The History of Tarot Cards: The Hidden Mystery of mediumship

July 4, 2023
Let's Dive into the history of tarot

Tarot cards have long captivated the imagination of both enthusiasts and skeptics alike. With their intricate symbolism and mystical allure, these cards have been a source of fascination and guidance for centuries.

In this article, we will delve into the origins of tarot cards, their connection to playing cards, the evolution of early tarot decks, and the development of tarot as a tool for divination and fortune-telling.

Table of Contents

What are the origins of tarot cards?

The origins of tarot cards are shrouded in mystery, making it challenging to trace their exact beginnings. However, most scholars agree that tarot cards originated in Europe during the late 14th century. The exact purpose of the earliest tarot deck is debated, with theories ranging from simple gaming decks to intricate esoteric tools.

Early Tarot Cards and Tarot-like games

Before tarot cards emerged, playing cards had already gained popularity across Europe. These early playing cards, known as Mamluk cards, made their way from the Islamic world to Europe during the 14th century.

They featured four suits: cups, coins, swords, and polo sticks. While not direct predecessors of tarot, these cards laid the foundation for the structure and symbolism of later tarot decks.

Early Tarot Decks

The earliest surviving tarot decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza and the Sola-Busca, were commissioned by wealthy families in Italy during the 15th century. These decks were highly elaborate and ornate, featuring intricately detailed illustrations and a variety of allegorical symbols.

Unlike modern tarot decks, they did not adhere to a standardized system, and the number and arrangement of cards varied.

Propagation of a Tarot Deck

Tarot deck gained popularity and spread across Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in France and England. French occultist and author Antoine Court de Gébelin played a crucial role in popularizing tarot as a tool of esoteric knowledge.

In his work “Le Monde Primitif,” published in 1781, he claimed that tarot cards held ancient Egyptian wisdom, connecting them to the mysteries of the occult.

The 15th Century Role in the History of Tarot

The 15th century played a significant role in the history of tarot, as it marked the emergence and development of the tarot deck as we know it today. While the origins of tarot cards are somewhat obscure and debated among historians, the 15th century witnessed a pivotal period in the evolution of tarot as a divinatory and symbolic tool.

  1. Origins and Early Developments: The exact origins of tarot are uncertain, but it is believed to have originated in northern Italy in the 15th century. The earliest surviving decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot and the Sola-Busca Tarot, date back to this period. These decks were hand-painted and primarily commissioned by the noble families of Italy.

  2. Playing Cards and Tarot: During the 15th century, playing cards were already popular in Europe, and the tarot deck initially started as a variation of the standard playing card deck. The tarot deck, however, consisted of additional cards known as the Major Arcana, which depicted symbolic figures and allegorical scenes. These extra cards distinguished the tarot from regular playing cards and gave it its divinatory and esoteric significance.

  3. Tarot as a Game: Initially, tarot was primarily used as a game for entertainment purposes. It was played by the aristocracy and nobility, reflecting the social and cultural milieu of the time. The game, known as “tarocchi,” involved trick-taking and strategic elements, similar to other card games of the era.

  4. Occult and Divinatory Interpretations: While tarot started as a game, it gradually gained mystical and divinatory associations. In the late 18th century, the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, also known as Etteilla, published some of the first known tarot divinatory interpretations. These interpretations helped popularize tarot as a tool for fortune-telling and spiritual introspection.

  5. Symbolism and Interpretation: The symbolism present in the tarot deck became more pronounced during the 15th century. The Major Arcana, with its archetypal figures and symbolic imagery, provided a rich tapestry for allegorical interpretations. The 15th-century decks featured various allegorical and mythological motifs, reflecting the cultural and intellectual influences of the time.

  6. Influence of Hermeticism and Esoteric Traditions: During the Renaissance period, there was a revival of interest in ancient philosophical and esoteric traditions, such as Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. These mystical philosophies influenced the development of tarot, with some scholars suggesting that the cards were used to convey esoteric knowledge and spiritual teachings.

  7. Printing Press and Mass Production: The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century had a profound impact on the dissemination and accessibility of tarot decks. With the advent of printing, tarot cards could be produced more efficiently and in larger quantities, making them more widely available to a broader range of people.

The 15th century laid the foundation for the subsequent growth and popularity of tarot as a tool for divination, self-reflection, and spiritual exploration.

Tarot as Divination

While tarot cards were initially used for gaming and entertainment, their association with divination and fortune-telling developed over time. It was during the 18th century that practitioners began exploring the deeper symbolic meanings of the cards, attributing them with mystical significance.

This period saw the emergence of various occult practices, such as cartomancy, where readers would interpret the cards to provide insights into the past, present, and future.

Early Tarot Fortune Telling

One of the most influential figures in the history of tarot divination was French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who adopted the pseudonym Etteilla.

