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History of Tarot Bookmark and Share

Some time in the first half of the fifteenth century, somewhere in northern Italy, someone created the first set of tarot cards. Like the playing cards of the time, the tarot deck included number cards (1 through 10) in four suits, and court cards page, knight, and king. But the tarot deck had more: a queen was added to each of the courts, and 22 special cards, not belonging to any suit, were added. These special cards bore symbolic pictures, with such subjects as the Emperor, the Pope, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, the Devil, and the Moon.

The tarot cards were used to play a new type of card game, similar to bridge, but with 21 of the special cards serving as permanent trumps, which could be played regardless of what suit was led, and outranked all the ordinary cards. This Game of Triumphs, as it was called, became extraordinarily popular, particularly among the upper classes, and spread through northern Italy and eastern France. As the game spread to new locales, changes were often made in the pictures, and also in the ranking of the trumps, which usually bore no numbers. In time, tarot spread south to Sicily and north to Austria, Germany, and the Low Countries.

Centuries later, devotees of the occult arts in France and England encountered the tarot and saw mystical and magical meaning in the enigmatic symbolism of the cards. Their fascination with the cards led to the reputation tarot presently has as a divination tool and occult artifact.

One objective of tarot history is to trace the many changes the cards have undergone through the centuries, as they were taken to different locales and redesigned by different artists and card makers. Many variant designs are beautiful, intriguing, or provocative, giving us a window on the popular culture of different times and places.


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