Unveiling the Fascinating History of Tarot: From Medieval Europe to Modern Times

Tarot has been around for centuries, with its origins deeply rooted in medieval Europe. It has been used for divination, self-discovery, and spiritual guidance throughout the years. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of tarot, from its humble beginnings to its present-day popularity.

Introduction to Tarot

Tarot is a deck of cards that has been used for centuries to gain insight into the past, present, and future. The deck typically consists of 78 cards: 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards, divided into four suits: pentacles, cups, swords, and wands. Each card has its unique symbolism and meaning, and the interpretation of the cards can vary depending on the reader and the individual being read. Tarot readings can provide guidance on various aspects of life, including love, career, and personal growth.

Origins of Tarot

The origins of tarot are shrouded in mystery, with various theories surrounding its creation. Some believe that tarot originated in ancient Egypt, while others attribute its creation to the gypsies or Roma people. However, the most widely accepted theory is that tarot was developed in medieval Europe as a card game. The earliest known tarot deck dates back to the mid-15th century and was created in Italy. The deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, consisted of 78 cards and was commissioned by the Duke of Milan.

Tarot in Medieval Europe

During the Renaissance period, tarot cards began to take on a more mystical and spiritual significance. The cards were used for divination, and each card was believed to have a specific meaning and symbolism. The first tarot deck to include the major arcana cards was the Tarot de Marseille, which was created in the mid-18th century in France. The deck consisted of 78 cards and was widely used for divination and fortune-telling.

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

The Rider-Waite tarot deck is one of the most popular tarot decks in the world. It was first published in 1910 by William Rider & Son of London, with the illustrations created by artist Pamela Colman Smith and the text written by mystic A.E. Waite.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck

Arthur Edward Waite was a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the study of the occult, mysticism, and Western esotericism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Waite was interested in creating a tarot deck that would accurately reflect the symbolism and traditions of the Golden Dawn, while also being accessible to a wider audience.

To create the deck, Waite enlisted the help of artist Pamela Colman Smith. Smith was a talented artist and illustrator who was also a member of the Golden Dawn. She worked closely with Waite to create a deck that would be both visually striking and full of meaning.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck consists of 78 cards, divided into two main groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards, each depicting a different archetype or spiritual concept. The Minor Arcana consists of four suits, each with 14 cards, depicting various aspects of daily life, such as work, relationships, and money.

The illustrations on the cards are rich in symbolism, drawing on a variety of traditions and mythologies, including astrology, numerology, and Kabbalah. The images are designed to evoke deep emotions and insights, and to provide guidance and wisdom to those who use them for divination or spiritual practice.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck was an immediate success, and it quickly became one of the most popular tarot decks in the English-speaking world. It was particularly influential in the United States, where it was widely used by spiritual seekers, psychics, and fortune-tellers.

The Rider-Waite deck was also instrumental in popularizing tarot as a tool for personal growth and spiritual development. In the early 20th century, tarot was still largely associated with fortune-telling and divination and was often viewed with suspicion by mainstream society. However, the Rider-Waite deck helped to change this perception, by presenting tarot as a legitimate and meaningful spiritual practice.

Today, the Rider-Waite tarot deck remains one of the most popular and influential tarot decks in the world. It has been reprinted many times and has inspired countless variations and adaptations. It has also been the subject of much scholarly research and analysis, as scholars and practitioners seek to understand its rich symbolism and mystical traditions.

The Occult Revival and Tarot

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a revival of interest in the occult and mysticism. This led to a renewed interest in tarot, and many occultists began to incorporate tarot into their spiritual practices. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a prominent occult society, used tarot extensively in its teachings, and many of its members went on to create their tarot decks.

Tarot in Modern Times

Today, tarot is more popular than ever, with millions of people using tarot cards for self-discovery, spiritual guidance, and divination. There are countless tarot decks available, each with its unique style and symbolism. Some of the most popular tarot decks include the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the Thoth Tarot, and the Tarot of Marseille.

Tarot Decks and their Meanings

There are hundreds of tarot decks available today, each with its unique symbolism and meaning. While the meaning of each card can vary depending on the reader and the individual being read, there are some general themes and interpretations that are commonly associated with each card. For example, the Fool card is often associated with new beginnings and taking risks, while the Death card is often associated with transformation and change.

How to Read Tarot Cards

Reading tarot cards can be a complex and nuanced practice, and there are many different approaches and techniques that readers use. However, there are some basic steps that anyone can follow to get started with tarot reading.

  1. Clear the deck: Before starting a reading, it’s important to clear the deck of any prior inquiries and readings. This can be done by shuffling the cards and focusing on clearing your mind.
  2. Ask a question: Once the deck is cleared, ask a question or prompt that you would like the cards to answer. Keep the question in mind while shuffling.
  3. Shuffle the deck: Shuffle the deck while focusing on your question until you feel ready to stop.
  4. Pull a card: Pull one or more cards from the deck, depending on what type of spread you are using.
  5. Interpret the card: Each card has its own meaning and symbolism. Interpret the card based on its position in the spread, the question asked, and your intuition.
  6. Continue the reading: Continue pulling cards and interpreting them until you feel you have answered the question or gained insight into the situation.

To learn what each card means you can start with my favorite book The Ultimate Guide to Tarot by Liz Dean or Guided Tarot by Stefanie Caponi.

The Popularity of Tarot Today

Tarot has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, with more and more people turning to tarot for guidance and insight. The rise of social media has played a significant role in this, with many tarot readers sharing their readings and interpretations online. Tarot has also become more mainstream, with tarot decks being sold in bookstores and gift shops.


Tarot has a rich and fascinating history, with its origins deeply rooted in medieval Europe. Over the years, tarot has been used for divination, self-discovery, and spiritual guidance, and its popularity continues to grow today. Whether you are a seasoned tarot reader or just starting, there is always more to learn and discover about this mystical and powerful practice.

If you are interested in learning more about tarot, consider picking up a tarot deck and starting your own practice as it can be quite rewarding and relaxing.

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