The Playful History of Tarot

The history of tarot cards dates back many centuries, but they weren't widely used for fortunetelling until more recently.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated June 12, 2024

These days, it’s rare to come across someone who hasn’t heard of tarot:  In one 2021 survey, half of Americans ages 13 to 25 said they used tarot cards or some other form of fortunetelling, and the market for tarot cards is predicted to grow by over $200 million from 2021-2026. But a few centuries ago, tarot cards were just entering the scene, bearing some interesting differences from—and surprising similarities to—today’s decks.

The Predecessors of Tarot Cards

The earliest precursors to modern-day tarot cards were most likely playing cards in ninth-century China, according to Robert M. Place, tarot deck designer and author of The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination

“The Chinese invented paper,” he said. “Once they had paper, they made several different decks. They started using paper for game pieces, and so they made cards that looked like chess pieces and dominoes. But then they also made this deck called the money deck, which had four suits and pictures of money on it.” 

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Paper and cards spread west as Mongol ruler Kublai Khan formed an international trading network throughout Asia and Eastern Europe in the 13th century. Playing cards soon made it to the Mamluk Empire, which stretched from Egypt to India, and the Mamluks created their own version. These Islamic cards found their way to Spain and Sicily in the 14th century, and Europeans modified them to look more like today’s playing cards. Because they were used for gambling, some places even banned them; the first known prohibition on card games was in 1367 in Bern, Switzerland. “Gambling was only allowed in certain places, like how now, you can go to Las Vegas and gamble, but you can’t [do so in] your local town necessarily,” Place said.

However, the evolution of cards didn’t follow a linear trajectory from entertainment to spiritual uses. Even on the Mamluk cards that were first introduced to the Europeans, there’s evidence that they were used for divination—that is, acquiring information about the unknown. Some of these cards had poems written on them, which “suggests divinatory meaning,” Place said. In Europe, too, even some of the early playing cards were full of spiritual meaning. In a letter to the Duke of Milan from the 1400s, Italian tarot designer Marziano da Tortona described a deck with pictures of Roman gods on it made specifically for the duke. “It was for playing a game, but the deck was symbolic,” Place said.

The Earliest Tarot Cards

The earliest tarot cards that scholars have identified are hand-painted cards belonging to 15 fragmented decks from 15th-century Milan. The most complete of these decks is known as the Visconti-Sforza tarot. Like their predecessors, these were used for playing games, but they looked similar to current-day tarot cards, with figures like the fool, emperor, empress, and death. In fact, they had all the symbols that are on today’s tarot cards except the devil and tower, Place says.

People used these early tarot cards for a game that by 1500 came to be called tarocchi, a predecessor of bridge, according to Dr. Helen Farley, Associate Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and author of A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism

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“Tarocchi is still played across Europe, and you can buy a tarocchi deck, just like you can buy a regular card deck,” Farley said. “The tarot suit signs, which seem strange to us, are commonly used in Europe.” 

Although there is early evidence that tarot was used for fortunetelling, it became more popular for this purpose around the French Revolution in 1789. Around the same time, other fortunetelling cards called oracle cards were also popping up in countries such as France and Germany, according to Place. A German deck called the Petit Lenormand, for instance, employs symbols such as a dog, a house, and a ship. 

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Modern Tarot Cards

Rider Tarot Deck
The Rider Tarot Deck.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of different types of tarot,” Farley said. The most popular today is the tarot deck of Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, which was created in 1909 and was the first to include symbols on the Minor Arcana, or “pip cards,” in addition to the Major Arcana, or “trump cards.” You can also find tarot decks geared toward specific purposes; the Aura-Soma deck, for instance, provides guidance on physical, emotional, and spiritual health, according to Farley. 

In general, though, the structure of tarot decks “has remained remarkably stable since the mid 15th century: four suits, four court cards in each suit, and 22 trump cards,” Sherryl Smith, author of the blog Tarot Heritage, said. 

There are also other kinds of cards being sold today that transmit information through various types of symbols, including angel cards (with pictures of and messages from angels), animal cards (with guidance based on the symbolism of different animals), and cards with ancient gods and goddesses. Often, like tarot cards, these cards come with a booklet to help the user decode them.

