Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Very Brief History of the Tarot

In Northern Italy during the early Renaissance, the Tarot developed as a card game, much like today’s Bridge. It later became a gambling card game. In Europe, people still see the Tarot as a card game. The Tarot’s use for divination did not occur until the 1800s in England.

Meanwhile, playing cards came to Europe from Moslem Spain. They consisted of the four suits with a court of a king and two males. The Tarot deck of today is the merger of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, the Fool, the Queens, and playing cards. (The Joker originated in the United States in the 1850s for use in Poker and Euchre games.)

The Tarot deck familiar to people in the United States is the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) one. Named for the company that published the deck and its creators, RWS was created in the early 1900s. Arthur Edwards Waite wrote an overview of the traditions, history, and commentary for each Tarot card. In addition, he changed some of the Major Arcana from the traditional Marseilles deck. Meanwhile, his illustrator, Pamela Coleman-Smith revolutionized the Minor Arcana with her pictures. (Before that, the Minor Arcana were done in geometric patterns.)

In the 1940s, Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris developed the Thoth Deck to update the RWS deck. Crowley infused the Thoth Deck with symbolism of the occult. Therefore, many people today often find this brightly colored deck more difficult to read.


Many Tarot decks have animals in them, and the animals add to the meanings of each card. For example, the lion and crab are in several cards. Lion represents strength, while the crab represents the moon and water.


Tarot card from "Australian Animal Tarot" by Ann Williams-Fitzgerald

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