A Brief History of the Tarot

 There are so many myths, stories and fanciful theories about the origin of the Tarot that many writers either ignore its history altogether or concentrate on a pet idea. The facts are irretrievably lost in time, giving us the option to believe any (or all) of the possibilities. The imagery of the tarot is drawn from an eclectic mix of classical, Christian and pagan sources so the cards could well have had their origins as Trionfi (Triumphs) in the Mystery plays of the Middle Ages, or as a mnemonic device. An alchemic connection is possible, given the similarity of archetypal symbols used by the most learned alchemists (Francis Bacon and Paracelsus amongst them). Many people would like to see a link with the Qabalah and the twenty-two paths from the Tree of Life, but as Alfred Douglas points out, the Qabalah originated in Spain where the Major Arcana were never seen. Today we only know for certain that playing cards were in existence in Europe by 1377 when they were mentioned by a monk in Brefeld, Switzerland. This was probably what we now know as the Minor Arcana, as he made no reference to the twenty-two allegorical Trumps.

The Tarot trumps, or Major Arcana

The trumps, also known as ‘triumphs’ and later as the Major Arcana, appeared between 1377 and 1392, as a pack was recorded in the accounts of Charles VI of France in February 1392, painted by artist Jacquemin Gringoneur. In 1415, another deck was created for Filippo Visconi, Duke of Milan (the Visconti-Sforza pack).

The original concept behind these trump or ‘Major’ cards is unknown, although today most scholars consider they depict archetypal images. The old name of ‘trumps’ or ‘triumphs’ lends credence to the theory that they were created as part of the complex allegorical imagery of the medieval Mystery plays (festivals with elaborate tableaux and processions that depicted biblical stories, which took place with great pomp and expense from the early middle ages right up to Renaissance times). By the early Renaissance they had become increasingly secular.

The Hanged Man

from the Visconti Tarot 

The Magician

from the ‘Bembo’ deck

Chichester Mystery Play

The Court and Pip cards, or Minor Arcana

The fifty-six cards that make up the ‘Minor Arcana’ are divided into four suits, and are the basis of today’s standard playing cards. Cups equate to Hearts, Rods to Clubs, Discs to Diamonds, and Swords to Spades, and the Knight and Knave are condensed into one card, the Jack. As with the Trumps, there are a number of theories about their appearance in 1377, but few certainties (although the fact that the earliest titles were in Italian is probably significant). Current thinking, however, is that the Minor or pip cards could have originated with the Mamluks of Egypt, as they are known to have had playing cards in the 13th Century. These cards may well have travelled to Europe with Saracen mercenaries hired by Italian merchants.

Trionfi or Triumphs

Alfred Douglas, in his excellent book The Tarot, notes that both Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci were involved in animating mechanisms for two productions, which were known as Trionfi or Triumphs. Douglas also points out that the Major trumps were used in Renaissance Italy in a game called ‘Triumphs’ and describes the card game of Tarocco, which is illustrated in a fifteenth century fresco in Milan.  

The Tarocchi Players

The earliest ‘pip’ cards,

The Tarot

The two packs, Major and Minor arcana, were probably amalgamated at some stage in the late 15th or early 16th century; a speech by a Franciscan friar between 1450 and 1470 clearly distinguished between the trumps and the remaining cards.

The images on the right are two early triomfi, from the Visconti and Bembo tarots. 

Bembo Knight Batons

Visconti Justice

In the original packs - for example the Charles VI, the Visconti Sforza and the Marseille - only the four court cards were pictorial, showing a King, Queen, Knight and Knave, the rest of the pip cards (numbers 1 - 10) being geometric patterns of the suit symbols, very similar to the Mamluk cards. The invention of wood-block printing in the early 15th century probably helped the cards’ dissemination; cheap, stencilled copies may have been available as early as 1378 when cards were banned in Regensburg, in Germany.

Cards from the Marseilles, one of the first printed decks

The Time

The fourteenth century was a period of great change and turmoil in medieval society. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries wealth had been generated by new trade routes, there was an explosion of fresh ideas, and the authority of the Church had not yet been severely tested, even by the Knights Templar and the Cathars, most well-known of all the powerful sects in the Middle Ages.

 All that changed in the fourteenth century. Famine, economic and social problems, overtaxing, the Papal schism, and above all the Black Death, which occurred between 1348 and 1350, all conspired to destabilise society and destroy the certainties of previous times. The Church and a firm belief in the Christian God had been the glue that held European society together; the collective trauma in the wake of the Plague was not only due to the loss of so many people - estimated at around 20 million - but also to the loss of faith in God. A few of the clergy continued to administer to the dying at the risk of their own lives, but the majority thought only of saving their own skins. The heresies that sprang up in the wake of this calamitous time were to rock the very foundations of European society.

The Occult Tarot

We have no idea how the Tarot was originally used. We know they were used for divination since at least 1550, but subsequently they fade into obscurity again until the late 18th century when two gentlemen independently, and almost simultaneously, wrote learned tomes about the tarot. Court de Gebelin linked the cards to the Book of Thoth in ancient Egypt, and Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a French occultist who chose to call himself Etteilla, produced a deck that is still used today.

 Since then, a myriad of ideas, philosophies, and systems have been written about the cards. The Qabalah (the esoteric tradition of Judaism, also known as the Tree of Life) often figures largely in these reworkings. Qabalah first became known in Spain in the twelfth century and is a fascinating study, although it is doubtful whether the Tarot connection is as strong as devotees would like.

Cards from the Etteilla deck




Golden Dawn

The most influential system applied to the Tarot has been that of the Golden Dawn, a esoteric society formed around 1887 in England by members of the Societas Rosicrucians in Anglia (which was essentially a higher masonic order), and in particular A.E. Waite’s pack of 1910, illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith.

Waite renumbered the Major Arcana and gave them an elaborate system of correspondences so that initiates could see whether they were on the right track as they proceeded along their occult path.  The Minors were fully illustrated – the first time since the Sola Busca tarot in the 15th century - and linked with specific elements - Cups with water and the emotions, Discs (which he called Pentacles) with the senses and earth, Swords with air and the intellect, and Rods with fire and creativity. Since then, Waite’s correspondences,  and fully illustrated Minor Arcana, have become part of an established tradition.

The High Priestess

The 7 of Swords

The Thoth deck

Another influential approach, also loosely derived from the Golden Dawn, was conceived by Aleister Crowley, and painted by Lady Frieda Harris in the 1940s. Crowley’s reputation as arch-wicked magician is slowly being reclaimed from early 20th century prudery. However, while this pack, the Thoth deck, is particularly beautiful, the full gamut of qabalistic correspondences and connections is intended for use only by serious students of his occult system, and would probably be too convoluted for many users today. Crowley used abstract patterns in the pip cards, often with colours and shapes that reflect the one-word summary on each card. In addition he renamed many of the Manor Arcana and court cards.

The Priestess

Knight Of Swords

In the early 1970s there was a revival of interest in the Tarot which continues today. There are now hundreds of tarot packs on the market, all with their own very individual slant. Numbering, connections and titles still change arbitrarily to suit a given philosophy or theory. There are also, naturally, a plethora of books on the subject, with more decks and cards appearing every month.