Tarot cards have been used for divination and fortune-telling for centuries. Though the origins of tarot cards are shrouded in mystery, they have a long and fascinating history. Tarot decks were originally used solely for playing card games in Italy during the Renaissance before evolving into tools for occult practices. Over the centuries, tarot has been influenced by a myriad of cultures and spiritual traditions. Understanding the origins and evolution of tarot provides insight into this enduring and mystical practice.
Early Origins in Italy and France
- The first physical evidence of tarot cards dates back to the mid-15th century in northern Italy. The oldest surviving tarot cards are three early decks from Milan, Ferrara and Florence created between 1420 and 1450.
- The Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1450, is the earliest complete set of tarot cards that exists today.
- These early decks consisted of 78 cards decorated with illustrations of medieval Italian life and symbolic images inspired by Roman Catholic teachings. The cards were used to play a popular card game called Trionfi, meaning “triumphs”.
- The exact roots and original purpose of tarot cards is unknown. Some theories suggest early tarot cards were influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Jewish mysticism, or Gypsy fortunetelling.
- Tarot cards spread from Italy to France in the late 15th century after the French conquest of Milan. The French made changes to the symbols and artwork of the cards.
- French card makers began printing numbered cards with illustrations in woodblock print. This innovation enabled tarot cards to be mass-produced for the first time.
- The French renamed the game Trionfi as “tarocchi” and eventually “tarot”. References to tarot cards being used for occult practices first appeared in France in the 16th century.
Renaissance Italy Sets the Stage
- Renaissance Italy provided a backdrop of religious mysticism, interest in antiquities, and fascination with symbolism that contributed to tarot’s early development.
- Trade and cultural exchange during the Renaissance brought Egyptian, Jewish, and Gypsy mystical ideas to Italy which influenced tarot.
- Humanist scholars and clergy were also interested in ancient texts, mysticism, and finding hidden meanings which resonated with the symbolic nature of tarot cards.
French Innovations in Manufacturing and Design
- The French made significant innovations in tarot card manufacturing by using woodblock printing which allowed mass production.
- French makers also altered the designs and illustrations of tarot cards from the Italian versions, changing some of the imagery.
- Numbered cards and the addition of the Joker, titles, and indices were introduced in French decks. This established the template for modern tarot card design.
Tarot Evolves into a Divination Tool in the 18th Century
- In the late 18th century, French occultists began using tarot cards as a divination tool by linking the cards to astrology, numerology and kabbalistic mysticism.
- Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published a speculative history in 1781 asserting tarot cards originated from ancient Egyptian mysteries.
- De Gébelin claimed tarot cards contained hidden symbolic wisdom passed down through gypsies and Masonic lodges. This occult history was entirely fictional but inspired many.
- Jean-Baptiste Alliette, using the pseudonym Etteilla, published a comprehensive guide to tarot divination in 1785. Etteilla designed the first Tarot deck specifically for occult purposes.
- French aristocrat Marie-Anne Lenormand became famous as a fortune teller using a custom deck with playing card inserts and symbolic images, influencing later tarot designs.
Occultists Unlock Tarot’s “Secrets”
- 18th century occultists invented mystical origins of tarot cards to give them legitimacy as a divination tool. This mythology inspired the practice of tarot divination.
- Writers like Court de Gébelin, Etteilla and Lenormand expanded tarot’s occult mythology and promoted the idea that the cards contained hidden universal esoteric wisdom.
- Designing new decks and companion guides opened the door for tarot cards to be used for divination and fortune telling by exposing their supposed secret mystical symbolism.
Myths and Mystique Shape Divination
- The fictional history of tarot’s Egyptian origins created an aura of mystique and exoticism around tarot cards that attracted interest in divination.
- Occult writers crafted an entire belief system about tarot’s secret symbols, mystical origins and supernatural powers that persists in many modern myths.
- Mystical legends added to tarot’s appeal as a divination tool and shaped how its practitioners would interpret the cards’ meanings.
The Arrival of Tarot in Occult Secret Societies of 19th Century Europe
- Tarot became increasingly associated with magic and the occult in the 19th century as secret societies explored spiritualism and esoteric wisdom.
- French occultist Alphonse Louis Constant published books under the pseudonym Eliphas Levi, connecting tarot cards to magical practices and Jewish mysticism.
- The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, prominent Rosicrucians, and Freemasons used tarot for ritual, meditation, and divination.
- The Rider-Waite tarot deck was published in 1909 for the mass market by incorporating symbolism from the secret societies. The vivid drawings by Pamela Colman Smith shaped modern tarot.
- Other esoteric decks like the Thoth tarot were created by occultists like Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, further cementing tarot’s occult associations.
Secret Societies and Magic
- European secret societies were intrigued by spiritualism, alchemy, astrology and other occult practices which brought new attention to tarot.
- Magicians and members of secret orders, like the Golden Dawn, incorporated tarot cards into initiation rites, rituals and mystical teachings.
- Influential occultists introduced new mystical interpretations and designs for tarot decks intended for divination, spreading tarot in esoteric circles.
Mass Distribution of Occult Decks
- Decks like the Rider-Waite and Thoth tarot brought together imagery and symbolism from multiple occult traditions and made them available to the public.
- Mass producing occult-themed tarot card decks helped expand divination and fortune telling practices using tarot to a much wider audience outside secret societies.
- Modern tarot was shaped by the integration of eclectic esoteric influences drawn from Egyptian mysteries, Jewish Kabbalah, alchemy, astrology, and magical practices by secret societies.
