Where do tarot cards come from?

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Oct. 10 2002 5:51 PM

Where Do Tarot Cards Come From?

This Rider-Waite tarot card is the same style as that found at the crime scene
This Rider-Waite tarot card is the same style as that found at the crime scene

The sniper who's terrorizing Greater Washington, D.C., left a taunting tarot card —inscribed "Dear Policeman, I am God"—near the scene of one shooting. Where do tarot cards come from?

Tarot cards likely originated in northern Italy during the late 14th or early 15th century. The oldest surviving set, known as the Visconti-Sforza deck, was created for the Duke of Milan's family around 1440. The cards were used to play a bridge-like game known as tarocchi, popular at the time among nobles and other leisure lovers. According to tarot historian Gertrude Moakley, the cards' fanciful images—from the Fool to Death—were inspired by the costumed figures who participated in carnival parades.

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The game of tarocchi eventually spread to other European countries, including southern France, where it was renamed tarot. The cards were not regarded as mystical until the late 18th century, when the occult came into vogue. A man named Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote a popular book linking the cards to ancient Egyptian lore, arguing that tarot symbols contained the secret wisdom of a god called Thoth. Around the same time, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, writing under the pseudonym Etteilla, published a treatise on using tarot cards as divination tools.

The popularity of tarot cards spread as Europe's fascination with the occult grew. French writer Eliphas Lévi popularized the notion that tarot symbols were somehow connected with the Hebrew alphabet, and thus to the Jewish mystical tradition of kabbalah; the pulpy book The Tarot of the Bohemians concocted the notion that tarot cards were a Gypsy invention. (At the time, Gypsies were believed to have originated in Egypt, which many 19th-century Europeans fancied as the cradle of human knowledge.)

Mystical groups such as the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucians turned tarot into an American fad during the early 1900s. Many American tarot practitioners use a set of cards known as the Waite-Smith deck, created in 1909 by A.E. Waite, a British member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the artist Pamela Colman Smith. Another popular deck, the Book of Thoth, was developed by magician-cum-guru Aleister Crowley. Both have become de rigueur accessories for modern fortune tellers.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us.

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