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The History of Tarot - Where Do Tarot Cards Come From?

Katherine Heiden

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The history of Tarot cards goes back several hundred years. While the history of Tarot cards becomes difficult to follow earlier than the 1700's, they have been in documented use since the late 14th century. The earliest records regarding the history of Tarot cards shows that they were first introduced to European nobility somewhere in northern Italy. Later, the cards would take a turn towards the mystical, but the original history of tarot cards depicted them as decks used for gaming pleasure.

Some have asserted that the history began much earlier, and that the decks traveled into Italy from Egypt. These discussions of the Tarot are the origin of the decks being referred to as the Royal Road. This is based on assertions that the word Tarot derives from two Egyptian words; “tar" which translates to “royal", and “ot" is an Egyptian word for “road". In time, the deck became popularly recognized as the royal road to wisdom, or spiritual understanding. Most modern accounts disagree with this, but it is still an interesting facet of the cards’ history.

Throughout the history of Tarot cards, many changes have been made. Additions have been made, and the depictions on the deck have morphed from staunchly Christian aspects into being associated with pagan symbols. Christian symbols from the earlier decks have been substituted with more mystical depictions, lending to the decks becoming associated more deeply with the occult. In turn, these changes have affected the symbolism used in interpreting readings, to maintain the authenticity and spiritual value of the readings.

What we do know about the history of Tarot cards is that most of the depictions are medieval in nature. This lends credence to the commonly accepted belief that they are European in origin. This is affirmed by noting that artwork found on early decks is essentially based within feudal Christendom, and such representations cannot be found in the art of other cultures.

One questionable facet of the history of Tarot cards is the legend, widely accepted by some, that they were introduced to European society by gypsies. Evidence suggests that they only became widely used by this subculture in the twentieth century. Prior to that, gypsies preferred palmistry and the use of regular playing decks for divination purposes.

Further complicating the history of Tarot cards was the introduction of the Thoth Tarot by Alleister Crowley in the twentieth century. Based on the traditions of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley embellished and expanded the designs, then commissioned the artwork for his cards. These are widely used today, owing in part to their lavish design and occult overtones.

Katherine Heiden is a professional tarot card reader and clairvoyant. Her new guide Learn Tarot Cards is a great resource for beginners and experts alike, and includes many bonus guides showing you how to take your hobby of doing tarot card readings and turn it into a career.


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