Various writers, teachers and explorers of esoteric arts (magic, wicca, magick, Golden Dawn, etc) have claimed that Tarot cards are repositories of ancient wisdom- with origins from ancient Egypt through various parts of Asia. While I believe that much of ‘Western’ religious tradition most likely descends from Ancient Egyptian traditions, I suspect that solid evidence of it is lost to time and/or the bowels of the Catholic Corporation archives. What we do know is that decks of cards were being used across Europe by the Romani and others for fortune telling, as well as Tarocchi, a card game. The oldest cards still in existence are from the 15th Century- generally produced for members of the Visconti families in what is now Italy.
Perhaps one of the best discussions of the history of Tarot decks is the 300+ page, heavily-illustrated, The Encyclopedia Of Tarot, Vol. 1, shown in the attached image. This is the first of four volumes (so far) written by Stuart R. Kaplan who founded US Games Systems Inc to publish and distribute Tarot and other decks of cards. The book lists European references to playing cards as far back as the 1300s. He then presents early tarocchi decks, modern tarock decks, and of course the Occult Revival interest in Tarot as a divination tool.
In many earlier decks (as well as some recent designs) the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana showed just the number of items (eight cups, three swords, etc.) reminiscent of what’s found on modern playing cards. Designs created by members of various occult groups such as Theosophical Society and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and published in the 19th Century included detailed illustrations on all the cards. The Rider-Waite deck designed by A.E. Waite (artwork by Pamela Colman Smith) and published by Rider & Company had perhaps the greatest influence on the meanings, designs and order of cards in most designs produced since.
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