In the late 18th century, Etteilla published the first comprehensive guidebook on tarot, titled “Etteilla, ou L’art de lire dans les cartes.” His interpretations and spreads for divination formed the foundation for many subsequent tarot readers.

Major Arcana Tarot History

The origins of the Tarot deck, including the Major Arcana, are somewhat mysterious and debated among scholars. The earliest surviving Tarot decks date back to the 15th century in Europe, particularly in Italy and France. However, the exact origins and inspirations for the Tarot remain unclear.

Some theories suggest that the Tarot’s roots can be traced back to ancient Egypt, the Kabbalah, or even ancient mystical traditions from the Middle East. Others believe that the Tarot evolved from playing cards used for gaming purposes. 

The truth likely lies somewhere in between, as the Tarot deck has undoubtedly been influenced by various cultures and belief systems over the centuries.

The Major Arcana cards, as we know them today, started to take shape in the 17th century, with decks like the Tarot de Marseille becoming popular in France. These decks established the standard structure and symbolism that many contemporary 

Tarot decks still adhere to. Each card in the Major Arcana typically features a unique illustration and title, such as “The Fool,” “The Magician,” “The High Priestess,” and so on.

Throughout history, the Tarot deck and its Major Arcana cards have been utilized for divination, spiritual guidance, psychological exploration, and self-reflection. Various esoteric and occult traditions have incorporated Tarot readings into their practices. 

In recent times, the Tarot has gained widespread popularity as a tool for personal insight and intuition, with countless Tarot decks and interpretations available to suit different preferences and approaches.

Minor Arcana Tarot History


The history of the Minor Arcana is closely tied to the development of the Tarot itself. The Tarot originated as a card game in the 14th century in Europe, and the earliest surviving decks, known as Tarot de Marseille, date back to the 15th century. However, the exact origins of the Tarot are still debated among scholars.

Originally, the Tarot deck was comprised solely of the Major Arcana, which consists of 22 symbolic cards representing archetypal figures and significant life events. These cards were used for gameplay and later gained esoteric and divinatory significance.

The addition of the Minor Arcana to the Tarot deck is believed to have occurred around the 15th century. The inclusion of these cards expanded the possibilities for gameplay, adding a more nuanced layer to the Tarot as a game. However, it is important to note that the precise details regarding the development and early usage of the Minor Arcana are not well-documented.

Who Were the First Tarot Readers?

The origins of tarot reading are not entirely clear, and there is ongoing debate among historians and scholars regarding its exact beginnings. However, it is believed that tarot cards were first used for divination purposes in the 18th century. The earliest known tarot decks were created in Italy, specifically in the northern regions such as Milan, Piedmont, and Bologna.

The first tarot readers were likely individuals who were knowledgeable about the symbols and meanings associated with the cards. They were often practitioners of occult or esoteric traditions and used the tarot deck as a tool for divination, spiritual guidance, and fortune-telling.

One prominent figure associated with the early popularization of tarot reading is Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who used the pseudonym “Etteilla.” He was a French occultist and tarot card reader who published some of the first tarot manuals and created his own deck. Etteilla’s interpretations and methods helped establish the foundations of tarot reading as we know it today.

It’s important to note that tarot reading has evolved and diversified over time, with various traditions, interpretations, and schools of thought emerging. As a result, numerous individuals and communities have contributed to the development and practice of tarot reading throughout history.

Final Words about Tarot History

Tarot cards have evolved from their humble origins as playing cards to become powerful tools for divination and self-reflection. Over the centuries, they have inspired countless individuals to explore the realms of spirituality, symbolism, and personal growth.

Whether you view them as mere pieces of cardstock or potent gateways to the metaphysical, tarot cards continue to captivate our imaginations and provide insights into the depths of the human psyche.

In the modern era, tarot has transcended cultural boundaries, attracting people from all walks of life. The enduring popularity of tarot is a testament to its profound and enduring impact on our collective consciousness.

As we unravel the layers of meaning within the cards, we embark on a journey of self-discovery, unlocking hidden truths and gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

In conclusion, the history of tarot cards is a tapestry woven with threads of ancient wisdom, cultural exchange, and human fascination.

From their obscure origins to their present-day significance, tarot cards continue to fascinate and inspire generations, providing a pathway to self-reflection and divination for those who dare to explore their depths.


1. Early History of Playing Cards – Link
2. Before Fortune-Telling: The History and Structure of Tarot Cards – Link
3. A Visual History of Tarot Cards – Link
4. Tarot. History. Propagation – Link
5. Pratesi, Franco (1989). “Italian Cards: New Discoveries, no. 9”. The Playing-Card – Link

Nassim Talahari
Article by
Nassim Talahari

Spiritualist with 10 years of experience, researcher of astrological and esoteric practices, theologian. Gives practical advice on how to start your journey into theology.


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