Using cards for divination goes back to the 14th century, and the deck that was later known as tarot cards evolved through both gaming and fortune-telling, with innovations coming from several different cultures.
Contrary to what the uninitiated might think, the meaning of divination cards changes over time, shaped by each era’s culture and the needs of individual users. This is partly why these decks can be so puzzling to outsiders, as most of them reference allegories or events familiar to people many centuries ago. Caitlín Matthews, who teaches cartomancy, or divination with cards, says that before the 18th century, the imagery on these cards was accessible to a much broader population. But in contrast to these historic decks, Matthews finds most modern decks harder to engage with.
“You either have these very shallow ones or these rampantly esoteric ones with so many signs and symbols on them you can barely make them out,” says Matthews. “I bought my first tarot pack, which was the Tarot de Marseille published by Grimaud in 1969, and I recently came right around back to it after not using it for a while.” Originating in the 16th century, the Tarot de Marseille is one of the most common types of tarot deck ever produced. Marseille decks were generally printed with woodblocks and later colored by hand using basic stencils.
With so many different tarot cards from different periods of history, it’s hard for anyone to understand what they are supposed to mean. Collectors Weekly talked with several different experts to bring us the history of tarot cards, with plenty of pictures.