The Evolution of Tarot Cards: Beyond the Myth of Egypt

The Early History of Tarot Cards

The Early History Of Tarot Cards
Tarot cards have a long and fascinating history dating back to the late Middle Ages. The origins of Tarot are somewhat mysterious, but it is generally believed that the cards were originally used in Italy in the 15th century for playing various card games. In fact, Tarot cards were not originally used for divination purposes at all. It wasn’t until several centuries later that the cards began to be used for divination and fortune-telling.

One theory suggests that the Tarot’s origins may be linked to the playing cards used in Islamic countries during the medieval period. Others believe that the cards were influenced by the ancient Chinese divination system of the I Ching. Whatever the case may be, by the 18th century, Tarot cards had become popular for use in divination and were actively used by occultists and mystics.

It is important to note that the art and symbolism on Tarot cards has evolved over the years. The earliest known surviving Tarot deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, features imagery that is much different from what most people associate with Tarot today. This deck features beautiful artwork commissioned by the Visconti and Sforza families of Italy, and the cards were likely used to play a popular card game called “tarocchi.”

Despite the popular misconception, Tarot cards have no inherent connection to Satanism, witchcraft, or other nefarious practices. Tarot cards are simply a tool for divination, and their use can be traced back centuries to a variety of cultures and mystical traditions. However, the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding Tarot continue to persist to this day.

It is important to have a clear understanding of the history and origin of Tarot cards in order to truly appreciate their value as a divinatory tool. By debunking the myths and misconceptions surrounding Tarot, we can begin to recognize the true cultural and spiritual significance of these fascinating cards.

The Birth of the Tarot: The Italian Renaissance

As we dive into the early history of tarot cards, we uncover a fascinating story that begins in Europe during the Italian Renaissance. During this time, wealthy families commissioned beautiful tarocchi decks as a status symbol, featuring intricately designed cards with stunning illustrations. However, these early tarot cards were not yet used for divination or fortune-telling. It was not until later that the tarot evolved into the tool for divination that it is known as today. To learn more about the history of tarot divination, check out our article on the history of tarot divination. Let’s explore how the tarot developed during the Renaissance and beyond.

Tarocchi Cards

During the 15th century, in northern Italy, people started to play a card game called Tarocchi. The word Tarocchi was used to refer to the game’s cards and was later adapted to become the word Tarot. The Tarocchi cards were a deck of 78 cards: 56 were suit cards (swords, batons, cups, and coins), and 22 were picture cards. These picture cards were divided into three parts: the major arcana (meaning “greater secrets”), the minor arcana (meaning “lesser secrets”), and the fool (also known as “the excuse”).

The Major Arcana, also known as “trumps” and are numbered 0 to 21, were the most significant cards in the deck. Each card was associated with a specific concept or archetype, such as the Hanged Man, the Empress, or the Wheel of Fortune. They were often used to tell a story or convey a message in the game.

The Minor Arcana had four suits with cards numbered from 1 to 10 and four court cards (Page, Knight, Queen, and King). The suits were similar to modern playing cards and represented different aspects of everyday life: swords represented conflict, batons symbolized wealth, coins were associated with practical matters, and cups were linked to emotions.

The fool was the only card that did not belong to any of the suits. The card was often depicted as a jester or a court fool and was associated with unpredictability or foolishness.

Despite being originally designed for playing games, the Tarocchi cards were later adapted for divination purposes, eventually becoming the modern Tarot Deck. However, it’s important to note that the Tarocchi cards were not used for divination initially but were a deck of playing cards.

There is often a misunderstanding that Tarot Cards were created with a divinatory purpose in mind, but the truth is that they were originally designed for playing games. This misconception led to misconceptions like tarot cards being associated with Satanism. It was only later that their true significance evolved into the realm of the spiritual and the mystical.

The Tarot’s Development as a Divinatory Tool

The Tarot’s Development as a Divinatory Tool

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tarot began to be used as a divinatory tool for fortune telling. This was a departure from the original purpose of the cards, which was to play games such as the Italian game of Tarocchi. The use of tarot cards for divination is thought to have started in France and it quickly spread to other countries.

Why did people start using the tarot cards for divination? One theory is that the tarot’s imagery and symbolism were seen as a way to tap into the subconscious mind. Another theory is that the cards were believed to have mystical properties that could reveal hidden knowledge about a person’s past, present, or future. Whatever the reason, the popularity of tarot as a divinatory tool continued to grow.
One of the most influential figures in the development of the tarot as a divinatory tool was French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who published a book called The Etteilla Tarot in the late 18th century. Alliette believed that the tarot could be used to reveal the secrets of the universe and taught his own unique system of divination using the cards. His system, known as the Etteilla Tarot, involved assigning meanings to each card based on its position in a spread and its relationship to other cards in the spread.
Other occultists and mystics also contributed to the development of tarot as a divinatory tool. For example, the hermetic order known as the Golden Dawn, which was founded in the late 19th century, incorporated the tarot into its teachings. Members of the Golden Dawn believed that the tarot could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and achieve spiritual enlightenment. They created their own unique system of tarot divination, which involved assigning meanings to each card based on their correspondence to the kabbalistic tree of life.

