Updated: Jul 6, 2019
Most of us know the story of A.E. Waite, Pamela Coleman Smith, Lady Frieda Harris and Alister Crowley and their contribution to the history and story of the modern Tarot (and if you don't stay tuned because we'll discuss that in coming posts). But what came before that? Well tuck in with some tea, because today we are going to dive into a brief history of the cards from their inception thousands of years ago in the east right up to the 19th century influencers who built the foundation that these Tarot legends built off of. The history of cards is a long and sordid topic. Being made of paper, for the most part, cards are not keen to remain well preserved within the archaeological record. For this reason much of what we know of the origin of cards comes from literature, laws, art, and records and accounts from the past. Its not until near the late 13th - 14th century c.e. do we see cards start to survive through time in private art collections and the like. This blog and accompanying discussion on my YouTube channel will delve into this history of cards, from their origins in the east, their spread and transformation in Europe, their evolution into other systems such as the Tarot, Oracle, and Lenormand, and their resurgence in more modern times. You can catch the video discussion that goes along with this blog post here:
A Modernist Approach
I want to take a short moment to address that this blog post is in no way shape or form meant to be the penultimate discussion on the history of cards. My intent here it to stir your curiosity enough to want to go out and research it some yourself. That being said I approach all history in a modernist way - meaning history is not black and white. It is not simply just a string of nouns followed by dates that defines the flow of time as many people are accustomed to in classical style history courses. History, moreover art history, (which let us remember cards are a form of art) is full of grey area, is always written by the 'victors' and great moments do not always conform to a singular fixed point in time. So please take this into account. For example, I abridge several parts of the history, not to discredit it, but for the sake of interest and readability; this isn't a thesis. As always, you can also find all of my references for this article at the very end.
From Clay to Paper
In the beginning...(I've always wanted to write that ironically) there was clay. The idea of cards have their roots in the east in tile games much like the popular game of Mahjong today. The Chinese invented what we would consider modern day paper in the beginning first century during the Han Dynasty we saw the emergence of playing cards.
These decks of cards came in many different styles and designs often wood block printed. One of the oldest known decks was the Money deck which consisted of 4 suits associated with money, one of the suits even featured governmental figures. The figure to the left depicts a cards from such a deck.
Through time, trade, and conquest the technology of paper, the idea of card games, and concept of cards made there way across the east into the Holy Lands. Each culture bringing there own design, interpretations, and uniqueness to them.
Through this period there is little consistency in the design of cards, they changed shape, some had suits, while others depicted religious mythos or depictions of a given cultures rulers their great feats in battle and politics. The figure to the right depicts two cards one of an ancient Hindi King and the other of a statesman or Vizier.
Familiar (Card) Faces
It is not until cards reached the Islamic Empire of the Mamluk Sultanate during the 13th century CE do we them start to take the familiar form we recognize in today's Tarot and playing card decks. During this period Muslim artists created a deck of cards that takes its namesake from the ruling class at the time, the Mamluk deck. Depicted below, it consisted of 4 suites - coins, polo sticks, cups, and swords. Those who have a keen eye or appreciation for the french style Tarot decks may instantly recognize some of these designs.
As the idea of the Mamluk cards spread into Europe into the 14th and 15th century we see the concept of the playing cards grow closer to what we might recognize today. Most decks consisting of four suits with ten numeric cards and two to four cards with what was typically royalty or religious figures on them. Some cultures adopted the Mamluk suits almost directly where others localized them to their tastes. The table below illustrates the suits as they were seen across Europe during this time period.
The Tarot Emerges
As playing cards took root across Europe gaining particular popularity in Spain, France, and Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries we saw the arrival of what we would consider today to be the modern day tarot sometime in the mid 14th century. In Italy artists created a fifth suit which they Italian records called the 'deck of triumphs' or deck of trumps. This deck became vastly popular among the Italian aristocracy of the time as playing the game Tarocchi became a favorite that is still widely played to this day. This fifth suit of trumps however did not start out the way we may imagine the 22 Major Arcana today. Often times they depicted historical rulers, or left out particular cards entirely (of note the Devil and Tower cards) and the standard formula for the trump cards we see to day did not develop until later towards the end of the 15th and into the 16th centuries. Many scholars attribute the development of this fifth suit to the widespread popularity of morality and mystery plays that were popular in the infancy of another art form, the theatre. These plays often depicted religious stories or doctrine that reflected many of the major thematic ideas we see reflected in the Major Arcana today.
