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    

Huge 15 Tarot Oracle Lenormand Cards Lot - Lumina, Heart Of Stars, Tabula Mundi2 Decks Of Tarot Cards The Witches Tarot And The Gothic TarotRare 1908 The "wizard" Fortune Telling Cards W/ Box & Inst. - Milton BradleyVintage Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck Silk Wrap Wooden BoxTarot Rider Waite The Rider Tarot Deck English System New Sealed Cards Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot English Oracle Fortune New Sealed Cards Deck Linweave Tarot Pack - 42 Card Deck To Advertise Specialty Paper By Brown PulpAleister Crowley Thoth Tarot Deck Oto 78-cards Book 1983 Lady Frieda Harris ArtHello Tarot (hello Kitty Tarot) Joe Rosales Black And White OopStick Figure Tarot Lar Desouza Oop Original New York Tarot CardsBook Of Thoth (egyptian Tarot) & Cards -the Master Therion (aleister Crowley) Tarot Card Deck Of 78 Color Cards , Beginner Deck With Interpretations & MeaningHalloween Tarot Deck & Bethany Lowe Parlor Game CardsThe Moon Oracle Tarot Cards Htf Oop Caroline Smith, John Astrop, 2000Waking The Wild Spirit Tarot And Book - Poppy Palin - Htf OopBest Vintage Deck Tarot Cards Art By Pamela Coleman Smith Rare Fortune TellingThe Triple Goddess Tarot Htf Oop Isha Lerner Mara FriedmanVintage Gypsy Queen Fortune Telling Cards Complete Deck + Instruction Great CondSongs For The Journey Home Tarot Deck Round Cards C Cook, D Von SommarugaThe Hidden Path Tarot Divination CardsMerryday Tarot Deck By Louisa Poole Complete 1997 Very Nice!Vintage Gypsy Queen Fortune Telling CardsDeviant Moon Borderless Tarot CardsUniversal Dali Tarot - Gold EdgesSecret Dakini Oracle Deck 1977 Tantric Divination Nik Douglas, Penny SlingerServants Of The Light TarotCute Clow Tarot Card Pattern Round Area Rug Anime Cardcaptor Sakura Home DecoThe Druid Craft Tarot / The Druid Plant OracleRadiant Rider-waite Tarot In A Tin Deck - 78 Cards By Pamela Colman-smith Edward Gorey The Fantod Pack Tarot Cards & Booklet NewVintage Whitman Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards LookLo Scarabeo Tarot DeckHealing With The Angels Oracle Tarot Cards - Doreen VirtueThe Hermetic Tarot Vtg Tarot Persan, Persian Tarot, Madame Indira - Grimaud Htp Vtg OopFuturecast Tarot Blocks Dice Future Cast Read Description For Condition NoteTarot Of The Sephiroth & Shrink-wrapped Guide To Tarot Of The SephirothSavage TarotVintage 1940s Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards By WhitmanVintage Tarot Cards 1jj Made In Switzerland Vtg Tarot Cards 1jj ~ Ag Muller Switzerland ~ Vintage , 78 Cards , FrenchVintage Tarot Cards ~ Complete Deck Of 78 ~ W/ Original Box And InstructionsLot Of Tarot Cards With A 10-card Spread SheetThe Victorian Fairy Tarot (book And Deck)Vtg Rider Waite Tarot Deck With The Pictorial Key To The Tarot BookAssassin's Creed Unity Tarot Playing CardsMckeon, Carothers Aora Gemstone Oracle Box Set Kit Book/cards Explore CrystalsOracle Of The Grail Code Book And Card DeckThe Pictorial Key TarotDeviant Moon Tarot - Patrick Valenza - With BorderWisdom Of The Hidden Realms Oracle Tarot CardsVintage Gendron Tarot Card Deck & Guide Booklet Complete Melanie GendronVintage Miniature Rider Waite Tarot Deck Cards Mint 78 Complete Colman SmithEarly 1900s "the Rameses" Fortune Telling Card Pack Complete Goodall England Manara Erotic Tarot Cards/deck-lo Scarabeo-milo-divination-for AdultsRussian Universal Tarot CardsTarot Cards Based On Karen Marie Moning Fever SeriesNew Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Tarot Cards Game 23 Cards 1 Set Cosplay Tarot Set W/ Guide By Jonathan Dee - Cards Illustrated By Shirley Barker