Though known today as a mystical practice for reading fortunes, the tarot began as an ordinary card game in Western Europe. The earliest known tarot card decks were made in Italy sometime around the first half of the 15th century. Used for playing a game similar to bridge, these decks were produced for wealthy individuals and featured ornate, hand-painted cards depicting archetypal imagery drawn from Renaissance culture. Originally called “carte da trionfi,” meaning “cards of triumph” in Italian, the name eventually evolved to “tarocchi” to differentiate tarot from another game of trumps that used an ordinary 52-card deck.

Contrary to popular belief, such playing-card decks actually preceded the tarot in Europe, as they likely originated with Islamic Mamluk cards and spread during the 14th century. These decks used suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (changed by Europeans to staves or batons), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings. Tarot cards also added queens, trumps, and the Fool to this system, for a complete deck that usually totaled 78 cards.

Standard playing cards eventually adopted the French system of suits (hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades), while the tarot kept its original designations. In modern tarot decks, the coins have typically changed to pentacles, and staves are usually known as wands.

Both tarot and ordinary playing cards were sometimes used for divination, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that tarot cards became closely linked with fortune telling. In the late 1700s, occultist and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette began writing books about card reading under the name Etteilla. Alliette first relied on 32-card decks used for a game called Piquet, plus an added “Etteilla” trump card. His writings also explained elements like the dealer’s layout or “spread” as well as specific symbolic meanings for each card in the regular and reversed positions.

In 1781, Court de Gébelin and Comte de Mellet became the first to hypothesize about the tarot’s ancient occult roots, linking tarot cards directly with Egyptian mysticism. Comte de Mellet also focused on an imaginary connection between the 22 trump cards and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Very quickly, the idea that tarot cards held historic secrets caught on among the wider public and made them central to occult practices across Europe.

Responding to Court de Gébelin’s writings, Alliette soon published his own books on divination with tarot cards and their connection with the mythical Egyptian “Book of Thoth.” Alliette also created a set of tarot cards explicitly designed for fortune telling featuring illustrations based on Egyptian themes. In 1789, two years before Alliette’s death, his Etteilla tarot deck was first mass produced.

Perhaps the most renowned tarot reader was Mademoiselle Lenormand, who foretold the fortunes of celebrities like Napoleon's wife Joséphine de Beauharnais and revolutionaries like...

Most modern tarot decks evolved from the popular Tarot de Marseille, which was first made using woodcut prints in the early 16th century. Other common tarot styles include Lombardy, Milan, Piedmont, Besançon, and Bologna. The standard Tarot de Marseille includes 56 cards in four suits, which are numbered from Ace to 10 with four additional court cards (knave, knight, king, and queen). These suit cards are also referred to as the Minor Arcana.