How Tarot Cards Work

Place believes that tarot cards work by connecting to the user’s subconscious. Because someone needs to shuffle the deck and pull the cards, he believes we actually know deep down what message we need to hear and select the cards accordingly. There are also a number of websites today where you can pull tarot cards online, but Place is skeptical of these because they don’t connect to your body in the same way. 

Woman Shuffling Tarot on Floor
Image Courtesy of Mikhail Nilov via Pexels.

“Some people believe they have spirit guides who somehow facilitate the right cards coming out in a reading,” Smith said. “Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum that says the cards you get are purely random, and it’s up to the reader to make sense of it. It’s my theory that one’s intention sets up some kind of a field where synchronicity can happen.” 

Another theory is that the cards contain archetypes, a concept developed by psychologist Carl Jung to describe symbols representing common human experiences. When we see these symbols, “we project onto the decks,” Farley said. “We access knowledge through the collective unconscious, and tarot symbolism can help us to do that. … Tarot symbols—the microcosm— represent what is happening on a large scale [in] our lives and world events—the macrocosm.” 

Old photo of man reading book
Carl Jung. Image Courtesy of Orion Ponzo via Flickr.

Rather than telling the future, Place thinks tarot cards tune into the user to make educated guesses about what the future holds, allowing people to change their path if they don’t like what currently lies ahead of them. “If you could predict the future, it’d be stupid,” Place said. “You couldn’t do anything about it. You’re just stuck with it. The whole point of tarot is to give advice for what you need to do now.”

While Farley also thinks tarot cards are ultimately picking up on what you already know, they can force you to face truths that you perhaps won’t even admit to yourself. “Tarot won’t tell you anything that a good hard look at yourself wouldn’t tell you,” she said. “But most people are not prepared to do that, so tarot helps.” 

Tarot cards can also help someone think outside the box. “The cards can be a brainstorming device that bypasses the usual grooves your mind runs in,” Smith said. “The images can open doors to new possibilities, and lead you to wander down pathways that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.”

Tarot, Religion, and Spirituality

Some Christians consider the Bible to be against tarot, as it contains several verses warning against divination and fortunetelling. However, four of the standard tarot cards are based on the book of Revelations, including the devil and the Hierophant, also known as the Pope. “The symbolism of the original Visconti decks was Christian,” Farley said. 

There’s even a 15th-century church—St. Peter’s in Bologna, Italy—with paintings that look like tarot symbols. “The fundamentalist Christians act like they were the original Christians, but the fundamentalism was developed in the 1800s; that’s not how Christians originally thought,” Place said. “People get upset about it: ‘There’s a devil on there!’ Well, there’s a devil in the Bible.” On top of that, there’s evidence of monks using the cards when they first appeared in Europe, though it’s ambiguous whether they were used just for playing or for divination.

Esotericists have also connected tarot cards with other spiritual belief systems like Kabbalah, a Jewish mystic tradition, Farley said. For instance, a British secret society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (to which Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith belonged) designated a card to correspond to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “It became an article of faith that tarot was invented to transmit Kaballistic teachings, although there is no historical evidence for this,” Smith said. Nevertheless, such ideas “greatly influence how the cards are interpreted in the United States, as many popular tarot books parrot these correspondences,” she said.

A wide variety of cultural beliefs have been imbricated in tarot: British occultist Aleister Crowley created a tarot deck based on the Egyptian Book of Thoth in the mid-1900s, and today, “modern practitioners forge connections with a wide range of spiritual traditions including Aboriginal Australian spirituality and Vodou,” Farley said.

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Using Tarot Cards

Interpreting tarot cards is complex and multifaceted. When people do tarot readings, they typically pull multiple cards in a specific arrangement, and each card’s location in relation to the others influences its meaning. “I think it is important to learn the symbolism and the ideas behind the cards and also what they mean when they appear together,” Farley said. “But that is just the beginning. Given time, the symbolism begins to have its own unique meaning for you, and that is when the magic happens.” For those looking to understand tarot better, Smith recommends Tarot for Your Self by Mary Greer and Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack.

There are hundreds of tarot decks for beginners, mostly based on the Waite-Smith deck. Smith recommends finding one whose images speak to you. “If the deck creator wrote a book explaining their process and what the card images mean to them, read it,” she said. “Your own personal relationship to the cards should be paramount, but understanding the creator’s intention will enrich your practice.” 

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