The History of the Tarot cards is indeed a mystery, and an intriguing one at that. Many theorize that the tarot first began in a variety of exotic and ancient contexts, including Egypt, India, the Holy Land, ancient China, as well as in more recent ages, in Europe, particularly Italy and France (with a very strong link to the nomadic Gypsies). According to many modern experts, the Tarot truly originated in northern Italy early in the 15th century (1420-1440). There is no actual physical evidence that it originated in any other time or place. The earliest discovered cards are lavish hand-painted decks from the courts of European nobility. The word “Tarot” itself has been associated with several different origins, including the following:
- Egyptian term, Tarosh which means "The royal way"
- Hebrew term, Torah which means "The Law"
- A location in Northern Italy, the Taro River
- Hindu term, Taru which means the "Cards"
- Hebrew term, Troa which means "The Gate"
Again, experts now believe that the tarot were originally called the Caret da Trionfi, which means the Cards of the Triumphs. They were later called the Tarocchi in the 1500s to distinguish them from other emerging playing cards – the French term for this name was Tarot.
Some also believe that the Tarot were originally playing cards introduced by Islamic peoples which were brought to Europe via Spain. These early cards had suits of cups, swords, coins and polo sticks (seen as staves by the Europeans). The French later changed these to the common hearts, clubs, spades, and diamond suits.
There is verifiable evidence to show that the tarot became very popular during the Italian Renaissance. This period which supposedly gave birth to the Tarot, was a time of great intellectual activity. Philosophies and practices such as Hermeticism, astrology, Neoplatonism, and Pythagorean thought with roots in Alexandrian Egypt, and early Christian thought all developed. Many mystical and metaphysical philosophies can be viewed within the tarot cards, across a wide spectrum of interpretation.
In the 18th and 19th century, several occult leaders became interested in the tarot and did much work deciphering astrological, hermitic, kabbalaistic, alchemical, and other mystery school attributes and associations with the 78 tarot cards.
Historically, and today, the most common reason for consulting the tarot cards is for divination. It is perfectly fine to read for oneself, but usually there are two people involved in a reading: the querent, or the person who the reading is intended for, and the reader – the expert who deciphers the cards for the querent.
If you like, you can watch an excellent video on The Origins of the Tarot Cards