The Origins of the Tarot

by Craig Chalquist

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While the first playing cards may have originated in China and Korea around the 10th or 11th centuries, whether they possessed Tarotlike pictures is anyone's guess. Tarot symbolism is probably a blend from different cultural sources.

Another complication is that much of the symbolism has changed through the centuries due to iconographic transformation, the process by which symbols are subtly altered and reinterpreted by a series of artists. For example, The Hermit trump card was once Time, an old man with an hourglass. Strength used to depict a man swinging a club at a crouching lion. The Star once featured a woman near a precipice clutching with her left hand at an eight-pointed star. No doubt these early images evolved from still earlier ones. Studying the Tarot's current symbolism may offer clues about its original form, but the form itself is probably lost to us. 


An entry dated February, 1392 in the treasurer Charles Poupart's book of accounts for Charles VI of France describes payment for three gilt decks painted for the king by Jacquemin Gringonneur. Strangely enough, 1392 was also the year Charles VI went insane. Did someone purchase the deck to keep him quiet during his mental illness? Was the first Tarot deck created simply to entertain an aristocratic madman? Odd thought...

At the time of this writing, no firm evidence links the vanished Gringonneur deck with the 17 silver-bordered, gold-backgrounded cards -mostly Trumps- in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The style of the figures' garments are thought by many to be of a later period.

The earliest extant Tarot deck is the Visconti-Sforza, hand-painted in the mid-fifteenth century. It may have been crafted as a gift commemorating the politically expedient marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the ruthless Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to the condottieri (professional soldier) Francesco Sforza in 1441. Eleven incomplete versions of the deck exist; the largest, the reprinted Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo version, contains 74 cards. The trumps and court cards bear neither numbers nor titles. No one knows for certain which version is the oldest.

Heraldic devices from both families appear in many of the cards. According to Stuart Kaplan, the bird radiating straight lines as it hovers above a nest, the sun with blended straight and wavy rays, the crown edged with fronds edges, the black eagle (found on a shield), and the card's motto are Visconti emblems; Sforza emblems include a lion, three interlocking rings, and a large hexagonal fountain. Kaplan's book The Encyclopedia of Tarot contains superb illustrations of these devices and of various cards from this old deck.

The Tarot de Marseilles is another of the earliest decks. It is probably based on woodblock prints. Unlike many modern decks, its Minor Arcana, with the exception of the court (from "coate," referring to royal robes) cards, possess no scenes or figures. Originally, only Major Arcana cards featured detailed illustrations. The Minor Arcana of many early sets depict curved Sword blades and thick Wands, gold Coins and massive Cups, but no landscapes.

A 15th century manuscript of a priest's sermon against gambling survives. It discusses triumphi (a Latin term) and four-suited playing cards. It also speaks of trumps and minor arcana as separate entities. This is one piece of evidence supporting the popular theory that major and minor arcana evolved independently.

By the end of the 15th century, Tarot packs existed throughout Europe. An author named Covelluzo wrote in 1480 that playing cards came to Italy in 1379 from North Africa, perhaps brought by Arabs, but no one knows if these included the Tarot. 

Prior to 1750, most, if not all, known Tarot packs bore Italian labels. This, of course, suggests an Italian origin. French names with Italian suit-marks followed.

German woodblock printing and the 18th century French occult revival helped spread the Tarot far and wide. The Gypsies and modern Western interest in the occult further increased its popularity. Tarot packs are sold today in most of the largest cities in the world.


Some scholars seek the Tarot's beginnings in the word "Tarot," which may derive from:

 The Taro river in Northern Italy.
Orat (Latin), "it speaks, argues."
Rota (Latin), "a wheel."
Taru (Hindu), "cards."
Tarosh (Egyptian), "the royal way."
Torah (Hebrew), "the Law."
Thoth, an Egyptian god.
Ator, from the Egyptian goddess Hathor.
Troa (Hebrew), "gate."
Tares, meaning the dot border on old cards.
Tarotee, meaning a pattern on the backs.


Glancing over some origin theorists, we begin with Antoine Court de Gebelin, the French linguist, cleric, occultist, Mason, member of the Lodge of the Philalethes, and author of the nine-volume work Monde Primitif. Convinced of the mystical significance of the Tarot and fond of Egyptian lore, this pre-Rosetta Stone author believed the cards' birth place was ancient Egypt, where they served as tools of initiation into the priesthood. For him, the Tarot's Major Arcana was the Book of Thoth, a synthesis of all knowledge once held in heiroglyphic form in burned Egyptian temples and libraries. He lived during the mid 1700's and apparently claimed to have traced playing cards to ancient China.