Despite the popularity of tarot as a divinatory tool, there are still misconceptions about its use. Many people associate tarot with Satanism or other forms of dark magic, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Tarot is simply a tool for divination, and it can be used by anyone regardless of their religious beliefs. To learn more about debunking the stereotypes surrounding tarot, check out this article on Debunking the Stereotype of Tarot.

Tarot in the Age of Enlightenment

Tarot In The Age Of Enlightenment
During the period known as the Age of Enlightenment, the tarot underwent a significant transformation. Influenced by the scientific and intellectual advancements of the time, the tarot moved away from its traditional use as a game and began to be viewed as a tool for divination and spiritual exploration. The tarot’s connection to secret societies and occultism also rose to prominence during this time, particularly in France. Learn more about the influence of the Enlightenment on the tarot and its evolution into a tool for spiritual inquiry below. And if you want to learn about debunking a common misconception about the tarot and its relation to Satanism, read our article on Misconceptions about Tarot and Satanism.

The Tarot’s Connection to Occultism and Secret Societies

Throughout the centuries, tarot cards have been associated with occultism and secret societies. Many people believe that these cards have mystical powers that can provide insight into the future or even reveal hidden knowledge about the universe. This perception is partly due to the fact that tarot cards have been used by various groups and individuals for divination purposes.

Some of the most well-known occultists of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Aleister Crowley, Helena Blavatsky, and Arthur Edward Waite, were heavily influenced by tarot cards. They saw them not only as a tool for divination, but also as a means to access spiritual and mystical knowledge. These individuals were members of secret societies, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which incorporated tarot into their practices.

The connection between tarot and secret societies is not limited to the past. Even today, some groups continue to use tarot cards in their esoteric practices. One example is the Order of the Golden Dawn, which still exists in a modified form and uses tarot as a tool for spiritual growth and enlightenment.

However, it’s important to note that not all tarot readers or practitioners are involved in secret societies or occultism. Many people use tarot cards simply as a way to gain insight and guidance in their lives. The perception of tarot as a mystical and occult tool is largely due to the influence of famous occultists and secret societies, as well as popular media portrayals.

Despite their association with occultism and secret societies, tarot cards are increasingly becoming more mainstream and accessible to the general public. With the rise of social media and online marketplaces, it’s easier than ever for people to purchase and learn how to use tarot cards. As more people become interested in tarot, it’s possible that the perception of tarot as a solely occultic tool may begin to shift.

French Occultist Influence on Tarot’s Symbolism and Structure

It is widely accepted that French occultists had a significant impact on the development of the Tarot’s symbolism and structure during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, their influence is often misunderstood or misrepresented.

French Occultism and Tarot

In the late 18th century, French occultists such as Antoine Court de Gébelin and Etteilla became interested in the Tarot’s esoteric potential. They saw the cards as a means of accessing secret knowledge and ancient wisdom. Etteilla in particular was instrumental in popularizing the use of Tarot for divination and creating his own version of the deck.

Changes in the Tarot’s Symbolism and Structure

Under the influence of these French occultists, the Tarot underwent significant changes in its symbolism and structure. The traditional suits of swords, cups, coins, and batons were replaced with wands, cups, swords, and pentacles. The Major Arcana also saw changes, with new cards being added and others being removed or reinterpreted.

Despite these changes, however, it is important to note that the Tarot’s basic structure and symbolism was already established before the French occultists put their stamp on it. The cards were already being used for divination and spiritual purposes, and the imagery and symbolism of the cards had already evolved over centuries.


While French occultists did have a significant impact on the development of Tarot’s symbolism and structure, it is important to understand that their contributions were part of a larger, ongoing process of evolution and adaptation. The Tarot is a historical artifact, and as such, its meaning and value are always subject to interpretation and reinterpretation.

The Modern Tarot: The 20th Century

As tarot continued to evolve through various historical periods, the 20th century saw significant developments that shaped the modern tarot we know today. The tarot experienced a revival during this time, thanks in part to the work of notable figures such as Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. With their collaboration, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck was born and quickly became a popular choice for both divination and artistic appeal. However, despite the popularity of the modern tarot, some myths still persist about its origins – specifically, the belief that tarot cards originated in ancient Egypt. Let’s explore the truth behind this claim and the real origins of the tarot’s Egyptian imagery.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Deck and its Impact

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck, sometimes referred to simply as the Rider deck, is arguably the most popular tarot deck in the world. Created in 1909 by artist Pamela Colman Smith and scholar Arthur Edward Waite, the deck introduced a new level of depth and symbolism to the tarot.

