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    

Gilded Tarot Card Deck By Ciro Marchetti W 79 Cards Illustrations Estate ListingVintage Tarot Cards The Rider Tarot Deck 1971 Us Games Card Fortune 78 LooseFortune Teller~gypsy Beauty~tarot Cards~moon & Stars On Skirt~antique Cdv~viennaVintage The Rider Waite Tarot Deck/cards In BoxVintage Tarot Cards Fortune Lot Gypsy Metaphysical SetTarot Cards Aleister Crowley Thoth Vintage Archangel Power Tarot Cards : A 78-card Deck And Guidebook By Radleigh C....20's Vintage Antique Hungarian Playing Card Deck Telling Fortune TarotThe Nigel Jackson Tarot Card DeckRare Old Teuila Fortune Telling Cards + Instructions 1923 Robert L Stevenson1972 Hoi Polloi Tarot Card Deck Set Vintage 80 CardsVintage Ingalls Wonderful Zodiac Fortune Telling Cards - CompleteJasmine Becket-griffith Art Australian Oracle Of Shadows And Light Deck SignedRadiant Rider-waite Tarot DeckTarot Cards The Rider Tarot Deck The Magician 1971 Athur Edward Waite Us Games Gypsy Witch Fortune Telling Playing Cards - Sealed Complete Deck In BoxFantod Pack Signed By Edward Gorey - Ltd Ed. Morbid Mystery Archetype Cards78pcs Set 7x16cm Beautiful Clamp X Anime Tarot Card For Collection Free ShippingCartouche Oracle Tarot Cards Complete Set Deck 25 Cards W/box 1983 Excellent Mystic Faerie Book & Tarot Deck Set Ravenscroft Fortune Telling Wicca FairyShowtime Penny Dreadful Tarot CardsTarot Cards- 1972- Hoi-polloi Inc. Full Deck. 2nd Deck In Orig. Plastic.Psychic Tarot For Thr Heart Tarot Card DeckAlice In Wonderland Tarot Deck - Us Games 1989 - Printed In BelgiumVintage Antique Nile Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards / Copyright 1897-1904 CompleteAs New Ascend Masters Oracle Cards & Guide Book By Doreen Virtue. BeautifulOsho Zen Tarot CardsNecromancer Tarot CardsThoth Tarot DeckDeck Of Tarot 1jj Playing Cards Published Switzerland 1969 Us Games SystemsTarot Cards Shakespeare OracleThe Rider-waite Tarot Deck *1971Universal Waite Tarot Deck-book Set By Arthur Edward Waite (1992, Hardcover)Aboriginal Goddess Chakra Cards Meditation TarotRider Tarot Deck 1971 Us GamesTarot Deck Lot Demon Art Nouveau Devil Gilded Learn Everything How To Read TarotBuckland Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards Tarot Card Deck + Book - Romani - Rare!New Deviant Moon Tarot Deck Borderless Edition Standard Cards Patrick ValenzaAngels, Gods & Goddesses Tarot CardsMedicine Cards - The Discovery Of Power Through The Ways Of Animals.The Rider Tarot Deck And "the Pictorial Key To The Tarot" Book1930's The Nile Fortune Telling Deck Of Cards-in Box-w/life Card-sphinx BacksThe Rider Tarot Card Deck Complete With Booklet 1971 U.s. Games Systems, Inc ***Jasmine Becket-griffith Deck Tarot Australian Oracle Of The Shapeshifters SignedTarot Deck/native AmericanTarot And Other Metaphysical Card DecksMain Street Tarot Cards Deck With Illustrations By Jacqui Mair!Destiny Dice The Futures Game 3 Dice & Book Set - Phoenician Secrets Publishing Zolar's New Astrological Tarot Fortune Telling Cards Deck Game W/instructionsTarocchi Dei Mantegna Card Deck - Repro Of Circa 1460 Etchings By MeneghelloNew Mini Tarot Agni Roerich Card Deck + Russian Guid Book Sealed Limited EditionPath Of The Soul: Destiny Cards By Cheryl Lee Harnish - Oracle Deck - TarotThe Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Deck -inspiration CardsThe Magickal Tarot Of Anthony Clark. Vintage Deck 1985. Rare!~1971 Game Systems The Rider Tarot Deck The Magician~The Medieval Scapini Tarot Cards & Instructions Luigi Scapini 74card DeckOriginal Rider-waite Tarot Deck Cards - Brand New!Gypsy Witch Fortune Telling Cards Madame Le NormandThe Animal-wise Tarot By Ted Andrews (1998, Paperback) + CardsAnimal Messages Tarot Cards