Tarot Heritage: 600 Year Old Tradition

If you feel a special connection to tarot, you share a 600-year tradition with tarot lovers worldwide. Tarot’s history takes us from medieval Italian castles to French secret societies; with side-trips to visit English magicians, California hippies, and contemporary digital artists. Let’s explore the highlights of our shared tarot heritage.

The story begins when playing cards migrated down the Silk Road from China to Arabia. In the 1370s, Arab sailors landing in Italian and Spanish ports introduced playing cards to Europe. Their decks had four suits (Cups, Coins, Swords, and Batons) numbered ace through ten, plus three court cards.

Within a decade, these Arabic card games spread throughout Europe. Then in the 1430s, someone in northern Italy added a fifth suit illustrated with popular images like an empress, a pope, and lovers. This expanded deck was used to play a game called Tarocchi in Italy, and Tarot in France.

The inexpensive paper cards ordinary people used have all disappeared. But decks made for Italian aristocrats using gold leaf, crushed lapis lazuli, and other precious materials are housed in museums throughout Europe and the United States. We can even hold a piece of tarot history in our hands, thanks to reprints of the Duke of Milan’s 1450 Visconti-Sforza deck.

Everything changed in 1500 when political and economic power shifted from Italy to France. French print shops dominated the playing card industry. Printers kept up with demand by inventing ways to print cards faster and cheaper. They simplified suit symbols to the easily stenciled hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs; while the older suit symbols (coins, cups, swords and batons) were only used in tarot decks. This older card style was standardized into the Tarot de Marseille pattern. The French still prefer this deck for readings.

In the mid-1700’s, a Parisian astrologer and fortune teller named Etteilla revolutionized tarot reading. Etteilla operated a school for tarot and astrology, published a tarot magazine, designed his own deck, and wrote books on how to read cards. His biggest innovation was teaching his students to lay out spreads and tell a story, and to use reversals.

During the 1700s, people gradually abandoned tarot for trendier games.While the game was fading in popularity, occultists were discovering tarot’s mystical properties.Esoteric lodges and secret societies spread throughout Europe teaching Qabalah, astrology, alchemy and ceremonial magic.When an unknown occultist made a connection between the 22 tarot trump cards and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, he reinvented tarot as the transmitter of secret cabalistic correspondences.

Students of the occult believed Tarot and Qabalah were essentially the same, and that both originated in ancient Egypt.Occultists like the influential French author Oswald Wirth designed Egyptian decks labelled with Hebrew letters to bring tarot closer to its supposed origins. Meanwhile, English occultists translated French magical treatises and dreamed of improving on them.

In the 1880s, two English occultists devised an alternate to the French system. They created correspondences between tarot cards and colors, musical notes, Hebrew letters, the Tree of Life, and astrology. A British secret society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, used this system for its rituals and teachings. In the early twentieth century, Golden Dawn lodges in the United States imported this system, along with tarot, across the Atlantic.

In 1909, A. E. Waite, a Christian mystic and former member of the Golden Dawn, teamed up with the artist Pamela Colman Smith to create a revolutionary new deck. He added Christian and Egyptian details to the major arcana, like Adam and Eve as the Lovers, and sphinxes pulling the Chariot. Smith, who was a set designer, drew a scene on each minor arcana card. The resulting Rider Waite deck (now called Waite Smith) sent tarot down an exciting new path.

Eden Gray’s tarot books for beginners, published in the 1960s and still in print, were illustrated with the Waite Smith deck and used Waite’s card meanings. These immensely popular books created a huge demand for Waite’s deck, and sparked an industry of Waite Smith spin-offs inspired by anything from goddesses to gummy bears. Gray taught an accessible, story-telling method of card reading that took tarot out of esoteric lodges and into the mainstream.

By 1970, Waite’s deck, his card interpretations, the Celtic Cross spread, and Golden Dawn symbolism appeared in nearly every English-language tarot book. This created a unique Anglo-American tarot style that’s very different from European practices based on the Tarot de Marseille.

In the late 1960s, the counter culture’s “anything goes” spirit transformed a segment of the tarot scene.Tarot readers threw away their books to read in a loose, free-association style. Deck artists transcended the Waite Smith model and poured their visions into the 78-card framework.Tarot fragmented into hundreds of decks appealing to a diverse range of interests. The 1969 Xultun Tarot was the first of many decks rooted in a wide range of subcultures and world mythologies.

The internet has given a huge boost to creativity and individualism. Self-publishing and print-on-demand frees authors and deck creators from domination by conservative, profit-driven publishing houses. A supportive global community provides instant encouragement and feedback.

Tarot has experienced many changes in 600 years, yet the deck has remained essentially the same. Over 500 years ago, an Italian priest made a list of tarot cards in the margin of a sermon. The names and the order of his cards are identical to today’s tarot. When you hold a tarot deck in your hands, you’re holding centuries of tradition and history.

Do you own a reprint of a historic deck? Have you tried reading with it? We’d love to hear about your connection to tarot history.