The History of Tarot

If you haven’t figured out yet, I can be kinda a nerd. I get interested in things, and then I just have to know everything about that thing. And one of the things that I’ve been interested in for a very long time is Tarot.

Did you know that cards called ‘Tarot’ have been around since the 1400’s?

Travel back in time to the mid 1400’s, when we can find the earliest evidence of the cards that would become the Tarot we know and love. While we don’t know if they were used in divination, the decks had a lot in common with modern Tarot cards: four suits, a set of trump cards, and royal cards in each suit. In some places in Europe, you can still find tarocchini being played, with cards very similar to modern Tarot decks. The Visconti-Sforza decks are hand painted card decks from the mid 1400’s, now preserved in museums.

Tarot didn’t become associated with divination until the 1800’s.

In 1789 we have the first example of cartomancy using Tarot cards. Jean-Baptiste Alliete was a French occultist who created a deck of Tarot cards based on Egyptology, thus starting off the trend of European white folks appropriating bits of culture and history from disadvantaged people of color. The rise of interest in Egypt’s mystic and occult practices came from fascination with the pyramids and the great archeological exodus and looting taking place at the time. The Book of the Dead, along with the Book of Thoth, were believed to hold timeless wisdom just waiting for an intrepid white man to come along and properly harness it.

If it seems like I’m a little salty about this bit of history, it’s because I am. So much of what is considered Western Occult Knowledge has been lifted wholesale from ancient cultures and also living modern cultures. Scrape off the bits of cultural knowledge that refer to the actual living people and pretend real hard that either the people who practiced these living traditions were white after all (Cleopatra, Hatshepsut, the Ptolomy’s, not to mention the common folk of those nations…) Old white men in Europe and America during the 1800’s had a terrible habit of just wholesale taking whatever they liked from various cultures and claiming it as their own. The entire magickal systems of the Ordo Templi Orientalis and Golden Dawn was taken from older systems and cobbled together with re-purposed culture from far off ‘oriental’ lands.

Ahem. But I digress.

Back to the history of Tarot. Basically, orientalism, spiritualism, and an interest in all things occult in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s led to a resurgence of activity in ‘secret’ societies. Freemasons, the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., all flourished during that time, and, when Arthur Edward Waite asked Pamela Colman Smith to help design and illustrate a Tarot deck meant for divinitory purposes, history was made. Published by William Rider & Son in London, the so-called Rider-Waite deck is the most popular tarot deck in the world. The art on each card was drawn and colored by Ms Smith, with input from Waite, though both were members of the Golden Dawn. The deck painted by Ms Smith draws on influences ranging from Egyptology and Western Occult practices, as well as the Romanticism and Arts and Crafts movement in art. Strong lines and color blocks predominate, and the symbolism of the deck has influenced countless tarot decks since.

Modern Tarot decks.

Portrait of Pamela Colman Smith

Any google search will turn up thousands of possible tarot decks in all sorts of art styles and symbol systems. While most are indeed deeply influenced by the Smith-Waite deck, some have branched out to other symbol systems and cultures. When you’re looking to purchase a deck for your own use, it’s useful to keep some of the history of tarot in mind. When you’re using a Smith-Waite influenced deck, that deck will derive from the history that gave rise to the original symbol system. However, by this time that deck has been so influential, and is so well known, the symbolism of each card is nigh universal. If you have strong ties to a culture that is radically separate from white western culture and values, you will likely enjoy a deck that draws on your culture’s symbolism and get better readings from it. If you’re a white westerner, decks that draw on other cultures both will not likely read well for you, and may be a poor choice to make use of from a cultural appropriation stand point. You may help increase demand for such decks by purchasing them, but using them in paid readings, or integrating their symbols into your energetic and spiritual work will be a not very good idea.

I own a number of Tarot decks, ranging from the ubiquitous Smith-Waite to some very interesting ‘experimental’ decks.

My main deck that I read from is the Connolly Tarot Deck. Designed by Dr. Eileen Connolly, the cards were illustrated by her son, Peter Connolly. Based on the Smith-Waite tarot, the Connolly diverges in two of the major arcana, renaming Death Transformation and the Devil Materialism. The Connolly is not the only deck to rename and reframe cards! If you decide to try to read using the Thoth Tarot, designed by Aleister Crowley, be aware that two of the major arcana have been swapped, and the cards were designed to be difficult to read from. Lovely art, hard to read.

Personally, I prefer fully illustrated decks. Some decks save on time, money, and effort by using pips in the minor arcana instead of illustrating each card. While a two of cups can be readily represented by just two cups on a plain background, I like a little story around the cups, something to give my subconscious and intuitive mind something to work with. I’ve also discovered that decks with a bit more story to the suits, in which the cards inter-relate and work together to give a complete journey, just works better for my reading style.

Some of my decks

When you’re starting to read tarot, you will discover that you’ll go through a lot of decks. When I was starting out, that meant finding a deck and ordering it through a store, and hoping I could actually use the deck when it arrived. You young whippersnappers can go look up decks online, and see examples of the cards. Check out tarot.com, and browse lovely decks to your hearts content! I know I do, still, and have found some lovely examples of the artform.

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