A Brief History of Tarot

A Brief History of Tarot

The Game of Tarocchi

Tarot dates back to the 1440s and 1450s in northern Italy, when the full tarot deck, as what we know it today, came into existence with 56 minor arcana cards, a wild card (the Fool "matto"), and 21 trump cards (tarocchi). The suits of the minor arcana, also known as pip cards, were established as Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins, which have evolved to today's Cups, Swords, Wands, and Pentacles, respectively. The standard pip cards ranged from 1 to 10 in each suit, with four face cards: the Knave, Knight, Queen and King. Prior to the nineteenth century, when the Tarot started gaining popularity as a tool for fortune telling, it was widely known as a game called tarocchi.

The oldest surviving set of cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, now preserved at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, were thought to be inspired by the costumed characters of carnival parades. The deck was used in tarrochi, which later evolved to "tarot" in southern France.

Esotericism Emerges

In the late 1700s and onward, Antoine Court de Gebelin promoted the theory that the cards originated in ancient Egypt, and housed the esoteric wisdom of Thoth (God of writing, magic, wisdom, and the moon) in a series of French volumes titled "The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World." Additionally, around the same time, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, writing under the pen name Etteilla, brought tarot divination to life, popularizing it and making a living from it. Former Catholic Priest and author, Eliphas Levi, connected the Tarot symbols to the Hebrew alphabet, and thus to the Kabbalah.

The Iconic Rider Waite-Smith Deck Reshapes the Tarot

By 1909 the Rider-Waite, or Waite-Smith was created by Arthur Edward Waite, a British poet and occult/esoteric writer, and illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith. It's commonly referred to as the Rider-Waite deck since it was published by the Rider Company. Since it's creation, became the staple "traditional" go-to, still used by practitioners worldwide.

The style of this deck presents more "modern" imagery (as compared to historical decks) and emphasizes occult/esoteric practices, with the Christian imagery, observed in more historical decks, notably muted. Some of the divergences are as follows:

  • The Pope became The Hierophant

  • The Popess became the The High Priestess

  • The Minor Arcana evolved from simple designs to rich allegorical scenes

Largely, the general presentations of the Major Arcana remained unchanged. Fascinatingly, the Moon card has kept its original form for more than five centuries, with a path, animals on both sides, leading off into the distance toward two towers, a crawfish (or lobster) crawling out of the water, and of course, the moon.

Artwork by Lauren Barnard, 2021

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