Iconic Imagery: One of the most distinctive features of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is its use of illustrated scenes on the minor arcana cards. Previous decks had only shown pips or basic symbols, but Smith’s artwork brought the cards to life with intricate, symbolic illustrations. Waite’s detailed explanations of the symbolism in his accompanying guidebook, “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot,” further solidified the importance of the imagery in tarot readings.

Widespread Popularity: The Rider-Waite-Smith deck quickly gained popularity, partially due to its ease of access. Unlike many other decks, the images and symbolism used in the Rider deck were relatively easy to understand for beginners. Additionally, the deck’s availability expanded greatly due to its mass production.

Lasting Influence: The Rider-Waite-Smith deck has had a lasting impact on tarot, inspiring countless other decks and interpretations. Its influence has been felt not only in the world of tarot, but also in literature, music, and popular culture.

Controversy: Despite its popularity and cultural significance, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is not without controversy. Some tarot purists argue that the deck’s popularity has led to a monopolization of tarot, and a homogenization of interpretations. Others criticize Smith and Waite for the heavy Christian and Western esoteric influences in the deck. However, regardless of these criticisms, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck remains a beloved and influential piece of tarot history.

Pros Cons
Introduced detailed, symbolic illustrations to tarot Some argue that its popularity has led to a homogenization of tarot interpretation
Easy for beginners to understand Some criticize its heavy Christian and Western esoteric influences
Made tarot more accessible through mass production
Has had a lasting impact on tarot and popular culture

Relevance of Tarot in the Modern World

Tarot has seen a surge of popularity in recent times and has found its place in the modern world in many ways. Here are some of the reasons why Tarot is relevant today:

  • Self-discovery and personal growth: Tarot can be a powerful tool for self-discovery and personal growth. The cards can help you gain insight into your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and guide you towards a path of self-improvement.
  • Therapeutic benefits: Many people have found Tarot to be therapeutic in nature. Simply shuffling the cards and focusing on a question can have a calming effect and help clear the mind. The process of interpreting the cards can also reveal underlying issues that need to be addressed.
  • Entertainment: Tarot can also be a source of entertainment for many. It can be used as a party game or a way to pass the time with friends. The symbolism and imagery on the cards can be fascinating to explore and discuss.
  • Spiritual guidance: Tarot can provide spiritual guidance for those who seek it. The cards can be used to connect with higher powers or spiritual guides, and offer insights into the spiritual journey of the individual.
  • Business and career guidance: Tarot can also be used as a tool for business and career guidance. Some entrepreneurs and professionals have incorporated Tarot into their decision-making process, seeking insights into potential opportunities and challenges.
  • Cultural significance: Tarot has become an integral part of various cultural movements and subcultures, particularly the New Age movement. The imagery and symbolism of the cards have been adapted and reinterpreted, giving it a new cultural significance.

Tarot’s relevance in the modern world lies in its versatility and accessibility. It can be used for a variety of purposes and appeals to people from all walks of life.

Debunking the Myth: Tarot Cards and Ancient Egypt

Throughout the years, many myths have been created around the origins and meanings of tarot cards. One of these myths is that tarot cards originated in ancient Egypt, based on the belief that the images on the cards are connected to the mysteries and symbols of Egyptian culture. However, this is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked by historians and scholars. In this section of the article, we will explore the truth behind the origins of tarot cards and the real story behind their supposed links to ancient Egypt. Let’s delve into the history and unravel this perplexing myth.

No Historical Evidence of Tarot Originating from Ancient Egypt

Despite the popular belief and romanticization of Tarot cards originating in Ancient Egypt, there is no historical evidence to support this claim. In fact, most scholars now agree that Tarot cards likely originated in Renaissance Italy in the 15th century.

There are several reasons why the idea of Tarot cards having ancient Egyptian roots is problematic. Firstly, the historical record does not mention anything about Tarot cards or divination practices resembling Tarot being used in Ancient Egypt. Secondly, the imagery used in Tarot cards, such as the Egyptian priestess or the Sphinx, does not accurately reflect the actual culture and practices of ancient Egyptians.

Moreover, the earliest known deck of Tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, was made in the 15th century in Italy for the wealthy families of Milan. The deck does not contain any Egyptian imagery, suggesting the origin of Tarot cards was far more localized in Italy.

Despite the lack of evidence, some people continue to hold onto the idea of a mystical, ancient Egyptian origin of Tarot cards. This is largely due to the popularity of the occult and the enduring fascination with ancient Egyptian culture. However, we must separate historical fact from fiction and acknowledge that Tarot cards likely did not originate in Ancient Egypt.

