The earliest known tarot card deck dates back to the mid-15th Century, and tarot cards were used in various parts of Europe for playing card games, and are what our modern-day playing cards are derived from.
Some people believe the Tarot may have originated from China more than 3,000 years ago, and were brought to Europe by Marco Polo, although there is no evidence for this ‘theory’. There is however much evidence of European Tarot, with many beautiful decks still available today based on stunning medieval and more recent designs.
The first documentary evidence of Tarot Cards is a ban on their use in 1367, Bern, Switzerland. Wide use of playing cards in Europe can be traced from 1377 onwards with some certainty.
Most historians believe the Tarot began as a card game in the 14th Century called tarocchini, in Northern Italy, and it soon spread to France and across the rest of Europe. It was not associated with fortune telling or the occult until later, through gypsies accused of witchcraft. In 1859, witchcraft trials took place in Venice documenting that a form of cards (possibly Tarot) were used for fortune telling.
During the 18th century, the Tarot deck began being used for fortune telling in France. The first known documented paid fortune teller using the Tarot was named Alliette (for an allusion of mystique or possibly to conceal his identity he turned his name backward into Etteilla). He assigned meanings to each Tarot card, which are still used today in modern readings for divination, guidance, and meditation.
From the late 18th century onwards tarot have been used by mediums, mystics, occultists and fortune-tellers as a divination instrument, and their original purpose (card games) began to be less associated with them, and a new deck of cards was later designed purposely for card games which are our modern ‘playing cards’. These modern cards are based on the tarot and have the major arcana omitted, leaving the ‘plain’ cards which were changed into spades, diamonds, clubs and hearts.
Other historians are doubtful of the general, accepted theory regarding the history of the Tarot deck, and they argue the claim of it being created in China or Italy. Some believe the Tarot was formulated as an expansion of 22 cards added to the original deck of playing cards by the ancient Egyptians, and many symbols used in the Tarot and Egyptian hieroglyphics are similar. Some feel that the history of Tarot may go back even further than the ancient Egyptians
There are no absolute facts pertaining to the history of Tarot cards; it is as mysterious as the cards themselves.
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Karen Banting is a writer and editor for the Tarot Website and she also writes for a number of other websites.