Tarot Reading Spreads in the 20th Century
- Methods of reading tarot cards evolved considerably in the 20th century as it grew into a popular metaphysical practice.
- The practice of grouping certain cards together in a spread to derive meaning was developed by cartomancers to facilitate interpreting cards drawn during a reading.
- Different tarot spreads were created for various purposes, such as to answer specific questions, predict the future, or provide life guidance.
- Well-known spreads like the Celtic Cross and three card spread became standards. Books and manuals detailing spreads helped standardize reading methods.
- With tarot’s growth, professional tarot card readers began using spreads to provide guidance to clients, using their interpretations of the cards in the unfolding narrative.
Spreads Facilitate Interpretation
- Arranging drawn cards in a meaningful pattern called a spread helped readers systematically interpret the combination of cards.
- Spreads made divination using tarot cards more structured compared to just interpreting a random series of drawn cards.
- Different spreads were designed for certain reading purposes and helped guide the reader through decoding the message in the card combination.
Standardization for Tarot Reading
- Including guides to spreads in tarot books popularized certain patterns like the Celtic Cross and created standards for reading.
- Specific spreads became commonly used and expected by tarot readers and clients seeking a reading.
- The spread method advanced tarot divination by making readings more consistent, organized and meaningful.
New Age Revival Sparks Popularity in the Late 20th Century
- Interest in the occult and metaphysical practices sparked by the New Age movement propelled tarot into unprecedented popularity starting in the 1970s.
- Books and workshops made tarot accessible for self-study. Tarot deck sales soared with mass production and marketing of a wide variety of themed decks.
- Tarot readings became a prominent metaphysical service provided in new age stores and psychic fairs. Network marketing companies sold tarot cards.
- New artistic mediums were used for tarot decks, such as photography in osho zen tarot and digital art in the Vertigo tarot. Modern technology delivered tarot apps and online readings.
- Pop culture references increased tarot’s visibility. Television shows, movies and music videos featured tarot readings and imagery.
Tarot Goes Mainstream
- Tarot broke into the mainstream as metaphysical practices gained wider interest and acceptance, becoming a $1 billion industry by 2000.
- Mass production enabled tarot decks to become inexpensive, popular consumer items marketed through bookstores and gift shops instead of just occult specialists.
- Mainstream retailers carried tarot cards. Decks featured popular media themes and modern aesthetics that attracted younger generations.
- New printing methods like lithography enabled full color decks. Digital artwork opened up more diverse artistic styles for tarot.
- The internet made tarot decks, classes, readings and information accessible worldwide. Smartphone apps generated interest through free readings.
- Technology drove tarot’s exponential growth by making it inexpensive, easy to learn and available on-demand through online reader networks.
Enduring Mystique and Ongoing Evolution in the 21st Century
Tarot has come a long way since its hazy origins in 15th century Italy yet continues to capture public fascination today. Its journey has intertwined with many spiritual traditions, magical practices and artistic mediums. While tarot’s histories are overflowing with myths, its enduring mystique contributes to its persistent allure as a tool for guidance and self-reflection.
Tarot continues to prominently revolutionary changes are and will continue to take place in the Tarot world as technology unlocks new possibilities. While apps and algorithms can generate card interpretations, tarot’s tradition is grounded in the reader’s personal insight synthesized from the card imagery in relation to the seeker. Blending digital innovation with the intuition cultivated through many years of practice will likely define tarot’s future path. Just as tarot has evolved across many centuries, this mystical art can adapt to emerging tools while preserving its timeless essence.
FAQs about History of Tarot Card Reading
When were tarot cards first used?
The earliest evidence of tarot cards dates back to the mid-15th century in the northern Italy. The oldest surviving cards were created between 1420 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Florence. These early hand-painted decks were used for playing card games.
How did tarot cards spread from Italy to other countries?
As tarot playing card games became popular in the Italian nobility, the cards spread across Europe. When the French occupied parts of northern Italy in the late 15th century they carried tarot cards back to France. The French renamed them “tarot” and popularized the Italian card games there.
When did tarot transition to a divination tool?
In the 18th century, French occultists linked the symbolic imagery on tarot cards to astrology, numerology and Jewish mysticism. They invented mystical histories about the origin of tarot in ancient Egypt. Books on using tarot cards for divination emerged, and card designs evolved to reflect occult traditions.
What was tarot’s association with secret societies?
In the 19th century, secret societies like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used tarot cards for spiritual practices. Occult figures created new tarot decks that incorporated symbolism from their traditions. Books tying tarot to magical systems made tarot divination more mainstream outside of secret orders.
When did tarot become popular in modern culture?
The 1970s New Age movement sparked a surge of interest in divination and occult practices. Mass production enabled tarot decks to be marketed affordably to the public as self-development tools. Increased visibility in books, TV and films made tarot cards accessible and desirable. Apps and online readings have fueled tarot’s popularity.
The history of tarot card reading has its roots in 15th century Renaissance Italy, where symbolic decks were used for card games among nobility. The cards spread across Europe over the next centuries, most notably in France where occultists expanded tarot mythology and divination. Secret societies propelled tarot’s magical associations in the 19th century. Tarot became a metaphysical sensation in the 20th century as the New Age movement went mainstream. Now deeply immersed pop culture, tarot continues to attract spiritual seekers drawn to its enduring mystique. Technological innovations will likely open new dimensions in tarot’s future evolutions.