How Tarot Evolved: From Card Game to Divination Tool

The tarot, a deck of cards consisting of the Major and Minor Arcana, originally began as a card game in the 15th century. However, over the centuries, tarot cards have transitioned from being a mere game to an influential divinatory tool. The transformation of tarot was a gradual process, intertwined with its introduction to various cultures and the evolving understanding of its symbolism.

In the late 18th century, tarot cards began to gain popularity as a divinatory tool, primarily due to significant French occultists exploring the cards’ esoteric meanings. As the tarot spread further, the influence of British organizations and the integration of symbolism from various spiritual beliefs further solidified its role in divination. Today, tarot cards serve as both a self-reflection tool and a means of understanding various aspects of our lives, while still maintaining a connection to its roots as a card game.

Key Takeaways

  • Tarot cards originated as a 15th-century card game, gradually evolving into a divinatory tool over time.
  • French occultists, British organizations, and integration of symbolism played a crucial role in this transition.
  • Modern tarot serves as a tool for self-reflection and understanding life, while still maintaining a connection to its card game roots.

The Early Game of Tarot

In the 15th century, Italy witnessed the birth of a new card game called Tarot. Originally, Tarot was just a game played among the elite, with elaborate, hand-painted decks crafted specifically for their enjoyment. The earliest known Tarot deck can be traced back to Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, and is now referred to as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

The early Tarot decks, known as Tarocchi, consisted of 78 cards divided into two main groups: the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana comprises four suits – batons, cups, swords, and coins – with each suit containing ten numbered cards and four court cards (king, queen, knight, and page). The Major Arcana, on the other hand, showcases 22 individual trump cards, each depicting unique and powerful symbols.

The popularity of Tarot as a game spread across Italy during the Renaissance, and players eagerly engaged in matches that tested their strategic skills. The trump cards held significant importance, often dictating the outcome of a game. Decisions had to be made based on valuable insights and timely use of the trump cards.

As time went on, the game of Tarot evolved and transformed beyond the Italian borders. Different countries adapted the game to their own tastes, giving birth to various regional Tarot decks. Despite these changes, the core structure of Tarot – the combination of Major and Minor Arcana – remained a constant.

While Tarot was initially a card game enjoyed by those in high society, its true depth and symbolism would eventually become a powerful tool for divination. The cards captivated both the curious and the spiritual, who began seeking answers and guidance from the messages hidden within each card. Although it might have started as a simple game, the journey of Tarot and its transformation into a mystical divinatory tool stands as a testament to its enduring appeal and enigmatic nature.

The Transition From Game To Divinatory Tool

The history of tarot cards is a fascinating journey that began as a simple card game and evolved into a powerful divinatory tool. Tarot cards, initially used for playing games, gradually captured the interest of and became a significant tool for divination.

The earliest known tarot cards, dating back to the 15th century, were mainly used for playing cards in Italy. They featured beautiful artwork and symbolism, which later attracted the attention of the esoteric community. As time went on, the symbolic nature of tarot cards grew more complex and started to reveal deeper spiritual connections. This development led to tarot evolving from a game to a method of reflecting on life, personal growth, and predicting the future.

The journey into the world of divination really began when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published volume eight of his work “Le Monde Primitif” in the 18th century. In this publication, he claimed that tarot cards had ancient Egyptian origins and were directly linked to divine wisdom. This assertion laid the foundation for the use of tarot as a divinatory tool.

Jean-Baptiste Alliette, also known as Etteilla, was an important figure who further popularized tarot for divination purposes. A French occultist, Etteilla published a book on cartomancy and designed the first tarot deck specifically for divination. His deck had distinct imagery which later inspired many other tarot decks.

The transition of tarot into divinatory practice became more pronounced with the creation of the widely popular Rider-Waite deck in the early 20th century. Pamela Colman Smith, a renowned mystic and artist, designed the deck under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite. The Rider-Waite deck incorporated a deep esoteric symbolism and made the connection between the tarot’s Major and Minor Arcana clearer, making it a perfect tool for divination.

Another essential milestone in tarot’s history as a divinatory tool was the development of the and the Thoth Tarot deck by and Lady Frieda Harris. This deck incorporated astrological, mystical, and kabbalistic symbolism, which further solidified tarot’s reputation as a tool for occult exploration and divination.

Throughout its history, tarot underwent a significant transformation from a game of chance to a profound divinatory tool. As people began to appreciate and explore the spiritual and symbolic aspects of tarot, they found deeper meaning and connection with the cards. Today, tarot is used by millions worldwide for personal reflection, , and divination, making it a fascinating example of how a simple game can evolve into a powerful spiritual tool.

