Arcana cards in tarot are particularly imbued with Hermetic principles, representing key archetypes and stages of human experience. The Fool card, often numbered as 0 or XXII depending on the deck, embodies the Hermetic concept of “the beginning and the end.” It represents a state of innocence and unlimited potential as one embarks on a new journey or chapter in life.

The High Priestess card represents the Hermetic principle of duality and hidden knowledge. She sits between two pillars, symbolizing polarity and balance.

The veil behind her signifies the thin veil between conscious reality and the mysteries that lie beyond. This card invites us to explore our intuition and delve deeper into the esoteric realms to gain insights that go beyond mere appearances.

Another prime example is The Magician card, which embodies the principle of “as above, so below.” With one hand pointing upwards to heaven and another pointing downwards to earth, The Magician acts as a conduit between divine inspiration and earthly manifestation. He reminds us that we possess all necessary tools to manifest our desires by harnessing both spiritual energies and practical skills.

Kabbalistic Tree of Life Represented in Minor Arcana Suits

In addition to Hermetic influences on tarot symbolism, Kabbalah’s profound impact can be seen through its representation within the Minor Arcana suits. Each suit correlates with one of Kabbalah’s four worlds or realms: Wands correspond to Atziluth (Fire), Cups relate to Briah (Water), Swords align with Yetzirah (Air), while Pentacles connect with Assiah (Earth).

For instance, Wands signify creative passion, ambition, and inspiration—qualities associated with Fire in Kabbalah and Atziluth, the world closest to the divine. The Cups, representing emotions, love, and intuition, find their correspondence in Water and the realm of Briah.

Swords represent intellect, rationality, and conflict—attributes aligned with Air and Yetzirah. Pentacles symbolize material concerns like wealth, abundance, and practicality—attributes linked to Earth and Assiah.

By integrating the Kabbalistic Tree of Life into the suits’ symbolism, tarot readings gain depth as they navigate the interconnectedness between these realms. Understanding this correlation allows seekers to grasp profound insights into various aspects of their lives while exploring how spiritual dimensions intertwine with earthly existence.

The fusion of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and alchemy within tarot symbolism enriches its interpretative capacity beyond mere divination. It reveals a profound system rooted in ancient wisdom that encourages seekers to delve into esoteric teachings to unravel deeper truths about themselves and their connection to the universe.

The Marseille Tarot Deck: Foundation for Modern Tarot Readings

An Ancient Deck Transformed

In the late 17th century, a significant transformation occurred in the world of tarot as the Marseille-style tarot decks emerged. These decks, named after the southern French city of Marseille where they were primarily produced, revolutionized the art of tarot reading.

The Marseille deck became renowned for its simple yet captivating design, distinct from earlier versions that featured intricate hand-painted illustrations. Instead, these new decks utilized woodblock printing techniques to create bold and striking imagery.

Symbolism within the Marseille Deck

The Marseille deck is characterized by its iconic symbols and archetypal imagery that continue to resonate with modern tarot enthusiasts. Each card carries a unique emblematic design embedded with layers of meaning.

The Major Arcana cards bear symbols that convey profound universal concepts such as The Fool’s journey through life or The Lovers’ representation of harmony and choice. In contrast, the Minor Arcana suits (Cups, Wands, Pentacles, and Swords) illustrate everyday scenarios and experiences associated with their respective elements.

A Cultural Phenomenon Spreading Across Europe

The introduction of the Marseille-style tarot decks ignited a craze that rapidly spread throughout Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Tarot reading became increasingly popular among diverse social classes from aristocrats to commoners seeking spiritual guidance or insights into their personal lives. The cultural impact was particularly significant in France where tarot reading became an integral part of social gatherings and salons.

It soon crossed borders into other European countries like England and Germany, capturing the imagination of people from all walks of life.

Revival and Transformation of Tarot: The Golden Dawn’s Impact on Modern Interpretation

Unlocking Esoteric Knowledge through Tarot

In the late 19th century, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to occult practices, breathed new life into tarot by incorporating esoteric knowledge into its interpretation. Tarot decks became tools for spiritual exploration and personal growth.

The Golden Dawn members delved deep into mystical traditions such as alchemy, astrology, and numerology, infusing these disciplines with the symbolic language of tarot. They believed that each card held encoded wisdom that could unlock profound insights and guide individuals on their spiritual journey.

Influential Occult Texts: A Legacy of the Golden Dawn

The impact of the Golden Dawn extended beyond their philosophical teachings; they also contributed to the creation and publication of influential occult texts on tarot. Prominent members like Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith collaborated to produce the Rider-Waite-Smith deck—the most widely recognized tarot deck in existence today. This deck revolutionized tarot imagery by introducing detailed illustrations rich in symbolism that aligned with the teachings of the Golden Dawn.

Moreover, Waite’s book “The Pictorial Key to Tarot” provided comprehensive interpretations for every card, ensuring accessibility for both beginners and seasoned readers.

Cultural Influences on Tarot Interpretation: The Impact of Carl Jung’s Psychological Theories

Archetypes and Collective Unconscious Reflected in Card Meanings

Carl Jung’s groundbreaking psychological theories had a profound influence on various fields, including tarot interpretation. Jung proposed that there exist universal patterns within human consciousness called archetypes which manifest in myths, dreams, and symbols – including those found in tarot cards. These archetypal motifs represented timeless aspects of human experience such as The Fool representing spontaneity or The High Priestess embodying intuition.

Psychologically, tarot provides a visual language for individuals to explore their own psyche and tap into the collective unconscious, unlocking hidden insights and facilitating personal growth.


Tarot, with its intriguing origins and fascinating evolution over centuries, has become a captivating tool for self-reflection, guidance, and personal transformation. From the emergence of Marseille-style tarot decks as the foundation for modern readings to the profound influence of movements like the Golden Dawn and Carl Jung’s psychological theories, tarot has proven its enduring relevance.

The symbolism within tarot cards continues to speak to our collective consciousness and offers an avenue for exploration into our deepest selves. By embracing this ancient divination tool and cherishing its wisdom, we embark on a journey of self-discovery that can empower us to navigate life’s challenges with clarity and resilience.

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