One question I get a lot from my clients is “Where does Tarot come from, anyway?”
There are any number of myths, and legends about the history of Tarot- some accepted as fact, some so impossibly fantastical that they must be taken as fiction (mustn’t they??) and some that lie somewhere in between. The only thing we can say for sure is that the origins of Tarot lie shrouded in mystery.
What we do know is that the earliest written references to “playing” cards arose in Spain and Italy in the late 14th century. The oldest complete Tarot deck (actually a combination of 15 incomplete decks found in museums and private collections around the world) is called the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, and it dates back to 15th century Milan.
Apart from this, very little about the history of Tarot is agreed upon, or widely accepted as fact.
The gypsy fortune teller, in colourful scarves and skirts, is a popular image that has long portrayed the association between the Romani Gypsy people and Tarot. Historians, however, argue whether or not there is hard evidence to prove that the Romani Gypsies are responsible for introducing the Tarot to Western Europe from Turkey in the 14th century, as many believe. Some suggest that an Indo-European branch of “Gypsy” migrated into Western Europe in the much earlier 6th century, bringing the Tarot with them from the Indian subcontinent.
The Knights Templar and the Rosicrucian Order are another group with historical ties to the Tarot. Stories are told of knights returning home from the Crusades in the Holy Land with secret, heretical teachings that they disguised as a mere game by which to gamble. Certainly, the Rider-Waite Tarot which dates back to 1909, and with which so many people are familiar, is rich in masonic imagery.
Then again, some people claim that Tarot hales from Egypt, and originates with the ancient Egyptian book of Thoth- a text that is said to have been written by Thoth himself, the Egyptian God of writing and knowledge. The Egyptian words “Ta” and “Ro” translate to “royal road”, which some scholars believe refer to a path of enlightenment.
And yet another Egyptian origin story for Tarot is that a secret order of Fez gathered together after the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria in an effort to preserve the wisdom of thousands of years in a form that was portable and easily shared.
What fascinates me more than the idea of where Tarot came from is that the iconography of Tarot has remained relevant to people for well over 500 years, and possibly for millennia. Whether it’s roots can be traced back to India, or Egypt, or Arabia, it is the fact that Tarot could be traced back to any of these cultures that hints at how powerful the truths hidden in its images actually are.
The Hanged Man from the Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza Tarot
Vintage graphic from top of old deck of cards box.
"A Fair Young Gypsy Fortune-Teller," a page from Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, n.d. (1882); wove paper, about 7½ x 10 inches.
Knights Templar stained glass window at the Temple of Balsall
A depiction of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, numerancy, and magic.
Title: Fortune Teller Squirrel: Good Times Ahead Medium: Oil on Canvas Size: 14 X 18 Artist: Carollyne Yardley Date: 2011