Tarot has been an integral part of many cultures for centuries, and its mysterious symbols have captivated the curiosity of people around the world. Through its varied and complex history, tarot has come to be a source of inspiration, self-reflection and guidance for many. Exploring the origins and evolution of tarot is a fascinating journey through time, spanning from Ancient Egypt through to modern day. Its archetypal images, with their many layers of symbolism, have been interpreted in a multitude of ways, from being used in religious ceremonies to becoming the basis of psychological theories. Its timeless and universal appeal has been embraced by many, and the tarot is still an important and powerful tool in our lives today.
Ancient Egypt and the first tarot decks
The term ‘tarot’ is derived from the Italian word ‘tarocchi’, which is itself derived from ‘tarro’, the Italian word for ‘wheat straw’. This refers to the original decks being made from cut-up sections of a wheat-straw basket.
The earliest known decks are 2 Egyptian decks from the early 15th century, but it is likely that tarot was popular in Egypt during the Mamluk period, from 1250–1517. The imagery of these first decks certainly reflects this.
The imagery of the Major Arcana (or trump cards) in these decks particularly resembles the imagery found in Islamic art, with the angelic imagery representing the Arabic concept of ‘malak’ (or ‘malik’), meaning ‘king’. T
The Minor Arcana (or suit cards) depicted the standard medieval suits: cups, coins, clubs, and swords. Some historians have suggested that these early decks were used for fortune-telling, but it is likely that they were also used for games and gambling. In fact, many historians believe that the earliest decks were initially designed for gambling.
The spread of tarot in the Middle Ages
From the 14th century, tarot was used throughout Europe for a wide range of purposes, from being used for fortune-telling and prognostication to being used for counseling and as a tool for medical diagnosis and treatment. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung theorized that the historical spread of tarot throughout Europe was due to the presence of gypsies in Europe during the Middle Ages, who were known to use tarot for fortune-telling.
While there is some evidence to suggest that gypsies used tarot for fortune-telling, there is no clear evidence to support the theory that they were solely responsible for the spread of tarot. However, the strong presence of gypsies in Europe during this period certainly contributed to the spread of tarot.
The wide range of uses for tarot in medieval Europe is due to the fact that it was not just used for fortune-telling. It was also used for counseling, medical diagnosis, and for astrological purposes.
Tarot in the Renaissance period
Tarot continued to be used throughout Europe in the Renaissance period, with the imagery on the decks becoming more complex and the imagery on the cards (particularly the trump cards) becoming more symbolic.
During this period, an almost limitless number of variations were created, with artists creating their own variations of decks and adding their own interpretations and symbolism. In the 16th century, tarot was introduced to Italy, where it was used for card games, as well as for artistic and symbolic purposes. This continued throughout the Renaissance period, with tarot remaining a popular artistic medium.
Tarot in the 19th century
In the 19th century, the use of tarot was primarily relegated to fortune-telling and prognostication. During this time, tarot was often associated with gypsies and fortune-telling, despite the fact that it had been used for far more than this during the Renaissance period.
Indeed, tarot continued to be used for artistic purposes during the 19th century, but these uses were generally ignored by the tarot-reading community due to the growing idea that tarot was a ‘dark art’. The ‘dark art’ concept can be attributed to the work of the French novelist Émile Zola, who wrote a novel in 1894 called ‘The Master of the Cards’, which is set in a fictional fortune-teller’s tent in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
In this novel, the fortune-teller is depicted as a devious and manipulative person, who overcharges for his services and takes advantage of wealthy people by telling them what they want to hear. This novel contributed significantly to the ‘dark art’ image of tarot, and further perpetuated the idea that tarot was used primarily for fortune-telling.
Carl Jung and the psychological interpretation of tarot
In the early 20th century, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was introduced to the world of tarot through his analysis of a wide variety of dreams and visions. During analysis, Jung noticed that many patients had recurring symbolic dreams, visions, and fantasies, which he attributed to the ‘collective unconscious’.
Jung believed that the ‘collective unconscious’ was a universal source of imagery and symbolism, which was inherent in all humans. He felt that this universal imagery had been ‘projected’ onto the tarot cards, most likely during the Renaissance, when there was such a wide variety of decks being created.
Tarot in modern times
Jung himself did not actually use tarot cards for psychotherapy, and claimed only to have studied them in order to understand their symbolism, but many of his followers began to use tarot cards in their therapy. This led to tarot being used as a tool for psychological introspection and reflection, during which the client would be encouraged to use the cards to ‘project’ their unconscious thoughts and feelings onto the cards.
This psychological interpretation and use of the tarot is still very common today, although tarot is also used for many other purposes. Indeed, tarot is used for many things: card reading (both fortune-telling and psychological reflection), artistic expression, meditation, self-reflection, and for gaining insight into daily life.
Tarot’s use in religion and spiritual practices
It is difficult to determine when and how tarot was first used in religious and spiritual contexts. Although many historians believe that tarot developed out of the use of playing card decks in games, others have suggested that they were used in religious and spiritual contexts from the very beginning.
This is partly due to the fact that the earliest decks that have been discovered contain imagery that may have been used as religious symbols: some of the trump cards contain imagery of serpents, which was a common symbol in Ancient Egypt, and the Minor Arcana cards contain imagery of ‘aquarius’ (which, in Ancient Egyptian, means ‘the water bearer’, one of the earliest symbols of the zodiac).
Although we cannot be certain if tarot was used in religious and spiritual contexts from the very beginning, it is certainly likely that they were, as many historians believe that tarot was used primarily for fortune-telling and prognostication and not for games.
Popular tarot decks
There are many different variations of tarot decks around the world, but there are also many different types of decks within each variation. In fact, there are so many different decks that it is difficult to know where to start when selecting one to use.
To assist with this, we can group tarot decks into several different categories, based on when they were created, what type of imagery they feature, and what their central themes are. In the following section, we will explore some of the most popular tarot decks, including both variations and types.
The tarot’s relevance today
The tarot is still an important and powerful tool in our lives today, and its relevance is as strong as ever. The cards can help us to reflect upon the past, and they can also help us to plan for the future. They can assist us in making sense of our present, and they can help us to navigate any challenges that we may face.
The cards can also be used to encourage us to think about our lives in a different way, and they can give us a fresh perspective on our current situation. The cards can help us to understand ourselves better, and they can help us to understand others, too.
If you are interested in the meaning of tarot cards, dreams, or numerological interpretations, continue reading our website.