Updated: Aug 30, 2021
The Tarot as we know it was born in Northern Italy. It was a simple playing cards deck later developed in France into the iconic fortune telling tool that we know.
The first Tarot decks were drawn in Italy and France and found their most solid foundation in…Marseille.
The minor arcana, sometimes called pip cards, was known and used before the major arcana. It’s funny since most people today associate Tarot with the famous major characters first. The minor arcana started off as a playing deck of cards traced back to the 14th Century in Italy. Rich families would play “tarocchi appropriati”.
At this point, there was nothing mystical about the cards, they could just have just as well been playing Bridge. The Swords, Cups, Coins and Wands were just a version of what we know today as Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs.
It’s hard to say exactly if Tarot is originally French or Italian or else. Some support the idea that the decks were inspired by playing cards used in Eastern Europe or even Turkey but there are no real evidence to trace them back so far.
Most historical facts tend to lead to the following hypothesis: Tarot started as one more card game in Northern Italy in the early Middle Ages. It was then re-invented and re-designed in the South of France for the purpose of fortune telling from the 17th Century onwards with the making of the Tarot of Jean Noblet and Jacques Vieville (1650), the Tarot of Jean Dodal (early 1700) and the Tarot of Nicolas Conver (approx. 1760). These set the foundations for all decks to come.
Both France and Italy were, as the cards reflect, very religious countries. And the Catholic Church was extremely influential. It shows in the cards. It goes without saying that the church condemned the use of Tarot and associated its symbolisms with witchcraft and declared it heretic. Despite this condemnation, Tarot was continuously used in both countries, grew more and more popular with time and rapidly spread outside of their borders.
EGYPTIAN OR LATIN?
The man mainly responsible for the Tarot revival in the 18th Century was Antoine Court de Gébelin.
This freemason, amateur historian and Tarot enthusiast claimed in his most important piece of work (The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World) that the origins of the Tarot were to be found in the ancient Egyptian culture.
While this claim seems to have been more influenced by the trend of the time when all things Egyptians were starting to be extremely hype, rather than based on historical proof, it did help bring Tarot back into fashion.
It is usually acknowledged that playing cards in Europe started with items that can be traced back to the Egyptian Mamuluk. A deck that used an imagery close to what became the first Italian Tarot.
But different theories exist and I won’t go into discussing them here. Whether or not Tarot has any direct roots in the ancient Egyptian culture is still unsure today and rather unlikely.
What we know is that this theory gave birth to a new French deck carrying the name of its creator: Etteila. Also know as the Egyptian Tarot, which supposedly originated from the legendary book of Thoth. Fantasy or not, it raised both awareness and enthusiasm for the Tarot in France and England.
It also helped link the world of Tarot and Ancient Egypt forever. Holy Egyptian figures can now be found all through the most famous decks in world: the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot.
And we still see new decks with light or strong Egyptian influences popping up on the Tarot market on a regular basis. All thanks to Mr. Gébelin.
Marie Anne Lenormand. Many people get confused between the Tarot and the Lenormand Oracle cards. So… what’s what?
Marie Anne Lenormand was a fortune teller of the 18th and 19th Century and quite an artist too. She is mostly remembered for being one of Paris’ most famous “psychics” during the troubled revolutionary times.
The legend has it that she supposedly predicted a violent death to very important men like Robespierre or Marat, and that she was arrested for predicting the death of Louis XVI and persecuted during the French Terror.
She was later trusted by no less than the French Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. But guess what? She either used regular playing cards that she would annotate, Tarot cards or nothing at all. No such thing as what is today called a “Lenormand” deck.
She was passionate about oracles, cards and all fortune telling tools. It is yet unlikely that she ever did use or create anything like what is today known – and sold – as the Lenormand oracle.
Actually, the Lenormand oracle is most likely based on traditional German playing cards, which were adopted by the Anglo-Saxon world in parallel to Tarot in the Latin parts of Europe.
THE ENGLISH WAVE
In the 19th Century Britain had already become the most powerful country in Europe…and the world.
The immense British Empire was blooming. The fashion in London would inevitably influence the entire Western world. And an interest for all things occult was growing in town. Artists, writers and beautiful people were all drawn to occultism and fortune telling.
For better or worse, this helped keep Tarot in fashion.
This “English wave” can be seen as the bridge between the pre-revolutionary French Tarot Renaissance and the early 20th Century.
THE RIDER-WAITE SMITH DECK
Today, the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot is the most commonly known and used deck in the English speaking world.
Let’s just note that the commercialisation in the 1970’s of the Rider Waite Tarot, which was originally created in 1910 in the UK, got thousands of American and Western citizens exposed to a fresher and still universal version of the cards thanks to the marketing efforts of US Games Inc.
The success of the Rider Waite deck not only lies in the company behind its publishing but also in the indisputable quality of the artwork.
The absence of copyright on the Rider Waite Tarot imagery also explains why it is so largely used in on- and offline publishings to this day.
There are many factors and many people who helped carry the tradition and knowledge of Tarot throughout the years and some of them will not be remembered by History. The way I see it, every person who learns Tarot, shares and reads it for themselves or others add their little – yet vital – stone to this common effort.
There is a lot going on on the internet about the history of Tarot. What I aimed to do is to summarize some key facts and the most commonly admitted suppositions. This article aims to give you an overview of the evolution of Tarot. It doesn’t matter who created it and where. There is no official start date or origin. After all, Tarot belongs to everyone and that was its true purpose.
For those of you who speak French, I highly recommend watching this precise and fascinating documentary on the origins of the Marseille deck. It covers the influence of Botticelli on the original artwork as well as the possible use of Tarot cards for philosophical and legal training. I will do my best to find a good link in English as well! If you have one, feel free to share in the comments.