A Brief History of Tarot Cards

We delve into the history of one of the oft-forgotten kinds of decks: tarot cards.

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.

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.

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  • I’m afraid that I must correct the previous commenter on his story. There is no evidence for an ancient origin for tarot cards or their images – indeed, the images on the trumps are consistent with Renaissance Christianity in Italy and far from being esoteric, had to serve as a recognisable guide to the cards’ hierarchy in the game. Even among the illiterate masses who were playing it long before numbers were printed on them.

    The regular 52 card pack of playing cards pre-dates the tarot in Europe by as much as 70 years and comes from the Islamic packs of the Mamluk empire. These cards had four suits of 13 cards, each with 10 pips and three courts which were a King and two lieutenants. The suit signs were Cups, Coins, Scimitars, and Polo Sticks.

    Europeans did not play polo at that time, so when the cards were adopted one of the first changes was for the polo sticks to lose their paddles to become batons. The courts then became a King, a Rider, and a Footman – and the result is the Latin pattern of playing cards we still find in use today in Italy and Spain. Other countries experimented with different suit signs. The French developed the familiar Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades that have become dominant (perhaps because they were more economical to manufacture, requiring only a stencil for the pips instead of costly woodblocks). The Germans have settled on Leaves, Acorns, Hearts, and Hawk Bells. The Swiss have Shields, Roses, Hawk Bells, and Acorns. Only the French changed the Rider for a Queen, while the other 52 card patterns still have all male courts. However, for a time Italy had a number of packs which included the addition of female courts with a 14 card suit being reported as a standard at one time.

    The tarot pack was created by adding to the exiting Latin suited pack a suit of fixed trumps and a type of wild card called The Fool. These featured images that were common to Italy at that time – even those that are often touted as particularly esoteric or even heretical. Consider The Female Pope: This may seem like a strange figure to us but at the time, she was an established figure in Christian art, being used to represent such things as The New Covenant, the virtue of Faith, and more commonly, the body of the church itself. Another good example is The Hanged Man – though this name was given to it by French card makers who would not have recognised it for what it was. In the card’s native Italy however, it was called The Traitor. And this is how they executed traitors there, suspended by one foot and left to die slowly in public.

    The Fool and the modern Joker however, despite their superficial similarities, are not related at all. The Joker is a late 19th century American invention for playing the game of Euchre. This had required the use of a fifth Jack and rather than players have to cannibalise another pack, they developed The Joker – and because rearranging 53 cards on a sheet for printing would leave a space, they filled it with a second Joker.

    There are some excellent books on the history of playing cards…

    The Game of Tarot
    by Michael Dummett
    Duckworth 1980 ISBN 0 7156 10147

    This book only saw one printing and is now much in demand, sometimes fetching high prices. However, keep your eyes open and you can find a bargain. It is the most comprehensive book published about tarot, tracing the history of the games, the cards themselves, their designs, and even occult use.

    A History of Games played with the Tarot Pack (Volumes 1 & 2)
    by Michael Dummett and John McLeod
    Edwin Mellen Press 2004
    Volume One ISBN 0 7734 6447 6
    Volume Two ISBN 0 7734 6447 2
    Supplement from Maproom Publications 2009 ISBN 978 0 9562370 0 2

    These volumes serve to update and expand the work on the card games and their development given in The Game of Tarot. Although the work is limited to just this part of tarot’s history, there is no more substantial source of tarot games in the English Language – or possibly any other.

    A Wicked Pack of Cards
    By Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, & Michael Dummett
    St Martin’s Press 1996 ISBN 0 312 16294 4

    This is the first of two books to take up the task of expanding on the history of the occult tarot, which had a fairly detailed but still limited chapter in The Game of Tarot. This book limits itself to the first hundred years of occult tarot, beginning with Antoine Court de Gebelin at the end of the 18th Century. This is essential reading if you want to understand where these beliefs came from and how they developed, not to mention just why they were so very wrong. It seems to be a little harder to obtain in the US than in the UK but you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting a copy at a reasonable price.