This period in time was the birth of the Tarot as we know it today, or close to. Unfortunately no complete decks from this period survive to this day, the most well known being the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck which actually represents five incomplete decks of cards commissioned by Visconit and Sforza families of Milan during the Italian Renaissance. The most famous of these being the Cary-Yale deck housed at Yale University which interestingly enough is the only deck with six court cards that came out of this period. It included the traditional four in addition to "Damsel" and the "Lady on horse" supplement the traditional court cards. Each of the cards were delicately hand painted and really speak to the luxury that playing cards were considered during this time, even though their origins come from more humble beginnings as gambling games played by commoners and soldiers as they marched across vast empires.
The 17th century is when we see the Tarot begin to grow into what we know today. Even to this day the French style Tarot is still wildly popular, and this was a form of the tarot the evolved during this period. 1709 was the year that Pierre Madenié, master card maker for the Lord Duke of Burgundy, created a Tarot deck that would one day be called Tarot de Marseille. Madenié's deck established the aesthetic that we have come to know and love but also really solidified for the first time some standards within the tarot, particularly the trumps and court cards. This includes using roman numerals on the cards, a fixed order, the Death without name, and the standardization of symbolism on the cards. Ironically his decks were mostly printed in Dijon it was later occultist that coined the term Tarot de Marseille in reference to the style he established based on decks produced within the Marseille region of France.
Cartomancy & Divination
Although historical records don't succinctly indicate the use of playing cards for divination until the 16th century, there is some cursory evidence that they may have been used for such practices in the far east much earlier on. The argument could even be made for evidence pointing to the use of cards along side oracle books such as the I Ching as far back as the twelfth century. The first hard evidence I was able to research of the mention of the divinatory use of cards or Tarot comes from Tarot researcher and historian Gerald Van Rijnberk who discovered a reference to it in a fourteenth century epic poem that later was reprinted in Milan in 1519 entitled Spagna Istoriata (History of Spain).
It was not until the 18th century that we saw the popular rise of cartomancy and occultism rise in France. Antoine Court de Gebelin is considered to be the first occultist to pick up the Tarot. He is one of the first to attribute the Tarot to the Egyptians which developed into the modern mythos of the Tarot coming from the Book of Thoth, or the Book of the Dead, which is in fact - not fact. The first person in the 18th century to really popularize the occult side of the Tarot however was Etteilla who published the first explicitly occult tarot that was designed primarily for cartomancy and divination in 1789. Eteilla further pushed the heritage of tarot onto the Egyptians - its worth noting that this during this revivalist period we saw a resurgence of interest in ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Egyptians which lead to the Enlightenment. It should be noted that his deck includes one of my all time favorite renditions of the Death card. Look at how happy that skeleton looks!
Tarot in the 19th Century
In the 19th century we saw the arrival of Élphas Lévi and the Kabbalist Tarot. Lévi who was a prolific writer and one of the biggest influences in the occult during his day sewed the seeds for the tarot we know and love today. His work The Ritual of High Magic was in fact translated by our dear friend A. E. Waite, who will discuss later.
Lévi transformed the modern interpretation of the tarot incorporating historical meanings and traditions while blending it with the Kaballah and other magical doctrines that laid the foundations for the spiritualist movement. Lévi can be credited with tarot associations with the Hebrew alphabet, or what he called Keys, the tree of life, and even the fundamental elements of Sacred Geometry. Although, he didn't do much in the way of paving actual historical reference for the Tarot furthering the misconception that the Tarot's origins were in Egypt and that of the Jewish Kabbalists. Lévi never illustrated or created a deck of his own. However he did leave of legacy of work that made its way directly into the Smith Waite deck in the 20th century, as seen below.
The impact of Lévi's writings, research, and philosophies on the Tarot can not be understated and truly was the corner stone of the kabbalistic and occultist study and practice of the Tarot we see in the 20th century through to today.
Hargrave, Catherine Perry. History of Playing Cards. Houghton Mifflin, 1930.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: from Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Destiny Books, 2004.
Kaplan, Stuart R., et al. Pamela Colman Smith: the Untold Story. U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 2018.
Leon, Dai. Origins of the Tarot. Random House USA, 2009.
Place, Robert Michael. The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. Hermes Publications, 2017.