Tarot cards have a prominent and staying cultural power in the western zeitgeist of the occult. They’re a popular item associated with divination, fate, and the power of revelation. But where they originated, and how they’re understood today versus several hundred years ago is vastly different.
Before the 14th Century, card games were popular in Islamic nations and through travel and trade and conquest, made their way to northern Italy. Through the next century, the cards evolved to include the suit symbols of the Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins. Tarot, however, was still a game at that point, and lacked the spiritual background it so heavily carries today. Early Medieval European versions of the game depicted different royalty in the suit cards, the Pope at the highest denomination, and minor personal depictions depending on the family or individual the cards were created for. Their elaborate painted portraits on the suit cards are a reflection of the aristocracy that enjoyed this early game of Tarot.
By the mid 14th and 15th Centuries, as the cards evolved throughout the western Europe, they took on many of the properties of the tarot cards we know today, including the major and minor arcana. Kings and queens became the emperor and empress, and death had entered the deck. The game of Tarok, as it was called, was evolving to become a game that would work in perfect symbiosis with the growing human interest in the occult and divination. As this interest grew alongside the cultural shifts in perspective in the United States, it gave us insights into Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Hermeticism, and many of the theologies and spiritual "isms" that pepper the last two centuries of America's past.
Tarot's association with the supernatural began to gain real traction in the late 18th century in the US as a fortune telling method. By the mid-1800’s, western society’s various magical traditions and occult researchers gave tarot an important role in divination. The cards evolved from a game of tricks and chance-taking, to a bonafide tool of magical practice.
The mystical nature of the tarot cards was further cemented in history with the publication of A. E. Waite’s Rider Waite tarot deck in 1909. This deck, and the accompanying book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, created the modern foundation for which tarot card reading is based on. Further publications by Aleister Crowley and early 20th Century writings drawing on teachings of the Golden Dawn created a fierce popularity for more information and accessibility to tarot cards.
With a widespread new age movement beginning at the turn of the 20th Century, and continuing to gain widespread media traction in the 1960’s and 70’s, the cards became the staple in witchcraft and spiritual shops we know them as today. Various designs, drawings, authors, interpreters and creators have contributed to the innumerable amount of tarot decks available on the market today. There really is no exclusive rule to choosing a deck for yourself, although thanks to an X-Files episode, I was always under the assumption that one has to be given a deck. I've grown up quite a bit since X-Files was first on the air, and have sought out decks for myself without that mental rule hindering the purchase. You live, learn, interpret, and relearn, just like in using tarot.
To be clear, I am in no way going to attempt to tell you how to read or use the cards, and I won't go into how I do either. That's not my place and not something I feel proficient enough in doing to even get into. There are, for any novice, instructions sold with each deck to help a user acquaint themselves with the cards, and reading them for oneself is entirely up to the individual and how they’d like to go about interacting with them. Information about learning the cards is vast, and can vary widely depending on the particular type of deck.
The real history of tarot cards, however, through the medieval world and into our modern one, is a journey of human interaction with each other, our changing world, our desires, fates and fortunes. While the ancient mysticism applied to the cards is usually the result of an 18th or 19th Century writer attempting to provide an earlier origin for tarot and its meaning, at its roots, it was a medieval card game of possibility and chance. Only through undergoing multiple centuries of time and transformation, did they become a way to divine meaning, answers and purpose within our own perspectives. It is not uncanny then, that tarot in its modern form, still embodies possibility and chance.
Thanks for reading,