Tarot Card Evolution

Most people in the United States think of Tarot cards only as a tool for fortune-telling. But they were used for playing card games long before being used for cartomancy (fortune-telling with cards). There is evidence of using layouts of cards for cartomancy by the early 1700s, but the first books on modern-style cartomancy do not appear until the 1760s. Tarot games are some of the oldest ancestors to modern trick-taking games. The special cards in a Tarot deck, also known as the Major Arcana was the trump suit in these games dating back to the 1400s.

8 of Coins

The 8 of Coins from the 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot

The change in usage of Tarot cards for magic is reflected by changes in the symbolism on the cards. If you look at early Tarot cards like the 15th-century Visconti Tarot or the 18th-century Tarot of Marseilles, one of the suits is coins. Whereas, after Tarot cards started to be for magical purposes, a pentacle or five-pointed star begun appearing on the cards as the coins.

Le Bateleur Tarot de Catelin Geoffrey 1557

Le Bateleur playing the cup and ball scam in the
Tarot de Catelin Geoffrey,

One of the other interesting changes happened on the “Magician” card. In the early Tarot decks, the Magician was “le Bateleur,” in French, meaning the juggler,” or sometimes also meaning “the mountebank” or the “sleight of hand artist.” He was a street performer, sometimes portrayed as playing cup-and-ball scam. But as Tarot cards became used more for magical purposes, the items on the table of the Magician, as we call him today, were changed to the tools of ritual magic: a chalice, a dagger, a pentacle, and a wand.

The Magician

The Magician from the Ryder Waite Tarot, 1910

Another card that has changed over time is the High Priestess. In earlier decks, she is the “Popess.” She may represent the “mother church,” or Pope Joan -the story of a pope (Often John VIII), who was supposedly exposed to be a woman. But she was eventually turned into a more “Pagan,” or esoteric figure of the High Priestess that in most modern decks.

The Popess from the 18th century Tarot of Marseilles

So it’s pretty clear that some of the symbolism in Tarot decks evolved to reflect their increased use as a magical tool in fortune-telling after the late 18th century.

If you are interested in some of the early Tarot card games, we have put together a booklet that includes the earliest Tarot games for which there are surviving rules. It is in the Rules and Game Parts area of our website.

The theme music is “Scully’s  Reel/Mrs.McCloud’s/Cooley’s Reel” by the band Slánte from their Album Cup of Tea and is used under a Creative Commons share-alike license.

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