A Brief History of Tarot Cards
Come Halloween, when spooky films marathon on TV and creepy decor hangs in your holiday-enthused neighbors’ yards, things get a little mystical. To celebrate one of the most magical times of year, we wanted to look into the history of tarot cards.
Though today we associate them with the occult, tarot cards were originally just another card game—one similar to modern-day bridge, in fact. Like other decks, the first recorded tarot cards showed up in Europe in the 15th century, with the most popular sets selling in Italy to wealthy families. The printing press had yet to arrive, and since hand-painted cards were all that existed, it cost a considerable amount of cash to commission what was essentially dozens of teensy paintings.
Like any deck, these early tarot cards—tarocchi cards, in Italian—had suits, trump cards, and even pips. Since they hadn’t yet become an excuse to dip into the occult, the only reason anyone thought to disapprove was when the cards led to excessive gambling.
While some people dabbled, the widespread use of tarot cards for divination only took off in the late 1700s, when Frenchman Jean-Baptise Alliette published the first definitive guide to tarot card reading. Pseudonymed Etteilla, he wrote a guide to using the cards and released his own deck alongside it. He gave meaning to each of the cards, incorporating beliefs about astronomy and the four elements. He claimed to have borrowed heavily from the Book of Thoth, an Egyptian text supposedly written by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom.
He gave meaning to each of the cards, incorporating beliefs about astronomy and the four elements.
Etteilla was also the first to assign a specific order and spread to the cards, both frontwards and backwards—a system still used today. His works took off and he published a revised edition of his guide in 1791, becoming the first person to be a professional tarot reader.
1909 was the next time tarot cards received a major update. The Rider-Waite deck, courtesy of publisher William Rider and tarot reader A. E. Waite, is still in use; you’ve probably seen the illustrations. Like Etteilla, the Rider-Waite deck included a printed guide on how to read the deck and the meanings of each card. In this deck, the intricacy of the scenes told a story when cards were placed together. The latest tarot card revival in the 1970s is the result of a reprint and revision of the Rider-Waite Deck, along with a new guidebook by Stephen Kaplan.