I love Tarot symbology and Tarot divination. Do you like Tarot because of its aura of mystery, for its esoteric history, or because of its magical qualities? If you think Tarot is special because of one of those reasons then you are not going like what I have to say in this article. I'm going to be looking at the true history of Tarot, and my research on this has brought me to conclusions which are different to what most of you will have read online, and they are perhaps different to what you want to believe are the facts behind Tarot. I've put together the top five pieces of information that I feel Tarot readers should know about Tarot's origins. This data has been gleaned from art historians, card collectors, and my own research in museums and libraries.
Number 1: For those of you who like the idea that Tarot is a magical or mystical tool that has been handed down from Egyptian times, or even from the times of Atlantis -- I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no proof of this. Not only is there no proof, but when you look at the earliest known Tarot cards and look at how they came into existence, there isn't even any remote possibility of a link with Egypt or the mythical Atlantis. I hear you saying, "But I've seen cards that have Egyptian designs or symbols on them!" And you may have, but these are later additions to Tarot's artwork, and the images that Tarot is based upon do not have any Egyptian designs or symbols on them. The earliest surviving Tarot cards are hand painted decks that were made in Italy, around the year 1441. They were made for the court of Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan (from 1412 to 1447) and these cards are known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi. This name was given to them because that was the name of the families for whom these cards were created. We know this because the heraldry of these families was included on the cards themselves. Depictions of family members are also used in the cards.
Number 2: It's been stated that today's ordinary playing cards derive from Tarot cards, with the Joker being a representative of the Fool card from the Major Arcana. Sorry, but ordinary playing cards developed much earlier and first entered Europe from the Islamic world around 1375.
Number 3: The suits of the Tarot as we know them are quite different to the original ones. The suits of Tarot are derived from Islamic playing cards which were Coins, Cups, Swords and Polo Sticks. The game of polo was very important in the Islamic culture, but was not known in Europe when the cards arrived, so the suit of Polo sticks eventually became known as the suit of Staves or Batons. In Italy and Spain, playing cards have retained the suits of Batons, Coins, Cups, and Swords.
Number 4: The Tarot suits as we know them evolved from those Islamic playing cards, and various occultists over the years changed the original suits to make the Tarot seem more magical or mysterious. The Sticks/Batons/Staves were changed to Wands, and the suit of Coins was changed to Pentacles.
Number 5: For many years there has been a theory that the Gypsies had brought Tarot to Europe, and this notion has unfortunately become an accepted "fact" in the story of Tarot. However, we know that the Gypsies arrived in Western Europe in 1417, but playing cards were known in Catalonia, a region in North Eastern Spain, by 1370, so cards arrived 47 years before the Gypsies. And in historical records, Gypsies are referred to only as palm readers, there is no mention of them using cards for fortune telling until 1891. And even then the cards they refer to are standard playing cards, not Tarot cards.
Conclusion: The evolution of Tarot is a jig-saw puzzle of information with pieces coming from scattered directions, and it is derived from many cultures and from many minds. When you think about Tarot, I'd like you to remember that there are two main types of Tarot decks, and they are very distinct from each other. We have the historical Tarot, which was simply designed as a card game, and now we have the modern Tarot, which has been derived from and has evolved from the historical Tarot. The early Tarot did not have any mystical or magical qualities associated with it. The Historical Tarot was an invention of the 15th Century and was based upon the cultural and historical and religious expressions of its time -- nothing more, nothing less.