The history of tarot cards is long and complicated. The decks that are used today have gone through numerous mutations—the addition of some cards, the removing of others, for farther back than has been recorded. Tarot cards were originally a type of playing card!
Nobody knows when tarot cards were first used for divination, but we do know that tarot cards are based upon playing cards that were first introduced to Europe in the fourteenth century by the Egyptian Mamelukes. These cards had scimitars, polo sticks, cups and coins. It was not long into the history of tarot cards that these playing cards evolved into the coins, cups, staves and swords cards recognized by tarot readers today. It looks like the first tarot decks were created in the early fifteenth century in Italy. You can see them at the Yale University Library of New Haven. This is when the allegorical cards were added to the playing cards that already existed. The oldest surviving tarot cards date from the fifteenth century and were made for the Visconti-Sforza family.
As for divination, the first documentation is dated in the eighteenth century (though similar cards were used as long ago as 1540). In 1781 a detailed system of divination by tarot cards was written by Antoine Court de Gebelin. While the hand painted cards do not have a definite origin, many people attribute them to Egyptians because many people believed that gypsies were descended from the ancient Egyptian people.
For many years, reading tarot cards was only done by members of the upper classes of society and even though the belief that the cards are inherently evil dates back to the fifteenth century, most governments did not condemn the cards. In some cities, tarot cards were declared exempt from laws that said playing cards were prohibited.
Contemporary tarot cards are often used for divination and as a way to help people with their personal growth. Many people develop tarot cards as a means for artistic expression and many famous artists have created their own decks of tarot cards. Salvador Dali is one of these artists.
Believe it or not, tarot cards are not the first cards that have been associated with divination and fortune telling. Since their invention, all playing cards have been used for divination at some time or another. Tarot cards are often used for divination purposes now simply because they look more like cards that would be used for fortune telling than the regular deck of fifty two tarot cards that are used today.
The history of tarot cards is long and varied and the cards we know today as “tarot cards” were developed by a number of different artists for a number of different purposes throughout history. There are many myths surrounding the history of tarot cards, though most of those have been debunked. Unfortunately the telling of the history of tarot cards is simply not a linear story as it is with other ideas or games that have evolved over time.