I Love Tarot!
THE FIRST TAROT CARDS were probably tarocchi, for playing the game Tarock. Tarocchi cards have scenes, but are not the same as the modern tarot deck. Some suggest that the name comes from the Italian river, Taro - perhaps the point of the cards’ origin.
The first cards which still exist and are definitely counted as tarot, rather than tarocchi or 'normal' playing cards, appeared in the 1400s. There are earlier references to cards, usually in the form of bans on them or on card-playing, but it is not obvious what type of cards are being banned: they may be suit decks only, without Major Arcana. There can be quite a debate on whether tarot cards appeared before or after 'normal' playing cards.
* For a fine review of 'Egyptian' tarot decks see A History of Egyptian Tarot Decks
** This deck is due for a re-print in Spring 2008 - check Raymond Buckland's site for further details.
*** 'Geb' has an acute accent (line sloping up above the 'e'), omitted here as symbols change in different browsers.
Many rather romantic claims are made about tarot and its history. These include the claim that tarot originated in Ancient Egypt*. Added to this is the attractive idea that the Gypsies, as Secret Keepers of Ancient Egyptian wisdom, brought tarot to Europe. The Gypsy connection is still very strong in people’s minds, despite being rather suspect, and it has inspired many decks, including the wonderful Buckland Romani Tarot**.
The Egyptian connection was started in the 1780s by a Frenchman called Antoine Court de Gebelin***. He believed he saw Egyptian teachings in the cards and related them to the Egyptian god Thoth, who gave mankind writing. De Gebelin inspired a great many others to explore his ideas, including the famous / infamous Aleister Crowley . . .
BASIC TAROT HISTORY (earlier)