A Brief History

Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863
Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863

One thing you must first know, is that a poet will try their best to trick you.  Lines assembled beside each other may conjure a crystalline sentence, but they are like bones, light and disjointed when you move to pick them up.  They somehow remain separate, and so belong, to the poem.  When it comes to sacred poetry, political agitprop, heroic histories or tragedies of collapse, we can expect the poets to tell even greater lies.  So it is, we have artifacts like the Tarot, that are misunderstood but can’t ever be fully understandable at all, given that the arrangers are long gone.  So we see the familiar lines tossed like salad, goading us to make sense of it.  And it is this, the enlivening of the imagination and the sidestepping of sensible correspondence, that gives us something in the cards to read.  Set aside all hopes that the Tarot is a complete theory of everything, or remotely helpful in clarifying details about the past we shall never likely know, for the past is, ultimately, a story.  What we are left to know then is something dynamic about the relationships of symbols in our minds, and how to shuffle, deal, and put them in play.

The origin of the Tarot is not mysterious or lost in time.  Originally, it appeared as a card game, more accurately the marriage of two separate card games into a new one.

The first game appeared in the hands of the Mamelukes, a name meaning ‘owned’ for they were an army of slaves.  Many of of them were from the far north, captured by Vikings and sold through the Byzantine empire to Caliphs in Egypt.   They became a North African warlord caste that briefly came to rule Syria, taking over the Ottoman Empire for a little while as well.  From these hands a deck of cards with four suits that we still know well today, spread across Europe in the hands of soldiers.

Mameluke Cards – Suit of Cups

The second game used a Renaissance educational deck, which became the ‘triumphs’.  These trionfi combined with the soldier’s poker like deck, made up the game of Tarocco (Imitation), perhaps because the trionfi contained many virtues to imitate.   The trionfi were a selection of cards drawn from another series of decks which made games of a wide range of pictures, including the states of man, the parts of the cosmos, the sciences (at the time better known as natural magic) and the virtues.

The first of these decks were luxurious, hand-painted and even gilded delights made for elite children.  For the ruling class, a sense of inheritance from the lost civilizations of Antiquity was important, as much as a reformation of cultural values, and both desirable goals are folded together in these types of cards.  Teaching decks have been found with upwards of fifty cards.   The Tarot was clearly a selection made out of these kinds of games, and reduced to a convention of 22.  Whether the 22 were chosen more by design or by popularity is unclear, but the trumps are all interesting, and it is a game.   The first decks have variances in the number and genders of horse riders and pages, possibly representing actual family members.

Virtue Cards
Giuseppe M. Mitelli, Engraved Minchiate Cards

As the Tarot was getting started, it was one among many games of decks larger and smaller, of a similar composition – a now beta version of Tarot called Minchiate included twenty more trumps, for more than 90 cards in the game.  We do not know in most cases who painted the earliest Tarot decks, but the game became much more widespread and easier to trace once a printer in the ancient port city of Marseilles carved the first series of plates in the mid 1600s, and in doing so set down the first real standard for the deck’s overall design.  The more affordable printed cards brought the game into the public domain.   Though various printers made their decks signature with novel cards (the Ace of Coins typically carrying the maker’s imprint), and you will find that many of the names would be new in later decks, most of the key symbolism in the Tarot has not changed since the printed Marseilles.

Hard Times

The time period between the first appearance of Tarot in 1400 and the arrival of printed decks in the mid 1600s was very rough for the common people, who had much cause to crave a separation from their past, and to consider new outlooks.  The Hundred Years War dividing the church left economic troubles and strife in France, and nearly a quarter of the people died, mostly of starvation followed by a plague which further reduced some places to less than a third of their populations.  But by the turn of the 18th century, recovery was speeding along, thanks in part to the humble introduction of the potato, and attitudes had changed among descendants of the survivors.   The Inquisition was forced to reduce its severity towards witchcraft, but while it was losing cases in court, it motivated by prospects of seized wealth collected during the centuries of conflict.   The scars of whole communities erased and defrauded as heretics still fresh in popular memory.  England had fallen into Civil War, but likewise, the accompanying sharp spike in witch burnings had cooled off, leaving the fate of Joan of Arc symbolic of much more loss for French minds.  She would also live on in the minds of English speakers, for defeating King Charles in single combat as much as her execution as a witch, thanks to Shakespeare’s play Henry VI.

