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History of the Tarot

While today we know the tarot cards mainly for their popularity in divination the cards were originally used like regular playing cards. The earliest mention of tarot cards was in the writings of John of Rheinfelden, a German friar who documented the playing cards of his time.


These early decks were hand-painted, and were mainly used by the wealthy to pass the time. Over the next 75 years, the decks evolved into something more similar to what we know as the Tarot de Marseilles. These decks contained four suites similar to what we use today but added an additional series of cards, originally called “triumphs,” then “trumps” and an additional odd card, similar to the Joker, called “il matto,” or the fool. These new decks were known as carte de trionfi.


The earliest mention of tarot as a tool of divination is in an anonymous manuscript from around 1750, which describes rudimentary divinatory meanings of a popular Italian deck of the time, the Tarocco Bolognese. Popularity of fortune telling using the cards grew over the next 30-50 years through Antoine Court and Jean Baptiste Alliette, who were popular French occultists of the time.


These early diviners used decks based on the Tarot de Marseilles. As the practice evolved Alliette (aka Etteilla) released a tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes around 1789. These early occultists believed the cards were derived from the Book of Thoth (an unsubstantiated belief) and built-in themes related to ancient Egypt. These decks also began to divide the cards into the Major Arcana (aka the greater secrets) and the Minor Arcana (the lesser secrets) and the idea of the Major Arcana as the fool’s journey emerged.


It was in the late 19th century / early 20th century that the imagery we are most familiar with today came into being. A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith (members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) worked together to create the Rider Waite deck. This deck was a major revision of the decks that came before and incorporated many of the occult ideas of the time. Chances are that if you own a tarot deck it is a deck inspired by this early 20th-century deck.


Curious about the tarot? Visit my online store (https://www.readingsbydarryl.com/tarot-cards) to view a number of popular and inspiring decks. Or book a tarot reading with me to see what information the cards have for you!


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