From Card Games to the Occult: The Origin of Tarot Cards

Photo Courtesy: Alexthq/iStock

Often associated with popular activities like burning sage, collecting crystals, and #selfcare, tarot has become a regular staple in many different cultures and communities today. Even the fashion brand DIOR has gotten in on the tarot conversation, releasing collections inspired by the many images found in a tarot deck.

But tarot is more than just aesthetics. It’s easy to get lost in the images of a tarot deck the same way you might get lost in an art museum, but tarot’s history goes back centuries and the images were chosen purposefully. People did not always read tarot, but personal tarot readings go back a lot farther than you might guess.

Is tarot based on real people or any other divination practices? Or should you be skeptical about the stories that come from the shuffled cards? If you’re going to look at them for meaning or advice, knowing the origin of tarot cards and practices can widen your view on the subject. Here, we’re breaking down tarot, starting from the very beginning.  

What Is Tarot?

To understand what tarot is, we have to travel back to the Renaissance. The bubonic plague of the Middle Ages influenced the beginning of the Renaissance, and not just in terms of art. During the epidemic, many people stayed indoors and had a lot of time on their hands, not unlike what we experienced in 2020. But with no streaming services or smartphones, people found low-tech ways to have fun.

Photo Courtesy: Nullplus/iStock Images

Then, tarot cards were a lot like the regular playing cards we know today. Both types of cards have four suits and feature “face” cards like a king, queen, jack and ace. So, if you want, you can play traditional card games like poker or solitaire with your tarot deck. But the four suits can also help with interpreting the cards. Called the “Minor Arcana,” the numbered and face cards that align most with modern-day playing cards are (most often) sorted into the suits of wands, swords, cups and pentacles. The “Major Arcana” are 22 cards without suits like The Lovers, The Fool and The Devil.

Back then, they didn’t call the cards “tarot.” Instead, they used the word “trionfi.” Trionfi can translate to “trump card” or “triumph cards.” Trionfi decks are historical artifacts. Not many survive today. The actual game that was played with them was called “tarocchi.”

Many of the early decks were based on the images invoked by poets like Francesco Petrarch and Matteo Maria Boiardo. Petrarch was responsible for the term “trionfi” and Boiardo ushered in “tarocchi.” The people depicted on the cards were meant to be representations of abstractions, like justice and love. The illustrations allowed people who didn’t get to see much aside from the land near their homes to experience unique visuals. Knowing that, it’s easier to see the appeal that tarot had in its early, fun-filled beginnings.    

Emergence of Tarot Readings: Occult Interpretations

The witchy fun with tarot did not begin until the latter half of the 1700s. A lot of the occult association with tarot came from an essay called “Le Monde Primitif” by Antoine Court de Gébelin. In the essay, Gébelin asserts that tarot came from The Book of Thoth, a collection of writings believed to have been written by Thoth, an ancient Egyptian god. This idea would be labeled fake news now, but back then there weren’t fact-checkers, so the story persisted.

ADVERTISEMENT

Inspired by this writing, a fortune teller named Jean-Baptiste Alliete, who used the pseudonym “Etteilla,” helped popularize reading tarot cards as opposed to playing with them. Etteilla was fortune-telling prior to this, so he was able to construct and apply the cards to his own practice. In 1789, Etteilla released their first deck along with a guide. (As is the case with many spiritual practices today, capitalism is unfortunately never far away.)

Tarot’s status as an up-and-coming trend created a demand for notable tarot card readers. Marie Anne Lenormand read tarot cards for Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, Robespierre, and Tsar Alexander I. “Celebrity psychics” are definitely not new.

Photo Courtesy: Picture Alliance/Getty Images

The next major development in tarot reading came from Èliphas Lévi. The French author, who was born in the early 1800s and lived until 1875, rejected Etteilla’s interpretation of tarot but did believe that tarot had roots in ancient Egypt, existing even before Moses. Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magic, released in two parts in 1854 (Dogme) and 1856 (Ritual), was Lévi’s first book of many on the subject of tarot, paving the way for new deck interpretations. Lévi, a former Catholic priest, wrote more than 20 books about magic Kabbalah, alchemy, and other spiritual practices.

Tarot entered the modern era in 1909 with the release of the Rider-Waite deck. The Rider-Waite deck featured changes suitable for English-speaking audiences as well as those that felt more current for the time. In the deck, The Lovers, a popular card, was changed from an image of a medieval man and woman being blessed by a priest to Adam and Eve, naked in the garden. Names like “The Papess” were changed to “The Priestess.” This type of deck is often recommended for beginners and remains one of the most popular tarot decks in the world today.

Self Care and Stigma: Tarot Readings Today

Reading tarot cards has never been more popular. People are able to read cards for themselves, loved ones, and even strangers on social media. The occult roots are still there, but most tarot readers today would say that the cards are more of a device for interpreting life around them rather than making serious predictions.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

While tarot may be more popular than ever, there is still a stigma associated with the practice. In 2021, eBay banned the sale of readings on their site. And even the ACLU has gone to bat for tarot as recently as 2019, arguing that outlawing tarot outright would be a violation of first amendment rights.

Photo Courtesy: Nullplus/iStock Images

Despite pushback from some authorities, tarot remains popular with young people, especially young women. Tarot has been used as a therapeutic technique in some instances. Young people have had to navigate the 2008 financial collapse, several wars, a pandemic, and other uncertain times. That uncertainty combined with more access to education and knowledge-sharing than ever before means that people are finding tarot and discovering that it can be a great way of evaluating their lives and looking ahead to what comes next.  

As for what comes next for tarot, the celestial sky is the limit. Contemporary tarot decks often put thematic spins on the cards, like Khaneaton’s Black Power tarot deck, which features figures from Black history, including Billie Holiday and Martin Luther King Jr. More artists are creating new decks, both for the sake of empowerment and novelty, all the time. Who knows what sorts of meanings you’ll end up taking from a tarot card reading, or how tarot cards will be used down the road.

ADVERTISEMENT