The Marseille – Charles Cheminade deck

Another arduous change was for the Dutch – after sixty years of war, helped by the sudden and uncanny destruction by storm of the great Armada built by Spain with gold plundered from the New World, they finally evicted the Spanish occupation of their country and put an end to the witch trials there, creating another oasis of a more tolerant, more rebellious society, and it was already improving their economy. These improvements in the quality of Dutch life were comparable to life in the Free Imperial Cities of the German speaking world, points in that patchwork mess of small kingdoms and seats that was any map of the region in 1700.  Granted charters a thousand years before by Charlemagne, their people had fared better than most and became beacons driving alternative methods of government and society, and the people in France must have felt some credit was due for this.  Louis XIV openly declared that he didn’t believe in witchcraft, and in 1685 reduced the crime ‘pretending sorcery’, a step removed from blind superstition, effectively freezing the taint, and economic drain, of the inquisitor.  The changing of the question, “Are witches to blame for this?” to “Do you think witches are real?” was not just part a process that would lead to separating of church power from the state, creating greater tolerance, it also helped to create the occult, which was born with the enlightenment.  It would become acceptable once again to have eccentric and creative magic folk in the court, and many of them would become pioneers of science.

The world had clearly changed and the tarot came into popularity during these dramatic centuries.  A pastime born into eerily empty villages, fields abandoned, roads adrift with displaced people, wandering beggars and highwaymen.  A society recovering from having forgotten how to function smoothly after centuries of neighbors turning on each other.

Decadent Recovery

The countless women that had been lost in the long age of witch hunts is a possible reason for the Tarot taking the shape that it did.  It is easy to see as a response to the times why these packs had such a selection of powerful female characters and symbols.   Several of them are matches of a popular Renaissance theme in the art of the elite, called the Power of Women.  Another painting theme born in this time, especially in the north, was a decadent vernacular dedicated to witches, now boldly adding a fantastic and erotic correlate to the Bacchanal that shapes modern visuals of the conjuring woman today.  New visuals for a culture recovering from ravages, new ethics more universal than what the powers and authorities blamed for the ruin had allowed.

Serravalle Sesia Italian Deck

In addition to the Marseille, prints reveal a popular interest in grotesqueries as well, horned creatures and monsters were found to decorate table wear and wallpaper, as though to make up for centuries of censorious living.  It was a time when the beliefs of the Medieval era, including  a strong vein of expecting the world to end very soon, was giving way to a preference to try their luck, since the other outlook hadn’t worked so well.    To the rich, new blood was being added from outside the system of nobility, changing the balance of power by adding something flexible and able to innovate, a middle class.  Galileo and Isaac Newton were changing ideas about accessibility to knowledge, and inventions like Jethro Tull’s seed drill were putting an end to famine.  Though the newspaper as we know it dates to the same time period as the Tarot, very few would have known the year 1700 had brought the prediction of microbes, the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the first correct identification of a dinosaur fossil (a claw).   In this context the Tarot’s purpose, thanks to technology and new attitudes, can be understood from the beginning as an instrument that looked towards the future while it also served as an escape into story and legend.  And because it was dear to the enjoyment of life, because it is a game, it survived when so many things began to change swiftly.

Etteilla’s Deck – No longer a game…

Occult Adaptation

The transition of the Tarot from an amusement in the Renaissance to its reputation as a key to arcane lore happened quickly.  Books had already been written, offering different takes on to what the cards mean, such as the Discourse by Francesco Piscina, as early as 1565.  It is an individual named Etteilla (Jean Francois Alliete) who is credited with printing the first truly occult deck in 1791, that includes interpretive words and astrological associations.  He is credited with applying the associations of planets and signs, most of the names and, along with a book by Antoine Court, cemented a story that the Tarot had originated in Ancient Egypt, which he called the Book of Thoth, the Egyptian god equated with Hermes.  Though he created the groundwork that is so often repeated today, reports of the Marseille in use for fortunes run much earlier than that, and probably were impossible to resist from the very beginning.


