What Were the Earliest Known Tarot Decks? An Insightful Exploration

decks, which are now commonly associated with spirituality and divination, trace their origin to the early 15th century in Italy. Records show that the first deck appeared around 1425 and started as a traditional card game with 56 cards, consisting of 10 numbered cards and four face cards. These games, full of deeply Christian symbols, continue to be played today in countries like Hungary, Austria, and Italy.

The evolution and variation of tarot decks over time have contributed to the rich symbolism and diverse interpretations found in modern tarot. Several notable tarot decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza and the Rider-Waite-Smith, have shaped the way tarot is understood and practiced today. With advances in printing press technology, the availability and affordability of tarot cards have led to tarot’s widespread use for cartomancy and personal growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Early tarot decks originated in 15th century Italy as a traditional card game.
  • Evolution of tarot decks led to rich symbolism and diverse interpretations in modern practice.
  • Advances in printing technology have made tarot cards more accessible, contributing to their use in divination and personal growth.

Origins of Tarot Decks

The earliest known tarot decks, also referred to as carte da trionfi or tarocchi, emerged in Europe during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Initially, these decks were used for playing games, and their association with fortune-telling or divination developed much later. One of the most significant early tarot decks originated from , known as the Visconti tarot.

The Visconti tarot, a set of 67 extravagant hand-painted cards embellished with gold, is a stunning example of early tarot craftsmanship. It is now preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Another early deck, the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot, is a reproduction that comprises 67 existing cards from the original 15th century Italian deck, along with 19 recreated cards to complete the set. This deck, with its male and female Knights and Pages, showcases some unique features in comparison to later tarot decks.

Tarot decks from this era consisted of two main sections: the , with 22 unique and specific cards, and the Minor Arcana, featuring four suits of 14 cards each, similar to a standard deck of playing cards. The Major Arcana are often viewed as having more powerful meanings during tarot readings due to their distinctiveness and limited number.

As tarot cards gained popularity throughout Europe, new variations and regional styles emerged, including the minchiate tarot, which differed from the prevalent tarocchi decks by altering the trumps—such as the Female Pope card. Despite these changes, many of the essential tarot elements remained consistent over time.

By the 1970s, modern tarot decks, such as the Rider-Waite deck and the Morgan-Greer Tarot, became more accessible due to mass production. These decks, with their vivid and borderless artwork, provide a more immediate and approachable visual experience for users. Today, tarot continues to evolve as more artists and designers create new interpretations and styles to appeal to a diverse audience.

Design and Components

Major and Minor Arcana

The tarot deck is comprised of two main sections: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards, which are often considered to be more meaningful or powerful when they appear in a tarot reading, as each card is unique and specific. The Major Arcana cards are also known as trump cards, and include memorable images such as The Fool, The Magician, and The High Priestess.

The Minor Arcana is made up of 56 cards, divided into four suits: Swords, Cups, Coins (sometimes referred to as Pentacles), and Wands, Rods, or Batons, depending on the deck. Each suit contains 10 numbered cards and four court cards.

Suit and Court Cards

Each of the four suits in the Minor Arcana has its characteristics and corresponds to different elements and aspects of life. The Swords represent air, intellect, and sharp thinking; the Cups symbolize water, emotions, and receptivity; the Coins (Pentacles) stand for earth, material possessions, and stability, and the Wands (Rods, Batons) embody fire, energy, and creativity.

The court cards, including the King, Queen, Knight, and Page, depict different archetypes and stages of life. Each suit’s court cards can carry specific meanings when they appear in readings and help provide insight into the querent’s personal journey.

Noteworthy Symbols

Throughout the tarot deck, various symbols weave a complex tapestry of meanings and interpretations. For example, the Major Arcana cards contain iconic images that draw upon Christian symbolism, while the Minor Arcana cards incorporate elements from astrology, numerology, and the Kabbalah.

Some decks, such as the popular Rider-Waite or Rider deck, present the symbols in a more accessible and straightforward manner, making the cards easier for beginners to read and interpret. Other decks, such as historical reproductions, provide a window into the past, showcasing the symbolism and artistic styles of earlier eras.