Influence Of French Occultists

The transition of tarot from a card game to a divinatory tool has its roots in the influence of prominent French occultists. It was Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French scholar, who first proposed the idea that tarot cards had ancient Egyptian origins and held hidden mystical knowledge. In his multi-volume work, Le monde primatif, he explored the concept that tarot cards were linked to divine wisdom and could be used for spiritual guidance.

Building on Gébelin’s theories, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as Etteilla, expanded the usage of tarot cards as a tool for fortune-telling. Etteilla, the first cartomancer, designed a modified tarot deck with and further solidified the mystical and predictive nature of tarot. His interpretations of the cards’ meanings greatly influenced not only French enthusiasts but also the development of tarot in the wider European context.

The esoteric ideas introduced by Gébelin and Etteilla continued to gain momentum, leading to the creation of the iconic Rider-Waite deck in the early 20th century. Designed by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith under the guidance of mystic and scholar Arthur Edward Waite, this deck included detailed symbolism and imagery that furthered the association between tarot and the occult. The Rider-Waite deck has since become one of the most popular and influential tarot decks in the world.

In conclusion, the transformation of tarot from a card game to a divinatory tool can be attributed to the vision and influence of French occultists, particularly Antoine Court de Gébelin and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla). Their pioneering work laid the foundation for the modern tarot, with its rich symbolism and deep association with mysticism and spiritual guidance.

Influence of British Organisations

The transition of tarot from a card game to a divinatory tool was significantly influenced by British organizations and individuals, particularly the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and Pamela Colman Smith. The Golden Dawn, founded in the late 19th century, was a prominent secret society that focused on the study of occultism, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. This organization played a key role in the popularization of tarot as a means of divination and spiritual guidance.

Aleister Crowley, a notable British occultist and a member of the Golden Dawn, had a profound impact on the development of tarot as a divinatory tool. His deep interests in mysticism, magic, and the esoteric arts led him to explore and promote tarot as a powerful instrument for self-knowledge and personal transformation. Crowley authored “The Book of Thoth,” a comprehensive reference on tarot where he described the cards as a “key to the Universe” and their symbolic language as an integral part of the Western esoteric tradition.

The Rider-Waite deck, designed by artist Pamela Colman Smith under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite, another prominent member of the Golden Dawn, has become the most recognizable tarot deck in the world. The unique feature of this deck is its detailed pictorial representation of each card, illustrating profound symbolic meanings and esoteric concepts related to the imagery. The Rider-Waite deck revolutionized the way tarot was used for divination by providing clear visual cues and enabling readers to tap into their intuition more effectively.

In conclusion, the impact of British organizations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, along with influential figures like Aleister Crowley and Pamela Colman Smith, played a fundamental role in the transformation of tarot from a mere card game to a powerful tool for spiritual exploration and self-reflection. Through their groundbreaking work and contributions, these visionaries have forever changed our understanding of tarot and have left a lasting legacy that continues to shape the world of divination today.

Integration of Symbolism

The transition of tarot from a card game to a divinatory tool is deeply entwined with the integration of symbolism into the cards. The original tarot decks, used for playing games in medieval Europe, underwent a transformation as esoteric scholars began to associate the cards with the ancient teachings of Kabbalah, love, and the mysteries of the universe.

The Major Arcana cards, such as The World, The Moon, The Sun, Death, Temperance, Wheel of Fortune, The Chariot, Justice, The Emperor, and The Empress, gradually embraced allegorical symbols reflective of a spiritual journey, which aligns with the Fool’s progression through life. Each card, in turn, represents a unique aspect of the human experience, ranging from triumphant achievements to challenging life lessons.

Drawing from a rich wellspring of ancient wisdom that includes Egyptian and Kabbalistic symbolism, the tarot cards evolved beyond their original purpose as simple game pieces. In this new context, they became powerful mirrors of the human psyche, shaping the collective understanding of life, love, and the search for meaning in the world.

As the tarot gained prominence as a means of self-discovery and divine guidance, the mystical symbolism within the Major and Minor Arcana cards infused the readings with a sense of depth and universal wisdom. Through this process, each card came to encompass a broad range of meanings, dependent on its imagery and the context of the reading.

Today, the tarot is celebrated for its rich tapestry of symbols, offering guidance through an intimate connection to the universal forces that shape our lives. As a bridge between the seen and unseen realms, the tarot acts as a transformative tool, shedding light on our deepest desires, fears, and the mysteries of existence itself.

