Although the hauntingly beautiful images of the Tarot may seem shrouded in mystery, they were actually created as simple playing cards. They were used for a variety of card games known as ‘tarocchi’, which were extremely popular throughout Europe from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Similar to bridge, these games still enjoy some popularity today especially in France and Italy.
While it is not entirely clear where Tarot originated from there is evidence to support the cards made their way into Europe via increased trade with the Saracens of Northern Spain in the 13th and 14th Centuries. At this point they were not being used for occult purposes but already had a bad reputation with religion as they encouraged gambling. Each card was hand painted and as they were introduced to different regions, local artists would create their own decks by incorporating intricate designs and symbols from their culture. The increasing range of unfamiliar symbols and imagery continued adding to the mysterious nature of the cards.
Originally the Tarot was similar to a standard pack of modern day playing cards. There were a total of 52 cards made up of 4 different suits including: cups, swords, staves and coins (occasionally disks or pentacles were used in place of coins). These are still the standard suits used in most traditional Tarot Decks. Court cards were also used and featured Pages, Knights and Kings, but in the beginning there were no ‘female’ or Queen cards.
It is generally accepted that Tarot as we know it today, originated in Northern Italy in the mid 15th century. The Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, commissioned a deck with an additional 26 cards known as trump cards or ‘carte de trionfi’. These cards including: The Fool, Temperance, The World and The Chariot brought new complexity to the games of ‘tarocchi’ and increased the deck to a total of 78 cards. Trump cards are now known as the Major Arcana while the remaining cards are referred to as the Minor Arcana. These terms came much later in Tarot’s history and are intrinsically linked with their use as a divination tool. Despite being over 550-years old the Visconti-Sforza deck is still in print today and is a popular choice among Tarot enthusiasts.
Tarot first began to be used for divination purposes in France in the mid 18th century. Drawn to its strange imagery, occultists began using the cards as a way to divine the future and connect with Spirit. Perhaps two of the most well known decks designed for this purpose are the Rider-Waite by Arthur-Edward Waite and the Thoth Deck by Alistair Crowley.
Most Tarot Decks produced now are solely used for psychic readings, self-exploration and growth. Famous writers and artists like W.B Yeats, John Steinbeck, Stephen King and Salvador Dali have even used the Tarot as a spark for creative inspiration. The imagery of modern Tarot has continued changing with the times and it is now possible to buy themed decks featuring Nursery Rhymes, Cats, Base Ball, Dragons, Vampires and even Teddy Bears. Despite the wide range of imagery available the basic meaning of the cards have remained the same.