Origins of Tarot Cards

The Origins of Tarot Cards

Tarot’s documented origin

Tarot cards have a long and rich history, with many believing that they first came from Egypt, but they were first documented in 1440 in a letter from the Duke of Milan. In his letter he ordered several decks of “Triumph” cards to use at a special event. All playing cards at this point in history were hand painted and only the rich could afford such luxuries. The words ‘Triumph Cards’ distinguished these requested decks from the standard playing card decks, which did originate in Egypt, in use at the time.

It appears that the Triumph deck was the precursor to what would eventually become known as Tarot cards. The Triumph deck consisted of four suits (Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins also known as disks, and pentacles), each suit consisting of cards numbered one through ten, with four royalty or court cards (Queen, King, Knight and Page or Knave). This actually mirrors the standard playing card decks in use at the time and still today. What set the Triumph deck apart was the addition of twenty one or twenty two (depending on the region) picture cards that did not belong to any suit and acted as trumps in game play. The game of Triumph is similar, in play, to the modern game of Bridge.

The game became immensely popular with continental royalty and the cards used began to be referred to by their Italian name of Tarocchi Cards, which translates into French as Tarot Cards.

Alternate history

There are those that believe that the original Tarot cards were brought to Europe from Egypt and that the unsuited picture cards are actually the pages of the sole surviving book, ‘The Book of Thoth’, from the burned libraries of ancient times. This theory would help to explain why some of the oldest surviving Tarot Card decks have the trump cards decorated in a style similar to the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Alas this part of history, like much from those times, has been lost. It is documented however that playing cards were an Egyptian creation brought to Europe around 1375 and this adds much credence to the theory of the Tarot cards’ Egyptian origin.

Tarot in the Occult

The first documented use of Tarot card reading as a tool for divination appears in both English and French writings in the year 1781. Writers of that time first defined the meanings of the picture cards and their relationships to each other. From that time until now, Tarot Card reading has remained a primary tool of many occultists in divining the future and finding solutions to spiritual troubles.

Reading Tarot Cards

Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791) also known simply as ‘Etteilla’ spent his fifty three year life studying the occult and more specifically Tarot cards. He is in essence the father of Tarot card reading and the art of Divination using Tarot Cards.

Jean-Baptiste studied the connections between astrology, the tarot, the four classical elements, and the four humors. In 1770 he published his first book ‘Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes’,  translated into English as ‘Etteilla, or a Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards’. In this book he illustrated a revised deck of Tarot Cards consisting of seventy eight cards to be used for the art of divination. This is the Tarot Card deck still used today. His book also defined the proper spread (way of laying out the Tarot Cards) still used today. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the art of Tarot card reading lies in the fact he was also the first to define and document the exact language that the Tarot Cards spoke in. His book defined each card and explained the relationships between the Major Arcana (greater secrets) and Minor Arcana (lesser secrets), thus giving a clear meaning to the Tarot Cards messages.