Ultimately, the tarot deck’s depth and richness lie in its ability to convey profound insights through imagery and symbolism. and components are essential ingredients in crafting an effective tarot reading, offering a myriad of interpretations that resonate with each individual.

Evolution and Variation

Renaissance Influence

The origins of tarot decks can be traced back to the mid-15th century in Italy, where they were called Trionfi cards. Initially designed for playing games, these early tarot cards typically featured intricate hand-painted designs and symbols from the Renaissance period. Furthermore, these decks consisted of four suits and additional trump cards, which would later develop into the Major Arcana.

Shift to Divination Use

By the late 18th century, the use of tarot decks for divination and fortune-telling emerged. Notable figures, such as Jean-Baptiste Alliette and Court de Gébelin, contributed to the popularization of tarot as a divination tool. A significant development during this time was the introduction of illustrated cards for the Minor Arcana, a feature commonly found in modern tarot decks like the Rider-Waite Tarot created by Pamela Colman Smith.

Modern Developments

Tarot cards have continued to evolve, incorporating various symbolic systems and artistic styles. Influential figures such as Aleister Crowley played a key role in redefining the symbolism found in tarot decks, adding depth and complexity. The Sola-Busca is another significant deck, dating back to the 15th century, which has influenced modern tarot cards.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in tarot, leading to the creation of numerous new decks, each presenting a unique perspective on traditional tarot imagery. From thematic decks inspired by historical eras to more esoteric decks rooted in specific spiritual systems, the world of tarot has become as diverse as the people who use these cards for personal guidance, -reflection, and divination practices.

Notable Tarot Decks


The Visconti-Sforza deck is one of the earliest known tarot decks, dating back to the 15th century. It is named after two powerful Italian families, Visconti and Sforza, and was likely created during the reign of the infamous Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. The cards are attributed to , a skilled Italian fresco artist active between 1447-1478. This magnificent deck is admired for its intricate and detailed artwork, displaying the wealth and power of the Italian nobility at the time.

De Marseille

The Tarot de Marseille is another influential early tarot deck, gaining popularity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It is believed to have originated in France, and its designs are marked by simple, bold illustrations that became the basis for many future decks. The Tarot de Marseille was widely used for divination and inspired the creation of regional variations throughout Europe, making it an essential milestone in tarot history.

Aleister Crowley’s Thoth

The Thoth Tarot is a bold, groundbreaking deck designed by legendary occultist Aleister Crowley and artist in the early 20th century. Crowley’s deep knowledge of the esoteric and his intense personality are reflected in the vivid, evocative imagery and symbolism of the cards. The Thoth Tarot combines various esoteric disciplines, including astrology, Kabbalah, and Egyptian mythology, solidifying its place as an influential and complex tarot deck in modern times.


The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot is arguably the most popular and recognizable tarot deck in use today. Created by tarot scholar Arthur Edward Waite and published by the Rider Company in 1909, this deck features the captivating artwork of Pamela Colman Smith. The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot introduces many modern interpretations of tarot symbolism and was innovative for depicting scenes on every card, including the minor arcana. This influential deck has become the standard for many contemporary tarot readers and has inspired countless decks that have followed in its footsteps.

Understanding Tarot Symbolism

Tarot is a fascinating and intricate system of symbolism, encompassing a wide array of imagery and themes. One of the earliest known tarot decks, originating in 15th century Italy, consisted of 56 cards divided into four suits, with an additional fifth suit comprising 20 to 25 cards known as the Major Arcana. This section will delve into some of the rich symbolism behind these enigmatic cards and aim to provide an insight.

The Major Arcana cards contain some of the most iconic and easily recognizable symbols, perhaps none more famous than the Death card. However, contrary to popular belief, the Death card symbolizes transformation and change, rather than literal death. The imagery is powerful and evocative, showing a skeleton riding a horse while carrying a flag bearing a white rose, signifying purity and rebirth.

