What we know of Tarot and its history is very little compared to other facets of our past, but understanding the origin helps us to better appreciate its use and purpose in this modern-day and age. Today, it is widely used in the occult and for fortune-telling, but its original purpose was much less complicated.
In the 1300s, Europe was introduced to card games. The cards were derived from the Islamic Mamluk cards that had been brought over by the Arabs. These cards were known for their structure of four suits; cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks.
In the late 1400s, Italians created a new suit, a fifth one, called the trionfi or Triumphs. In addition, a single, extra card was added, called the il matto or The Fool.* This five-suit deck was used to play a game called carte de trionfi or Cards of Triumphs.
By the 1500s, the Italian name of the game, tarocchi, appeared, and with it came the French equivalent, tarot. In the 1700s, a French man named Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized the use of Tarot cards for the occult and in fortune-telling. Under his pseudonym, Etteilla, he wrote a guidebook that documented each card’s meaning. Alongside it, he created his own version of a deck, heavily inspired by Egyptian text.
The Tarot deck structure we are familiar with today is based on the Venetian Tarot decks that had surfaced in the 1500s. They brought about the division of the Tarot deck into two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
A few hundred years later, in the early 20th century, a man by the name of A.E. Waite published the book Key to Tarot alongside a 78-card deck that was illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith. Through the publisher Rider, the Rider-Waite deck became the most popular deck of its time.
In 1944, Aleister Crowley, the infamous British occultist, wrote The Book of Thoth to accompany his Thoth Tarot deck, which was illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris. This deck, published in 1969, has since been considered the best-selling deck in the world. Despite this, it seems—at least from the perspective of someone who frequents establishments that sell tarot decks—you are more likely to find the Rider-Waite deck than the Thoth Tarot deck. This is probably mostly due to the fact that Crowley’s deck is only more commonly known amongst those in the occult, and therefore it’s not commonly introduced to the greater public.
Nowadays, you can find many variations and interpretations of tarot decks from around the world. And though they all may vary slightly in imagery or interpretive meanings, at the heart of it all, their structure and origins remain much the same.
History is always a great place to start. Knowing where we came from will help guide us to where we are going on our journey.
As this is only a brief look into the history, I implore you, Fellow Fool, to do more research. I merely skimmed the surface. There are many sources that delve further into the speculations and unknowing facts of its history. History that's lost or incomplete. There are many gray lines and question marks for the things we do not know and can only speculate on. I do strongly believe that the more we educate ourselves on where and how tarot came about, the more we might begin to understand what it can mean for us today.