Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Tarot Timeline

There is so much written about the history of tarot, some true, and some of it speculative.  You can really go down a rabbit hole looking into the history of the cards, their uses, and their meanings.  What started out as playing cards in Europe six hundred years ago are now a popular spiritual tools across the world.

Today, I am giving you the highlights: Dates and developments that have led to tarot as we know it today.  You could dig into any one of these moments, or look for others, and come up with all kinds of fascinating history (I, for one, can't wait to get my hands on Robert Place's book of tarot history.) To get you started, this timeline provides a basic overview.


Mid 1400s, Italy

  • Decks of playing cards featuring not only four suits, but additional trump cards, start to show up.  In Italian, they're called trionfi (which means "triumph"), since they outrank suit cards.  Sometimes, the deck is also called tarocchi, after the game they are used for.  The Tarot de Marseille is the best example of an early tarot deck. 

1491, Italy

  • The Sola Busca tarot is published, the first deck with fully illustrated pip cards.  I find varying evidence regarding whether or not it was intended as an esoteric deck, or just for playing.

1500s onward, Europe

  • The cards are used for divination, but not in a widespread way (maybe just for lone weirdo types). At this point, folks start getting interested in the supposed Egyptian roots to tarot.  This is really more about exoticism than any actual evidence of Egyptian history in tarot decks, and it's a part of tarot history that I find problematic. 

Mid-Late 1700s, France

  • A dude named Etteilla claims that tarot is pretty much totally based on Egyptian spirituality.  He is the first to revise the tarot deck specifically for divination. 

1910, England/America

  • A publishing company called William Rider & Son publish a deck intended for divination.  The deck was entirely drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith, under instructions from occultist A. E. Waite.  This deck is known as the Rider-Waite deck (even though PCS is the artist!), and is arguably responsible for popularizing tarot in the mainstream. (Coleman Smith led an intriguing life, and created many beautiful works of art; ultimately, she died in obscurity.)

1944, England

  • Aleister Crowley publishes the Thoth deck, based heavily on Egyptology and Quabbalah.  The Thoth deck is another popular tarot deck, though it is not my cup of tea. It draws heavily from Thelema, the philosophy/religion Crowley developed. I have a lot of problems with Crowley as a person, and it is difficult for me to separate him from his work, so you will probably not see me use the Thoth deck.

Modern Day, World-wide

  • Tarot is used for esoteric and divinatory purposes around the world, with new specialized decks coming out all the time.  The original game of tarot is still played, especially in central Europe. 


I hope that piques your interest about the process that produced the tarot we know today.  You'd be surprised at the number of books you can find on the subject at your library.  Leave your thoughts, additions, and recommendations in the comments!


  1. Very cool. I didn't realize how old tarot actually was!

    Did any other country's card game turn into a divination tool like this? Like what would the German or Rusiian versions look like I wonder.

    By the way, here's how to play tarocchi the card game

    1. As far as I can tell, cards used for divinatory purposes have actually been around for a long time, perhaps since paper was developed. As far as divinatory decks, tarot seems to be the best (only?) example.

      German playing cards over this period were pretty interesting, too, as you could find a lot of different suits beyond the traditional four. They also had a game similar to tarocchi, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called. I can't say too much about Russian cards or divination; you can of course by contemporary tarot decks that use Russian language, art, and style, but they are still part of the Italian tradition.

      Thanks for the link to the tarocchi rules! Tarocchi can also be considered a precursor to bridge, for people who are interested.