I have a couple of friends who are interested in tarot cards, so I decided to check out the history.

  • There are historical references to tarot cards, mostly from Italy, from the 15th century.
  • Playing cards came to Europe from Islamic regions.
  • Originally these were playing cards, used to play a game like bridge. (Which made me wonder if anyone still plays bridge, leading to a research detour where I learned that there are a whole lot of bridge clubs throughout the U.S.)
  • Technology being what it was in the 15th century, the cards were not mass produced. Each card was individually hand-painted, meaning that only the wealthiest could afford them.
  • The images on the cards varied by region.
  • The games played with these cards were not only for fun, but also for gambling.
  • The oldest surviving cards are from 15 decks painted in the 15th century for the Duke of Milan.

The Popess, card from the so-called Visconti-Sforza tarot deck drawn by Bonifacio Bembo, ca. 1450. The Pierpont Morgan Library (inv. M. 630), New York City, USA. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • They weren’t used for divination until the late 18th century.
  • Using tarot cards for divination increased during the Victorian Age, as did other practices associated with spiritualism and the occult.
  • The most common tarot deck in the English-speaking world since its release in 1910 is known as the Rider deck (or Rider-Waite deck, or Rider-Waite-Smith deck). I don’t tarot, but even I recognize these cards and their distinctive yellow box.

Photo by Cathy Hanson

  • Even if you don’t tarot, you may know about the tower card. This card represents a sudden, dramatic upheaval, which is not generally pleasant or wanted, even if it ultimately leads to good. So if someone goes through life events that are awful and life-changing, they may say that they’ve been “towered”.

Trump card from Tarot de Marseille by Nicolas Conver (ca. 1760). Recolored version. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • I love some of the artwork on modern tarot decks. The artists are working within a thematic framework, but they have freedom within that structure. I’ve seen decks based on Vikings, vampires, fairies, angels, pirates, ghosts, steampunk, voodoo, and of course, cats. I even saw a tarot deck that you can color, just like those adult coloring books that are all the rage.

Feel free to share. Do you tarot?