Reply hazy try again – The History of Tarot Cards

Myth Perceptions

Welcome to Myth Perceptions!

Okay, the title is taken from that other famous oracle, the Magic 8-Ball, but it seems apropos as I attempt to kick off my Tarot myth perceptions with the origin of the Tarot Deck. Before we begin, I’d like to say that I’ve referred heavily to the Tarot Wiki for this post for several reasons. First, my own library of Tarot resources is tucked away into a storage facility until we move, and therefor inaccessible. And, second, because the Wiki agrees with my recollection of my lengthy research and apprenticeship with the Tarot. That said, let’s go!


Image Courtesy of


Tarot de Marseille

Popular culture would like to say that the Tarot deck is an ancient fortune-telling system with ties back to Ancient Egypt and the famous Book of Thoth. There is a very vehement debate about that, but it appears to me that this is not completely true. While playing cards have existed for a very long time, the first documented Tarot decks appear to have been created between 1430 and 1450. The addition of the court cards to the traditional four suits is what shifts the earlier decks from simple playing cards to forebears of what we call the Tarot deck. These early Tarot decks were usually commissioned to represent noble families in their court cards and incorporated the Major Arcana cards in some variations, perhaps as allegories. At this point, I believe that the decks were not used for divination, but for playing card games.

The tie to noble families makes sense to me. Remember, this was before the invention of the printing press and therefor the decks were all hand-painted. This would make them generally available only to the nobility, those with enough disposable income to commission an artist to create a deck. Of course, the original standard playing cards were also hand-painted, but pips don’t require a great deal of artistic embellishment and easily duplicated.

The evolution of the deck from card games to divination wasn’t documented until about 1750. Via Wikipedia:

…manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the tarot as well as a system for laying out the cards.

This is not to say that they couldn’t have been used for divination before this time, but it’s the first apparent documented reference to the tarot as a divination system. From there, the acceptance and development of the Tarot deck spirals through various hands. My research agrees with the Wiki that the first full Tarot deck may have been the Tarot de Marseille. And yet that deck varies from what is the standard structure of the contemporary Tarot deck.

This topic could extend on for many more pages, but I’m going to have to stop. If you are intrigued, please dive in. However, read everything with a careful eye. Many sources will proclaim to have “the truth”, but unless you see multiple sources citing the same information, I’d be loath to take them at their claim. The same can be said for my own interpretations and research.

Feel free to share your insights and discoveries about the history of the Tarot deck in the comments. I’m always ready to learn more about my favorite form of divination. And I hope you’ll be back next month as I continue down the Royal Road of the Tarot.


Denise Golinowski is a reader and writer of fantasy and romance. Her enovellaCollector’s Item, is available as both print and ebook The Wild Rose Press. Her next enovella, Aces Down, is expected to be published in 2015.

Her first enovellaThe Festival of the Flowers: The Courtesan and the Scholar is also available  through the Wild Rose Press. You can visit her blog at Golinowski’s Gambol.


9 thoughts on “Reply hazy try again – The History of Tarot Cards

  1. Interesting post, Denise. I’ve often heard that other card decks can also be used for divination, such as regular playing cards. Do you know if there is any truth to that.

    • It appears that playing cards physically came first and probably did predate the Tarot for fortune-telling. The methodology is very different, especially since a deck of playing cards lacks the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. This may or may not be a problem, depending on your viewpoint. Both decks started out simply for entertainment and then evolved from there. Thanks for asking, Tina!

  2. As always, fascinating, Denise. The royals in the cards have always fascinated me. I’ll have to do some more digging!

    • The court cards can be read several different ways, as people or as aspects of the questioner. I’ll be touching on that in a later post. I’ll look forward to your comments. Thanks for stopping by to support a Sister!

  3. The nobility and clerus (church) always had access first to all types of knowledge and this was a priority to them in order to rule easily over those who did not have access to information at all, we must understand that back then the opening of bodies was not permited so people went to graveyards digging for corpses in order to study them! This is how complicated it was to the point where only at a relatively late point in history people knew how we look inside 🙂 A very interesting article. Kind regards from Austria (Vienna) Kartenlegen Wien

    • Good points! Times were different then, access was far more limited, life was challenging in ways we can’t begin to understand with the freedoms we experience now. While the nobility and the church did exercise control over certain types of knowledge, the lesser nobles and serfs lacked the funds and time to pursue such non-essential questions. It was survival on so many levels. Thanks for dropping by! I hope things are nice in Vienna!

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