Another gripping card from the Major Arcana is the Devil, which embodies temptation, materialism, and the darker forces within us. Depicted as a fearsome horned creature with bat wings, the Devil holds a chain connected to two people, illustrating the allure of vices and our struggle to resist them.

The Moon, Star, and World cards are deeply intertwined with celestial imagery. These cards convey emotions and spiritual connections that guide us in our lives. The Moon card represents intuition, dreams, and the subconscious, while the Star card signifies hope, inspiration, and divine guidance. The World card, illustrating a dancing figure within a laurel wreath, symbolizes success, harmony, and the completion of a journey through life.

Complex and thought-provoking, cards like Strength and the Hanged Man perfectly embody the essence of tarot symbolism. The Strength card pictures a woman calmly taming a lion, illustrating inner strength, balance, and personal power. Contrarily, the Hanged Man depicts a man hanging upside down from a tree, inviting contemplation, surrender, and a different perspective on life.

The four suits of the tarot deck are Swords, Cups, Wands, and Pentacles, each associated with particular symbols and aspects of life. Swords are linked to the intellect, thoughts, and conflict. Cups signify emotions, relationships, and spirituality. Wands represent energy, creativity, and willpower, while Pentacles symbolize the material world, wealth, and stability.

In conclusion, the magic of tarot lies in its rich symbolism, which invites and the exploration of human experiences. From the Major Arcana’s potent archetypes to the four suits’ elemental associations, each card reveals a captivating story, weaving a complex tapestry of meaning to those who engage with their evocative imagery.

Tarot and Cartomancy

Tarot decks have a long and fascinating history, dating back to the late 14th century when they first appeared in . Originally used as a game, tarot cards eventually became associated with fortune-telling and divination, giving birth to the practice of cartomancy (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library). One of the most exquisite examples of early tarot decks is the Visconti Tarot, featuring 67 lavish, hand-painted cards with gold detailing.

At their core, tarot decks consist of 78 cards, which can be split into two main categories: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana represents 22 unique cards illustrating various concepts and archetypes, while the Minor Arcana, composed of 56 cards, is divided into four suits akin to modern playing cards. Each suit includes numbered pip cards and face cards (kings, queens, and knights) (University Center Blog).

With the rise of cartomancy, tarot cards became a popular tool for divination across Europe. For example, during the French Revolution, enthusiasts devised revolutionary tarot decks with hints for users, like a cheat-sheet for interpretations. Tarot continued to evolve over the centuries, reflecting societal changes and cultural influences (French Playing Cards).

When it comes to tarot as a form of divination, the cards’ intricate symbolism and imagery play a crucial role in interpreting the meaning of a specific card. In particular, the Major Arcana holds greater significance and power during a reading due to its fewer cards and unique characteristics. The first major mass-produced tarot deck, known as the Rider-Waite or Rider deck, is perhaps the most famous example and has set the standard for modern tarot card imagery (University Center Blog).

In recent years, tarot has experienced a resurgence in popularity, as people seek guidance and insight into their lives. The connection between tarot and cartomancy remains strong, as the symbolism and interpretations of the cards continue to provide a framework for understanding the complexities of the human experience. Although variations of decks exist, the core elements of tarot – the Major and Minor Arcana, pip cards, and face cards – remain consistent, allowing for universal understanding and appreciation of this timeless practice.

Role of Tarot Decks in Games

Tarot decks originated as playing cards in the late 14th century, with the earliest known example, the Visconti Tarot, dating back to the 15th century. These decks provided entertainment, served social purposes, and carried significant artistic value.

In contrast to their modern associations with mysticism and divination, early tarot decks were primarily used in games. Tarot games, known as tarock, were widely popular in central Europe, Italy, and France. These games usually involved trick-taking, bidding, and team play, offering players a diverse and engaging experience.

The structure of tarot decks contributed to their distinct game dynamics. A typical tarot deck comprises 78 cards, divided into two main groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana consists of 22 unique and powerful cards, while the Minor Arcana contains 56 cards, further subdivided into four suits similar to modern playing cards.

