Some people state that tarot cards were created by an unknown mystical being. Others claim they were used in ancient times as a tool to connect with the gods and the spiritual world. Today, these mystical cards come in myriad illustrative styles, yet still behold a reputation steeped in the occult that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The earliest surviving examples of the cards are known as the Visconti-Sforza, from late 14th century, Italy. These cards were first known as Trump Cards – heavy, elaborately decorated playing cards used for Tarocchini, Trumphi, or Trionfi: parlour games similar to what we know today as Bridge. Despite the playful, elegant name, parlour games during the Renaissance were not taken lightly among the Italian aristocrats – their focus was on the players’ skills in memorising, cunning and strategising, similar to chess.
As we know, the Renaissance was the era of the rediscovery of art, literature and classical philosophy where artists were in high demand. Commissioning a painter for custom playing cards became as common as the noblemen commissioning an actual painting. For tarot cards, the period became the perfect storm – the wealth of people able to invest in games such as Tarocchini met the applied aesthetic of skilled artists, each keen to elevate their style from the next. It became such a popular pastime that Italian priests tried to make it illegal – damning the activity in sermons. By the 15th century, the game crossed the border into the south of France and central Europe, with each region and family creating their own style of Tarocchini.
Skipping forward, it wasn’t until the late 18th century and early 19th century the decks would be called tarot cards (from the French) and used for fortune telling and occult purposes. As popularity as a game receded, cards began to be recontextualised with the philosophy from ancient Egypt and Hermeticism. Perhaps it was a way to educate and improve their inner spiritual development, but in reality, during the time Europe was going through an enormous phase of ‘Egyptomania’. This was due to the Victorian hunger for history, the exploration and colonisation of the world and its archaeological findings. Egyptomania was so prevalent that when relics and mummies was brought in to England, France, Germany, and Italy, ‘mummy unwrapping’ became one of the most sought-after events open to the public.
Then in the middle of 19th century, Eliphas Levi brought tarot card to a whole other level, in his book – The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic. He associated tarot with the Hebrew alphabet, the Tree of Life in Kabbalah, the planets, elements and zodiac signs – something which wasn’t illustrated in the cards earlier. However, there was no tarot deck in use at the time that embodied this new complex symbolism. It wasn’t until 60 years after the book was published that the most famous tarot card deck was created by the philosopher Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith – both occult enthusiasts. The Rider Waite deck contains twenty-two major cards which have inspiration from the French Marseilles deck – with heavily patterned designs. It incorporates the symbolical modifications suggested by Levi, making this deck the first ever complex decks. Paradoxically, it’s also the most simplified deck as it came with a small instruction booklet, explaining how to use and interpret the cards, and so making it accessible to the general public.
Today, we have an impression that tarot cards have an ageless connection to all these elements, but in fact they were added slowly by different authors, philosophers and social trends. Tarot cards have been around for centuries, but in reality, they weren’t so different from our standard 52 card decks and the way we use them – for games and gambling.
We use tarot cards differently today, with the momentum of mysticism and psychic importance ascribed to them on their journey through time.
Don’t get us wrong, there is no doubt that the tarot cards hold a mystical and intuitive value that we can’t fully explain. Even randomly fanning through a modern deck and letting your eyes fall upon a card, the images are at once disturbing and fascinating in equal measure.
For tarot cards that are mass produced today, even with far-lower production values than originally made, they still enshroud our opinion in a fog of the supernatural, and hark back to the earliest representations of heaven and earth and everything unknown in between.