No one knows for sure when the tarot first came into being, much speculation exists as to its origins and age. Some people believe the cards contained different parts of the book of wisdom, salvaged from the burned down library of Alexandria of Egypt; or it was developed from the mystic Kabbalah; or perhaps the tarot was just a regular deck of cards that simply evolved into something more.
We do know one of the oldest existing tarot cards were the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck from the 15th century. In 1460, the cards were commissioned in honor of Bianca Maria Visconti as a wedding gift to celebrate her marriage to Francesco Sforza. Bianca’s father was Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan and the richest man in Italy at the time. Seventy-four of the Seventy-eight cards still exist today and are scattered into a few museums in New York, Italy and in a private collection.
The tarot initially was something only wealthy people could afford. The cards were used as entertainment to spruce up their card playing with these special picture cards. The tarot cards were added to the game as “trumps” (known today as the major arcana) that could trump regular playing cards. The trumps were used in card games similar to the game of bridge we play today. After the invention of the printing press, the ability to mass-produce the cards allowed for them to fall into the hands of the lower classes and spread quickly throughout Europe.
Around 1540 is when Jean-Baptiste Alliette, otherwise known as Etteilla, began using the tarot for divination. He developed decks, wrote books on divination and is generally recognized as the first person to make a living as a tarot card reader. One way in which the cards were used in divination was to break up the suits of the regular playing cards and ascribe meaning to them. For example, Hearts would correspond with the church (and in today’s modern tarot the suit of cups), Clubs would represent the peasants (and in the tarot the suit of wands), Diamonds would represent the merchants (in today’s tarot the suit of pentacles) and finally Spades would represent the military (in the tarot the suit of swords).
In 1909 Arthur Edward Waite and illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith developed the Rider-Waite tarot. (Rider was the name of the publishing company). The Rider-Waite, which was influenced by many influences, including the hermetic order of the golden dawn, the work of Etteilla, and others, has become a major influence over modern tarot decks. Waite and Smith put imagery on all 78 cards, which had never been done until then. Another member of the golden order was the famous Aleister Crowley. He also influenced the modern tarot, developing his own set of tarot cards called The Book of Thoth (a reference to its possible Egyptian origins), which were illustrated by his wife Lady Frieda Harris.
The Rider-Waite (or as some refer to it the Rider-Waite-Smith, giving Pamela her credit) and the Thoth decks are the standard that most tarot artists today have emulated to create their modern decks. Some decks follow the art in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck very closely, while others do not follow it at all, even changing the names of some of the major arcana cards or minor arcana suits to fit their artistic vision.
Though many people seeking to learn the tarot start with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, many others choose to seek out a deck that they connect to the best to develop their skills.