The History of Tarot Cards

Tarot Cards

Humans have used tarot cards to fuel their imaginations and discover their futures for centuries, but how did it all begin? How did these worn cards and their enigmatic images become such an important psychic tool? Some scholars and mystics trace tarot cards to ancient Egypt, arguing that their fortune-telling messages were tied to the Rosetta Stone and that the cards were one of the few surviving texts from the destroyed Library of Alexandria. Others have linked tarot to the mystic Hebrew teachings of the Kabbalah. However, these theories are, so far, just conjecture. What historians know without a doubt is that the ornate cards we would recognize as traditional tarot emerged in the 1500s, among Italian nobility. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of tarot and how it became one of the most popular modern psychic arts.

The Visconti Trumps

Some of the most well recognized tarot symbols come from the Major Arcana, 22 cards depicting figures such as the Empress, Fool, and Hanged Man and objects like the Wheel of Fortune and Tower. As early as 1440, Italian nobles used these cards not to tell their fortunes but to play a card game similar to bridge, called Triumph. However, it wasn’t long before they began using these “trump” (for “Triumph”) cards more imaginatively. They created a game called “tarocchi appropriati” which involved dealing cards that players then used to write verses about each others’ futures, or “sortes.”

As the pastime of Italian nobility, the cards themselves were works of art, commissioned and handmade for specific families—most notably, the Visconti. These Visconti Trumps inspired the look and imagery of future tarot decks. The Visconti family had three decks made for them during the fifteenth century, the most iconic of which is the Visconti-Sforza deck, created to celebrate the marriage Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza. In addition to the Major Arcana, the predecessors of tarot absorbed a set of 56 suited cards, or “Minor Arcana,” for a total of 78, the deck that tarot readers still use today.


People first began using tarot cards for divination, seeking enlightenment and knowledge, during the Renaissance, a time of renewed interest in culture and philosophy. Under the pseudonym Etteilla, French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette published the first book of cartomancy, fortune telling through cards, in 1770. He provided the meanings for the symbols on 32 cards and published a deck specifically to be used in fortune telling, unlike the co-opted Triumph decks that had been used previously.

Modern Tarot

After the Renaissance, the condemnation of the Catholic Church made cartomancy much less widespread, at least publically. The resurgence of tarot began with the mystic movement of the twentieth century. A.E. White, a spiritual scholar of the esoteric, published the Rider-Waite deck along with a book of meanings in 1909. Tarot card reading became part of mainstream culture in the 1970s, after Stuart Kaplan adapted the Rider-Waite deck for popular use along with his book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. Since then, new age cartomancers have developed hundreds if not thousands of variations on the classic 78-card deck that speak to contemporary audiences’ concerns, spiritual beliefs, and futures.

Discover Your Path with Tarot Reading

Tarot cards have such a rich history because people have found enlightenment through cartomancy for centuries. Schedule a tarot reading with one of Aquarius Age’s trained psychics to find out what the cards can tell you.

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