    A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-1970
    By Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett
    Duckworth 2002 ISBN 0 7156 3122 5

    This book picks up the story where the last one left off, showing how the occult tarot spread beyond France and throughout the English speaking world until all English speakers know by tarot was the occult and fortune telling. Once again, history is essential for understanding why we are where we are and just what went wrong. Together with the previous volume, this book pulls the rug from beneath accounts of the occult tarot leaving us with a pack of playing cards. More easily available than the previous book and you can often get if for a cheap price.

    The Penguin book of Card Games
    by David Parlett
    Penguin 2008 ISBN-10: 0141037873 ISBN-13 978-0141037875

    Previously published in 2000 as the Penguin Encyclopedia of Card Games, this is an essential book and the only mainstream title that I know of to include the rules for tarot games.

    The Oxford Guide to Card Games
    by David Parlett Oxford University Press 1990 ISBN 0-19-214165-1

    Not a guide to how games are played as such but rather a general history of our regular playing cards from their origin to the development of various families of games played with them – including tarot. A fascinating, informative, and enjoyable book. If you want to understand tarot cards and the games played with them in the broader context of card gaming, then this is an essential book.

  • Surprisingly it’s NOT a coincidence the Joker being related to the TAROT. Simply because the whole deck of playing cards are derived from the tarot!!! The Tarot consists of 78 cards in total and is divided into two groups, the major and the minor arcanas. The major Arcana are 22 cards consisting of laws & principals they are sometimes called trump cards assigned to the Quaballah & consequently relating to parts of the human body, which essentially is the quaballah tree of life. The Minor arcana are 56 cards that relate to paths of life stemming from the spiritual emotional mental and physical bodies of ones being. So you may ask how does this relate to a playing deck or the joker for that matter. Simple! In the minor arcana there are 1 through ten & the court cards king queen page and knights or princesses in some decks as that’s their position in the way that princes and princess are male and female of the same energy. So if you remove the knight or in some cases the princes card you have the court cards king queen and page or better known as (Jack) making the 56 deck into a 52 deck divided by Clubs (wands or fire Spiritual body) Hearts (cups or Emotional Body) Spades (swords or air metal body) &
    Diamonds (Pentacles or coins physical body) This now is exactly like the minor arcana and many people give readings with only the minor arcanea as the major only explains the laws and principals you are working with and the minor is really the journey. WOWWW!!! Amazing right!!! So where does the Joker fit in? The highest card in the tarot is the joker or the fool. Because he who has knowledge is better protected from the ignorant masses by playing the fool. The number of the fool is 0 meaning eternity & representing the highest form of spirituality one can attain by being in control of all the elements on their journey, however its position in the deck is 22 which is the bridge of the major and minor arcanas though it is seen as a trump card it is in fact a card that stands on its own and acts as a bridge between both arcanas What most readers don’t know in fact it is in itself the whole tarot and every card in the tarot is a facet of the fool or the fools journey to finding or completing oneself. On the body the fool represents the heart and the mind is represented by the devil, as your mind but not your heart can deceive you. There are however a positive and negative aspect of every card depending on which card it is next to defines it’s accurate meaning of a reading. So the fool is sometimes depicted as a man on a journey or a child representing the innocent fool or a man ravaged by the elements who is the ignorant fool. Depending on which tarot deck you get but the aspects are the same regardless of the artwork. So again how does this coincide with the deck of playing cards and the joker or jokers rather? The deck of playing cards is the minor arcana the four bodies of ones self and the journeys arising out of them along with two trump cards the mind and the heart the black and white joker the mind of practicality and the joker of color the heart or sometimes imagination. Since the joker came later it was not put into the deck but rather put back into the deck. The tarot was originally scrolls or tablets from the library of Alexandria and was given to gypsies when the library burned down; they only became cards three hundred years later. They were always used for divination but then the game Tarot evolved out of it to hide their meaning and used for enjoyment. Playing the game Tarot without the major arcane is called bridge. But both Tarot decks and playing card decks can be used for divination or playing card games. Of course there are more details and history involved but that’s it in a nutshell.

    I hope this answers anyone’s questions about the Joker(s) in the deck.
    Frank Ditto
    Creator of the Egyptian Tarot Dice and the 78 Tarot Spread.


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