Modern Tarot and Popular Culture

Tarot cards have come a long way since their origins as a traditional card game in Italy, first appearing in 1425. Today, they play a significant role in popular culture as a popular form of fortune-telling and spiritual guidance. The transition of tarot from a game to a divinatory tool can be attributed to various factors, including the influence of artists, media, and society.

In the 18th century, the use of tarot cards for divination gained momentum after Antoine Court de Gébelin claimed their Egyptian origins and their potential usefulness in fortune-telling. This sparked interest in the mystical and symbolic power of the tarot, causing it to gain traction in spiritual and mystic communities. Over time, tarot’s symbolic language further evolved, and with the development of the Rider-Waite deck, it became a widespread tool for self-reflection and divination.

As tarot transitioned into mainstream society, it penetrated various forms of media, such as films, books, and television shows. Movies like “The Red Violin” and “Live and Let Die” have showcased tarot readings, piquing the curiosity of moviegoers. Numerous novels and series also explore the mysterious world of tarot, solidifying its status in popular culture. This increased exposure has led to a surge in interest in tarot, making it a ubiquitous presence in the spiritual and mystical landscape.

Over the years, artists have played a significant role in shaping the visual representation of tarot decks. Through their creative expressions, they have personalized and modernized the traditional imagery, making the cards more accessible and appealing to contemporary audiences. This artistic development has further solidified the position of tarot cards in popular culture, attracting new generations of practitioners and enthusiasts.

Lastly, the growth of the tarot market also demonstrates its continued impact on popular culture. As more people seek guidance and understanding of the tarot, it has turned into a lucrative industry, with a wide variety of decks, books, and online courses available for purchase. There has also been a rise in the number of tarot-related services, such as professional readings and workshops, providing professionals and enthusiasts with the tools and resources to expand their knowledge of tarot and its spiritual benefits.

In conclusion, the transition of tarot from a card game to a divinatory tool has been heavily influenced by popular culture, media, artists, and society. Its presence in various forms of entertainment and artistic expression has ensured that tarot continues to be an engaging and fascinating subject for generations to come. The impact of tarot on modern culture is undeniable and shows no signs of waning.

The Role of Tarot in Self-Reflection and Meditation

Tarot has evolved from its origins as a card game to a powerful tool for self-reflection, meditation, and exploration of mysticism and esoteric ideas. In this transformative journey, the symbolic imagery and archetypes found in tarot cards have become essential for those seeking self-knowledge and personal development.

The practice of self-reflection through tarot involves looking within oneself and contemplating the revelations provided by the cards. This introspective approach allows individuals to gain insight into their thoughts, emotions, and motivations by connecting with the symbolism of the cards. Tarot cards serve as a mirror, reflecting our inner world back to us and making it easier to understand the complexities of our psyche.

Meditation and tarot often go hand in hand for practitioners who wish to enhance their spiritual journey. In a meditative state, individuals can focus more intently on the imagery and messages found in the cards, tapping into their intuition and honing their interpretive skills. Through consistent practice, tarot meditation enables deeper connections with one’s spiritual self, ultimately fostering personal growth.

In addition to self-reflection and meditation, tarot has strong ties to mysticism and esoteric schools of thought. By delving into the symbols, archetypes, and meanings behind the cards, individuals can explore ancient wisdom traditions and unlock hidden knowledge. Many tarot enthusiasts find themselves drawn to the study of Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, and other occult systems that further enrich their understanding of the cards.

This multifaceted approach to tarot has led many to view it as more than mere fortune-telling. Instead, it serves as a practical yet magical tool for those seeking personal development, self-awareness, and a greater understanding of the mysterious and mystical aspects of life. In embracing the role of tarot in self-reflection and meditation, practitioners can truly deepen their connection to themselves and the universe.

Understanding Tarot Card Spreads

Tarot cards can be used for a variety of purposes, primarily divination and self-reflection. A card spread refers to how the cards are arranged for interpretation. Each spread holds a unique meaning, providing a deeper understanding of the querent’s situation. Spreads can range from simple one-card layouts to more complex ones involving multiple cards.

One popular tarot spread is the three-card spread, representing past, present, and future. In this layout, the past influences the present, while the present determines the future. The reader interprets the cards’ meanings based on their position in the spread, illustrating how various aspects of the querent’s life are interconnected.

Tarot decks consist of 78 cards, divided into the Major and Minor Arcanas. The Major Arcana contains 22 archetypal cards representing significant life events, while the Minor Arcana is composed of four suits: Wands, Pentacles, Cups, and Swords. Each suit ranges from the Ace (one) to ten, followed by four court cards.