For Tarot de Marseille decks, the Major Arcana encompasses 21 trump cards each labeled with their title and a roman-numeral: the Magician, the Papess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Pope, the Lovers, the Chariot, Justice, the Hermit, the Wheel of Fortune, Strength, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgment, the World, plus the unnumbered Fool. In some varieties, the card known as Death is entirely unnamed. While some tarot-card publishers altered their trumps because Catholic church leaders found certain cards offensive, like the female pope, most designs have remained consistent to the present day.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Tom Boblitt moderates this extremely deep, collaborative site dedicated to non-sports cards (tobacco, gum and candy… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Jasmine Becket-griffith Coloring Book Signed Adult Strangeling Fairy Art NewThe Rohrig Tarot Deck Rare EnglishAntique 1800's Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards The Home Queen Warerville, Maine.Lot Of 5 Tarot Decks/sets/books, Gypsy, 2-sared-inspiration 11 ItemsVtg. Mid-evil Stairs Of Gold Tarot Cards Deck Tavaglione Switzerland Full ColorVintage Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck Small Card SizeRare Victoria Regina Tarot DeckVertigo Tarot By Rachel Pollack & Dave Mckean, Intro By Neil Gaiman - 1995Used Tarot Cards Lot Psychic Energy Books Complete Deck Sets 10 Lot CollectionVintage 1971 The Rider Tarot Deck 78 Cards Complete Arthur Edward Waite Tarot Cards, Rune Handbood And Runes SetThe Tarot Of The Holy Light Tarot Cards Deck Noreah Brownfield PressVintage Oswald Wirth Tarot Cards Deck Us Games 1976 Occult The Bohemian Gothic Tarot By Karen Mahony And Alex Ukolov -newWonderland Tarot Deck 1989 Oop - With Instructions! Great Condition!Antique Playing Cards 1904 Nile Fortune Telling Cartomancy Occult DivinationVintage Antique Tarot Playing Card Deck Metaphysical Hungary Telling FortuneVintage 1971 Tarot Deck Gypsy Easy-tell Fortune Telling Cards Complete With BoxThe Phoenix Cards W/book & Cards Also Rune Necklace New With Tag Rare Find!!Pearls Of Wisdom Tarot Deck New First Edition Roxi Sim/caeli FullbritePersona Q: Shadow Of The Labyrinth 3ds With Tarot Cards Mint EditionAncient Tarot Of Lombardy 78 Card Deck With Booklet Oop Divination Free Ship!Vintage 1971 The Rider Tarot Deck The Magician 78 Cards Magician T: The New Tarot For The Aquarian Age, In Original Box With 3 Instruction BooksThe Alchemical Tarot: Renewed - By Robert M. Place - 2nd Edition, ExcellentFortune Telling Playing CardsTarot Italy Visconti Sforza Tarocchi Deck Fifteenth Century Cards Look Unused Wisdom Of The House Of Night Oracle Cards: A 50-card Deck And GuidebookThe Druid Craft Tarot Deck By Philip And Stephanie Carr-gommThe Fairytale Tarot 2005 By Karen Mahoney And Alex Ukolov Baba StudioThe Original Rider Waite Tarot Pack 1993 Printed In Belgium 78 Cards CompleteVintage The Mythic Tarot Deck Cards 1986 Sharman Burke Rare Oop First Edition The Golden Tarot - Deck Of Tarot Cards - New The Sacred Circle Tarot Deck Celtic PaganArchangel Michael Oracle Cards 44 Cards Plus Booklet Doreen VirtueDaily Guidance From Your Angels Oracle Cards 44 Cards Plus Booklet Doreen Virtue2013 Oracle Tarot Deck (w/book & Cloth) By David CarsonTarot Of The Sphynx 1998 Lo Scarabeo Italy Rare 78 Card Deck Silvana AlasinThe Lover's Path Tarot Set By Kris Waldherr - Deck Book Scroll Spread SheetTarot Lenormand English Oracle 78 Fortune Telling Cards Deck New & Sealed Reg SzTarot Agni Roerich English Regular Sz 78 Fortune Telling Cards Deck New & SealedRare: Ananda Tarot *in Original Shrink Wrap* New, Cards & Book In Original BoxBuilders Of The Adytum Tarot Healing With The Angels Oracle Cards 44 Cards Plus Booklet Doreen VirtueMind/body Makeover Cards Oracle Card Deck **3 Day Sale***Native American Tarot Card Bag, Ideal For Most Fairy, Angel & Wicca Tarot CardsAffirmations For The Everyday Goddess Art Cards Tarot Deck And Book SetVintage Htf Future Solleone Tarot Di Elisabetta Cassari Ltd. Edition New!Extremely Rare Old Gipsy Fortune Telling Cards 35 Cards DeckLex Outsider Occult Tarot Lot 5 Cards Paintings Art Nr SaleGolden Tarot Card Deck By U.s. Games SystemsVintage China Tarot Cards Complete 78 Cards Den Jer Artwork Unique DesignsThe Mythic Tarot Card And Cloth Only No Book Massive The Tarot Set *box Set With Purple Satin Cloth & Book* Unopened Cards!Karma Cards New Age Guide To Astrology By Monte Farber With Book Dragon Tarot CardsTarot Card Set: The Celtic Tree Oracle - A System Of Divination. Healing With The Fairies Oracle CardsGypsy Witch Fortune Telling Cards Complete With Jokers And Instructions (vintagePentacle Tarot Card Bag, Ideal For Most Fairy, Angel & Wicca Tarot Cards