The history of the Tarot is speculative at best. In fact, no one-not even the most acclaimed Tarot scholars-seem to agree on its origins or historical value. One of the most popular theories is that the Tarot came to Europe by way of a nomadic group of Egyptians known as “Gypsies.” And even though there isn’t sufficient evidence to support this notion, its supporters insist that the Tarot was not only based on an ancient book of personal development called The Book of Thoth, but that the mysteries of its wisdom were hidden within the illustrations of the Major Arcana.
A more widely accepted theory, however, is that the system originated in Italy, was born of a regular deck of playing cards, and began as nothing more than a parlor game designed to entertain early fifteenth-century Italian nobility. And though it’s not nearly as romantic or apealing, this seems a bit more plausible. Why? For one thing, the earliest names attributed to the system, carte da trionfi and tarrochi, were Italian, and there was no recorded term in any other language to describe the deck for more than a century. For another, the original trump cards did not depict Egyptian figures. Instead, they held illustrations of European court nobility. And that being the case, it only makes sense that the system originated in Europe rather than Egypt.
Perhaps more interesting than the actual origins of the Tarot, though, are the facts surrounding the playing cards it was born of. Designed by the Spanish Muslims in the early 1300s, these playing cards hit Europe sometime between 1375 and 1378. And though the decks did, indeed, incorporate four suits, the hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades that we know today didn’t exist until the French revised them in the late 1470s. Instead, the original suits were nearly identical to those we use in current Tarot decks: sticks or staves, swords, cups, and coins. It’s also interesting to note that the suit-related court cards-a king and two others that are lesser in value- were all masculine in nature. When the Tarot came into being, however, all that changed. A set of queens appeared, as did the Fool and the trump cards. It’s important to understand that the additions had nothing to do with divination, though. They were simply necessary components for playing the original game-a game with trumps that was played much like bridge.
If that’s the case, how did we come to use the Tarot as a spiritual device? How could a simple parlor game evolve into such an important tool? Since regular playing cards had been associated with fortunetelling since 1487, there’s no reason to think that the Tarot escaped the seer’s eye. However, it wasn’t until some 350 years later that precise divinatory meanings were associated with the cards, and the illustrations were modified to reflect this. In fact, the Tarot wasn’t even considered valuable to occult study until the early 1780s. It was at that point that the system took its place as an integral part of the philosophy and began its development into the powerful spiritual tool we know today.