A hundred years later, the tarot would undergo another paradigm shift at the hands of the extraordinary Pamela Colman Smith, a synesthetic artist whose paintings of visions induced by music led to her creation of the iconic Waite-Smith deck, after the Marseille the most imitated and modified tarot, and still the best known tarot today.  Her major contribution was to add individual vignettes to each of the suited cards, transforming them from the stacked symbols of playing cards and making them considerably more individual and readable.  For many years, decks drawn from her designs were better known as the Rider-Waite, but recently her contribution has come to be recognized properly.

Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith (b. Feb 16 1878 d. 1951)

Is it Egyptian?

For much of Antiquity until this time, many have believed that the ruins of Egypt were an origin point of true civilization, along with a notion that ancients were essentially better humans than we are. It is true that it is among of the longest continually surviving civilizations. It is also in part due to more recent religious traditions, that the people of ancient times lived much longer lives, or were larger and stronger than we are today, and miracles were thought to be more visible.  Welcome to the world view of a world in inevitable decline, where the beginning is more noble than the end will be.  We are still influenced by this apocalyptic world view in popular culture today.  Into the medieval period, it is reported that many were taught to expect this great end quite soon.  The Renaissance might be defined as a change in attitude regarding this coming doom, as being less reliable as one century after another had passed by.   The growing need for alternative views that could promise a future is evident in retrospect.

This may explain some of the significance of claiming the cards were from Ancient Egypt, an earlier wisdom that was more like a wheel and less like a car about to crash.  And the fetish for lost wisdom and secret origins is something that our culture still generates.  Just keep in mind that in the days when the Tarot was created, old Egypt’s distant walls were covered with hieroglyphics absolutely no one could read, and almost no clues to the words, names and stories in them were available, outside of second-hand accounts from historians.  While there is a strong case for a Hermetic expression being contained in the cards, or at least the selection,  the deeper origins of that long lost culture are not exclusively Egyptian.  While much of the surviving body of Hermetic works and its link to the origins of the alphabet were compiled in the late libraries of Egypt, it belongs to a shared culture from a lost age, pointing towards neolithic stone sites, bards, and sacred groves, found many lands far and wide, including places where trees no longer grew.  To a modern, the idea of looking backwards for origins does not include this antique focus of being necessarily bigger and better.  This can’t be a bad thing, but it may explain a great deal of confusion about the Tarot.

As the game’s popularity had faded, people started leaving the trumps out to play other games, and it fell out of favor to games using the smaller 52 card deck it contained.  Its reputation as a tool of divination took over, claiming the original Tarot almost exclusively for the occult world.   And here we are now, trying to claim usefulness  of reading as cognitive exercise, and we are able to clear the table without much trouble to make them relevant for a modern mind.  It’s quite a story.


So, once again, though we can date when most of the occult ideas were first applied, that is almost exclusively offered with a new pack of the cards today, a more liberal, poetic view of these cards in the context of social change remains to be written.  Examples include the rebellious choices for many trumps, that respond in a very direct way to social and economic troubles specific the the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In these cards there are hidden meanings, but they apply themselves far better to the rise of Humanism and reformative thinking, than they do anything Egyptian.   For example, the Papess card (picturing the non-existent and surprising concept of a female Pope in a patriarchal society) was transmitting whatever its irreverent original message was (we’re not precisely sure, there was possibly still a feast holiday for a then seven centuries old legend of a woman who disguised herself as a man, Pope Joan),  in any case clearly loaded with a double meaning.  That card would become the High Priestess once the occult got hold of it, eclipsing its original name, still a card symbolizing a woman of spiritual authority.

So it’s important to understand that the deck, specifically the trumps, are a collection of separate ideas before they are structured points leading to a specific conclusion.  The cards are a mixture of old ideas, especially those which stand in for things that have apparently been true for a long time, and new ideas, like the illustrating of teaching principles.  The cards were made new for successively new purposes – to teach, to gamble, and ultimately, to tell fortunes.  We can add a new development to this, by using the cards to exercise the mind.