The True Origins of Tarot’s Egyptian Imagery

The tarot may not have originated from ancient Egypt, but it does have some Egyptian imagery. The true origins of this imagery are thought to be tied to the era of the Egyptian Revival, a time in the 19th century when Europeans became obsessed with ancient Egypt. As Egyptomania swept across Europe, many symbols and themes of ancient Egypt worked their way into the popular culture of the time, including the tarot.

One of the most notable examples of Egyptian imagery in tarot cards is the depiction of an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol for life, on tarot cards. This symbol is often found on the High Priestess card, which is associated with feminine power, intuition, and mystery. This connection to ancient Egypt may have strengthened the card’s mystical and esoteric associations.

Another common Egyptian symbol in tarot is the sphinx, which is often used to represent riddles, enigmas, and the search for truth. In some decks, the sphinx is even depicted holding a sword or a book, further emphasizing its associations with knowledge and wisdom. The use of the sphinx in tarot likely stems from its frequent appearance in ancient Egyptian art and literature.

The pyramid is another Egyptian symbol that appears in tarot, often in the context of the Hierophant card or the cards associated with authority, tradition, and spiritual guidance. The pyramid’s use in tarot likely reflects its ancient Egyptian associations with power and prestige.

It’s worth noting that many of these Egyptian symbols are not necessarily unique to the tarot, but are instead part of a larger cultural fascination with ancient Egypt that emerged during the 19th century. Nevertheless, the use of these symbols in tarot helps to create a sense of mystery and mysticism that is often associated with the tarot.

  • The ankh is a common symbol found on the High Priestess card.
  • The sphinx is associated with riddles, enigmas, and the search for truth.
  • The pyramid is often associated with authority, tradition, and spiritual guidance.
  • These symbols reflect a larger cultural fascination with ancient Egypt that emerged in the 19th century.
  • Their use in tarot helps to create a sense of mystery and mysticism.


After examining the history of tarot cards, it becomes clear that the longstanding myth of tarot originating in ancient Egypt lacks substantial evidence. Instead, tarot cards have a well-documented development in Europe during the Renaissance and subsequent eras.

Despite the lack of historical evidence connecting tarot cards to ancient Egypt, the allure of tarot’s Egyptian imagery persists to this day. It is important to note, however, that this imagery was likely influenced by the popular fascination with Egypt in the 19th century, as well as the French occultist connections to tarot symbolism.

While the origins of tarot may not be as mysterious as previously believed, its relevance in the modern world cannot be denied. Tarot has continued to evolve and adapt to different cultures and belief systems, remaining a popular tool for divination, self-discovery, and artistic expression.

In conclusion, the myth of tarot originating in ancient Egypt should be dispelled. Tarot has a well-documented history in Europe that can be traced back to the Renaissance era. However, the enduring fascination with Egypt and the influence of French occultists has left a lasting impression on tarot’s symbolism and imagery. Regardless of its origins, tarot cards remain a potent tool for those seeking guidance and self-discovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the earliest known use of Tarot Cards?

The earliest known use of Tarot Cards was in the mid-15th century in Northern Italy for playing games such as Tarocchi.

Can Tarot Cards predict the future?

No, Tarot Cards cannot predict the future. They are a tool for self-reflection and gaining insight into personal situations and emotions.

Were Tarot Cards always used for divination?

No, Tarot Cards were originally created for playing card games and only later became associated with divination and mysticism.

What is the difference between Tarot and Oracle Cards?

Tarot Card decks have a specific structure and symbolism, while Oracle Card decks can be more flexible in their design and interpretation.

What is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck?

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck is a Tarot Card deck created in the early 20th century by artist Pamela Colman Smith and mystic Arthur Edward Waite. It is one of the most popular Tarot decks in use today.

What is the significance of Tarot’s Egyptian imagery?

The Egyptian imagery in Tarot Cards was popularized during the 18th and 19th centuries by French occultists who believed in the mystical power of ancient Egyptian symbolism.

Can anyone learn to read Tarot Cards?

Yes, anyone can learn to read Tarot Cards with time, practice, and a willingness to explore their own intuition.

Is Tarot Card reading a form of witchcraft?

No, Tarot Card reading is not a form of witchcraft. It is simply a tool for self-reflection and introspection.

Do all Tarot Card decks have the same meaning?

No, different Tarot Card decks may have different interpretations and meanings for their symbols and imagery. However, many decks share common themes and structures.

Are there any dangers to using Tarot Cards?

No, there are no inherent dangers to using Tarot Cards. However, it is important to approach them with respect and responsibility, and not rely on them as a substitute for professional advice or guidance.


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