History of Tarot Cards

Tarot - Emperor

History can be re-written to suit a culture or tradition. Who invented the bagpipes? Anyone who said 'the Scots' loses 5 house points. Trust me on this - I can go into 'band-camp' levels of geekyness with facts and figures if you want - the Scottish were one of the last, not the first, to have bagpipes.

I'd advise caution against assuming that the history of Tarot cards must automatically be rooted in the mists of time.

As an ex-folkie, I know just how fluid and plastic history can be, and have even been involved myself with some manipulations - both in the re-creation of a traditional English dance style, and in the production of pseudo-traditional 'medieval' performances.

It is also a Human trait to come up with a theory, then retro-fit it to match the evidence. We often count the 'hits', but ignore the 'misses'. A psychic can be credited with coming up with the name 'Darren', but listening to a tape afterwards will reveal the actual conversation to be 'I see an 'E', or is it a 'J' - it's all rather misty - perhaps it is a 'D' before it is actually one of the audience who prompts them with the name 'Darren'. No 'hits' there.

Chicken or egg?

Let's start with a fairly big question. In the history of Tarot cards, do they come before, or after, the conventional pack?

Is it more likely that cards were added to an existing deck to create an enlarged one, or taken away to create a smaller one?

We do tend to be conservative in nature. Functions and design features, even behaviour, tend to be retained, even if no longer relevant.

I can understand the full deck still being printed, with the major arcana cards being taken out - after all, the jokers are still printed, but how many games use them?

Some readings use only the major arcana anyway, but does anyone just print those on their own?

And why decide to combine the Knight and Page cards into the Jack?

Then we have the question of function.

Game or fortune telling tool?

Did the cards start as a game, or as a way of reading fortunes?

For me, they seem to have been designed to work better as a game, than as tool for divination.

I find the picture cards have more impact in a reading (presumably why some layouts ignore the numbered cards, and why the Scapini deck works so well), so if the cards were designed for fortune telling, why not make them all picture cards?


A fourteenth century game called tarocco has been recorded in Italy, and would seem to be the source of both the modern deck and name. In addition, the evidence suggests that normal playing cards came, like so many other things, to Europe from the Muslim world. They were probably well known and used by the mid fourteenth century.

So I'm working from a starting point that there may have been something predating it, but without any details, we should assume that our current Tarot deck is a direct descendant from the game, which was in turn a development from the standard card game. It was then adopted for fortune telling, and is far more suitable for this than the standard deck.

As always, an open mind should be kept, and nothing taken for granted.

But we should remember the question 'If we call the tail a leg, how many legs does a cat have?'

Answer: Four. Just because we call something by a name, it doesn't mean that it is that thing!

And just because we want something to be true, it doesn't mean that it is.

Would you like to share anything on Tarot reading?

Please feel free to contact me with anything you think should be included on this site, or examples from your own experience.

Many thanks


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