Tarot Cards: Origins, Games, and the Occult

I believe it is safe to assume most people know what Tarot cards are, if they have not had their own experiences with them. It might be surprising to know that their current use was not their original use. The first known origins were in Milan, and they were referred to trionfi cards. It is not known due to insufficient documentation, but it is believed they were heavily influenced by mamluk game cards that trickled into Italy through trade with Northern Africa. The first recorded commission of trionfi cards were to Filippo Maria Visconti, and around 15 of them were saved throughout history. Though there were records of them being traded throughout Italy before this, they were all hand-painted, making them expensive and time-consuming to make. Only the rich would have these. At least until the invention of the printing press, when they were made in more mass production and sold throughout Europe.

Trionfi cards did not have much uniformity. You had the base 13 cards with 4 suites slowly adapted to what they are today (club, coins, sword, and cups – may seem odd since we know it as club, spade, diamond, and hearts, but the original are still used in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese decks). Then you had the trump cards or the trionfi cards, which are what separate this from a regular deck of cards. Trionfi cards were usually painted with religious allegories, like Visconti’s 60 card deck, that included motifs of Roman Gods. One of the most infamous decks was from Florence: it was 97 cards with astrological symbols and the four elements displayed in it. The deck was named Minchiate. 

So if they weren’t telling each others future, what were they doing with these extravagant decks?

Playing Games!

There were three types of games you could play with these cards. Tarrochi (Troifni) was first found recorded in the diary of Giusto Giusti, but rules were not set out for the trick-taking game until Martaino da Tortona in 1637. From there, the Tarot group formed as the French annexed Milan and various other parts of Italy. The Tarok group was found more in Northern France and into the Holy Roman Empire. Rules varied based on where you were, but the concept could be narrowed down to these steps:

  1. The person to the right of the dealer plays the first trick (lays down a card). Players must then follow the suit or lay down a trump card. The winner leads the next trick.
  2. Score is kept by the cards you keep and their point value.
  3. Make as many points as possible.

The process of counting the two different types of cards (tricks and trumps) was complicated, and over time it was condensed into several ways to count both: counting in threes, counting in threes with low cards, counting threes with a two point reduction, and counting in fractions. The cards, rules, and point systems varied by where in Europe you were. 

So how did something used to gamble and kill time become a tool of the occult and fortune telling? 

Well, for that, we have to fast-forward to the 18th century. Since the beginning of card playing, cartomancy (divination with cards) has lived right besides it. Even in the 14th century, it wouldn’t be surprising if the practice also originated with mamluk cards. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Tarot cards became almost synonymous with divination in English-speaking countries. We have Etteilla, other wise known as Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who was a French occultist around 1785. He published a book claiming to have been using the practice since the early 1750s. He in total published three books on the subject: Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots (“How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot”), Nouvelle Ecole de Magie (New School of Magic), and Cours théorique et pratique du Livre du Thot (Theoretical and Practical Course in the Book of Thot). He also is responsible for their classification as major and minor arcanas. His ideas spread like wildfire, and it is his ideas that are mostly correlated to Tarot decks.

Whatever the use, Tarot decks have been entertaining us for generations! Do you own a deck or have a fascinating experience? Head over to our page on your preferred social media and tell us all about it!