Tarot Card Origins

You may have been introduced to tarot for the first time when you visited the renaissance fair as a child, or maybe there was a deck sitting quietly in the corner of your home or local bookstore, but you never knew what they were until recently. If you had a strict religious upbringing, these cards probably were not allowed near you because of their divinatory nature. Regardless of how you first learned about tarot, you probably know about some of the misconceptions surrounding their use today. From false origin stories, to accusations that align them with “devil worship,” tarot has a much more fascinating and traceable history as a medieval playing card game that arrived in Europe by way of Islamic nobility in the 13th and 14th centuries.

“A reconstructed 15th or early 16th century Mamluk pack, hand-drawn and hand painted, probably belonging to a wealthy or illustrious owner. They are a beautiful example of the important and often overlooked cultural, technical and artistic influence which Islam has bestowed upon the western world…” Mamluk Playing Cards, Simon Wintle

Calligraphic inscriptions along the tops of the cards read: “With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“ – “O thou who hast possessions, remain happy and thou shalt have a pleasant life.” – “Let it come to me, because acquired good is durable; it rejoices me with all its utility” – “Pleasures for the soul and agreeable things, in my colours there are all kinds” – “Look how wonderful my game is and my dress extraordinarily beautiful” – “I am as a garden, the like of which will never exist” – “O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices” – “Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy.”

From Istanbul to Iberia

It is believed that one of the most likely origins of the tarot was in medieval Istanbul under the Mamluk Empire which ruled from 1250 – 1517. Stretching from Syria to Egypt, the empire reached as far as Spain, and ruled as the Nasrids of Granada from 1232 – 1432. By the 13th century, they were the only Islamic kingdom remaining in Spain. The Mamluk pack was a playing card game imported to Spain by way of the Islamic nobles. With this unique history, the country has records of tarot as early as 1370. During this time, however, tarot was still only a storytelling game, and was not the divination tool we understand it to be today. The game is theorized to have more ancient origins either in India as a card game called Gangifa, or in China, as archaeologists have found similar card games there as well.

Moorish playing cards, two uncut and uncolored sheets, early fifteenth century, formerly preserved in the Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona.

Spain & the Renaissance

The Mamluk deck, as the ancestor of the Rider-Waite deck we know today, consisted of the following suits: coins, cups, swords, and polo-sticks. There were 13 cards per suit, numbered one through ten with three court carts. Spanish and Italian noble families love these cards so much that they commissioned artists to create their own unique family heirloom decks. Tarot quickly spread throughout Europe across England, Switzerland, Germany, France, and beyond.

Cards from the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo deck by Duke Visconti, via Wikipedia 

By the 1400s, the Mamluk deck had been completely transformed by artists of the renaissance. The most famous decks were created by an Italian Duke by the name of Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan, known today as the Visconti-Sforza tarot, considered to be the first set of tarot decks, though they were still not being used as we know today. Back in this time, it became common for noble European families to recreate these playing cards in their likeness. It was both a status symbol and a creative way to record family history.

French Occultism

It was not until the 1700s in France that tarot cards began to take on a more mystical and occult-like nature. This was because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military influence in Egypt, so common folk naturally began looking towards Ancient Egyptian spirituality, culture, and scientific practices. Given this obsession, the people also began making associations between Greek and Egyptian deities. This all occurred during the Illumination period, a time when regular folks started taking spirituality into their own hands. The church in France lost respect amongst its followers because of how everyday people were being treated by nobility. Of course, with church and rulership being one in the same, it is not difficult to see how people would have been drawn to understanding themselves outside of organized religion. This is what led to the French Occult Revival, and tarot’s legendary associations with ancient Egypt became woven into the fabric of French spiritual societies.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

By 1888, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England, leading to the creation of the legendary Rider-Waite deck we know today. Although the order never gained more than 300 members, its influence in the practice of magic and tarot interpretation became undeniable across Europe. Aleister Crawley and Arthur Edward Waite were two Golden Dawn members who played a central role in the modern deck’s evolution:

“Crowley extended the lists of correspondences between the tarot trumps and other esoteric systems. But it was Waite who was to be the major innovator by designing a pack in which the minor arcana or pip cards were illustrated to  facilitate divination. The deck he designed, commonly known as the RiderWaite deck, was to become the most popular in the history of tarot.” – Cultural History of Tarot, Helen Farley

Sources & Further Reading

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