Etteilla (which is "Alliette," his name, spelled backwards), a fan of Court de Gebelin's, was a fortune-teller and wigmaker in Napoleanic France. A student of Egyptian magic, astrology, alchemy, and divination, he felt that the god Thoth-Hermes made the deck. His theory contains mathematical ideas similar to those of Pythagoras, whom he admired.

Eliphas Levi (real name: Alphonse Louis Constant, author of History of Magicú), 1810-1875, was a French priest and Rosicruician who thought the Tarot the key to the Bible, the Jewish Qabbalah, and all other ancient spiritual writings. He attempted to link the 22 cards of the Major Arcana to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He drew parallels between Tarot suits and the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, YHVH ("Yahweh").

Late nineteenth-century Parisian author Paul Christian (Jean Baptiste Pitois) was a follower of Levi's who believed that Major Arcana cards represent heiroglyphic paintings found on columns in ancient Eyptian galleries. He also sought parallels between the Tarot and Qabbalistic astrology.

Papus (Gerard Encausse, 1865-1916), a French doctor, philosopher, and Theosophist, was another believer in the Tarot's Egyptian sources. Known for the book The Tarot of the Bohemians, he believed the Tarot a bearer of ancient designs inscribed in secret chambers below the Pyramids. The designs represented initiation tests. When the temples were at risk, the priests transferred the mystical designs to materials which later became a pack of cards. Papus, too, described a link between Tarot and the Tetragrammaton. He also dealt with numerology and the Tree of Life.

Other prominent Tarot scholars

MacGregor (Samuel Liddell) Mathers lead the English Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1886. He studied Jewish, Egyptian, Christian, and alchemical mysticism. He wrote a great deal about the Tarot.

A. E. Waite (1857-1942), the English Christian occult philosopher, broke from the Order of the Golden Dawn and founded his own school of mystical thought. Working with the artist Pamela Coleman Smith, he created a "rectified" deck featuring images and scenery on all the cards, Minor as well as Major Arcana. It grew enormously popular, and many consider it the standard deck. His accompanying book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot is informative, if remarkably arrogant ("I wish therefore to say, within the reserves of courtesy and "la haute convenance" belonging to the fellowship of research, that I care nothing utterly for any view [but mine] that may find expression"), and contains insightful comments about the deck and its uses.

Aleister Crowley, too, founded his own occult school, the Ordo Templi Orientis, which had to do, among other things, sex magic. Working with Freida Harris, he created the colorful Book of Thoth Tarot. He considered identifying with each card more important than trying to guess about origins.

Paul Foster Case, who formed the Builders Adytum, thought the Tarot from Morocco. According to him, 11th century philosophers designed it to both to preserve knowledge after the Alexandrian libraries were burned down and to furnish a universal language. He, too, designed a deck, a black and white one. It strongly resembles Waite's.

Other theories: the cards are allegories of Sufi masters; Grail legend depictions; the Indian game Chaturanga, a forerunner of chess; Indian holy texts; Gypsy imports; Hebrew lore; Greek philosophy; ancestors of Mesopotamian copper cylinders; symbols handed down from prehistoric oral stories; symbols from ancient Central American indian cultures; wisdom of prehistoric matriarchal cultures; teaching aids of the Waldenses, a persecuted Christian sect; surviving lore of the Order of Knights Templar, founded in 1188 to protect pilgrims and guard the ways to the Holy Land; or creations of 13th century alchemists -and the Tarot is indeed loaded with alchemical imagery.

Speculation aside, we don't know, and perhaps will never know, what the first Tarot cards looked like. Nor do we know where they came from or who created them. We don't even know how many were contained in a deck. Although it has frustrated Tarot experts and inspired countless origin theories, I like that mystery. So many beautiful things emerge from drab beginnings that not knowing makes room for fantasies in which bold spirits paint those first wonderful images in an ecstasy of creative awakening.

However they came to be, the images of Tarot, like all true symbols, resound spontaneous self-expressions from the psyche's deepest springs; and for that reason they hold up magic mirrors to whatever reactions we bring them. Like all authentic artistic creations, Tarots are ultimately a mystery and will remain so.

© 1997 by Craig Chalquist

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