The suit of Wands is associated with action, creativity, and . In contrast, Pentacles represent material wealth, stability, and practicality. The different suits relate to various aspects of the querent’s life, and their meanings change based on the spread they appear in.

The Fool, for instance, is one of the most recognizable cards from the Major Arcana. Traditionally, it represents new beginnings and stepping into the unknown. Depending on the card’s position in a spread, The Fool may signify a call to adventure or a warning against impulsiveness.

Throughout the years, tarot has transformed from a mere card game to a powerful divinatory tool. Understanding tarot card spreads allows the reader to gain a deeper insight into the querent’s situation, fostering connection and self-awareness. Each spread reveals a narrative, helping the querent make sense of their life and find guidance for their path forward.


The journey of tarot cards from a simple card game to a powerful divinatory tool is a fascinating one. It all began with tarot cards emerging in in the late 14th century, often associated with elaborate, hand-painted decks like the Visconti Tarot. These cards were initially designed to entertain and tell stories through captivating images.

However, the connection between tarot and divination is deeply rooted in history. Its transformation into a tool for divination can be linked to esoteric guidance and occult meanings. As mentioned by Helena Blavatsky in her works ‘The Secret Doctrine’ and ‘The Unveiling of Isis’, the origins of tarot could even be traced back to Ancient Egypt. She suggested that the tarot cards conveyed sacred knowledge, known only to the initiated, and used for esoteric purposes.

In Medieval Europe, the practice of divination had to be concealed due to religious and social constraints, so tarot cards evolved into a game to disguise their mystical . This only reinforced the cards’ deep symbolism, which began to resonate with those seeking guidance, truth, and increased self-awareness.

The transition of tarot cards was further fueled by the emergence of influential tarot decks, such as the Rider-Waite deck, which came to represent the archetypal tarot deck. This mass-produced deck made tarot and divination more accessible, enabling people to look for answers and explore their spirituality without fear of persecution.

From their ancient roots to their modern-day interpretations, tarot cards have always captivated the human imagination. Somewhere between a game and a divinatory tool, they serve as portals to the unseen realms, allowing seekers to tap into deeper layers of meaning and self-discovery. Though the origins of tarot may remain unknown, the enduring power of these mystical cards is undeniable. The tarot’s journey through time continues to inspire countless individuals to embrace its guidance, wisdom, and transformative potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the history behind tarot cards as a game?

The history of tarot cards dates back to the 15th century in Europe, where they were originally used as playing cards in a game. Known as Tarocchi or Tarocchini, these games were played with a unique deck that featured four suits of numbered cards, court cards, and a fifth suit known as the Major Arcana, which consisted of 22 allegorical figures.

When did people start using tarot cards for divination?

The use of tarot cards for divination is believed to have started during the 18th century, when occultists and mystics began to associate the imagery of the Major Arcana with ancient religious and spiritual symbols. With the rise of and esoteric practices, tarot cards became increasingly popular as a tool for psychic readings and self-discovery.

What factors contributed to tarot’s shift from gameplay to divination?

Among the factors that contributed to tarot’s transition from a card game to a divinatory tool were the growing interest in mysticism and the occult, as well as the symbolic and archetypal nature of the Major Arcana. These cards, with their allegorical images, lent themselves well to interpretation and storytelling, making them an ideal medium for insights into the human psyche.

Are there any historical events that influenced tarot’s evolution?

Throughout history, several events can be seen to have influenced the development and popularization of tarot as a divinatory tool. For instance, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the interest in mysticism and esotericism was at its peak, figures such as Antoine Court de Gébelin and Éliphas Lévi used tarot in their occult practices. Additionally, the works of Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith in the early 20th century significantly contributed to the widespread use of tarot for divination.

How were the meanings of individual tarot cards developed?

The meanings of individual tarot cards were developed over time by both mystics who studied ancient symbols and mythology, as well as cartomancers who used the cards as a divinatory tool. By connecting the symbolic figures of the Major Arcana and the elements associated with the four suits to aspects of human life and experience, a rich language of symbolism and interpretation was formed.

Did any specific cultures or individuals drive the change of tarot’s purpose?

While it’s difficult to pinpoint any one culture or individual as the driving force behind tarot’s transition from a card game to a divinatory tool, some significant figures have contributed to its development and popularization. For example, Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French occultist, was one of the first to propose that tarot had ancient origins and contained hidden spiritual wisdom. The works of Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, who created the influential Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, also played a crucial role in shaping the modern understanding and use of tarot for divination.