During the gameplay, the Major Arcana cards held significant value as they often overshadowed the Minor Arcana cards in terms of scoring and strategy. This unique blend of cards with different levels of power and symbolism added depth and intrigue to tarot games, making them a fascinating pastime for players.

Despite their initial role in games, tarot decks gradually evolved into tools for cartomancy and esoteric practices. Decks like the Rider-Waite Tarot, which gained popularity in the 20th century, became symbols of mysticism, overshadowing their gaming origins.

In summary, tarot decks started as playing cards and were primarily used for tarock games. The unique structure and symbolism in these decks provided engaging and strategic gameplay. Although tarot decks are now mostly associated with divination, their early history as a form of entertainment continues to hold significance and fascination for enthusiasts and collectors alike.

Impact of Printing Press and Technology

The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1448 revolutionized the production and distribution of written materials, including the tarot deck. Before this groundbreaking innovation, tarot decks were painstakingly hand-painted and therefore scarce, expensive, and mainly available to the wealthy elite.

With the advent of the printing press, tarot decks became more accessible and affordable to the general public. This increased availability allowed for a greater variety of designs and a wider distribution of decks, contributing to the evolution of tarot symbolism and interpretation.

As technology advanced, the chromolithograph was introduced in the 19th century. This new printing method allowed for the mass production of tarot decks in full-color, further enhancing their popularity and accessibility. Chromolithography not only made it easier to produce vivid and detailed tarot decks, but it also paved the way for modern tarot artists to create an array of uniquely designed decks, reflecting diverse cultural and personal perspectives.

In summary, the invention of the printing press and advancements in technology, such as the chromolithograph, have played a significant role in the evolution and widespread availability of tarot decks. Today, tarot enthusiasts can choose from a vast array of decks, each with its distinct imagery and interpretation, largely due to these influential innovations.

Frequently Asked Questions

When were the earliest tarot decks created?

The earliest known tarot decks were created in the late 14th century in central Europe. These decks were primarily used for playing card games and eventually became associated with fortune-telling several centuries later1.

Who designed the Visconti-Sforza deck?

The Visconti-Sforza tarot deck is a beautiful and extravagant example of early tarot, originating in the 15th century. It consists of 67 hand-painted cards adorned with gold. The artist behind this exquisite deck remains uncertain; however, it is widely believed to be Bonifacio Bembo, an Italian painter, and miniaturist2.

What makes rare tarot decks unique?

Rare tarot decks are distinguished by their scarcity or cultural significance. They often feature unique artwork, innovative design concepts, and representation of specific cultural elements. For example, the Basque Mythical Tarot highlights the traditions and mythologies of the Basque people living in Northern Spain3.

What is the historical significance of antique tarot cards?

Antique tarot cards offer a glimpse into the history and evolution of tarot art, symbolism, and practices. By studying these historical decks, one can gain an understanding of how tarot has developed over time, including its connections to religion, mythology, and various cultures.

How have tarot card meanings evolved over time?

The meanings attached to tarot cards have changed and evolved over the centuries. Initially used as a game, tarot eventually gained association with cartomancy and divination. The modern understanding of tarot card meanings has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly with the creation of the iconic Rider-Waite deck4. Even today, interpretations of tarot cards may vary among readers, reflecting the complex history and rich symbolism of the tarot.

Where can one find authentic antique tarot decks for sale?

Authentic antique tarot decks can be found through collectors, specialty shops, auctions, and online marketplaces. It is essential to carefully research and verify the authenticity of a deck before purchasing, as reproductions and counterfeit versions may be present in the market. Some institutions, like the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library5, also house rare and antique tarot collections that can be studied and appreciated by enthusiasts.


  1. https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/visconti-tarot

  2. https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/visconti-tarot

  3. https://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/basque-mythical/

  4. https://blogs.uww.edu/ucinfo/2021/11/08/tarot-a-brief-history/

  5. https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/visconti-tarot