Because tarot games never became common in English-speaking countries, many people in North America are only aware of their fortune-telling use. But game historians contend that modern-style cartomancy (fortune-telling with cards) did not become common until after the 1760's, and probably developed out of solitaire, or "patience" card games, which started becoming popular at about the same time, and included novelty fortune-telling aspects.
Their association with mysticismin popular culture began after 1781 when French author, Antoine Court de Gebelin, advanced a theory that the Major Arcana, or trump cards were survivals from the "Book of Thoth" -a lost Egyptian hieroglypic work which he believed contained a synthesis of all human knowledge. (This was prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, 1799, which provided the earliest correct translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics.) His theories were promoted and expanded upon by the occult/ spiritualism movement of the 19th century, and continue to have an influence on the use of the tarot as a tool of magic in the 20th century. A modern theory regarding the personas illustrated on the trump cards is that they may have been inspired by the allegorical figures paraded in 15th century Italian Carnival (Mardi Gras) processions, and passion plays. Unfortunately, the earliest surviving decks are expensive, hand-painted works of art, and thefore may contain portraits or symbolism meant to flatter the family who comissioned their creation. This lack of early lower-class tarot packs means we are missing a piece of the puzzle that would let us compare them to other popular art of the period, and thereby keeps their true meaning and origins an on-going subject of mystery and debate .
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