Card Sharks, Nobles, and Mystics: A Revealing History of Tarot!
The history of tarot is a twisty path from rich Italian gamblers to French historians, a secret order of magic practitioners, a turn-of-the-century artist, an enterprising publisher in the ‘70s, and a fun pastime that spans centuries.
“Tarot cards have a long history — but maybe not as long as you would expect!”
The opening line of the “Little White Book” — Curio & Co.’s pocket-sized font of knowledge and delight that’s included with every Tarot of Musterberg deck — hints at a tantalizing arcane history that’s begging to be explored. Where did these strange images come from and what makes them so packed with meaning? And if they don’t date back to the dawn of man as one might suppose, when and where did they come about? The short answer is, well, short but it leads to a centuries-spanning romp that’s worthy of a Roger Believe adventure all on its own.
A GAME OF TRIUMPHS
As the Little White Book explains, the earliest recorded set of tarot cards dates back to Northern Italy in the 15th century, most famously the Visconti-Sforza tarot which are the oldest and most rare tarot cards we still have — so rare that the only known surviving cards are scattered among museums around the world. The deck is named for the wealthy Italian nobles who commissioned them for a fun game to play they referred to as trionfi (what we today would call “trumps” in English) that’s similar to bridge. The essential images in trionfi — gods and kings and pip cards, all with different point values — were also found in theatrical Italian renaissance parades of the same name. A glance through some of these earliest tarot decks instantly recalls modern playing cards. Which brings us to the point we kind of obsess over here at Curio — trionfi, then “tarocchi,” and eventually “tarot” when it made its way to France — has always been fun and was originally meant to be played! And it still is, in countries and tournaments all over the world.
THE DIVINATION SITUATION
While lots of folks connect tarot with magic and divination, that interpretation is relatively recent in the grand sweep of tarot history. The earliest notion of tarot as cartomancy is credited to a fellow named Antoine Court de Gébelin who wrote a series of books called The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World over 300 years after the invention of the game. It’s quite a read! He alluded to some mystical juju and moon magic from Egypt that he invented, in a fit of imagination worthy of a modern game of Magic or Dungeons & Dragons. (Are you sensing a theme?)
A few years later, the first iteration of what we would today recognize as true tarot with its major arcana and minor arcana was introduced by French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (working under the pseudonym Etteilla) along with his idea of the tarot spread, the meanings of each card, and how to use them for fortune telling. Etteilla’s version caught fire pretty fast and lasted for a good hundred-plus years, spreading around the world and intermingling with different tarot decks and other types of divination games from various countries and cultures, merging artistic elements into the images we’re most familiar with today.
AN ARTISTIC COLLABORATION FOR THE AGES
That somewhat “final form” is embodied in what’s known as the Rider-Waite deck, created by British poet Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith and published by the Rider Company in 1909. Perhaps most importantly to Curio & Co.’s Mr. Druthers, Arthur spent his early formative years managing a factory that made delicious Horlicks malted milk. But most important to our present story, he was also (along with Smith) a member of the secret society of mystics known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which specialized in all kinds of magic including alchemy, astral projection, geomancy, and – you guessed it – card divination! Curiously, the Tarot of Musterberg popped up at the same time at Pennyland Amusement Park, making it one of the oldest and most historical tarot decks still in production. (But that is a story for another day!)
The stunningly beautiful tarot deck made by Waite and Smith has been the inspiration of most traditional tarot cards since its publication and mass distribution by Stuart Kaplan, author of the book Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, in 1977. Arguably the cleverest innovation of Waite and Smith was the addition of action and scenes to each card, making it easier for even the most casual fortune tellers to pull a story from the spread.
A DECK TO ADMIRE AND A GAME TO PLAY
Now, far from seeing these two threads of tarot history as opposite and conflicting, we think of them as beautifully intertwined. Today’s tarot wouldn’t be the same if it was missing either its gameplay origin or its supernatural floof and flutter. While tallying your points as you lay down your batches of trump cards is a fun pastime, it’s made all the more magical with the wonder of the arcana. The art of fortune teller cards is itself a kind of story-based game, with each card turn leading to a new plot point in the narrative being revealed literally before your eyes. And while your tarot game tonight may not be rooted in the sorcery of ancient Egypt, it’s powerful to know how many hundreds of years it does span, and how many millions have shuffled the deck with the same characters you and your friends are now, turning over the first card to see what adventure awaits.
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here: