There is much mystery surrounding the history of the tarot and myths about its origins abound. Some cynics say that this mystery has been perpetuated as a marketing tool for tarot card salesmen. However, by just looking at the evidence available we can estimate that the earliest surviving full deck was painted in 1422. It was made by Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo.

This is known as the Visconti deck, named after the Duke of Milan, who commissioned them. Accounts of Ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Indian and earlier Italian links have been suggested. There is no evidence toBrief History of Tarot by Count Kristian von Sponneck support claims of earlier decks than the Visconti. It is possible that these more exotic links were drawn as a result of the Moorish and other cultural influences on Italian society at the time.

A ‘Game of Triumphs’

The cards were originally used for a game called Tarocchi or ‘Game of Triumphs’. Which was similar to Bridge. The game was played mainly by the Upper Classes. It has continued in some circles (mainly in Italy and France) to be played to this day.

The Church

The tarot’s use by the Upper Classes probably saved the game from being banned by the Church. Though some accounts state that tarot was considered heretical and outlawed by the Church. Indeed in the latter half of the fifteenth century some church sermons labelled tarot as the work of the Devil.

But in fact the Church concerned itself more with the use of ordinary playing cards. Which were considered gambling. Some cards from the tarot deck – such as the Devil, the Tower and the Death card – were on occasions omitted from the pack. They were feared by many people. But little harm was actually done to the use of the cards until centuries later.


The tarot has undergone many permutations in its use, design and interpretation over the centuries. One of the first permutations was in using the cards as inspiration for poetry. Possibly the first use in describing aspects of the human psyche and personality traits. The cards have since evolved according to the prevailing culture of the times and attitudes within them.

Rebirth and Occult Connections

The first evidence of tarot being used as a divinatory tool came in the early eighteenth century in Bologna. In 1781 a clergyman, Antoine Court de Gebelin, revitalised and raised awareness of the tarot in his book. This drew links between the imagery in the Major Arcana and the mysteries of Ancient Egypt.

This was later picked up by occult practitioners (“hidden”) such as Alistair Crowley and Waite of the Rider-Waite deck. The imagery on this deck is the one with which we are most familiar today. This was the deck introduced into America in the 20th century. And the only one readily available to generations of Americans. We therefore tend to associate the tarot with more esoteric connections. Rather than the lighter use which defined its origins in fifteenth century Italy, over 500 years before.

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