A look at the Tarot in history

The tarot is a pack of playing cards, used from the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play games such as Italian tarocchini and French tarot. In the late 18th century, it began to be used for divination in the form of tarotology/cartomancy.

The first documented tarot packs were recorded between 1430 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Bologna when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, which became “trumps” in English. These cards are documented in a written statement in the court records in Florence, in 1440. The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan.

However, using cards for playful divination probably goes back even further, to the 14th century, likely originating with Mamluk game cards brought to Western Europe from Turkey. By the 1500s, the Italian aristocracy was enjoying a game known as “tarocchi appropriati, ” in which players were dealt random cards and used thematic associations with these cards to write poetic verses about one another—somewhat like the popular childhood game “MASH.” These predictive cards were referred to as “sortes, ” meaning destinies or lots.

Even if you aren’t familiar with tarot-card reading, you’ve likely seen one of the common decks, like the famous Rider-Waite, which has been continually printed since 1909. Named for publisher William Rider and popular mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate the deck, the Rider-Waite helped bring about the rise of 20th-century occult tarot used by mystical readers.

tarot cards photo
Photo by Steve Snodgrass

“The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery, ” says Wolf. “People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are ‘illustrated, ’ meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures. This strong narrative element gives readers something to latch onto, in that it is relatively intuitive to look at a combination of cards and derive your own story from them.

“The deck really took off in popularity when Stuart Kaplan obtained the publishing rights and developed an audience for it in the early ’70s, ” says Wolf. Kaplan helped renew interest in card reading with his 1977 book,  Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and has since written several volumes on tarot.

Contrary to what the uninitiated might think, the meaning of divination cards changes over time, shaped by each era’s culture and the needs of individual users. This is partly why these decks can be so puzzling to outsiders, as most of them reference allegories or events familiar to people many centuries ago. Caitlín Matthews, who teaches courses on cartomancy, or divination with cards, says that before the 18th century, the imagery on these cards was accessible to a much broader population.

The Lenormand Decks

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In contrast to most oracle decks, which don’t include suited pip cards, Lenormand cards feature a unique combination of numbered playing-card imagery on top of illustrated scenes used for fortune-telling. “One of the earliest versions, called the Game of Hope,  was made by a German named J.K. Hechtel and was prepared like a board game, ” says Matthews. “You laid out cards 1 to 36, and the object of the game was to throw the dice and move your tokens along it. If you got to card 35, which was the anchor card, then you’re home, safe and dry. But if you went beyond that, it was the cross, which was not so good. It was like the game Snakes and Ladders.” In this way, the Game of Hope fell into the Victorian-era tradition of board games that determined a player’s life story based on luck.

The game’s original instructions said it could be used for divining because the illustration on each card included both a symbolic image, like the anchor, and a specific playing card, like the nine of spades.

Most card readers recognize that the associations and preconceptions of the person being read for are just as important as the actual drawings on the cards: Divination cards offer a way to project certain ideas, whether subconscious or not, and to toy with potential outcomes for important decisions. Thus, like scenes from a picture book, the best illustrations typically offer clear visions of their subjects with an open-ended quality, as though the action is unfolding before you.

 

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While most readers agree, it’s not an exact science and relies heavily on the “sixth sense” of the reader and questioner, there have been some astounding results over the years. And, most people who have a reading done come away finding themselves pleased with the accuracy of the reading, if not the outcome.

 

Tarot readings are a powerful form of divination that use an ancient deck of cards to help you find answers to your most important questions about love, relationships, your career, finances and more. Psychics and fortune tellers have used Tarot cards for hundreds of years, and most honest readers will give you an accurate reading that’s personalized based the cards you choose and the order you pick them. Every card has a different meaning depending on its position, so you will get a unique and detailed perspective on your current situation.

Photo by RueInk

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