History of Tarot: From Playing Cards to Spiritual Insight - Crystal Sand Tarot

History of Tarot: From Playing Cards to Spiritual Insight

The history of tarot is as intricate and fascinating as the designs on the cards themselves. Over the centuries, tarot cards have transitioned from playful parlor games to profound spiritual and divine tools. Discover how these cards became the iconic symbols of divination and self-reflection we recognize today by taking a look into their history.

Tarot’s Origins: The Early History

The first recorded decks resembling tarot cards emerged in medieval Europe, not as occult instruments but as playing cards. These early versions, such as the Tarocchi deck from 15th-century Italy, bore images that would later evolve into the Major and Minor Arcana. As they spread across Europe, these cards took on regional artistic flairs but retained their primary role: entertainment.

Transition to Mysticism: The 18th Century Shift

As the history of tarot evolved, It was only in the 18th century that tarot cards began to be associated with the esoteric and the mystical. French occultists, most notably Antoine Court de Gébelin, saw deeper, symbolic meanings in the cards. They believed that tarot decks contained hidden knowledge, possibly from ancient Egyptian wisdom or the Kabbalah. This period saw the birth of tarot as a tool for divination, forever altering its trajectory.

The Occult Revival: Tarot History in the 19th Century

Witch in white shirt sitting in the center of pentagram circle with candles, dark magic ritual process. Occultism and exorcism

The 19th century was marked by a surge in interest in the occult across Europe. Secret societies, like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, embraced tarot cards as instruments of knowledge and insight. Visionaries like Eliphas Lévi, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley significantly contributed during this time. The RiderWaite Tarot deck was conceived by Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. It quickly emerged as one of the most iconic and influential tarot decks. This set the standards for most decks that followed.

Tarot in the 20th Century and Beyond

The 20th century saw an explosion of diverse tarot decks, reflecting various cultural, mythological, and spiritual paths. As the world became more interconnected, the appeal of tarot cards went global. Their influence permeated pop culture, appearing in films, books, and art. With the dawn of the digital age, online tarot readings became accessible, introducing the ancient art to an even broader audience.

Tarot and Psychology

The intersection of tarot and psychology offers a captivating exploration of the human psyche. At the forefront of this synthesis is the influential psychologist Carl Jung, who highlighted potential links between tarot symbolism and the vast realm of the subconscious mind.

Jung’s Archetypes and Tarot Imagery

Jung introduced the concept of archetypes—universal symbols and themes that reside within the “collective unconscious” of humanity. These archetypes portrayed in tarot are shared motifs across cultures and history, ingrained in our shared human experience. He suggested that the images and symbols on tarot cards resonate strongly with these archetypes. For instance:

  • The Empress card, representing fertility and motherhood, can be linked to the “Mother” archetype.
  • The Hermit, a card of introspection and inner seeking, aligns with the “Wise Old Man” archetype.

By tapping into these archetypal images, tarot readings can evoke profound insights and reflections, mirroring back to us the universal experiences and emotions we all share.

Tarot as a Therapeutic Tool

Beyond mere divination, tarot has found its way into therapeutic practices. Psychologists and counselors, inspired by Jung’s ideas, sometimes incorporate tarot cards into their sessions. 

Deck of cards Tarot Rider-Waite. Major Arcana. XI Justice

Here’s why:

  • Self-Reflection: Tarot cards can serve as reflective mirrors, helping individuals confront, articulate, and understand their internal feelings and conflicts.
  • Narrative Exploration: Drawing a sequence of cards can help clients construct and deconstruct narratives about their lives, providing structure to their experiences and feelings.  
  • Decisionmaking & Clarity: While not used to predict the future in therapeutic settings, tarot can assist individuals in exploring potential outcomes and consequences based on different choices.

Bridging Tarot History and Modernity

Incorporating tarot into psychology symbolizes a broader trend where age-old mystic practices are being reevaluated and integrated into modern therapeutic techniques. In practicing tarot now, we embrace the history by finding ways to incorporate the cards in modern practices.

As therapists and seekers continue to use tarot cards as introspective tools, they underline the confluence of ancient wisdom and contemporary science, proving that the language of symbols is timeless.

Diversity and Representation in Modern Tarot

The latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have marked a shift towards inclusivity in tarot decks. New decks emerged, representing various ethnicities, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds. These decks honor the traditional symbolism of tarot cards while ensuring that everyone can see themselves reflected in the cards they draw.

The history of tarot cards is a testament to their enduring allure and adaptability. From medieval game tables to modern therapeutic settings, tarot decks have evolved, capturing the imagination of generations. As you shuffle and draw your next card, remember the rich tapestry of history it represents, and let it guide you on your journey of introspection and discovery.

Addressing Myths: The True Essence of Tarot

Over the years, numerous myths and misconceptions have clouded the perception of tarot. From tales of cursed decks to assumptions of dark magic, these myths have often overshadowed the genuine essence and purpose of tarot cards.

It’s crucial to understand that tarot, at its heart, is a tool for introspection, guidance, and personal growth. The cards don’t possess any inherent “evil” power, nor do they determine an unchangeable fate. Instead, they reflect potential pathways, energies, and patterns, acting as mirrors to our subconscious.

Respect is paramount when working with tarot. Just as we care for cherished belongings, it’s essential to treat tarot decks with reverence. Regularly cleansing them—be it through moonlight, sunlight, or other spiritual practices—helps maintain the deck’s purity and ensures that readings remain clear and untainted.

By seeing past the myths and approaching tarot with an open heart and mind, one can unlock the profound insights and transformative experiences these cards offer.

If you’re curious about more history and how to read tarot, check out the Best Tarot Books for Beginners to find in-depth resources to guide you on that journey.


When did tarot cards first appear?

Tarot cards trace their origins to 15th-century Europe, primarily as playing cards.

Are all tarot decks the same?

While many decks adhere to the structural inspiration of the RiderWaite Tarot, countless variations exist, each with its unique artwork and symbolism.

How did tarot cards transition from games to spiritual tools?

The transformation began in the 18th century, influenced by occultists who saw deeper symbolic meanings in the cards, connecting them to ancient wisdom.

What’s the difference between the Major and Minor Arcana in tarot decks?

The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards representing life’s significant spiritual and karmic lessons, while the Minor Arcana, with 56 cards, reflects everyday trials and tribulations. For more explanations on the specifics of tarot cards, download our free Ultimate Tarot Cheat Sheet. 

How do modern tarot decks differ from traditional ones?

Modern decks often incorporate contemporary themes, diverse representation, and updated artwork while still honoring traditional tarot symbolism.

Is there a “best” tarot deck for beginners?

The most recommended deck is the RiderWaite Tarot deck for its clear symbolism, imagery, and history. However, the best deck is a personal choice of intuition and style. If you’re looking for more guidance and suggestions, check out the Best Tarot Decks for Beginners

How has the digital age impacted the practice of tarot reading?

The digital era has democratized access to tarot, with online readings, virtual decks, and tarot apps becoming popular. This has made tarot more accessible, but many still prefer the tactile experience of physical cards. If you’re interested in the digital age of tarot, check out our Online Tarot Readings!

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